Night of Knives serves as a prequel to the series, where subsequent books explore events and continents not covered in Erikson's ten book series. Esslemont's previous book, Orb Sceptre Throne, was mostly set in and around the city of Darujhistan, familiar territory for fans of the series as it is the main setting for the novels Gardens of the Moon and Toll of the Hounds, in this new novel we're off to the unknown continent of Jacuruku. It has been mentioned in previous novels but until now, we haven't seen much of what has been going on there. I've never been quite as enthusiastic about Esslemonts writing as I haven been about Erikson. That trend continues in this book. I liked it a whole lot better than Orb Sceptre Throne, which is a bit of a mess in my opinion, but it is not as strong as Stonewielder.
The Visitor is hanging in the sky of the continent of Jarcuruku as an omen of war. It approaches from all sides as the thaumaturges that dominate half of the continent prepare to launch another expedition into the wild Himatan jungle that has thus far eluded their control. It is said to be the domain of a powerful entity known as the Queen of Dreams. Further south, the tribes are being united by a recently arrived foreign warlord, looking to strike further into the thaumaturge lands than they ever have before. On top of the locals rattling their swords, the Crimson Guard make an appearance, hired to bring to heel their own runaway Skinner and his band of Disavowed. In other words, a convergence is happening on the continent and such events attract the attention of the gods. Even if events on the Letheri keep some of the gods busy, Jacuruku will not escape their notice entirely.
The jungle setting Esslemont employs in this novel is definitely a first in the series. Where the action in this series usually takes place in arid climates or frozen wastelands, the this tropical ecology is quite a change. The jungle Esslemont describes has a bit of an Asian flavour too it. I guess that is not entirely surprising given the fact that Esslemont has spent time in south-east Asia in the past. What struck me about his descriptions in particular was the way he describes the jungle has hungry, insatiable for nutrients, with cycles that are so fast everything that dies is consumed again before it has time to accumulate in the soil. The speed at which organic materials such as wood and leather decays in the novel might be a bit exaggerated but this fierce competition of nutrients is a characteristic of tropical rainforest ecotopes. That kind of ecological insight is not something you come across often in fantasy novels.
Malazan chronology is notoriously impenetrable but I'd say the novel is set more or less in the same time frame as Stonewielder and The Crippled God. Despite that, it is a very self contained story as Malazan novels go. There are references to events in Toll of the Hounds, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne and the concluding volumes of Erikson's Part of the tale, Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God, but mostly the story stays focussed on on events on Jacuruku. It is a quality it shares with Stonewielder I suppose. When Esslemont tries to mesh more closely into the areas Erikson has already covered, the result is often confusing or unsatisfactory. This novel shares a number of characters with other books, but not so many the effect of the different treatment Esslemont and Erikson give them that the result becomes jarring. It also helps Esslemont keeps the number of story lines contained to half a dozen or so. Orb Sceptre Throne had so many it is very easy to loose track of what is going on. This novel is complex in its own right but doesn't depend so much on what has gone before. Esslemont leaves himself more space to tell his own story and he uses it to full effect.
Once again, the Crimson Guard provides the link to much of the rest of the series. Their internal struggles and clashes with the Malazan Empire feature prominently in the novel. It appears the novel also sets up the story for Esslemont's final novel in this series, tentatively titled Assail. The Crimson Guard appears once in a while in Erikson's books but it wasn't until I read Esslemont's books that their history really became clear to me. In Blood and Bone the conflict between Avowed and Disavowed comes to head when K'azz sees no other option than the take a contract against Skinner and his company. Their trip over the river into the jungle will remind readers of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as every bend seems to reveal a new horror to the company that appears to be totally unprepared for what is hiding amongst the trees. Esslemont focusses more on the environment than Conrad did though. Natives do show up in the novel but in a different story line but not so much as an extension of the darkness encountered but the foreign travellers.
The cast of Blood and Bone is large though, and not only made up of characters we've already seen. Esslemont introduces quite a few new ones too. The Thaumaturges deploy a kind of magic we haven't encountered before. It is a mix very strict mental training and a kind of vivisection that H.G. Well would have ascribed to Dr. Moreau if he'd been around to read this novel. Theirs is a society full of contrasts. Their mental discipline makes you expect balanced personalities and yet, their order has turned into one of the most tyrannical systems of government encountered in the novel. Their society is highly organized and the land heavily cultivated at the expense of just about every basic human right. A sharp contrast to the natives of Himatan, who, when we finally meet them turn out to possess almost nothing and like their jungle just fine the way it is.
The third culture we are introduced to is a collection of what appear to semi nomadic tribes. They show up with great regularity in the Malazan world (Wickans, Awl, Barghast, just to name a few) and although the details differ slightly every time, it is essentially familiar territory. This story line was the one I least enjoyed. I guess the identity of the foreign warlord was an interesting riddle, although the more fanatical Malazan readers will probably figure it out long before I did. Other than that is mostly served to show us the horrors of thaumaturge society. I wasn't too fond of the slightly naive Prince Jatal.
After the messy and disappointing Orb Sceptre Throne, this novel is a return to form for Esslemont. More focussed and less dependent on the story Erikson has already laid out, much more of Esslemont's own talent and ideas on the Malazan world shines through. I still liked Stonewielder better but that is a very personal preference. Looking at the quality of the writing and the way Esslemont handles the multiple story lines and large cast of characters, there is not much in it. Blood and Bone is a worthy extension of this epic tale and promises some very interesting things for Esslemont's next novel. He's been hinting at going to the continent of Assail, one of the last remaining blank spots on the Malazan map. I for one, can't wait to see what he'll treat us to in the next volume.
Title: Blood and Bone
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2012