Blood and Bone is the penultimate book of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s main MALAZAN EMPIRE series (I say “main” because he has just begun a prequel trilogy) and while it has its issues, it easily ranks in my top three of the main series’ six titles thanks to a few well-drawn characters and, especially, thanks to its relatively unique setting.
That setting is the jungles of Jacuruku, one of the as-yet-unexplored continents of the Malazan universe. The continent is mostly split in half, with one side under the dominion of a group of sorcerers known as Thaumaturgs and the other half, referred to as “Himatan,” is ruled by the powerful and mysterious Ardata, worshipped by some as a goddess and by others as the Queen of Witches. As has periodically happened, seeking to expand their control of the continent, the Thaumaturgs have launched an invasion of Himatan. The “Army of Righteous Chastisement” is led by Commander Golan, and has in it as well a young mage named Pon-Lor and a deliciously wry scribe named, aptly, Thorn. The Thaumaturgs themselves, however, are under attack, for a foreigner known only as Warleader has united the southern tribes and now leads them in an invasion of the Thaumaturgs capital. Leading two of the largest and most important tribes are the poet-prince Jatal and the princess Andanii.
Meanwhile, as armies tramp around the continent, several smaller groups pursue their own agendas in the area, most of them centered on a piece of the Crippled God buried in the Dolmens of Jacuruku. These groups include:
- The ascendant Spite, who leads a group of Malazan soldiers, which includes the mages Murk and Sour, in search of the shard
- Skinner, who leads a group of Dis-Avowed Crimson Guard on a mission for the Crippled God to retrieve the shard
- K’azz, who leads a group of Avowed, including the mage Shimmer, to deal with Skinner at the request/demand of Ardata
- Saeng and her brother Hanu, a pair of natives who seek the long-lost Temple of Light in order to prevent the repetition of a great cataclysm
More disconnected in terms of geography is a recurring conversation via brief scenes between Gothos and Osserc, though as with the others, eventually this plot line will eventually converge with the others.
My favorite aspect of Blood and Bone was the setting. Jungles are not done very often so far as I can think of in fantasy, so it was a true pleasure to get a fresh sort of setting. And Esslemont does a great job of conveying the jungle through multiple senses — its look, its smells, the strange noises, the way it constantly hems you in, the fecund life, the rot and decay, and also the way the jungle wears on the minds and bodies of those who are either opposed to it or don’t understand it. Or even try to. One such example of this is the contrast between Murk and Sour — Sour, who decides to learn from the jungle’s inhabitants (not just the humanoid ones either) and adapt to his environment, and Murk, who disdains the way Sour has “gone native” and prefers to stick to his same old ways, despite the misery such stubbornness inflicts. An even starker example is the Thaumaturg’s attitude toward it, which is that all this land is being “wasted” or “under-utilized” — oh, the things they could do with it that these stupid little natives aren’t!
And there you see another strong aspect of the novel — the analogue to colonialism/imperialism. If this book has any literary debt, it’s to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I appreciated that work’s many echoes throughout Blood and Bone.
With so many plot strands, it’s probably no surprise that some fare better than others. My personal favorite is probably the one following Murk and Sour’s group, mostly because of the great way in which Esslemont writes the Malazan “grunt” characters — those in the field — and for the duo of Murk and Sour themselves, which is funny, emotional, realistic, and layered.
Depth of characterization is the reason I also enjoyed the Crimson Guard scenes, thanks to the character of Shimmer, who is sharply drawn throughout. Theirs is the story that most directly parallels Conrad in terms of plot, as much of their time is spent on a ship traveling on a river through the jungle. My one complain about the this plot is the way it drags out the mystery of the Vow taken by the Crimson Guard, a riddle that has now carried through several books and which is, in my mind, starting to overstay its welcome as a plot point, especially as we’ve had so many strong hints to at least a general answer.
The two Thaumaturg plots are also enjoyable. The one focusing on the army for yet another classic Malazan duo — in this case Commander Golan and his Scribe Thorn. The dry wordplay between these two is so dry it threatens to such the moisture out of the room you’re reading in. Meanwhile, another plot line involving a Thaumaturg named Pon-Lor who goes off on a side mission casts a somewhat different light upon the Thaumaturgs thanks to Pon-Lor’s youth and somewhat open-mindedness.
The invasion of the Thaumaturgs is OK, but for me was somewhat marred by a few aspects. One is less a problem in the writing than with me probably — and that is that Warleader’s identity is so clear to the reader so early but far less so to the characters, which means we spend a lot of time just waiting for someone, anyone, in the book to figure it out. The other issue is more problematic, and that is that Jatal’s character, which starts out quite engaging and strong, starts to wear more and more as Blood and Bone continues, though I won’t say why so as to avoid spoilers. Osserc and Gothos’ conversation (if one can call it that) runs the same risk, and in fact does feel pretty overly-strung out over the course of the book, but the scenes are very brief with lots of space in between, so it’s less of an issue.
In general, the plots are a bit random encounter-y, but in my mind that’s at least partly, if not wholly, intended, since here the setting and the journey (and the effects of each) is really the story less than a tightly constructed action plot. On the other hand, sometimes the encounters are a bit too random and contrived, some plots peter out a bit, and, as can be an issue with Esslemont, sometimes things are a little too unnecessarily fuzzy as to just what is happening and/or why.
There’s no doubt, therefore, that Blood and Bone has its flaws, some of which we’ve seen before — some pacing and balance issues, etc. But as I mentioned at the start, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, making it one of Esslemont’s best efforts in the series, with some of its most enjoyable aspects (the jungle setting, the relationship between Murk and Sour, Golan and Thorn) rivaling anything in prior books. Recommended.