Sunday, September 28, 2014

Assail - Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont's sixth novel Assail is the final book in what we'll for convenience call the Malazan main sequence. Esslemont started publishing in earnest a few years later than his co-creator Steven Erikson and his novels are interwoven in Erikson's storyline. By that time Erikson had set the Malazan standard and Esslemont has had a rough time living up to that. His style is different from Erikson, a bit less verbose and a bit less satirical. It has gotten him quite a few negative reviews, some of which are in my opinion not justified. Erikson and Esslemont are not the same person, you can't reasonably expect them to approach their creation the same way. That being said, not all of Esslemont's novels were equally strong. I had problems with Night of Knives and Orb, Sceptre, Throne in particular. Fortunately Assail is one of Esslemont's stronger ones. In fact, some might consider it his best one yet.

Gold has been discovered on the continent of Assail. Lots of it if the stories are to believed. Enterprising people from all over the world make the long, hazardous journey to the continent only to find out just how dangerous the place is. Ancient magic lingers in the north of the continent in particular. Omtose Phellack, the ancient path of ice, still holds the place in its grip. It is weakening though. Slowly the ice is releasing its grip on the land and this creates opportunities for those who have an ancient score to settle with the rulers of the ice. The natives of course, are not at all amused by all this unwanted attention. A bloody struggle for control of the region is about to begin.

The final book in the main sequence needs a final reckoning of some sort. Given the sprawling that and the countless unfinished story lines the previous fifteen books have brought us, it would have been undoable to tie all of them off. Esslemont chooses to focus the supernatural part of the conflict on the eternal war between the Elder races Jaghut and Imass. The summoner Silverfox, whom we met in Memories of Ice is key to this story line. She is both the only hope for the future of the Imass as well as the person trying to heal the rift that has formed between the various clans. It's this part of the story I liked the least to be honest. Silverfox is very passive. She spends most of her time in pursuit of one of the clans bent on continuing the war. I don't want to give away the climax of that story line but I felt it was a bit disappointing. I was more impressed with the way Esslemont handled the confrontations between just about every group mentioned in the previous fifteen books. It must have been quite a challenge to keep all those cultural backgrounds straight.

Another aspect I think many readers will notice is the element of repetition that is present in the book. The various characters, and there are quite a lot of them, in the novel all more or less make the same journey to Assail, meaning we see several characters pass the same place at various times in the book. As with all Malazan novels, the story works towards a convergence; but this time the characters don't come from different directions. Once the first group has passed a particular place, the reader will be aware of the danger it holds for the travelers. It does take away some of the tension at certain points in the novel.

What I did like about the book is that Esslemont uses a theme that appears in Erikson's work as well. He reflects on the fate of civilizations that meet a fully agricultural, imperialistic civilization. In Erikson's work it is often the nomadic peoples who find out the strength of an empire first hand. In Assail it is the Icebloods. A small group of families of Jaghut descent who hang on the north of Assail. The gold on their land is their misfortune. Replace gold for oil, or any other precious resource really, and our own history can tell you what will happen. It's a tragic story. The Icebloods are doomed and they know it. In true Malazan style they are determined to make a stand however. Assail's gold carries a price in blood.

The Jaghut presence is noticeable in other groups of the local population too. They are a very independent lot, not easily impressed by outsiders and of the opinion that killing them and taking their possessions is quite all right. Their land is not one that offers many opportunities for economic growth so piracy and scavenging have become an art on Assail. Even the names on the maps of Assail encourage people to stay away. Assail is cold, wild and has a vaguely Nordic feel to it. When you think about it, Esslemont and Erikson have managed to give the many locations in their vast world a distinct flavour. One would not mistake Assail for Korell, Lether or Genebackis.

Assail weighs in at 540 pages. It seems to be a length Esslemont is comfortable with. His books are substantially shorter than Erikson's, making them slightly less intimidating to get started on. I thought Assail was quite a quick read and definitely one of the smoothest Esslemont has produced to date. Some readers will probably think it is not quite what they expected form the concluding volume of the series. The world of Malaz is huge. There are plenty of questions unanswered and plenty of places left to explore. Personally I don't see how it could be otherwise in this monstrously detailed world. I understand Esslemont intends to write a series of prequels next. He doesn't intend to go back as far as Erikson is doing at the moment though, so it will be an opportunity for Esslemont to write a story that is not completely interwoven in Erikson's work. I look forward to reading what Esslemont comes up with next. He has grown considerably as a writer over the course of this series. I expect some more good stuff from him.

Book Details
Title: Assail
Author: Ian Esslemont
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 540
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2998-1
First published: 2014

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