Any die-hard fan of the Malazan novels by Steven Erikson should know of Ian Cameron Esslemont. For the uninitiated, Mr. Esslemont and Steven Erikson are the co-creators of the Malazan world, which was originally conceived as a role-playing game.
I am a big fan of the Malazan novels. It was in 2004 that I first heard about the series thanks to the Science Fiction Book Club, which was featuring Gardens of the Moon when it was making its U.S. debut. When learning that the first five books were already available in the UK, I purchased them and immediately devoured all five novels, establishing the series as my personal favorite over the likes of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
If you love any of the Malazan books by Steven Erikson, then I think you’re going to love Ian C. Esslemont’s Night of Knives. Obviously, both writers are well-versed in Malazan lore, so that’s not a problem. Prose-wise, Mr. Esslemont is pretty similar to Mr. Erikson, though there are differences — Esslemont’s writing is a bit more erudite and the characterization feels more intimate. Pacing is a bit uneven, especially in the beginning following the prologue when Mr. Esslemont is trying to establish the book’s two main characters, Temper and Kiska.
Once events get rolling, the pace really picks up and I thought that Esslemont did a good job of directing the converging storylines to their compelling apex, which is somewhat a trademark of the Malazan books (convergences and so forth). Personally, while Night of Knives may lack the grandiose scope of Gardens of the Moon (Night of Knives comes in at a succinct 304 pages), I thought it was a more cohesive and better constructed debut. (NOTE: I’ve heard of the editing problems with the original publication, but I don’t know how much was cleaned up or changed between the two versions. I had no issues with the new edition, but it would be interesting to explore.)
Chronologically, Night of Knives occurs after Gardens of the Moon, but draws on events mentioned in that book’s prologue. More specifically, Night of Knives takes place in the 1154th Year of Burn’s Sleep, the 96th Year of the Malazan Empire and the Last Year of Emperor Kellanved’s Reign. When you should read Night of Knives is a topic for debate. Since the book is basically a standalone story — chronicling the night of a Shadow Moon; All Soul’s Fest; the Night of Shadows when Kellanved (Ammanas Shadowthrone) and Dancer (Cotillion, the Rope) ascend to High House Shadow, Surly (Laseen) becomes the Empress of Malaz, and other pivotal events transpire — I think anybody can enjoy Night of Knives, veterans and newcomers alike, as both a complementary piece and a worthy introduction to the Malaz world.
For myself, I had read the first six novels in the series before taking on Night of Knives, so it was pretty cool getting to revisit familiar places like the Deadhouse, Y’Ghatan, Malaz Island, etc.; learning more about Kellanved and Dancer’s ascendance, Dassem Ultor’s assassination and Tayschrenn’s allegiances and motives; not to mention getting introduced to the Stormriders, and recognizing all of the other Malazan references like Claws/Talons, Bridgeburners, the Hounds of Shadow, Warrens, etc. It was especially rewarding to see such characters as Edgewalker, Temper, Kiska, Agayla and Obo in Night of Knives, after reading them, however briefly, in The Bonehunters. For those who’ve already started the series, I recommend that you at least read the first four Malazan novels by Steven Erikson before checking out Night of Knives, which, in my opinion would make The Bonehunters a more satisfying read because of the connections. For those who haven’t, I think it’s up to the reader’s preference whether to start with Night of Knives or wait until later. As I said before, I think either way will work, but since Night of Knives is a much shorter read, it’s a pretty good barometer by which potential fans can decide whether or not they’re going to like the series.
In the end, maybe I’m prejudiced since I love the Malazan books so much, but I had a blast reading Night of Knives and I highly recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the Steven Erikson novels so far. While I don’t think Ian C. Esslemont is on the same level as Mr. Erikson — if Steven’s books are the main course, then Esslemont’s are the appetizer — I understand that we haven’t really seen much from Mr. Esslemont yet, so as eager as I am for the remaining Malazan novels from Steven Erikson, I’m just as excited to read the remaining four Esslemont books.
If you are already going through Steven Erikson’s THE MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN, there is really no reason not to pick up Ian Esslemont’s complementary series. It might seem daunting at first to add 6 more books to what is already a nigh unweilding behemoth, but think of how invested you already have to be able to go through those forbidding, dangerous tomes. Night of Knives, to give it credit, is, comparatively, a pretty short work at 300 pages, and tells the very interesting tale of the night when Kellanved and Dancer ascended to become the infamous Ammanas and Cotillion. While Esslemont’s prose feels often bogged down in hard to visualize details, something which Erikson also, but not as much, has trouble with, there are parts where the rough core of raw unpolished talent is able to shine through.
As for when you should read this novel, I think before The Bonehunters would be the best choice given that some characters carry over, and that new twists on what you thought you already knew are first introduced in Night of Knives and then picked up in The Bonehunters. I look forward to reading Esslemont’s following novels and witness that rough core blossom.