Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Return of the Crimson Guard - Ian C. Esslemont

One of my colleague's called in sick on Monday which resulted in a very busy week for me at work. I have managed to finish a book in time for a midweek review but unfortunately the focus to produce a coherent review is missing right now so I moved another older review. The original, written in November 2008, was in sad need of some editing so I made a few minor changes. Reads a bit better now. I hope to have a fresh review for you on Saturday.

Return of the Crimson Guard is the second addition of Ian C. Esslemont of the Malazan series, an epic fantasy universe he shares with Steven Erikson. I reread Esslemont’s first effort Night of Knives a while ago and I thought it was an enjoyable read but not nearly as ambitious as the other Malazan books. It covers a very limit part of the Malazan history, the outcome of which was already obvious from Erikson’s books. Return of the Crimson Guard is quite something else. In this book Esslemont offers us the kind sprawling, multiple point of view tale, we’ve come to associate with Malazan novels. With this books Esslemont positions himself right in the centre of the of the complex history he and Steven Erikson have developed. It describes events Erikson hinted at in The Bonehunters, a pivotal moment in the history of the empire. Night of Knives did not convince me but there is not getting around this novel for the real Malazan fan.

Almost a century ago, during the early phases of Kellanved’s expansion of his realm, a group of men and women took a vow of eternal opposition to the Malazan Empire.They turned into the fearsome group of warriors known as the Crimson Guard. So strong were their vows than not even their dead could rest before the conditions were met. Now, with their leader missing and their numbers diminished, several groups of the guard wander the globe to fight the empire wherever they encounter it. Now that the empire under empress Laseen has overextended itself, the Crimson Guard once again gathers for another confrontation. They are far from unified however. Ground down by a century of warfare and lead by a man who’s goals are suspect, the guard has to overcome it's internal struggles to have any chance of success.

There is something to be said for a final push at this moment. The Malazan Empire seems to teeter on the brink of collapse. Various military campaigns on other continents, as well as Laseen’s relentless culling of those loyal to Kellanved, have drained the empire’s military might. With so much of their human capital spent, the empire now faces several rebellions on the continent of Quon Tali, a place that has been firmly under imperial control for decades. The various parties converge on the city of Li Heng ofr a major confrontation. Events there will decide the faith of the Malazan Empire.

One of the things that is perhaps most interesting about this book is that the gods have a fairly light hand in affairs as Malazan books go. Sure, there are quite a few people wielding magic or possessing superhuman strength or prowess in battle, but on the whole divine intervention is quite subtle. Something which cannot be said about military action. This Malazan book may be the book that relies heaviest on battle scenes. While a lot of fans will enjoy this, I think the reliance of the books on these battles to move the plot forward is one of it’s major weaknesses. The middle part of the book is a series of small and sometimes not so small military engagements. It reads like a string of Monrath munitions going of and leading the the really big bang at the end. This approach desensitizes the readers somewhat and that is a shame. Tthe last hundred or so pages of the book, where things start to fall in place, is a fine piece of writing indeed but to get there took a bit of effort.

While I did not mind the battles so much as some readers might, the scenes featuring Kyle and Gehlel where an effort at times. Kyle is a soldier in the Crimson Guard who deserts, or is cast out, after a particular violent incident I won’t spoil for you. No matter how much times he spends around soldiers, he seems to have a hard time shedding his naive outlook on the world. It doesn’t help that he’s caught up in Traveller’s storyline, one that does not seem to have a major impact to the events going on in Quon Tali. Gehlel in a way, is even worse. She is the figurehead of one of the rebellions taking place in the Malazan Empire. The last remaining heir of the pre-imperial ruling class. Being the sole survivor she’s been adopted in a noble house after the Malazans took over. Gehlel has a severe case of having a conscience, which in her position is not something you can afford. Throughout the book she’s being quite stubborn about it. I will admit she clearly possesses a spine, it is especially evident in the last bit of the book, but a little more pragmatism wouldn’t have hurt.

Still, a bit of a problem with the pacing of the novel and some outlying story lines (which I assume will be important to future books) don’t stop this from being a very enjoyable read. In fact, many a Malazan fan would have been waiting to find out about the empire at this point. With Erikson’s books covering events all over the world except the Malazan Empire, he’s left a big gap in the story to be filled. Return of the Crimson Guard does just that. Erikson and Esslemont are different writers, you notice it in their prose, the accents on certain themes, but I am still amazed at the fact these two people have managed to develop such a complex universe and detailed history together and still manage to stay in sync in their books.

Esslemont’s second addition to the Malazan epic is a huge step forward compared to Night of Knives and a bold step as well. He puts himself in the spotlight with this tale of what goes on in the Malazan heartland. The books is a must read for Malazan fans, there is simply too much going on in this book that is important to the overall story. I think Esslemont (and Erikson) took a chance on this book by putting it so much at the heart of the story, and I think it paid off. Return of the Crimson Guard is not without it’s flaws but certainly a worthy and very welcome addition the the Malazan series. I am looking forward to Stonewielder, Esslemont's next contribution to this saga.

Book Details
Title: Return of the Crimson Guard
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 702
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-05809-1
First published: 2008

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