Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ian C. Esslemont - Return of the Crimson Guard

We are so close. Queen’s Prophecies, the completion of the Vow is within reach! We can break them! Why then these doubts, these worries? None afflicted at the beginning. Everything was so clear then. the sides so cleanly drawn, our cause so pressing. Now, though, I can hardly muster the effort to go through with it. For whom did they fight?

As I said in my Night of Knives review, the thought of Esslemont sharing Erikson’s world has always made me nervous. Night of Knives managed to calm those fears slightly, but it was a different sort of novel, and filled with flaws of its own, so I entered Return of the Crimson Guard – a monolith of Erikson’s proportions – with more than a hint of trepidation. I wouldn’t say that Esslemont fails at crafting an epic here, but I wouldn’t really say that he succeeds, either. Esslemont’s writing style is highly developed in some areas, but is sorely lacking in others. As a result, your opinion of the book is likely to go up and down in tandem with Esslemont’s competence at writing the current scene.

Beginning a Malazan novel is always an upwards climb. You’ve got a few dozen plot threads and characters to acquaint yourself with, most of (or, in this case, all of) them new. In general, the beginnings of Erikson’s books are a myriad of half scenes, with the reader frantically trying to latch on as things escalate. The main part of this boils down to characterization and prose. Return of the Crimson Guard is the novel about the Malazan Empire, where Esslemont seeks to communicate the answer to all of our questions about it before both he and Erikson move, in large part, to foreign shores. More than being a novel about the high seats of Malazan power, however, it is, like every Malazan novel, first and foremost about the characters – some high ranking, but most low – that we see the events through.

In a novel with a dozen viewpoints, it’s absolutely essential for each character to have at least one distinctive trait that we can immediately latch onto, so that we can tell who the hell they are when they pop up again. At this, Esslemont is adept, but, when it comes to later filling in those stark outlines with details, he falls horribly short of Erikson’s standard. Almost none of Esslemont’s characters have any depth to speak of, ranging from clichés to empty shells that act for reasons that are impossible to decipher. It is telling, I think, that all of the characters that have any depth to speak of in this volume are not viewpoint characters and are, generally, viewed only from the periphery.

Compounding the problem of characterization is Esslemont’s prose. Though it’s never truly flawed, it lacks the richness and flowing nature of Erikson’s. It is, in short, a workman’s prose, there to get the ideas across and nothing more. As a result, the times in the text when Esslemont tries to awe the reader, such as another look at the jade statues from House of Chains, fall flat. The combination of the bland prose with the shallow characterization makes the beginning of Return of the Crimson Guard a true barrier. Once you power your way through the opening, however, Esslemont begins to play to his strengths.

Esslemont’s prose comes alive when he describes combat. All of a sudden, what was only a paragraph ago so much ho hum description, or what have you, lights up with new fire as soon as someone throws a punch. Esslemont’s style, in these scenes, becomes almost staccato, and you understand what his prose was going for the entire book. His grace at battle isn’t only on the small scale. Esslemont’s grasp of military battles and tactics seems excellent and is a joy to read.

The pacing of the last third of the book is the opposite of the beginning. Where the opening was starting a thousand different threads with no payoff in sight, Return the Crimson Guard ends with literally hundreds of pages of climax. Now, the amount is a bit excessive, and I won’t deny that it could’ve been stronger if some had been cut, but the jaw dropping confrontations, and the political machinations that go along with them, are by far and away the strongest part of the book. Esslemont adds layer after layer of complexity, sub plot after sub plot exploding at once, that it almost beggars belief.

And then he adds one too many layers, and it all sort of falls apart.

Return of the Crimson Guard is, fundamentally, concerned with the question of Laseen. Is she running the empire well, playing a deeper game than anyone realizes, or is she merely a pawn that exceeded her station? For most of the book, Laseen is Esslemont’s one unqualified success. The enigma of her character grows in the absence of any close viewpoints, and her plans become more twisted and more daring with each half step they take into the light.

The problem with Laseen’s climax isn’t the decision that Esslemont took. It’s his and Erikson’s world, and I can’t even begin to guess the causes or ramifications of the conclusion, so I’ll wait till I have that information before passing judgment on who did what. What is unforgivable, however, are the implications of what happens to Laseen. By making her oblivious of something that every reader, no matter how unobservant, knew for thousands of pages on end invalidates any intelligence that reader might once have ascribed to her. The remainder of her plan simply does not matter. Whether or not she was ever cunning becomes irrelevant, that act of ignorance leaves the reader forever unable to view her as anything but clueless.

Esslemont answers the question of Laseen’s plan, yes, but in a superficial, meaningless way. He checks “yes” and “no” to each aspect of her being, telling us whether she knew this and not that, or whether she was interested in him and not in her, but nowhere do we understand the character herself. The missing piece at the center of the novel turns out not to exist. The enigma is never penetrated; it is destroyed with its secrets intact.

Return of the Crimson Guard is a novel where the number of plot twists is only matched by the endless fluctuations in writing ability. Though he has a rocky beginning, and several very obvious shortcomings, Esslemont eventually overcomes his problems and draws the reader into his story. Night of Knives gave us the surface of Laseen’s climb to power, but we saw it from a cinematic perspective only; none of the depths of character or motivations were revealed. Return of the Crimson Guard promises to rectify that, and, for a while, it seems poised to do so. And then, Esslemont reverts to the same superficiality that his debut displayed, solving every question without understanding why we wanted the answers in the first place.

I haven’t given up on Esslemont. As long as he’s cowriting one of my favorite series, I’m not even sure that I can give up on him. I have, however, lost quite a bit of faith in him. I suppose I can only hope that Stonewielder is as much of an improvement on Return of the Crimson Guard as Return… itself was to Night of Knives. Or, failing that, that his treatment of my beloved Darujhistan isn’t as skin deep and superficial as everything that’s gone before.

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