Archive for December, 2011

A papal mystery

Monday, December 19th, 2011

My buying spree is a bit on a low at the moment. No real need either as my stash of books-to-read is still high. Nevertheless I still look around and as such I picked up a copy of The Scarlet City (1952) by Hella Haasse, one of the great contemporary female Dutch writers who died a few months ago. As such, many of her novels have been translated to English. Besides modern novels she also wrote historical ones. The Scarlet City is one of those, taking place in the papal society of 16th century Rome and the powerful families of those times, like the Borgias. I haven’t read any other of her works before. My taste in Dutch literature is limited, but the same is true for English literature. Eventually one or the other will cross my path. One must at least have tried, and perhaps when the books has been enjoyed, more could follow.

Ian C. Esslemont – Stonewielder

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

The first two epic fantasy books Ian C. Esslemont wrote about the Malazan Empire had little relationship with each other except certain characters that appeared in both novels. His third, Stonewielder (2010), can be seen as a sequel to the second book, Return To The Crimson Guard, although like Steven Erikson Esslemont tried to cover a separate episode or tale in each book. Each book contains continuations of certain story threads and leaves some open at the end. Stories never really end, especially when so many characters are involved. Some die and some live, and those that live can still have a lot more going on. In Stonewielder a number of characters of Return Of The Crimson Guard return and the novel thus provides a continuation of their story.

One of the strong assets of Esslemonts contributions to the Malazan universe is that the locations he picks have gotten limited attention by Erikson so the reader finally gets to explore those parts and learn a bit more about them. The background that they provide however is still limited. They pick out certain events and look at events on a greater (anthropological) scale. That still allows for mysteries to remain and even then they are not that important for the story so it is only in retrospect that I notice these things.

For Stonewielder Esslemont covers a wide range of locations on the same subcontinent. Everybody plays a role, be it minor or greater. With this we get a greater picture of the situation. Most plotthreads are closely related, but there are a few that stay apart. As it seems that Esslemont is not writing not entirely standalone novels these threads are probably related to the greater whole although their purpose isn’t always clear.

A thing I have to mention is that Esslemont fully adds the military squad element in this book. It was also there in the previous books, but far less and in a variation that provided a different take. The military squad element is frequently used by Steven Erikson and is, for those that know, originating from their love of Glen Cook’s Black Company series. The element provides some comedy and down-to-earth interaction in the story. Even though the squads change the members, even though presented as different, resort to interactions that start to resemble each other too much after reading so many novels. I find it depends on my mood if I am enjoying these parts of the story or not. In the previous novels Esslemont managed to provide some variations to avoid the usual patterns so that I didn’t really notice it. So I can only say that he should watch out for it becoming too formulaic.

That aside Stonewielder is a great novel with an engaging story that is more focused and less grand than Return Of The Crimson Guard. On that part it is an improvement. Still there are some minor flaws, hardly noticeable, caused by some small events that I had trouble to understand the how or why of. Of course this is a universe where plenty of strange and mysterious things happen, so it doesn’t have to be that odd, but a bit more explanation could have helped. The reader has too little access to the actions and inner feelings of the characters. He has to judge them by their behavior and interactions. That isn’t too bad as it avoids possible slowness. Some resting points do have their advantages in a story. It is something I sometimes miss in Esslemont’s writing compared to that of Erikson. Esslemont focuses more on action than reflection for his characterization. A mix may work better. It is still one of the reasons why I like Erikson’s novels better than Esslemont’s, although Esslemont also writes high quality epic fantasy. So in the end I will give a high recommendation for this installment as I can’t wait for the next one.

Ian C. Esslemont – Return Of The Crimson Guard

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

After completing my read of Stonewielder I got immediately interested in rereading the previous novel by Ian C. Esslemont as there were a number of references of which I had forgotten already what it was exactly about. I got so preoccupied that I didn’t get to writing my review of Stonewielder until now, so I’ve decided to write the review of Return Of The Crimson Guard (2008) first. This way the references in the review of Stonewielder will make more sense.

