In the case of the Malazan world, the situation is complicated further by the fact that both Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont co-created the setting and that characters associated with Erikson were later revealed in author interviews to have been created by Esslemont during the inception stage (and the inverse as well). Esslemont's first novel, Night of Knives, is mostly self-contained at first, with only a few characters in common with the Erikson novels, but his second novel, Return of the Crimson Guard, is much more heavily dependent on the earlier novels, both Erikson's as well as Night of Knives. This creates some problems when it comes to (re)evaluating Return of the Crimson Guard's strengths and weaknesses.
Readers who have wanted to know more about the Malazan "heartland," the continent of Quon Tali, as well as characters and organizations that hitherto had only been mentioned in passing in the first six Erikson Malazan novels will find the plot to be intriguing. Set a short time after the events of The Bonehunters (where the incipient anti-Wickan protests in that novel have here now expanded into talks of land takeover) and roughly parallel to those of Reaper's Gale, Return of the Crimson Guard at first glance appears to be telling these complementary stories: the dissolution of empire due to factionalism, the consequences of legend outstripping reality, and the terrible prices paid by those who vow themselves to causes they believe to be just. Yet despite the potential for a profound statement on the ephemeral nature of these desires, it is mostly wasted here due to a lack of development. Some of this sketchiness may be attributed due to the sheer number of subplots (such as why certain "Old Guard" members are seeking to dissolve the Empire, the apparent growing division within the ranks of the Crimson Guard Avowed, the quest of Traveller), but the greater blame can be placed squarely with the character "voices."
Although there are times where Esslemont's prose contains the appropriate level of pathos to make certain scenes (such as that involving Traveller and the Thel Akai Ereko, who is mentioned in passing in Erikson's Toll the Hounds) moving, he does not differentiate the character voices enough to make scenes involving the Seti, the Wickans, the Li Heng, Talians, Skinner's part of the Crimson Guard, etc. stand out on their own. While there certainly is plenty of action (including a massive battle that spans almost a third of the novel), sometimes these supposed climactic events occur at the expense of developing other parts of the novel. Too often, Esslemont would rapidly switch PoV perspectives without fully developing that PoV's greater importance within the events unfolding. Ultimately, there was a lot of things happening, but with lesser importance than what otherwise might have been the case if the author had taken the time to "get within the heads" of the characters more than the brief moments near the beginning where he tried to justify the "old guard's" rationales for insurrection.
Yet there were promising developments here as well. Despite the weaknesses in character development mentioned above, the overall prose showed improvement from the occasionally-stilted dialogue of Night of Knives. There is much greater detail about the mechanics of the Malazan world, particularly in regards to the nature of the Crimson Guard's opposition as well as the mystery surrounding their involvement in the Genebackis campaign, as mentioned in passing in Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice. This and the scenes involving the Crimson Guard deserter Kyle and the enigmatic Traveller and his giant companion Ereko were perhaps the most important of the book, even if they were not given as much space as the Quon Tali civil war. The seeds for not just Esslemont's next novel, Stonewielder, but also Erikson's Toll the Hounds were planted here and those seeds did begin to sprout by novel's end. Without these scenes, the events of Toll the Hounds would not make as much sense, as the motivations of Traveller (among others) would not be developed adequately.
Return of the Crimson Guard perhaps should be evaluated along the lines of its integration with the larger Malazan setting. Although it is not until Stonewielder that an important character introduced in Night of Knives returns, there certainly are a few nods to that novel here, as well as to Erikson's novels. Return of the Crimson Guard also introduces a cliffhanger that is not resolved until his fourth novel, Orb Sceptre Throne. Thus this novel's importance is not just its filling in the gaps left by Erikson's novels, but also because it serves as a truer introduction to a complementary multi-volume plot that deepens and broadens the entire Malazan world. Return of the Crimson Guard thus is a flawed yet promising work that adds to the overall Malazan reading experience. Like with most multi-volume works, its true value will not be seen in isolation from the volumes that follow.