Publisher: Bantam Press (4 June 2007)
Hardcover: 282 pages
Originally released three years ago in the UK as a limited hardback edition, Night of Knives has been through a few incarnations before this latest version from Bantam Press. Night of Knives marks the first foray by Ian Cameron Esslemont into the world he co-created with Steven Erikson and deals with the events that underpin the whole Malazan series, Kellanved and Dancer’s assassination.
This is the main appeal of Night of Knives;, it offers an intriguing look back into the somewhat muddied history of the Malazan Empire, particularly the elusive Kellanved and Dancer, who in Erikson’s books are Shadowthrone and Cotillion (King and Assassin of High House Shadow respectively). Until now there have only been small pieces of information and innuendo about what happened to Kellanved and Dancer, so a full account of the events leading to their ascension is intriguing to say the least.
Night of Knives takes place in the port city of Malaz, where Kellanved and Dancer began their empire building and where they have supposedly returned for some unknown purpose. It is the night of a Convergence, which the locals call a Shadow Moon, where the borders between realms are thin and several opposing powers are set to clash. Although their goal is uncertain, it is clear that a great deal is at stake. The story is told from two main points of view – a young local woman named Kiska who is eager to distinguish herself in order to get off the island and Temper, a gnarled Malazan military veteran who now guards Mock’s Hold and whose background is easily one of the most interesting parts of the story, particularly with its relevance to the larger world. Kiska and Temper are strong, well developed point-of-view characters offering the necessary elements the reader requires to grasp the unfolding events. Through Kiska we gain knowledge of the city and some intriguing inhabitants, from Temper we gain understanding of the history surrounding the events and its players. Thus both characters lead to a coherent, overall telling of what is taking place, filling in details as they become relevant and becoming involved in situations whose implications the reader will appreciate. The night is a brutal combination of subterfuge and open confrontation taking place across Malaz and the consequences will leave a lasting mark on the Malazan Empire and the world beyond.
There will inevitably be comparisons between Esslemont and Erikson, but at this stage they would appear to be unfair. Erikson is into his eighth Malazan novel whereas Esslemont’s relative lack of experience, added to the smaller, more intimate scope his stories take, means that there will continually be a distinct contrast between the two. On the evidence of Night of Knives though, this is not a bad thing because Ian Esslemont possesses a fast paced storytelling style that strikes an enjoyable balance between description and progression. Night of Knives helps the author by being told over a short space of time, 12 or so hours, in a single location. No continent-hopping or chronology-jumping to wrap your mind around, this is a leaner, condensed storyline that allows for a clear, enjoyable reading experience.
Unfortunately, although dealing with the most important event outside of Erikson’s novels, at 282 pages Night of Knives is shorter than fans would like. Its brevity is the main downside in an otherwise fine tale, as always with this fantastic world the two authors have created there are frustrating hints and little details that give a glimpse at a much larger picture. Sometimes this works to the detriment of the story, annoying pieces of information that you wish both authors would for once follow up on or place in a greater context. For a book designed, one would assume, to answer questions, it simply creates more. The proposed Malazan Encyclopaedia, after the main series is finished, cannot appear soon enough in that regard, to see how the whole world fits together.
The one other failing of the book that I must emphasise is accessibility. As a standalone, Night of Knives still requires a fair amount of knowledge of the Malazan series in order to place characters and events in context, the sixth book The Bonehunters being particularly relevant. Without that knowledge the book loses much of its impact and appeal.
As a first venture into a series of companion books that could well answer many of the intriguing questions posed by Erikson’s main series, Night of Knives is a welcome boon. For the hordes of Malazan fans out there this is an enjoyable, if mildly frustrating, look at the important history of the Malazan Empire. There is certainly plenty to be hopeful about in Esslemont’s forthcoming second book Return of the Crimson Guard.
Owen Jones © 2007