Return Of The Crimson Guard is Esslemont’s first full Malazan novel and part of the epic fantasy series started by co-creator Steven Erikson. His first novel Night Of Knives was a prequel, a story set in the past, shorter in length with a very narrow scope. This new novel takes the reader to parts of the Malazan world the reader has seen lots of references to, but few actual visits with a number of familiar characters from Erikson’s book and introducing a large number of others. Much more than in Night Of Knives, Esslemont expands the scale of the story in a similar way as Erikson does. I assume they want their novels to be complementary to each other. In his series Erikson had to limit his focus or perhaps he simply gave certain story arcs to Esslemont. The novel takes place after the events of The Bonehunters and it is not inconceivable that Erikson wanted to prevent the already massive story to be slowed down too much due to the ever expanding number of storylines so that the reader would be provided with a more coherent overall plot development.

As the writing style of Esslemont is remarkably similar to that of Erikson in all assets the obvious thing to do is make a comparison to where it differs. First off is that his comedy style is less strong as Erikson’s. As the Malazan work is a dark and gritty one, with low and base elements combined with high and elevated elements, adding comedy elements makes it an easier reading experience. The bantering one might compare to that of Terry Pratchett, but of course such things depend on one’s taste. In the case of the Malazan books the story doesn’t stick long with a certain set of characters but continuously keeps switching to others, keeping the reader attentive and the story from becoming long-winded. It is a very effective format and Esslemont follows this structure as well.

A second difference is, at least to me, is that Esslemont doesn’t manage to let some of his characters sparkle at times. With such a large cast and short attention spans there is little time to give the characters more body or develop them sufficiently. The Malazan novels are plot-driven stories in which the different characters are still identifiable and a limited but sufficient character connection is possible. Still, I don’t mind that the attachment to the characters is not too strong as the death toll in the novels can be quite stunning at times. It is part of its dark and gritty element, making sure that the magical and superbeing component never dominates, showing that failure can happen among all levels at any time. To get back to my point. Erikson manages at times to give certain characters something extra, a sparkle so to say, which makes them stand out. This I miss with Esslemont as I find myself observing each character similarly.

The scale of the plot is quite massive. There are a large number of storylines of which a number is not easily seen as what role they play in the bigger whole. However, this is also a trait of Erikson, where he adds secondary storylines that are related but not part of the main plot, to provide some extra possibly interesting viewpoints. I’m not always much of a fan of these sidestories, some are more likable than others and at times too much time is spend on the sidestory as the main story is much more interesting. Esslemont copied this as well and I’m not overly satisfied with how he handled them. In certain cases it felt that he was overreaching himself, trying to weaves the different storylines together in a way that felt a bit far-fetched.

The story itself is grand and excited, handled well, but not always balanced well enough. Still with his first attempt at writing such a large scale story he made an impressive effort as this is an addition to an already complex and detailed world of which the familiar reader already knows a lot. With plenty of twists and surprises the story is never boring and as Esslemont takes the reader to places and characters Erikson had little time for it is a very satisfying journey of new discoveries.

I’m a big fan of Erikson’s work and Esslemont shows, as he already did with Night Of Knives, but now confirms, that he is a welcome addition to the Malazan universe. Although he overreaches a bit with Return Of The Crimson Guard overall he manages to keep the complex story balanced and engaging. His prose is not as good as Erikson’s, but he still does a good job and the differences are small. Compared to other fantasy this is still high quality, original far above mainstream. Highly recommended.

A dive into classic Japanese literature

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

For several years I’ve been interested in Japanese culture, although I’ve ventured little into Japanese literature. The reason was simply that I had enough other books to read and in time I would pick up some books. Now I’ve stumbled upon an anthology of classic Japanese literature, ranging between prose, literature and plays from the eighth until the nineteenth century. It’s a Dutch anthology so unless you can read Dutch it’s not much of interest to you. It’s a heavy tome called Eternal Travelers.

I also picked up another book, this one from my wanted list. I can say I’ve already started reading Stonewielder (2010) by Ian C. Esslemont. Another epic fantasy tale taking place in the Malazan universe Esslemont shares with Stevn Erikson.