Saturday, March 17, 2012

Orb Sceptre Throne - Ian C. Esslemont

The main series, as many people think of it, in the Malazan Empire setting may have been completed by Steven Erikson last year, there is still plenty of activity in this most epic of fantasy universes. Erikson himself is ready to launch a new trilogy, the first novel of which, titled Forge of Darkness, is expected this summer. There is also a fifth Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella in the works (I have yet to read the fourth!). On top of all of that, in January Ian C. Esslemont's fourth novel Orb Sceptre Throne came out. In other words, plenty of new reading material for Malazan fans this year. After Stonewielder, which I considered to be his best effort yet, I was looking forward to this book. Unfortunately, it left me feeling slightly let down.

A synopsis for Malazan books is usually pretty impossible so let's keep this one short. Orb Sceptre Throne is a return to the city of Darujhistan, where this series began in Gardens of the Moon. The story is set after the events described by Erikson in Toll of the Hounds and mostly focuses on the rise to power of a new Tyrant, one that rekindles memories of ancient nightmares on the continent. Soon the remaining Malazan contingent, the Moranth, the Rhivi and the mysterious Seguleh are embroiled in the conflict that could impact the world far beyond Genebackis.

Picking up from where Erikson left us in Toll of the Hounds is no easy task. Erikson's eigthth Malazan novel is a glorious mess of a book. A sprawling tale that connects with so much in every book that has come before that a few continuity errors have slipped in. By this point in the story, the time line is messy and Orb Sceptre Throne only adds to that. So my first advice to anyone reading this novel is to forget about the time line. It doesn't make sense, some developments occur in impossibly short spaces of time, character ages are inconsistent in some cases etcetera. That doesn't mean the story doesn't make sense. The plan is still clear, Erikson left the seeds of this story in the earlier books set in Darujhistan.

 As usual, the book features a very large cast, a lot of whom we've met before in previous books. This is another point where I felt Esslemont has had to wrestle with what Erikson has done before him. Some of the characters are still clearly recognizable, but a few seem to drastically chance their tone of voice. The one that felt most alien is the verbose eel of Darujhistan Kruppe. This character served as the narrator for the story in Toll of the Hounds, something of a stylistic experiment from Erikson, it is the only book so far to be written in that style. In this novel, Kruppe seems very subdued really. Not a whole lot is left of the slippery, rambling, falsely modest and often severely underestimated character that has the potential to both entertain and infuriate readers. Esslemont somehow managed to make him boring.

A part that almost completely failed to capture my attention, despite the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach cameo, are Antsy's antics picking at the corpse of the crashed flying fortress of Moon's Spawn. I'm sure Esslemont is taking this somewhere but given the minor importance of plot of this novel I think the author spends a lot of time on it. Orb Sceptre Throne is not extremely large as Malazan books go, but six hundred pages is plenty if some parts of the story fail to keep your attention at all. Maybe that part of the story just felt longer because I didn't like it all that much.

One of the things I did like about the novel was the closer look we got at the Seguleh. Erikson had already shown us a few Seguleh characters as well as hinted at some of their history. Esslemont takes a much closer look at Seguleh society and culture in this novel, exploring it though the eyes of Seguleh characters. I've always wondered if there was a touch of Japanese Samurai in the Seguleh. Their culture does is quite rigid and despite their prowess in battle, which is a bit over the top, they do take a lot of punches. Change would seem inevitable after the events in this book. I don't think Esslemont means to return to that story in the two remaining novels though.

Despite some of these interesting parts of the story, I never got the sense of working to a large climax. There is a conflict resolved at the end of the novel but all the individual story lines, and there are lots and lots of those, don't really coalesce into a convergence Malazan style. Like some of the characters, the climax of the novel feels a bit muted. Even with the end approaching, it failed to really hold my attention or care very much about the resolution of the oncoming clash between all those parties. Despite the great number of characters, Esslemont moves the pieces skilfully in position to wrap things up but somehow doesn't include the tension and drama that he did deliver in his previous book.

I think that for the die hard Malazan fan there is still a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don't think the novel ever overcomes the problems Esslemont has building on the foundation of Erikson's work. Part of the reason why Stonewielder works so much better than Orb Sceptre Throne might be that Esslemont strikes out on his own in that novel. A continent not seen before with a cast that is largely unfamiliar to the reader. Orb Sceptre Throne has links to just about everything published before in this setting though. Some people may find all the links and references fascinating. I think Esslemont could have concentrated on the story he was telling a bit more and a bit less on whatever else is going on in the vast world he and Erikson have created.

Book Details
Title: Orb Sceptre Throne
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 605
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06450-4
First published: 2012

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