The Malazan Empire is expanding in all directions, consolidating its control of the Seven Cities subcontinent whilst its armies fight a grinding war of attrition on Genabackis against the Crimson Guard and their allies and an ugly stalemate develops on the continent of Korelri. The Empire's expansion has carried the glory and centre of attention away from the place where it was founded, the island of Malaz located off the coast of the Quon Tali continent. The empire was born on Malaz Island, but the empire has grown up and moved out of home. Yet, on the night of a mysterious convergence known as the Shadow Moon, this backwater city once again becomes the centre of attention...
Night of Knives is set in the same world as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which now encompasses seven novels and three novellas with at least three more novels to come. Ian Cameron Esslemont and Steven Erikson created the world jointly in 1982 and expanded it over many years of gaming and storytelling. Whilst Erikson was published first - his Gardens of the Moon first appeared in 1999 - the plan all along was for Esslemont to expand on the universe with at least five of his own novels. As Erikson himself says, this isn't fan-fiction but a new chapter in the same world created by the person who created such characters as Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake, who have already achieved iconic status in Erikson's hands.
To start with, Night of Knives shows every sign of being a more viable place to start reading the overall Malazan series than Gardens of the Moon. Esslemont's style is more traditional and the plot is much slighter than in any of Erikson's books. However, Esselmont's rawer style (this is his first novel) soon tells, as he fails to set up several key events in the novel ahead of time. Thus some plot elements seem to emerge from nowhere. Whilst the book promises to tell the story of what happened between Surly, Kellenvad and Dancer on the night of Kellenvad's disappearance, this key event takes place off-page. We are also promised a major clash between the Malazan mages and the enigmatic Stormriders, but again this takes place off-page. The Stormriders themselves, a most fascinating race that was intriguingly set up in Erikson's novel The Bonehunters, are also given short shrift, making the ending of the book even more frustrating. In fact, the largest and most important revelation of the book will mean nothing to those who have not already read the main sequence (although it may clarify events in House of Chains). In short, you probably don't want to make Night of Knives your first stop in the Malazan series. If nothing else, the revelations about one character could seriously undermine some cunning plot misdirection tricks Erikson employs in the first and third volumes of the main series.
That said, Esslemont possesses a solid gift for creating interesting new characters. Temper and Kiska are likeable protagonists, and there is nice line in humour in the book, although it falls short of Erikson's much drier and funnier wit.
Night of Knives (***) is a solid first novel which does nicely expand on many plot elements hinted at in Erikson's novels. Esslemont can clearly write and it will be interesting to see what next year's Return of the Crimson Guard brings, which will apparently be both longer and will directly tie in with the main series (being the story of what happened on Quon Tali whilst the Bonehunters were sailing to Lether). The book is published by Bantam in the UK and Canada, but does not have an American publisher at this time.