Friday, December 4, 2015

Return of the Crimson Guard Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Ian Cameron Esslemont
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Military Fantasy
Series: Novel of the Malazan Empire Book Two
Pages: 880

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(Spoilers for Night of Knives and Malazan Books of the Fallen 1-6 are below and spoilers for Return of the Crimson Guard are in a clearly marked section below).

After reading Night of Knives I believed that Esslemont proved he had some skill with words. He had a tall order to climb writing in a world that was already made famous by his partner Steven Erikson, but he bravely tackled the rise of Laseen, which was a major event in the Malazan world.  Esslemont turned out a novel that was better than I expected, but not as great as I had hoped for. I did end up leaving the novel with the belief that there was a lot of potential for the author to grow and turn out some decent stories in the Malazan world.

Unfortunately, Return of the Crimson Guard is anything but decent. Esslemont struggles with writing sentimental characters, and he really struggles with creating unique personalities.  The most entertaining characters in this book had been written at length by Erikson in his Malazan Books of the Fallen, and Esslemont can’t write those characters anywhere as well as Erikson did. What’s worse is that Esslemont is given some major, long awaited for moments to set in prose, and he falls way short of the mark. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book, but If you’re going to read Return of the Crimson Guard, read it after completing Night of Knives and The Bonehunters. 

Return of the Crimson Guard begins shortly after the concluding events in The Bonehunters (Malazan Book of the Fallen Book 6). At the onset, Laseen’s grip on ruling the Malazans is fading. Tavore Paran has defected from Laseen’s control, taking with her thousands of elite and season soldiers, Apsalar has killed hundreds of members of Laseen’s Claws, the military campaign on Genabackis has come to a halt, internal political opponents like Mallick Rel plot to take power from her, and the Seven Cities is still in open rebellion.

Faced with a growing crisis, Laseen takes the last of her army and Claws and heads to Unta which is falling into upheaval along with the other Seven Cities. As Laseen plots to restore glory to her empire, long forgotten about enemies add to her huge list of problems. Older Malazan veterans, veterans who were loyal to Kellanved before Laseen took power look to unseat her in order to revenge their exiles. Even more dangerous than the Malazan veterans are the Crimson Guard, an elite mercanary group that swore to destroy the Malazan Empire when they were initially defeated by Kellanved 100 years ago.

What Esslemont has tried to do here is create a Malazan story that is structured the same way Erikson would do it: write a lengthy story, introduce lots of new characters, and have most of their plots converge at the end in a large scale military battle. While I appreciate Esslemont trying to create a consistency between his books and Erikson’s, it unfortunately makes him look like an imitator – especially when’s he’s writing characters that Erikson has spent lengthy times developing.   It feels like Erikson gave Esslemont the keys to his “very nice car,” to drive around and Esslemont has returned it after driving it through a swamp.

Erikson had a huge spectrum of large and memorable personalities in each of his Malazan books.  Whether it was Kruppe’s shenanigans, Shadowthrone’s enigmatic conspiracies, Tehol and Bugg’s quirky friendship, or Karsa Orlong verbally and physically slapping everyone around with his simple approach to everything -Erikson even at his worst, had some form of memorable characterization in everyone one of his ten Malazan Books of the Fallen. Esslemont has an inability to create memorable charactershe can’t even manage a single, truly gripping character in this book.

I thought Esslemont had some potential with Kiska in the last book, but she is barely even in this story, only making couple of cameo appearances that don’t do much to serve the larger plot.  The same goes for Temper.  Instead Esslemont opts to create a new cast of characters – none of whom leave any sort of favorable impression. Kyle is a young man who joins up with the Crimson Guard, he reminds me of Crokus in Gardens of the Moon, a young man trying to figure out his role in life and he ends up getting tangled up with some soldiers. His “accomplishments,” and “growth,” as a character never truly feel earned.  When Kyle does start to achieve some measure of success I was left feeling apathetic.

Spoilers for Return of the Crimson Guard are below.

Ghelel is a young noble woman who discovers she’s the last descendant of a powerful royal family. Her story sees her escaping pursuit from the Malazans and joining with a group of soldiers that seek to restore her to power, but only as a puppet ruler.  This is a real interesting premise, however, it never gets developed as Ghelel is chased off before the convergence even happens. This plot literally goes nowhere and from what I can gather there’s no follow up to this story.  Considering she takes up a good deal of page space, why is this even here?

The Malazan series has introduced a number of great villains: Rhulad Sengar, Shadowthrone, Cotillion, and the Crippled God, but I find that the first introduced villain in a fantasy series almost always leaves one of the most significant impressions on a reader. The first in depth villain that’s introduced is Laseen. From the early moments of Gardens of the Moon, readers have wanted to see this character get what’s coming to her … especially after the end of Bonehunters. Laseen’s death is the big moment this book is building up to … and what should be an emotionally charged moment, literally had no feeling to it what so ever. I remember feeling something when Tattersail died, when Whiskeyjack died, and when Felisin died. The build up to those characters’ deaths was not only emotional but suspenseful, too. Laseen’s death was one of the most underwhelming reading experiences for a moment I’ve waited so long to see come to fruition.  She deserved better, she deserved Erikson.

End spoilers for Return of the Crimson Guard

Esslemont is also missing a lot of the deeper philosophical discussions and thoughts that are found in Erikson’s books. It makes it feel as though there’s a shallowness to everything being written here. By the end of Return of the Crimson Guard I was tired and worn out, having read so many words and gotten so little out of them. A few interesting tidbits about the Malazan world just doesn’t justify having to read over 800 pages of fiction.

Score: 4.2

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