The OF Blog: Ian Cameron Esslemont, Blood and Bone

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Blood and Bone

Irrelevant.  Once more I shy away from the gulf.  I am like prey caught fascinated by the predator's gaze.  Terrified and circling, yet unable to break away.  I could if I wish merely walk out that door – yet what of all that I have struggled to understand, to achieve?  Final answers ungrasped?  If there are any to grasp.  Perhaps there are none.

Then at least I would possess that knowledge.

So be it.  He sat at the table as if relaxed, his legs crossed, hands one over the other upon one knee.  Yet he felt those hands tighten to clamps on his leg.  'I have asked nothing of others that I have not demanded of myself,' he began, then immediately wished he hadn't and clenched his lips.  Too much of a damned justification.  Why the urge to explain to this one?  Especially when this entity had nothing but contempt for explanations or justifications.  To this one they were all no better than self-serving pleas and apologies.

As they are to me as well... (pp. 280-281)

Ian Cameron Esslemont's fifth Malazan novel, Blood and Bone, differs from its predecessors in its setting, tone, characterization, and prose.  In his previous novels, especially the last one, Orb Sceptre Throne, Esslemont seemed to be constrained by prior scene and character development done by co-creator Steven Erikson in his Malazan Book of the Fallen series.  There were times that it felt as though Esslemont were just merely filling in the blanks left by Erikson, with little else to recommend the books other than knowing that some mysteries would be revealed in his books, particularly those surrounding the fabled Crimson Guard.  This is an uncharitable view, especially in light of Blood and Bone, as in this just-released novel Esslemont proves himself to be adept at mixing ominous settings with determined characterizations to create a story that, if not flawless, is at least one of the better entries in the Malazan setting.

Blood and Bone is set on the island continent of Jacuruku, legendary for the "lost" city of Jakal Viharn and the legendary wealth contained within this city in the jungle of Himatan.  Readers of the series will probably recognize Jacuruku as being the place where the Crippled God was summoned and this (and its later fate) play a role in this novel.  There are seven main threads to the novel, although four of them are secondary to the others and only receive scant attention for long portions of the book:  the invasion of Himatan by the Thaumaturgs; the plight of two villagers; the return of the Disavowed to the continent; the voyage of the Avowed to the land and their search for the fabled Queen of Witches, Ardata; the quest of Osserc for more knowledge; the invasion of the Thaumaturg lands by desert tribes led by an infamous grey-clad warlord; and the furthering of the Queen of Dreams' goals.  The action, which coincides with that of The Crippled God until the final chapter, appears to take place over several weeks as most of these threads move toward a convergence that while not as powerful or bloody as that transpiring far to the west of Jacuruku, still contains portents for future novels by both authors.

Desire, whether it be for knowledge, power, wealth, or something else, dominates the character motivations.  Esslemont develops this theme in parallel.  In the scene quoted above, Osserc is forced to confront the fact that his quest for knowledge and his desire to prevent certain outcomes has blinded himself to the truer and perhaps baser motivations for his actions over the years and his condemnation of others.  In another, the Avowed leader K'azz D'avore is shown to be distancing himself from his followers as he answers Ardata's call to enter her demesne of Himatan.  There is knowledge that he seeks that she holds, yet there is something else to it that Esslemont does not reveal until near the very end of the novel.  These are but two manifestations of desire and its influence on character decisions; others would reveal too much of the novel's narrative arc.  Yet in each of them, Esslemont furthers a discussion of the effects that desire, especially that of control over one's past, present, and/or future, can have on how certain characters view the world and those inhabiting it.  It is a common literary theme, yet Esslemont develops it well.

The setting is in turns haunting, horrifying, and mystifying.  Himatan exists on two planes, that of the mundane world and that of "the spirit realm," which later is revealed to be a place described in previous Malazan novels, including Forge of Darkness.  Controlled by Ardata, it shifts and ensnares the unwary.  Populated with monsters that are imaginatively described, it is the creepiest and weirdest locale yet in the Malazan books.  The atmosphere is appropriately dark and looming, with the sense that the apocalyptic (namely, that of the jade-colored "banner" of "the Visitor" looming ever closer to the land where the Crippled God's body appeared in the skies millennia ago) is about to occur.  Esslemont in his previous novels had good descriptive prose and here in Blood and Bone it is even better, as the prose heightens the sense that things are not what they seem and that horrific surprises may unfold within the span of a single paragraph.

The action is better-done here than in Esslemont's previous novels, although events transpiring within Himatan receive much greater precedence over those taking place to the west of this ensorcelled jungle.  There is a steady (and not always slow) development of the subplots until events come to an explosive head in the final two chapters.  Many of the mysteries surrounding the formation of the Crimson Guard and K'azz's secret mission are either explained or are direct set-ups for Esslemont's next novel.  There are few threads left untied, with the possible exception of those of the Queen of Dreams, Osserc, and Kallor, although these likely will be developed further in the next novel or perhaps in another series by either Esslemont or Erikson.

There were fewer glaring flaws in Blood and Bone.  Perhaps the greatest would be that maybe one or two of the seven main threads could have been eliminated or if that were not possible, then at least expanded a bit more, as there often would be dozens, if not hundreds, of pages separating one scene in a particular subplot from another.  Yet aside from that, the novel felt more "complete" and better developed, both in prose and characterization, than previous Esslemont novels.  Blood and Bone may not be a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very good novel that takes the Malazan setting in a slightly different route than what series readers might have anticipated.  Looking forward to the next in the series to see if the promise of the final scenes is developed further, as there is potential for a rousing close to this particular series of novels.


Juan Manuel Pazos said...

Well, I'm really glad to hear this! Esslemont doesn't have my unwavering confidence, and I felt a little uneasy to recognize I was going to keep reading his books just because I "had to". I'm coming to trust your opinion quite a lot so I now look forward to reading his last two books. Thank you!

Larry Nolen said...

You're welcome :D Mind you, there are still some nagging issues with his writing, but on the whole, I did think this book was a major improvement on his last one.

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