Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian Cameron Esslemont
With the Pannion Seer defeated, the Jaghut Tyrant Raest imprisoned and peace declared with the Malazans, the beleaguered citizens of Darujhistan are finally hoping for a time of peace and prosperity. Of course, this is the perfect time for an ancient force of unspeakable evil to escape from the barrows outside the city and unleash a new age of chaos and war across most of Genabackis. This war will draw in the Moranth and the Seguleh, the Rhivi and the remnants of the Malazan armies still stationed on the continent. Far to the south, treasure hunters are looting the crashed ruins of Moon's Spawn, searching for the storied Throne of Night, whilst in another realm hunters are searching for the missing High Mage Tayschrenn at the very Shores of Creation. But the fate of Darujhistan, Genabackis and maybe the world will rest in the hands of one fat thief and a bunch of Malazan deserters who want nothing more than to run their pub in peace.
Orb Sceptre Throne is Ian Cameron Esslemont's fourth entry into the Malazan world, expanding on the novels written by his friend and collaborator Steven Erikson. It's an interesting book in that, unlike Esslemont's previous novels which largely focused on new characters, this novel extensively features characters Erikson has used and developed in several previous books, most notably the curiously-dictioned Kruppe. This poses challenges for Esslemont, but thankfully he overcomes them with aplomb. Kruppe occasionally feels a bit off, but most of the other shared characters (Caladan Brood, Duiker, the ex-Bridgeburners, Torvald and Rallick Nom and more) come across very well.
The narrative is, as is typical with Malazan, somewhat disjointed, with several apparently unconnected storylines unfolding before converging at the end. This disconnect seems more pronounced than is normal for Esslemont and is briefly worrying, since he has far less page-time to play around with than Erikson (despite being almost exactly 600 pages long in hardcover, this is the one of the shortest books in the series). However, as the storylines move together and things start making sense, the book picks up a tremendous momentum. The second half of the novel is stuffed full of battles, plot revelations and character moments that are satisfyingly epic. By using elements familiar to readers from other books, Esslemont is able to imbue events with more meaning than would otherwise be the case. When four hundred Seguleh (the sword-wielding taciturn badasses of the Malazan world) show up, the reader knows that some serious carnage is about to go down, for example.
For this reason, Orb Sceptre Throne works much better for established Malazan fans than newcomers, particularly those who have already read Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice and Toll the Hounds. A number of plot elements stretching all the way back to Gardens of the Moon are expanded upon and backstory is (finally!) given for the Seguleh, the Moranth and indeed Genabackis as a whole. It's also nice to see some established characters given more depth and bigger roles than previously, such as Antsy, who becomes a major player in events at the crashed Moon's Spawn.
On the negative side, there's a number of story elements that are somewhat obtuse, either referring to storylines still to be detailed or referring very obliquely to events in other novels. Some characters fare better than others, and notably after the initial ferocious power and abilities shown by the antagonists, they seem to be caught a bit flat-footed by the forces arrayed against them at the end of the book. Also, it's confusing why Esslemont alludes to the fact that a fan-favourite character is still in the environs of Darujhistan when that character plays no role in the book (despite events being more than epic enough to attract his attention).
Despite these minor niggles, Orb Sceptre Throne (****½) is a well-written, thoroughly enjoyable addition to the Malazan canon. It is available now in the UK and on 22 May in the USA.