Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ian C. Esslemont - Night of Knives

“If you’d been born here, you’d stay put tonight, believe me. You’d know. The riots an’ killin’ and such this year prophesized it. Maybe even summoned it. A Shadow Moon. The souls of the dead come out under a shadow Moon. Them and worse.”

From the start, the thought of Esslemont cowriting Malazan made me nervous. Writing thousand page epics is a dangerous game. There’ve been some splendid successes in recent years, but it’s a form where a mediocre novel inevitably wears out whatever welcome it might once have had and simply becomes unbearable as it goes on and on and on (and on). How could a wholly untested author expect to jump into the middle of the largest giant in a field characterized by behemoths? Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. The helm is passed from one hand to another, but the ride proceeds smoothly.

A large part of that easy transition is that Esslemont didn’t just jump in and hope for the best. Night of Knives is far more streamlined than any of the preceding Malazan novels; though we’re seeing a key piece of the world’s history, the novel’s roughly a third of the length of Erikson’s slimmest contribution, and we’re doing it from two new, easily accessible view points.

Temper is a character type familiar to all Malazan fans: the grizzled veteran. Esslemont doesn’t do anything particularly new with him, but it’s not really needed. He’s a good way for the reader to acquaint themselves with the word, he’s a badass, and the flashback to just why he’s standing guard in some backwater shithole under an assumed name is the highlight of the book.

Kiska is, at first, another perfect archetype. We have the local girl, master of stealth and assassination, and we have the short sighted officials who just won’t see her skill for what it is. As the book progresses, however, Esslemont brings an enjoyable amount of depth to his up and coming rogue. Her endless early arrogance is hard to reconcile with her less than stellar performance, and we learn that, if she’d only been a bit more patient, she could’ve become a full blown mage. It’s worth noting, however, that this added layer is more of a bonus than anything else. This isn’t Abercrombie; Kiska is, primarily, what she looks like, just with a bit of spice added to the mix.

Night of Knives looks a bit odd sitting on a shelf with the rest of the series, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Esslemont has managed to condense one of Erikson’s epic arcs into a bite sized format. No, not quite. Night of Knives feels like the first fifty pages of Memories of Ice (all set up), then the last two hundred pages (all climax). The fast pace is handled quite well for the most part, and character development progresses consistently throughout. That being said, an unavoidable result of playing on ten all the time is that whole sections get lost in the din. An entire seemingly apocalyptic plotline is built up, only to fizzle out off screen.

The combat is generally quite well written, which is good considering how much of it there is. I suppose that a convergence featuring assassins, demons, sorcerers, hounds, etc, would not be a peaceful affair, but some fights seem to exist for no purpose save to add to the already ludicrous body count. In addition, Esslemont’s ability to make battle feel, well, dangerous, is somewhat negated in the first half of the novel by needless dues ex machine, providing us with filler fights resolved in unbelievable ways.

In the end, Night of Knives’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The novel showcases the events surrounding Kellanved and Dancer, something that every fan’s no doubt been dying to see. The problem is that the big twist is given away in Deadhouse Gates, and the rest of the events are sprinkled throughout the following books. Though the anticipated event in and of itself is decently satisfying, there’s nothing at all unexpected about it. As a result, you’re far better off viewing this as Temper and Kiska’s story, rather than that of Kellanved’s, so that you get a well told tale with a cinematic background, rather than an already revealed twist with a bunch of filler stuffed in.

Night of Knives isn’t an amazing book, but it lays all of my fears to rest. Esslemont is worthy to write Malazan, though I hope he picks a less foreshadowed aspect of it to write in for his future works.

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