The OF Blog: Malazan Re-Read Series: Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Malazan Re-Read Series: Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives

One of the oddities of the Malazan series is that it was conceived as a dual-author secondary-world fantasy, yet five years passed between the publication of Steven Erikson's first Malazan novel, Gardens of the Moon (1999 UK, 2004 US), and his collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont's first volume, Night of Knives (originally published in the UK in 2004 as a limited-edition book from PS Publishing; 2007 for mass publication in the UK, 2008 in US).  For readers new to the series, it is hard at first to tell the constraints with which both authors operate, at least not until the later volumes in Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen sub-series, when certain characters, such as The Bonehunters' enigmatic Temper, appear fleetingly without much explanation or when certain subplots are left hanging in suspension, such as the concluding The Bonehunters scene in Malaz City.  While these suspended elements are not vital to following the gist of the Malazan Book of the Fallen arc, there certainly is the sense in books 6-10 that there is something left to be told at another time.

Night of Knives is a peculiar book, even when taking into account the complementary purpose of Esslemont's writing.  It differs from the other Malazan books, Erikson and Esslemont's alike, in that the main narrative occurs roughly 9-12 years before the events of the other books and that virtually all of the action (minus the flashback sequences) occurs within the confines of the singular city of Malaz City and only involves a few PoV characters, most notably the young girl Kiska and the former soldier Temper.  When I first read it in 2004 (I have both the signed PS edition and the 2008 tradeback Tor edition), I found the work to be rather dissatisfying.  From what I recall, I had hoped for something a bit different than a murder-mystery/horror melange, something that would fill in more gaps in the larger narrative.  Yet this re-read, perhaps my fourth in the past eight years, was surprisingly the most enjoyable and revealing.

There are, of course, certain stylistic differences between the two writers.  Whereas Erikson, particularly later in his series (although elements of this were present in the first four volumes), focused more on the detritus of human societies and the rise/fall of material cultures (especially manifested in belief structures and the corresponding magic systems), Esslemont here uses a deceptively less complex narrative style that relies more on its two character poles (the young, naive Kiska and the weary, traumatized ex-soldier Temper) to create a sense of mystery out of events that were previously outlined in Erikson's earlier novels.

This approach does not always benefit the unfolding story.  While the terse narrative, stripped down from the emphasis on character interactions to build overlapping interpretations of events, does foster a greater sense of a "fog of war," there are times where the character motivations (particularly those of the Claws and the duo of Kellanved and Dancer) become murky because their actions are described by other actors who have little understanding of why the events of this Shadow Moon are so portentous.   This murkiness, while at times frustrating, is perhaps necessary, as otherwise the events would lack a sense of horrific suspense if the main actors of the Shadow Moon night had their own PoVs.

Suspense over what will happen to Kiska and, to a lesser extent, Temper is perhaps Night of Knives strongest element.  Since neither character had (yet) appeared in any of Erikson's novels, the possibility that one, or both, of the characters might meet a grisly end at the hands of those roaming between the Shadow and "real" world heightens the sense of urgency that exists from the rumors of a fateful convergence between the Emperor and his Assassin with forces opposed to their return from parts unknown.  Esslemont manages to utilize this uncertainty about the two characters well in spurts, most notably when ignorant Kiska serves as the receptive vessel for arcane knowledge that had previously been unrevealed in the previous Malazan novels, information that serves to foreshadow latter events in both Erikson and Esslemont's novels.

Yet there is a downside to this.  There is a sense of repetition, particularly in Kiska's scenes, as she goes from one knowledgeable (and potentially treacherous) character to another.  In these occasions, Esslemont does not differentiate enough  between those (such as a certain old mage) who seek to gain their own power due to the Shadow Moon's opening of worlds and those who seek other ends.  This may simply be due to having Kiska's character trying to serve as the reader's stand-in in the quest for further knowledge, but yet even in the more action-oriented scenes involving Temper (who, it should be noted, often feels as an afterthought for large stretches of the novel, even despite his backstory providing greater explanation of a character that appears in Erikson's House of Chains), there was this sense that the narrative was failing to maintain that fine balance between preserving certain mysteries and creating foreshadowings for later events.

Despite these weaker elements, overall Night of Knives read better this re-read.  In light of information revealed later in both authors' novels, this short novel felt more integrated with the overall story arc, both in terms of plot as well as in theme.  Esslemont's writing, although distinct from Erikson's in its style, contains very few inconsistencies with plot elements introduced elsewhere.  Those few times where it felt that events differed from other sources can largely be attributed to the authors' stated goal of the novels serving as a sort of dialogue that contains purposely different interpretation of events designed to force readers to reinterpret what they had read before.  The prose is utilitarian, neither sparkling nor tepid.  The characterizations, as I said above, were spotty but ultimately effective as vehicles for this narrative.  On the whole, Night of Knives is best described as solid, but nothing spectacular by itself.  However, when viewed as part of a much larger unfolding story, the novel certainly bears closer examination from those who intend to read not just Erikson's novels, but Esslemont's later works.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I enjoy Esslemont quite a bit despite that, as you say, his prose is utilitarian at best. Probably because of my weakness for Moorcock-style sword and sorcery, as Esslemont's stuff does give me that same breezier, action-oriented, serious but not too serious vibe. Been a while since I read this one, but I recall really digging the "mood of the city" at night. I certainly won't say that Night of Knives transcended anything, but in it I did pick up shades or echoes here and there of a style that wouldn't feel too out of place among the work of writers of decidedly weirder fiction.

- Zach H.

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, he certainly does have a different style than Erikson when it comes to portraying character and action. Either tomorrow or Friday, I'll address this in further depth, once I write my commentaries on Reaper's Gale and Return of the Crimson Guard. But I will note that when read together, the two authors' styles complement each other's strengths and mitigate some of their weaknesses.

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