Ian C. Esslemont – Return Of The Crimson Guard

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.

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