One of the most complex and, in my opinion, fascinating epic fantasy series around at the moment is Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is nearing completion with the tenth and final book in this sequence, The Crippled God, expected later this year. Erikson did not create the Malazan world alone however, his co-creator Ian C. Esslemont has published two books in his own series of novels of the Malazan Empire. Observant readers of Erikson's work will notice he leaves some events largely uncovered, scenes that Esslemont is expected to fill in with is six book series. Night of Knives, which appeared in a 2004 limited edition from PS publishing, is the first of these. Esslemont's third book, Stonewielder is (tentatively) expected in November.
The novel is set during one seemingly endless, blood-soaked night in Malaz City. Once every few decades a Shadow Moon rises over the city. A time when the boundaries between realms fade and danger lurks around every street corner. The locals know better than to be caught outside during this night but for some it is a rare opportunity. The girl Kiska, too young to have witnessed the previous Shadow Moon feels great things are about to happen. Kiska's business is information and she is determined to find out what is going on. It may be her much desired ticked of Malaz island, a place that has turned into something of a backwater since the capital of the empire was moved to Unta.
Not everybody is eager to observe what is going on. Temper, once a respected soldier in the service of Dassem Ultor, sword of the empire and one of the greatest warriors of his age, has settled in Malaz City playing the role of an old soldier who never made rank. He is not eager for people to find out about his past and is determined to hide in the bottle during this dangerous night. That however, is not quite what's in store for him. Over the heads of people like Kiska and Temper, the greats of the empire fight for control of thrones. Not just that of the empire, but control over an entire warren as well.
In some ways Night of Knives is quite a change for readers who are used to Erikson's sprawling tales. One night, less than three hundred pages but, and this is typical for all Malazan books, lots of things happening all at once. I read this book for the first time three years ago, after reading the first six of Erikson's books. At the time I was not all that impressed. Chronologically it is set between the prologue and the main body of Gardens of the Moon and it describes events that are important enough to Erikson's (part of the) story that he has more or less given away what has happened by the time Night of Knives was published. It is not a good introduction to the main series however. The Malazan books are notorious for throwing the reader right into the action without much in the way of explanations and back story. Night of Knives pretty much does the same thing.
We see the events through the eyes of two small players in the drama. Without some of the background provided in Erikson's books, the larger battle will mostly be lost to the reader. The significance of the actions of Kellanved and Surly to the overall series goes far beyond what can be gleaned from this novel. People who have read this series more exhaustively than I have, feel that it should be read between Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters, in particular because of the flashbacks to Dassem's final campaign and the events at Y'Ghatan which are important to the plot of book six. I think you should not read it until you've at the very least read Gardens of the Moon and it would certainly not be a bad thing if you have read a few more of Erikson's books.
I guess that on this reread I am still not terribly impressed. Kiska's point of view is downright annoying at times. She is quite ignorant of what is happening outside Malaz City, which in itself is not a bad thing but at no point in the novel does she truly realize that what is happening is way out of her league. Her stubborn attempts to get in on the action give her character all the maturity of a seven year old. Temper's parts are a little more enjoyable, Esslemont carefully reveals his past over the course of the novel, in the process revealing a bit of Malazan history Erikson didn't touch upon. Both Erikson and Esslemont seem to have a thing for ageing soldiers. It was one of the stronger aspects in my opinion.
The author is obviously intimately familiar with the world of Malaz. His rendering of Malaz City fits the larger series wonderfully even if Esslemont's prose is not yet as confident as Erikson's. In his second novel, Return of the Crimson Guard, we'll see Esslemont attempt a more epic approach and get much better results. In the end I guess this novel suffers from the things it's not. It's not a good introduction to the series, nor does it deliver the revelations a more seasoned Malazan fan might be hoping for. It fills in an interesting piece of Malazan history but adds only detail to the reader's knowledge. For the real Malazan fan this book in no punishment to read, I think I liked it a bit better on the second read, but the world of Malaz, whether it be written by Erikson or Esslemont, has much better books to offer than Night of Knives.
Title: Night of Knives
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2004