Posted by: markfender | March 11, 2015

Return of the Crimson Guard

You remember those mentions of the Crimson Guard in Gardens of the Moon? Well, they’re back.

rcglgThis is the second of Esslemont’s books set in the Malazan universe and it takes places alongside Reaper’s Gale, even if it is several continents away. The aforementioned Crimson Guard are returning from their disapora to wage war upon the Malazan Empire. The Crimson Guard sworn a vow to destroy the Malazan Empire 600 years or so ago and those that swore the oath are still fighting. They have preternatural toughness and immortality until their vow is fulfilled. There’s mentions that this has affected them in some not-so-nice ways, but those aren’t really elaborated on. Apparently, swearing oaths is a big deal in this world? I mean, it’s a cool concept, but it seems to only be the Crimson Guard who have this magical oath-swearing ability and I’m kind of curious where they got it.

The other big war in this book is the Old Guard, who are also fighting against the Malazan Empire. These are the original companions of Kellanved and Dancer when they formed the Malazan Empire. And, for reasons never really explained, these old companions have decided that current Emperess Laseen has to go. So, it’s the return of old, well-loved NPCs. Too bad I don’t have any connection to those characters nor any fond memories of our gaming sessions with them either, because, in Esslemont’s hands, they’re just a collection of nicknames. This whole plotline meant nothing to me and I was never given an investment in it by the author. It honestly strikes me as the author just being too close to the source material to see that his intended audience didn’t really care about any of these people (Well, most of them. Some of them have been in Erickson books).

But that’s not even the worst plot. The worst plot is Ghelel, an Arya Stark like noble forced to pretend that she’s less than she is in order to infiltrate one of the countless armies in this book. And then, she runs away near the third-quarter of the book and her story just…ends. Satisfying stuff, just like when Korbalain & Broach did it in Memories of Ice.

Equally uninteresting is Kyle, a new recruit to the Crimson Guard, who travels around with Traveler (i.e. Dassem Ultor, i.e. Dessembrae, i.e. some other names I’m sure) and some other dudes. They sail a boat, have a random fight with Kallor, and find K’azz D’avore, leader of the Crimson Guard, just sort of sitting on an island. And then they go back.

Esslemont has adopted Erickson’s style of writing in this book – lots of shifting POVs and disparate events that eventually crash together at the end – and he’s not as good at it as Erickson. One thing present in this reread is that Erickson rewards close reading. Hints are dropped everywhere as to the outcome of forthcoming events, sometimes in just the words used to describe someone, so it really pays to pay close attention to Erickson’s prose (which isn’t like a big chore or anything). But Esslemont hasn’t really mastered this yet. His POV shifts are too frequent and don’t advance the character’s story or personality to the same degree that Erickson’s do. Erickson has made me care about a character in less than a paragraph, but Esslemont doesn’t make me care about three-fourths of his cast across these thousand pages. Granted, Erickson sometimes spends too much time having character’s philosophize in their heads (and we’re about to hit the king of that with the next book), so it’s not like Erickson doesn’t have his own writing problems. But I really do think Esslemont would be better served by telling smaller stories. Night of Knives had two main POVs and both were interesting to read. He’s also not great at spilling details. There’s plenty of mysterious characters that show up with mysterious powers, just like in Erickson, but I never got explanations on some of them from Esslemont. He also likes to hint at the truth far more than Erickson does, with conversations between enlightened characters consisting entirely of talking about past events that the audience isn’t privy to.

Not to say that Esslemont is completely useless at this writing thing. The Nait/Jumpy storyline, about a sapper recruiting and training his new demolition experts, is pretty good. Hurl gets some great character development and Esslemont sells her guilty conscience pretty well. And Rilish felt like a quality character.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare Esslemont to his more accomplished friend. But, the comparisons were bound to happen when he decided to place novels in the same universe as Erickson. It’s also interesting to see some of the same characters as written by two authors. Mallick Rel and Laseen seem true to their depictions in Erickson (although Laseen seems more competent under Esslemont). But then there’s weird ones like Topper, who transforms from head of the Malazan assassin guild under Erickson, to a crazed cackling madman under Esslemont. I don’t know what happened there. I also have some questions about the metaphysics of the world, as Erickson has consistently depicted the only thing as being capable of closing a rift between worlds to be someone’s soul. In Esslemont, explosions can close portals. That seems way easier.

The stuff with Laseen and the Empire’s internal politics was better in Esslemont than in Erickson. Again, just to rag some more on Bonehunters, a book I hate more and more the farther I get into this series, Erickson depicts Laseen as helpless before the awesome political might of Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom, but Esslemont maintains the previous depictions of Laseen we’ve seen – distant from others, but competent as a ruler. Even though Mallick Rel essentially wins in this book, I felt like Laseen gave him a run for his money the whole time. Whereas Erickson has her whimper in the corner.

I am not a fan of this book. It is not good. While I definitely wanted to know more about these Crimson Guard that Erickson keeps mentioning, this was not the book to give me the details I wanted, despite them being the main characters. Esslemont was true to most of the characters introduced earlier by Erickson, but the new characters he introduces don’t do much for me. There are a few standouts, but most of the cast of this book remains interchangeable in my mind. It never hooked me and made me care about the events taking place. While I remain interested in the events depicted in Esslemont’s novels (due to already investing all this time in this shared world), I can’t say I’m enthused about his ability to make those events interesting, or populate a world with memorable characters.



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