Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian Cameron Esslemont

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Book Information  
AuthorIan Cameron Esslemont
TitleReturn of the Crimson Guard
SeriesMalazan Empire
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by NovaSilver 
(Oct 23, 2008)

As co-creator of the Malazan world, Esslemont comes somewhat late to the party novel wise considering the main sequence is now 8 books into its 10 book sequence. His first novel, Night of Knives, was a nice companion book for Erikson's books, filling in some background and making for an enjoyable read but it wasn't exactly integral to the story. Return of the Crimson Guard is a bit different, as it continues the story of many important characters whose stories have diverged from the main struggle but everyone's still interested in. It focuses of course on the titular legendary mercenary company and their struggle with the Malazan Empire with significant interference from the Old Guard, the Empress's former companions. The Empire is struggling, faced with rebellion and civil warfare from the various dominions it holds and the Crimson Guard have returned to fulfil their Vow to end the Empire once and for all.

The style of Return of the Crimson Guard is very close to that of the other books in the Malazan series (somewhat suprisingly considering what a departure Night of Knives was), an epic story of various plots and schemes of powerful individuals colliding in suitably destructive fashion, told from the perspective of various onlookers and seemingly minor participants who manage to get stuck in the middle. There are a few changes, the timeline is a bit more focused (no thousand year time jumps here) and there's a noticeable absence of the normal godly meddling but Return of the Crimson Guard shares most of the same strengths and weaknesses of Erikson's novels.

Starting with the strengths. The depth of the world Esslemont and Erikson created is astonishing and Esslemont makes full use of it in his writing. The various factions are each distinct and amazingly detailed. From the brutal efficiency of the Malazan Empire to the tribal horse warrior Seti they all have their own characteristics and none come off as lazy historical rip offs. Therefore it's a joy to read as these factions scheme and backstab, all hoping to make off with their chunk of the Empire as each plan and conflict seems both believable and adds to the plot. In some ways Esslemont is helped by the previous books in this endeavour as we've seen all these races and factions before and feel acquainted with them. Esslemont expands on each excellently. The battle scenes are also terrific and in fact I'd say surpass Erikson's (which are very good). Considering the vast majority of the book is made up of various fights it's a good thing to be able to say this. The descriptions are vivid and involving and you'll find yourself swept along in each skirmish and duel, but what's more is that you get a feeling for the broader scope of each battle so you're never left thinking 'wait, what happened?'. The tactics in each battle don't seem forced just to make a good narrative and the battle in the climax is mindblowing in intensity. The atmosphere of the book is also handled very well and considering the scope of the book that's quite an achievement. This is an entire continent falling apart (think of the collapse of Rome and what happened in Europe) and that sheer chaos is conveyed convincingly as the narrative jumps between each faction.

Now the weaknesses. The biggest problem with Return of the Crimson Guard and it's a problem which stretches to much of the Malazan series is that many of the characters don't seem to have much depth. They're very memorable characters but they don't seem to have anything behind them. It may be inevitable considering the huge cast that some characters won't be fleshed out completely but this is the chance to expand on some of these characters and it's disappointing. This is a noticeable problem especially with Laseen, Cowl, Skinner and much of the Old Guard in this book. They stick in your mind, but they're not multi-layered. It's almost hard to notice because they're just so damn cool but many of them just don't seem to have anything that you can connect with. Considering how eagerly many fans awaited the appearance of the Old Guard and Crimson Guard it's nice that they're cool but maybe a few less battle scenes (they're good but there's a hell of a lot of them and some of them seem pointless) and more development would have helped make them feel more real. The other problems are also ones that stretch throughout the series. The switches between various POV's are frequently disorientating with such a large cast and setting and you'll frequently find yourself trying to remember where the a particular set of characters are and what they're doing (expect to flick back through the book a lot). There's never really a point of reference for how powerful characters are and frequently one character will be described as incredibly powerful only to get pounded by another super powered individual a mere second later.

Overall Return of the Crimson Guard is worth reading for any fan of the Malazan books (definitely DON'T use it as an entry point to the series) for its strong atmosphere and epic battles but it falls short of its potential because of too many weak characters.

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