Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont
Return of the Crimson Guard is the second of Ian C. Esslemont’s books set in the world he helped create with Steven Erikson, whose longer-established Malazan Empire series has been going for years (the tenth and final book is due out in January).
Esslemont’s first Malazan book, Night of Knives, took place a bit back in the pre-history of Erikson’s series, set on the night that the old emperor Kallenvad and his companion Dancer ascended into the realm of Shadow and Laseen became empress. It was a much more constrained book than Erikson’s: much shorter with fewer points of view and focused on a single night and locale as opposed the sweep of time and geography we tend to see in the longer series. In my review of Night of Knives, I said I thought that brevity hurt the book a bit, with some abrupt or rushed sections. Return of the Crimson Guard goes in a completely different direction, one Malazan fans are more used to: it’s twice as long (over 700 pages), has multiple narrators, and covers much more space and time than Night of Knives. Did these major narrative changes make for a better book? I’d say “yes, but…” as Return of the Crimson Guard is I think a much better book, but one with a good number of flaws, some held over from Night of Knives and others new to Return of the Crimson Guard.
Return of the Crimson Guard jumps ahead in time (just after Erikson’s book six, The Bonehunters) to an empire coming apart at the seams. Its far-flung campaigns have taken their toll, some ending in near-disaster with huge loss of life (Seven Cities). Now, weakened, the Empire faces rebellion in its heart as formerly conquered or dead nations rise again on the continent of Quon Tali, some led by Malazan “Old Guard”— those loyal to Kellenvad who now seek to bring down Laseen. As if civil war at its core wasn’t enough, the Empire also faces an old, old foe: The Crimson Guard, a mercenary group so dedicated to the Empire’s destruction that a century or so ago they swore a vow to never rest (or die) while the Empire existed. Now the Guard, which has fought the Empire across the world, is regrouping and returning at the Empire’s weakest moment (though the Guard itself faces inner division).
In general, the far greater length of this book is better suited to the scope of events, allowing Esslemont the time to develop plot and not rush through things as was the case in Night of Knives, making this a more enjoyable read. Esslemont’s ambitious undertaking of such a huge book, though, comes with problems in pacing, transitions between scenes, and structure. The book sometimes stuttered in places where either the amount of time spent with a particular storyline didn’t seem justified or where entire storylines themselves seemed unnecessary or a bit out of place. It’s possible (or probable) that some of these kind of orphaned plotlines will bear fruit for later books, but they needed to be more seamlessly connected here, such as a plot line detailing a young woman, Gehlel, the sole remaining heir to a pre-Empire ruling family.
There was also a bit of a sense of “and then… and then… “ happening in the latter part during the big convergence of events, where perhaps cutting a few events and being more selective would have served him better. The same holds true somewhat for the battles, which take up a large, perhaps too large, part of the book. So I guess after complaining that his first book was too short by a 100 or so pages, I’m now complaining that his second is too long by 200 or so: there’s just no pleasing some people it seems. I do think some of this is due to a relatively new writer feeling his way toward his craft and I expect Esslemont’s third book will show improvement in all these areas.
The characters, like the plot, are a bit hit and miss. Ereko, Traveler’s companion, is a sharply drawn, moving character whom I wish Esslemont had done a bit more with, especially at the end. Kyle, a young recruit in the Crimson Guard, mostly acts as a witness to events (though he has some major moments of his own) and so isn’t particularly interesting; he certainly didn’t do much for me. A group of mages in the otatoral mines are just not given enough face time for us to care too much, we come and go to them in such scattered fashion, and they’re so severed from the rest of the plot that it’s hard to care much. When they do play a role in the larger plot, it’s a dramatic one but I’m not sure it was a necessary one, save for possibly one result. It felt more of a desire to add one more “topper” to the “and then… and then” convergence of events.
Where Esslemont does shine with characters is two places in particular. One is the city of Li Heng in a plot line involving the characters Hurl, Storo, Rell, and others. The other place is with a group of Malazan sappers/grunts, in particular Sergeant Jumpy. The book truly comes alive with these characters, who speak like real people and whose actions are funny, moving, gripping, tragic, and inspiring. Cutting this book of some of the extraneous scenes and characters would have been like cutting a diamond and letting these characters shine all the brighter. As it is, they really carried me through the narrative, acting as bright beacons through those parts where the structure, the characters, the plot lines, the overabundance of alliances and characters and battles or battle plans made me feel I was wading through just too much.
Return of the Crimson Guard doesn’t match Steven Erikson’s books, but as I said in my review of Night of Knives, that’s really an unfair comparison as they are two authors at very different stages. Return of the Crimson Guard is absolutely an improvement on Night of Knives, and where it falls down, which it does perhaps a bit too often, it’s more a matter of ambition and reach by a young author still learning his craft. Those are the kinds of flaws I can live with, especially when Esslemont shows (with Sergeant Jumpy et al.) the potential for becoming an extremely strong writer.
In the end, I’m giving Return of the Crimson Guard 3.5 stars, the same as Night of Knives. While it still has enough flaws that I can’t quite bump it up to a 4, the difference is that its much greater length allows those flaws to be outweighed by a decent amount of good writing, while NIght of Knives‘ brevity works against it in this case, with the flaws less balanced by better writing. I recommend Return of the Crimson Guard with the above caveats and, based on the improvement he’s shown from his first to second book, look forward even more to Ian Esslemont’s third novel.