The continent of Quon Tali is divided into a morass of squabbling city-states, the days of the Talian Hegemony long past. But, in the south, the Kingdom of Kan is on the move. Its armies are moving on Li Heng, the great crossroads city at the heart of the continent. The Protectress of Heng and her powerful (but eccentric) cadre of mages are prepared to stand against them, but they are distracted by the arrival of a bizarre mage, a skilled assassin hungry to make a name for himself and a warrior of preternatural skills dedicated to the service of the God of Death. Unbeknown to all, these three will take a broken continent and forge out of it one of the greatest empires ever known.
The Malazan universe of fantasy novels (which now number twenty-one) has attracted a reputation for being unapproachable and difficult to get into, with the traditional first novel in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, having a confusing opening and little in the way of exposition. Some readers are fine with that, but many are not. Since then, authors Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont have mused on other ways to get into the series (you can arguably start with Deadhouse Gates or Night of Knives instead, or even Midnight Tides, but all have arguments against them). Erikson even tried to create an alternate entry point with Forge of Darkness (the first in the Kharkanas prequel trilogy) but only succeeded in creating a book that only makes sense if you've read the rest of the series first.
Dancer's Lament, on the other hand, is the first book in the series since Gardens that I would feel really comfortable suggesting that people start with. Unlike most Malazan novels, which are enormous, sprawl in lots of directions, have huge casts of characters (which sometimes completely change from one volume to another) and feature dense and sometimes obtuse writing, Dancer's Lament is tight, focused, relatively straightforward and relentless in pace. It has all the strongest hallmarks of the Malazan series - impressive sorcery, intriguing (but never overwrought) worldbuilding, good humour and the use of compassion as an overriding theme - whilst dumping most of the negatives. Or, to put it more primitively, Dancer's Lament is all killer, no filler.
The tightness comes from there just being three POV characters. Dorin Rav is an assassin beyond compare looking for fame and fortune. Malazan veterans will know him, of course, as Dancer, but in this book he's just a young man with real skill but who sometimes gets in over his head. Silk, one of the mages of Li Heng, is an arrogant and apparently amoral fop who comes to realise, in his darkest hour, how much this city and his employer has come to mean to him. Iko, a Kanese Sword-Dancer, is a formidable warrior who has invested so much time in her fighting skills that she has neglected her personal ones, and has trouble forming bonds with her fellow warriors as a result. Silk and Iko appear in other books (Iko under a different name, and it's fun for old hands to try to work out who she is), but here they're presented as newcomers and youngsters trying to find their way in the world.
The book takes place a century or so before the events of Gardens of the Moon and the central plot is refreshingly simple: Li Heng is under siege, the city's rulers are trying to repulse the attack, the attackers are trying to take the city and a whole bunch of other people are caught in the middle, most notably Dorin Rav who is navigating his way through the city's underworld in search of profit. The problem is that Dorin keeps tripping over his conscience, spending too much time worrying about the friends he's made on the way and is constantly distracted by a crazy mage he bumped into on the plains and now can't seem to avoid coming into contact with. The common complaint about prequels is that they're either not telling us anything we don't know or they're going out of their way to create new stories which don't gel with what's gone before.
Dancer's Lament skirts this problem quite straightforwardly. His earlier novel Return of the Crimson Guard features sections about one of the conflicts that is mentioned in this novel, but it turns out that a lot of those reports are erroneous or conflate two separate conflicts into one and it's entertaining seeing the "real" events unfold in this book. It also helps we're in a period of time a while before our protagonists even arrive on Malaz Island, so there's a lot of room to manoeuvre. Indeed, getting to know characters like the Protectress when we know what her ultimate fate is can add a bit more resonance to events. Of course, it might be that "what is commonly known" may not turn out to be the truth at all.
Esslemont has a more direct and sparse prose style than Erikson, which has sometimes made his books feel like a light salad compared to Erikson's four-course meals. Not so here, where Dancer's Lament leaps off the page with verve and confidence. The characters are vivid and feel real (Erikson's depiction of characters - even the same ones - can sometimes feel remote and alienating in contrast) and we come to care about even minor bit players such as the bird-keeping girl Ullara (a damaged, philosophical character who sometimes feels like she's been parachuted in from a China Mieville novel) and the various soldiers manning the walls of the city.
There are some negatives, but these are minor. Esslemont's brisk and energetic style in this book is very refreshing for the series but it leads to the opposite of the usual problem: if most Malazan novels could stand to lose a few dozen pages of repetitive and laboured introspection, Dancer's Lament sometimes feels too short and some storylines feel like they could have been expanded and spread out a bit more. The distribution of chapters between characters also feels a bit too uneven, with Iko sometimes vanishing for large chunks of time and the plots of the various city mages not really going anywhere (although some of them will be picked up chronologically later on, particularly in Return of the Crimson Guard, which revisits Li Heng at the height of the Malazan Empire). This does make the world feel alive and still changing and evolving outside of the focus of the main plot, however.
Dancer's Lament (****½) is, overall, a fast and satisfying read, the best Malazan novel in quite a while. It is available now (UK, USA). Its sequel, Deadhouse Landing, was published last month. The third book in the Path to Ascendancy series has the working title Kellanved's Reach and should be out in late 2018 or early 2019.