Night of Knives by Ian C Esslemont

December 31, 2010 at 12:51 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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Although Steven Erikson is the sole author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, he co-created the setting and overall storyline with his friend Ian Esslemont almost twenty years ago. Five years after Gardens of the Moon was published and a few months after the release of Erikson’s fifth book, Midnight Tides, came Ian Esslemont’s first novel Night of Knives. Although marketed as a novel “of the Malazan Empire” and not directly part of Erikson’s series, this book as well as Esslemont’s later work are considered part of the same series canon. Night of Knives was apparently originally written before any of Erikson’s novels were published and takes place the day (well, the night actually) Laseen took control of the Malazan Empire from Kellanved, but apparently the recommended reading order is publication order, i.e. after Midnight Tides.

There are a reasonable number of examples of authors of long series writing short stories that fill in elements of the back story to their epic. Night of Knives is not a short story (despite occasionally being called a novella), but it’s “only” the length of a typical novel and so is about a third the length of the other Malazan books (including Esslemont’s later novels). That and the story’s very limited timespan (less than twenty four hours, give or take a few flashbacks) give the whole thing the feel of a distinctly minor piece of the larger series tapestry. It’s not particularly informative, either: I came in with plenty of questions about the relationship of Kellanved, Dancer, and Laseen, but either the answers were too subtle for me or they just weren’t there.

The story is told through the eyes of two Malaz City inhabitants: Temper, an old soldier with a past, and Kiska, a young spy with a future. Temper is an interesting fellow whose flashbacks actually do fill in some interesting details about the Empire under Kellanved, but I’m afraid I wasn’t too impressed with Kiska. She starts the novel as essentially a freelance spy, patrolling rooftops looking for interesting activity like a superhero. While I’m happy to grant that the presence of magic can be credited with dramatically altering societies from the examples in our past, I’ve never been happy with characters like this who you can’t possibly imagine ever existing in the real world. Kiska is particularly reminiscent of Crokus in Gardens of the Moon in that she seems to live a relatively comfortable life, has a very knowledgeable and influential mentor figure, and still pursues this silly avocation. For most of the novel, she is continually informed she should lock herself inside like all the sensible people have done already and stop trying to get herself killed. As readers we know that as one of the main characters she’s safe, but she doesn’t, so it’s hard to see her insistence on being involved as anything other than idiotic. I know that this tension between a desire to play a role in the events shaping the world and the self-preservative instinct to keep your head down when larger powers are on the move is present in Erikson’s work going all the way back to the prologue of Gardens of the Moon, but the disparity between Kiska’s abilities and her circumstances seems far greater than, say, Ganoes Paran’s situation in Gardens.

In any case, the story moves along in a reasonably entertaining manner. If you’ve read Erikson’s first five books you have a decent idea of how it ends up, but there are some interesting twists along the way. Somewhat unfortunately the climax centers on an Azath house in crisis. A lot of fantasy novels involve damsels in distress, but the Malazan books seem to prefer Azath in distress, with permutations appearing in Deadhouse Gates and Midnight Tides as well. Earlier I mentioned I didn’t see how people read the series as the books come out (i.e. with large gaps between each book) given the dizzying number of characters and storylines, but the problem with reading it all in a short time as I’m doing is there are some patterns that get a bit wearing. Even leaving the Azath out of it, there’s the matter of the endless procession of imprisoned ancient entities trying to get free. It would be interesting to go back and see just how many of these there have been: just off the top of my head, there were Jaghut in Gardens of the Moon and House of Chains, Forkrul Assail in House of Chains and Midnight Tides, the Hounds of Darkness in House of Chains…it’s not that these episodes aren’t all interesting and relevant, but it starts to get a little hard to worry overmuch about the apparently horrifying prospect of the Stormriders breaking out due to the lack of magic users on Malaz island after seeing plenty of similar and worse apparitions try similar escapes, often successfully, in previous books.

Night of Knives is worth reading if you’re a Malazan fan, just set expectations appropriately. People new to the Malazan series should start with Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. Most people seem to agree that Esslemont’s later novels are better, and really there was nothing much wrong with Night of Knives other than a certain lack of ambition, so I’ll read Return of the Crimson Guard after Reaper’s Gale.

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