The challenge began as these things always do: with a look. A glance held a heartbeat too long. In this case lingering across the beaten dirt of the practice grounds at the centre of Cant, the marble halls of the Seguleh.
Jan, in the act of turning away to call for a slave, noted the glance, and stopped. Those of the ruling Jistarii family lineage out exercising that morning also instinctively sensed the tension. The crowd parted and Jan found himself staring across the emptied sparring fields and wrestling circles to Enoc, the newly installed Third. He watched while the young aristocrat's friends and closest supporters within the rankings crossed to stand at his side. Without needing to turn his head Jan knew his own friends had come to his. He held out his wooden practice sword. It was taken from his hand. (p. 61)
Ian Cameron Esslemont's fourth Malazan novel, Orb Sceptre Throne, differs from his three previous installments in that it is a direct sequel of one of Steven Erikson's novels, Toll the Hounds. Set on the continent of Genabackis some months after the events of Toll the Hounds, Orb Sceptre Throne is a novel that aims to fill in gaps in the backstories of disparate groups such as the Moranth, the Darujhistan Tyrants, the Seguleh, and a few notorious individuals who appeared in earlier Malazan novels. It is a novel whose parts ultimately appear to be stronger than the whole, as there is less narrative cohesiveness compared to earlier efforts.
Orb Sceptre Throne approaches the issue of desire to power and free will through four distinct subplots: the treasure hunt, including a former Bridgeburner, Antsy, to explore the remains of the shattered Moon's Spawn skykeep, where a mysterious power artifact is believed to be present; the rise of the Darujhistan Tyrant from his captivity; the search of the Seguleh for their origins and the legendary mask of the First; and the aftermath of Traveller/Daseem's grief over his killing of Anomander Rake. While eventually these subplots merge, it is not as seamless of a process as was the case in prior Malazan novels, as hundreds of pages would separate some of the subplots, with resolutions that felt a bit sketchy and underdeveloped in comparison to the others.
Esslemont's prose, however, is better here than in his previous novels. There is a greater balance between descriptive events and internal monologues. The Seguleh Second, Jan, is a fascinating character who provides a window into the inner workings of that elite swordspeople society (it is a meritocracy of sword prowess that does not deny women access to the highest ranks, provided that they display sufficient acumen and skill) and its strictures regarding its ranks and its role in fulfilling an ancient prophecy of return to their homeland. Even though he does not receive much "airtime," Daseem's remorse and grief after his slaying of Anomander serves as a commentary on the consequences of violence (an overarching theme in the Malazan books), providing a necessary contrast to the more adventuresome characters who appear in this book.
No matter how long Esslemont and Erikson collaborated in creating the characters and situations for their novels, it is not an easy task to take characters already developed by Erikson and continue to develop them without there being some questions as to the veracity of "voice" and action. For the most part, the recurring characters do not differ noticeably from their prior appearances in the three volumes set on Genabackis. The one possible exception might be the quality of Kruppe's devious garrulousness, but even that is a minor misstep in what otherwise is a good transfer of authorial control of these characters' narratives. The "old" characters here act and think along patterns long-established and while there are a few surprises along the way, even these new developments feel "organic" and not the product of a new author getting details wrong.
The action, for the most part, is typical of the series: a long, slowly building tension, followed by a climactic struggle. However, Orb Sceptre Throne differs in that these events are a bit too "neat" in their resolution, with the denouements being perhaps too sharp, perhaps due to this being a likely end of the narrative road for several of these characters/groups. Mysteries surrounding the Seguleh and Moranth are resolved in such a fashion that it seems unlikely that there will be a further revisiting of these groups by either author for volumes to come, if at all. Normally, this is would acceptable, except that here the reasons for their enmity and the clash that breaks out transpires rather quickly, almost too quickly (even taking into account some foreshadowings that occurred in previous Malazan novels) for there to be a proper development of the mutual hostilities. This rush into action can be seen in the events transpiring around the wreckage of Moon's Spawn, as groups (including the creepy/comedic trio from the Erikson novellas and Memories of Ice) fight for relic control/power with little insight given, not to mention that this subplot barely interacts with the others until very near the end of the novel.
Despite finding Esslemont's treatment of the theme of free will/tyranny to be fairly well presented and argued, Orb Sceptre Throne lacks a sense of cohesiveness to it. The subplots, while they ultimate join together, feel too distinct even as they are resolved for there to be a good unity of action. In addition, despite the characterizations on the whole being much better, there were a few places, particularly in the scenes set in Darujhistan, where the dialogue felt perfunctory, lacking a certain gravitas to it that would have suited the situation better. Ultimately, Orb Sceptre Throne is the sort of novel probably best remembered for individual scenes or revelations than for the entire narrative itself. It is not a poor novel, but it is one that could have been very good but instead is relegated to merely average status due to the flaws noted above.