Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont

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 was the first novel written by Ian Cameron Esslemont, set in the world he had co-created with his friend Steven Erikson for roleplaying. The original draft of the novel was written in 1987 but it wouldn't be published (somewhat revised) until 2004, when Erikson was already five books deep into his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Night of Knives is therefore an odd book, with a different author's viewpoint on a complex fantasy setting. It also kicks off Esslemont's own six-volume Malazan Empire series and acts as a prequel to the entire saga, telling the story of the ill-fated night of the Shadow Moon and what happened to Kellanved and Dancer.

Although, to be honest, it doesn't really, as that momentous event takes place mostly off-stage (and I suspect we won't find out what really happened until Esslemont wraps up his Path to Ascendancy prequel series). Instead, the novel focus on a number of different characters in Malaz City on the night of an ill-omened convergence of magical forces. Our main characters are Kiska, a young thief so desperate to escape the boring island that she even courts joining the Claw, and Temper, a formidable warrior having to hide his true history from his comrades.

Night of Knives is a strange and expectation-defying book. It's strangely minimalist, with sparse descriptions and laidback prose (and a modest page count) that feels very different to Erikson's dense, multi-layered and yak-stunning doorstoppers. It's also not the best book to read without context. Back when I first read the novel, midway through the Malazan Book of the Fallen's release cycle, Night of Knives felt like a viable alternate place to start the series, being much easier to read than Gardens of the Moon. However, on this reread the book felt a lot more random and lacking in background detail. Without having read Erikson's novels first, I'm not sure it's really clear what the hell is going on at any given moment in the book. Temper's backstory also feels really meaningless without the reader knowing who his former commanding officer is.

It's also an odd book in that it sets up multiple awesome confrontations which then happen off-page: Kellanved and Dancer meeting their fate and an awe-inspiring magical battle between Tayschrenn and the Stormriders are both mighty events, but our viewpoint characters manage to miss them both.

On a character level, the book is better in that it establishes Temper and Kiska (who go on to play a role in both Erikson and Esslemont's subsequent novels, particularly The Bonehunters and Return of the Crimson Guard) well, the story is moody and atmospheric, and there's a sense of wandering into a friend's D&D campaign when it's half over and only just about following what's going on but enjoying the action and exploding magical hijinks anyway. Looking at the book from the perspective of having read all twenty published novels in the combined Erikson/Esslemont series (to date), I'm not sure it's a particularly essential read, although certainly not an offensive one.

Night of Knives (***) is a solid but somewhat random first novel which does nicely expand on many plot elements hinted at in Erikson's novels, but does work better when the reader has a more solid grounding in the world from Erikson's books. It is available in the UK and USA now.

Note: The original version of this review was published on 30 August 2007 and can be found here.


Joseph Hurtgen said...

Sitting in on a good D&D adventure is basically the prototype for It's fun to sit in. You do zero work and get entertained.

But before the current state of the internet, if you couldn't play or watch others play D&D, you read Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance books.

I have no idea how many books I've read by R.A. Salvatore or Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Not all of them, but like Esslemont's work, it's almost impossible to keep up with an unending series.

Alexander Cotter said...

"there's a sense of wandering into a friend's D&D campaign when it's half over and only just about following what's going on but enjoying the action and exploding magical hijinks anyway". This sums up this book perfectly.

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

I enjoy the Esslemont books more than the 'Erikson' doorstops.
You said it well, he's better at character. Or at least better at writing characters that I want to root for. I was also frustrated the the climatic moments in the story happens off camera. I assume that was a deliberate choice, but I feel it was the wrong choice.

Unknown said...

It will be interesting to see if after the Path to ascendancy series is over ICE's other Malazan books will feel more self contained and you won't have to read the Erickson books anymore. I clearly prefer ICE over Erickson.