Posted by: markfender | December 31, 2014

Night of Knives

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Steven Erickson is a better writer than Ian Esselmont.

NoKAnd so, with Esselmont’s first novel, the thankfully rather short Night of Knives, we get exposed to the other half of the Malazan stories.

A note about timelines: The events of Night of Knives actually happen before Gardens of the Moon. Publishing and stuff meant it came out after like five other Erickson books were published. Dealing with it here is more to compare tentative, fumbling writing against equally fumbling writing, since both Gardens and Night were written years before either were published.

As for the events of this novel, it deals with the night that Laseen became Empress, defeating both Kellanved and Dancer. Of course, it’s also about how Kellanved and Dancer became Shadowthrone and Cotillion. As an extra special bonus we get a flashback to Dassem Ultor, First Sword of the Malazan Empire, a character who will show up in later books. Esselmont tells this story through two perspectives: Kiska and Temper.

Kiska is a typical teenager who wants desperately to leave her home and explore the world. Temper is a war-weary veteran who’s seen it all. As you can imagine, these two act as opposites for the ensuing events.

The first thing immediately obvious to me as a difference between the two author’s styles is that Esselmont uses way more words. His descriptions are longer. Sometimes this is effective (as he also has a deeper vocabulary than Erickson), but other times it just seems to drag on. He also rephrases some of his previous sentences in new ways, which just feels like restating the obvious sometimes. Compared to Erickson, it’s just ridiculously verbose.

From how characters are revealed and spoken about (as well as some of the varying levels of power discussed), it’s pretty obvious that both Erickson and Esselmont were heavily inspired by Glen Cook. That’s more than fine. But Erickson took his adoration one step further and decided to write in the terse, Hemingway-inspired manner of Cook. Esselmont doesn’t. He writes like most first-time fantasy writers – using descriptive language to paint a picture of a strange place. I’ve noticed this trend of “overdescription” in fantasy stories and Esselmont falls right into it. It’s probably only obvious after reading Erickson to notice how Esselmont is telling the story. After all, we generally like description in our fantasy worlds. But after reading Erickson’s sparse, bare prose, Esselmont can come across as almost too indulgent. He definitely reads much slower to me, even though I found myself paying closer attention to Erickson’s stuff so that I don’t miss anything. In Esselmont, I find myself going blank in some of those paragraphs of description and only waking up halfway through the next paragraph, wondering what I missed. Of course, I’m sure someone else could complain about Erickson’s terse style and how it’s too easy to miss stuff, so I guess it takes all kinds.

However, this over describing does sometimes work quite effectively. Esselmont writes horror very well, coming up with some genuinely terrifying moments throughout the book. I think he could turn out a very effective horror novel if he put his mind to it. Even if he does overuse Kiska being grabbed by the ankle.

Esselmont also uses real world swearing in the book, which isn’t something Erickson does. Some common swears are shared, such as “Hood’s Gate,” but Esselmont seems to fall back on “shit” or a variation a lot. I don’t have a great problem with this as I’m pretty sure people will still build swears around bodily functions, even in a fantasy world. But it seems somewhat out of place when the other author doesn’t use those colloquialisms.

Unfortunately, Esselmont shares the same plotting sins as Erickson. Powerful people disguise their identities while talking to other people using a pseudonym, making sure to only vaguely hint at what they’re actually talking about so that the plebians standing around them (or reading their words) will not understand what’s really going on. Sometimes Erickson will eventually reveal what they were talking about and who they were, but it seems Esselmont is less fond of this sort of revelation. That might just have to do with the length of the book, however. I hope he gets better about that in future books.

The big plot event of this book is, of course, when Surly (soon-to-be Laseen) kills Kellanved and Dancer. I mean, that’s what the title refers to. So, Esselmont in his extensive wisdom, decides to have this moment “off page.” As readers, we hear some fumbling at doors and see some aftereffects. What the hell? Learning more the Empire’s power structure and all three characters involved is pretty much the only reason I had for reading this book. So, why don’t I get to witness the actual events the book espouses it is about? What is it with these two authors where they don’t want to clue the audience in to what is happening?

Esselmont is fairly deft at character motivations. Kiska’s first reaction in every circumstance is to act selfishly – like a teenager. Tayschrenn gets some actual description (sometimes it feels like Erickson just forgets to describe characters) and some motivations that make me a lot more sympathetic to the guy than Erickson ever made me. Seeing Tayschrenn in this light made me sort of wish the series would talk more about certain characters. I never really got a handle on Tayschrenn and what his motivations are, just like I never really understood Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s relationship, despite the fact that these are characters that show up again and again throughout these fifteen novels. Esselmont says in this book that Shadowthrone and Cotillion were interested only in power, seeing the Empire they built as just another step towards power. And yet, they protect each other mutually and unselfishly. Those two things don’t seem to align and I’d be curious to know more about that relationship.

Okay, so Night of Knives isn’t great. It’s wordier while managing to say less than an Erickson novel. The good news is that, just like Erickson, Esselmont gets better. So maybe we’ll eventually reach a point where we can stop nitpicking the writing and start nitpicking the plot.

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