Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Assail by Ian Cameron Esslemont

South of Genabackis and east of Korel and Stratem lies the mysterious continent of Assail. It is known for its inaccessibility and hostility, populated by tribes and mage-ruled kingdoms who slay outsiders on sight. Clans of T'lan Imass and companies of the Crimson Guard have disappeared on missions there. It has a reputation for being so unrelentingly hostile that even the formidable Malazan Empire has never tried to conquer it.

That has now changed. Across the world, massive ice floes are melting and new sea routes are opening up. Rumours of rivers of gold being found in the Salt Mountains of north Assail are spreading, luring thousands of adventurers, treasure-seekers and merchants to the continent. Converging on the land are the leaders of the Crimson Guard, the Summoner of the Imass known as Silverfox, ex-Malazan mercenaries and foolhardy treasure seekers from distant Lether. In the heights of the mountains they will find their treasure...and something far more dangerous.

Assail is the sixth and concluding book in the Novels of the Malazan Empire sequence by Ian Esslemont. Set on the world he co-created with Steven Erikson, Esslemont's latest book wraps up story and character arcs he set in motion with Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard (written in the 1980s but only published a decade ago), as well as drawing on elements established by Erikson in his own ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. It's not the best place for newcomers to start, although the primary storyline of the book is contained within this one novel.

Esslemont has a tough job to do here. The continent of Assail is first mentioned in Erikson's Memories of Ice and is reported to be a place of ceaseless hostility where entire T'lan Imass armies are ground to dust in endless battle against remorseless, tyrannical foes. Repeated mentions in other novels only added to its mystique, with even gods and Ascendants urging avoidance of the continent at all costs. As it turns out the reality doesn't quite match up: there are extremely powerful, lethal sorcerers on the continent but they are indolent and not quite up to speed with the magical powers commanded by outsiders. There are fanatically xenophobic tribes who immediately attack outsiders on sight (or after a brief rest-break if they are sufficiently skilled) but who could probably be taken out by a determined-enough Malazan army. Amusingly, Assail not being as quite as lethal as previously hinted feeds into the narrative, with the fact that you can set foot on Assail without dying leading to overconfidence on the part of the invaders. There's also the late revelation that what lurks in the mountains is so potentially lethal to the entire planet that there's certainly a good enough reason to avoid the place.

In terms of longer-running story arcs, Esslemont does a good job here of wrapping up the storyline of Kyle and the Crimson Guard (even if their eventual destiny remains unclear), which has been a consistent thread throughout these books. However, other plot threads are left less clearly resolved. The Malazans now have a diplomatic toehold on Assail and there is still work to be done there, whilst the biggest unresolved plot element is the T'lan Imass. The Imass/Silverfox/Kilava storyline which Erikson kicked off fifteen years ago is still left unfinished at the end of Assail. Hopefully the Imass will return in Erikson's Toblakai Trilogy, otherwise their fate is both underwhelming and unsatisfying.

In other areas the book is a mixed bag. There is a lot of travelogue in this novel, with multiple characters crossing Assail from different directions to get to the Salt Range. However, several groups brave the Sea of Dread (noted for its somnambulist and lethal effects) and, as effective as Esslemont's descriptions of this dangerous route are, it does get a little repetitive. Fortunately, the characters are, for the most part, an interesting bunch. One character in particular, Jethiss, risks cliche by being an amnesiac Tiste Andii who is clearly an already-established character from earlier in the series. When he turns out not to be the character I thought he was going to be, there was a major sigh of relief. Erikson and Esslemont are both guilty of nullifying and cheapening previously powerful death scenes by resurrecting the slain character too easily and they dodged a bullet here by making sure the most iconic character in the series stayed in the ground.

The book ends in a massive convergence, as is traditional, which does two things. First, it establishes a reason for why the whole world has gone to hell in the last few years and how this can be resolved. This does explain what has been a weakness of the series, namely how with so many mages, races and elemental forces rolling around with continent-devastating abilities that the whole planet hasn't been blown up yet. This does suggest that the world will be a calmer place going forwards, at least until Karsa Orlong (not invited to the deal) decides to destroy everything a few years down the line. Secondly, the convergence explains the backstory behind the Crimson Guard's Vow and how they are so amazingly badass. The problem here is that everyone figured this out before Return of the Crimson Guard was done and Esslemont doesn't throw any curveballs into the mix, so this isn't hugely surprising. It also leaves the future direction of the Guard wide open, handy if the authors choose to revisit these characters later on.

Assail (****) is a mostly well-written, enjoyable novel that will satisfy Malazan fans for its resolution of long-running plot threads and its addressing of major backstory mysteries. What it definitely isn't (and it was partially billed as) is the grand mega-finale of the entire combined Erikson/Esslemont series which will out-climax Erikson's Crippled God. With at least three more post-Assail novels from Erikson on the horizon, it never could be this and I'm glad I always took this with a pinch of Salt (Range) as I'd have been more disappointed otherwise. Instead, we have a reasonably good book in the series, although not Esslemont's best. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Anonymous said...

Uhhh...did you even read this book? That character you thought "stayed in the ground" was actually whom you were fearing it was.

Adam Whitehead said...

Anomander Rake? No, they lampshade that and then dismiss that possibility pretty early on. Jethiss is almost certainly Spinnock Durav: