Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian Cameron Esslemont

With a second novel of the Malazan Empire in almost as many months, fans of Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s co-created world must be wondering what hit them. By the end of Return of the Crimson Guard there is no doubt that’s what they’ll be wondering.

The current pattern with the Malazan series seems to be a slow build-up giving way to earth shattering conclusions that leave far too many unanswered questions in their wake. Return of the Crimson Guard does nothing to buck this trend. In a style that will undoubtedly be very familiar to fans, and disappointingly different from Night of Knives, Esslemont’s second novel slowly draws together several, seemingly, disparate threads into another stunning convergence that will shake the Malazan Empire to its roots and beyond.

Initially though, it is the titular group who will be of most interest to fans. Famed and revered by some, the Crimson Guard have been glimpsed in previous books without having the magnifying glass of scrutiny aimed in their direction. Esslemont’s suspected brief of shining just such a light on certain events and groups of interest, which his partner Steven Erikson won’t get to with the main series, pays off here. Beginning with a sharp, disorientating introduction to the Guard’s search for their lost leader K’azz D’Avore, we are slowly introduced to the fragmented hierarchy at the core of the Guard and why there is a separation between those called the Avowed and the other soldiers of the Crimson Guard. Like many such openings within this series there are an awful lot of new names to take in and information to assemble. It is, however, given the action involved, apt in a comparable way to the confusion and carnage of Saving Private Ryan’s landing at Omaha Beach.

From this exciting start one of the aforementioned disparate threads emerges in the form of a new young Guard recruit called Kyle. To begin with he appears to be merely a way to view the Guard’s structure and various characters, but slowly evolves into a central player in their fortunes. Into this mix add the mysterious Traveller last seen, I think, on Drift Avalii with a giant companion named Ereko; many powerful mages held prisoner in an old otataral mine; a deadly presence plaguing the Imperial warren; a horrifyingly savage Ascendant unleashed and a who’s-who list of the Old Malazan Empire from Urko to Amaron, and what you have are the ingredients for a staggering finale. The pot in which all this is stirred becomes the wafer thin Malazan Empire itself, strung out across several continents with enemies at every door, the Empress Laseen must be decisive and resolute if she isn’t to lose control.

This then brings us to the problems with Return of the Crimson Guard. Firstly, though it is great to ‘see’ much more of Laseen than we have in all the other novels combined, she still feels like an undeveloped character that has become something of an afterthought. As the head of the Empire, usurper of Kellanved and Dancer, there is a distinct lacking in her presence within the world. Arguably a failing of the entire series, this issue is one neither author seems willing to take on.

Another problem with the series as a whole, is once again evident within this novel; super-powerful mages appearing from nowhere. As the series has progressed this has become more apparent, culminating with the character Heuk in Return. Without giving anything away what he manages to do doesn’t seem possible within Erikson and Esslemont’s world. As an aside to the above point it also includes a brief ‘guest’ appearance from a major character in the series, which, along with another in Traveller’s tale, seems pointless and unnecessary. Or if these visits serve some plot point it is not made clear, keeping from the reader necessary information.

There are weaknesses to this game of revelation and delayed resolution, getting the balance wrong can be fatal to the reader’s interest. In this regard there are problems for Return of the Crimson Guard because a few of the pieces of information withheld from the reader until the last moment are needed earlier. In particular the truth of the Guard’s ‘Brethren’ is something that in retrospect makes sense, but the delay in explaining their nature coincides with other far more important events that relegate it to a minor plot point. Understandably both Esslemont and Erikson have to keep certain information close to their chests for the right moment, it is after all part of what makes the series so enjoyable, but this hoarding of secrets seems to be becoming habitual and for the sake of itself. A bit more clarity wouldn’t go amiss.

In addition to minor plot grumbles it was disappointing to see Esslemont’s writing style change somewhat drastically from Night of Knives direct, progressive storytelling. Return of the Crimson Guard is at times difficult, with awkward sentence structure and wording that is crying out to be more concise. This is not aided by the jumpy point of view changes that often come too quickly, making the pacing and rhythm difficult to settle into. The multi-threaded nature of Return is unquestionably more complex in comparison to Night of Knives, so some of these technical difficulties are understandable and they should be addressed for the next novel, Stonewielder.

On the plus side this is everything you expect of a Malazan story, being both epic and relevant. Whilst Night of Knives was something of an aside, looking back at events before the start of the main series, Return of the Crimson Guard is almost right up to date in a parallel sense, taking place somewhere between Bonehunters and Reaper’s Gale (though I suggest reading it after Reaper’s Gale and before Toll the Hounds).

Although it seems contrived, the appearance of the Old Hands leading a rebel force against Laseen’s army is enjoyable for series fans. Names that have had but the tiniest mention are fleshed out here, giving away lots of interesting tidbits and raising the intrigue factor several notches from the Malazans simply fighting yet another army. With a few noteworthy characters making the leap from Night of Knives to Return of the Crimson Guard there is a small battle toward the end that’ll send shivers down the spine.

The Guard too are worth the admission fee with the few Avowed we meet an interesting cross between tired realists and determined warriors, their vow weighing heavy. The internal politics and strife avoid making the Guard a singular caricature, lending credence to the idea of so many powerful individuals not getting along in such a group. At times they do seem to flit in and out of the storyline and the title may be mildly deceptive in that this isn’t the K’azz and friends show. However, their presence adds plenty and will undoubtedly spill over into one of Erikson’s final two books of the main series.

Return of the Crimson Guard’s convergence is on a par with almost anything in the series, the various confrontations taking up a good third of the novel. At such a length it can be a bit strained, but with so much going on to pay attention to and the constantly changing fortunes, it is nail-biting and anything but obvious. The ending is hugely significant with stunning repercussions for the Malazan Empire itself as well as a great many questions for the wider picture.

Esslemont, overall then, successfully deals with a large Malazan story, echoing both the pros and cons of Steven Erikson’s work. Preferably Esselmont would have held to his more direct writing style evident in Night of Knives, instead of the ultimately too subversive novel we get, producing too many twists and mysteries to be completely worthwhile. There is no doubt that he has over-reached with Return of the Crimson Guard … but only just.

This is, in the end, a strong tale and fitting accompaniment to the main saga. Full of intrigue and, aptly, sorrow that with better editing and a little more restraint could easily have been up there with Erikson’s best. Hopefully for Ian Esslemont and us, third time’s the charm.

Owen Jones © 2008

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