Assail, the sixth and final novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that intertwines with Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like Erikson, he has now chosen to delve into the rich past of their shared fantasy world. Dancer's Lament is the first novel in a series describing the rise of the Malazan Empire. It's a period Erikson has not published any material on, leaving Esslemont a bit more free to find his own path. It seems to have done him a lot of good. The story works well for veteran readers but it might also be a good entry point. Let's face it, there are significantly less unknown terms, unexplained histories and strange magics dropped on the reader than in Erikson's first books.
The continent of Quon Tali was once unified, but in recent decades various regional powers have vied for control. Most of this has passed the city of Li Heng by, however. Ruled by a powerful sorceress, the city has known generations of stability. This is about to come to an end when the armies of the Itko Kan arrive. Their ambitious young king is aiming to conquer the city. He is not the only arrival however. Two young men with ambitions that stretch far beyond controlling one city, slip into Li Heng just before the besiegers arrive. The game of power is played on several levels and as usual in the world of Malaz, the use of power attracts the powerful. What starts out as a simple siege ripples though the Malazan pantheon.
As I understand it, Esslemont is under contract for three books in this series. This first book doesn't quite feel as the setup for a traditional trilogy, however. I would not be surprised to see the author take it beyond three books. The Malazan timeline is notoriously (and intentionally) vague so it is hard to pinpoint when exactly this story takes place in relation to other books in this universe. My best guess is that this story is set at least a century before the events in Gardens of the Moon but I could be a few decades off.
Although the history of this universe goes back a lot further, Erikson is currently writing books that are set many thousands of years before the events Esslemont describes here, Dancer's Lament is something of an origins story. We meet a number of young characters who will go on to become big players. The title is giving one of them away. Dassem Ulthor makes an appearance, Kellanved shows up and the Crimson Guard, before undergoing the ritual, pays Li Heng a visit. There is, in other words plenty for the reader familiar with the Malazan books to recognize.
All these familiar characters in the story could have the drawback that the observant reader will guess the shape of the story early on. Between them, Erikson and Esslemont have given quite a few hints on the past of some of the key players in the story. I have a nagging suspicion that later books might become more predictable. It will be interesting to see how Esslemont handles that. In Dancer's Lament, predictability is not (yet) a problem. We are a long way from Malaz, the empire is a distant dream. It will take the reader the better part of the book to figure out who is who, and more importantly, what they are capable of. Names are fluid in this series. They are often earned rather than given, and quite a few characters still have to earn theirs.
As usual the conflict in the novel plays out on several levels. The worldly politics of Quon Tali is intermingled with the struggles of gods and ascendants. This last conflict is reflected in changes in the Deck of Dragons, where as of yet unaligned cards start to appear. The origin of the house that is forming is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. For characters who are, in later books, seen to be playing the long game, meticulously plotting their moves, their actions in this novel appear rash. In fact, they cause the nearest thing to panic among the ascendants I've seen in this series.
Despite the multilayered conflict, the novel is fairly concise as Malazan books go. It is just over 400 pages in hardback. Some of the bigger novels in the overall series are easily twice as long. Esslemont starts his new series in a relatively contained setting and with, for Malazan standards, a fairly limited cast. Where in some of his previous novels I had the feeling he had trouble juggling the characters, writing his novels in between Erikson's parts and pulling all strands together for a good convergence, he doesn't have any such problems in this book. It is a tightly written novel with a satisfying climax. Sure, there are lots of open ends, it is the first book in a series after all, but structurally, this novel may be the best Esslemont has produced to date.
All in all, I am quite taken with this novel. Dancer's Lament is a fresh start for the series, and that seems to be just what Esslemont needed. It is one of the more accessible books in the universe of Malaz, but still contains enough links to the other works in the series to make it interesting for readers who have read the other books. This novel shows that, whatever we think we know about this most complex of fantasy worlds, Erikson and Esslemont will keep surprising us with their stories. Even if Esslemont's earlier novels didn't convince you, this one is well worth the read.
Title: Dancer's Lament
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2016