Return of the Crimson Guard  - Ian C. Esslemont Return of the Crimson Guard ("RCG" from now on) is the second volume in Ian Esslemont's chronicle of the Malazan Empire (the first, Night of Knives, was an introductory novel taking place on the night Kellanved and Dancer ascended to High House Shadow and Laseen (aka Surly) became Empress). Behind that relatively short and unassuming sentence lies nine (of a projected 10) books by Steven Erikson as well as Esslemont's two, and a sprawling narrative that covers several continents, decades of characters, and entire geological ages. Readers will forgive me if I assume familiarity with the series (if memory occasionally fails, the Malazan pages on Wikipedia are often a good synopsis - not perfect but good enough).

A brief, spoiler-free summary: RCG picks up soon after the end of the Seven Cities revolt. The Wickans have become the scapegoats for the disaster of the Chain of Dogs and are hardpressed by pogroms and a colonization campaign to push them out of the plains (or simply exterminate them) - it's a theme that recalls U.S. policy against Native Americans, and continues Erikson's tradition of commentary in his part of the series. But that's a sideshow to the main plot - a rebellion against Laseen's rule led by many of the "old guard," many of whom were supposed to be dead, including Urko Crust and Toc the Elder, among others. A good third of the novel is taken up by a climactic battle between the rebels (the Talian League) and the Empress. Into this mess returns the Crimson Guard, enemies of the empire whose original members vowed to destroy it. Because of the oath, the Avowed cannot die. At least not easily; even in death, the Brethren remain close to their living counterparts. For a century, they've lived in exile, biding their time.

As with Erikson's books (except for the last two), RCG is a self-contained novel. There is a central story arc resolved by the end. But, as this is a novel of the Fallen, there are plenty of threads to be taken up in future books: A developing story of Ghelel Tayliin, the figurehead leader of the rebellion; the quest and motivations of Traveller (aka Dassem Ultor, former First Sword of the Empire); Kyle's story (the new soldier of High House Light); and, of course, the Wickans, whose greatest chief, Coltaine, has been reborn but is yet a toddler.

From this point we enter the spoiler-laden part of the review so stop here if you want to maintain some suspense: Overall, I was pleased with the book. Esslemont's authorial skills are good but Erikson remains the more deft writer. Where the latter relies upon his readers to pick up clues and make connections based on dialog and description, Esslemont has an annoying tendency to over explain and have people give speeches. The example that comes to mind (and that I can find easily) occurs in the Epilog, when Hood and Dessembrae meet on the battlefield and discuss the untimely death of Ullen, Urko's second-in-command:

"Greetings, Dessembrae," spoke a nearby gnawed skull, once buried but since dug up by scavengers. "And I say Dessembrae for I see you are here now in that aspect."
The man let go a long breath, rolled his neck to ease its tension. "A long time, Hood."
"Indeed. Dare I say how just like those old times?"
The man's face twisted in loathing. "No, you may not."
"Yet here you are - why are you here?"
"I am bearing witness to a death. A soldier's death."
"He was no common soldier, though he knew it not. Had the Seti remained he would have out-generalled the Imperial forces, and had his bodyguard been a fraction of an instant faster, would have proven victorious over the Guard as well. He would have made High Fist and risen to become one of the greatest commanders ever thrown up by the Empire. But all that potential died here today, unrealized. Known to none."

Anyone familiar with Erikson will know that that paragraph recapitulating all the clues would have been reduced to a few cryptic sentences that hinted at though not confirmed identity. It's an example of Esslemont's less sure touch and less confidence in his audience.

Another quibble I have is that in a 1,000+ page book, I never got close to any one character. Just when readers begin to identify with someone - Kyle; Nait, a Malazan sabateur; Hurl, an Imperial in Li Heng; or Rillish and Talia, Imperials who find themselves on the Wickan side of the pogroms - the POV shifts and we never spend enough "quality" time with them. This is a problem, too, with Erikson. The only amelioration is that we've got at least three more volumes in the series and, hopefully, we'll get to know them better in the future.

The most frustrating character in this respect is Laseen. For me, Laseen has always occupied an ambiguous place. On the one hand, she's always been presented as cold, cruel, ruthless bitch. She assassinated Kellanved and Dancer; exiled the old guard (later assassinating many); and embroiled the empire in three exhausting wars (Genebackis, Seven Cities, Korelri), alienating most of the empire's elite. Yet...she made it possible for Dujek and Caladan Brood to unite against the Pannion Domin; she convinced Kalam that it was not in the interests of the empire to kill her; and she commands the loyalty of some surprising people, such as Tavore. In RCG, Esslemont tries to convey the sheer physical presence and control Laseen exerts. It's a classic example, though, of making a greater impact by "showing" how the Empress affected people rather than "telling," as the author resorts to. Laseen's ambiguous role is made even moreso as we've learned more about Kellanved's rule - in a word, he's insane and Malaz was just a stepping stone in a scheme to ascend. But she's murdered - assassinated just as her armies triumph - by a white-haired women who steps out of a Warren to stab her in the heart. (In this case, Esslemont doesn't explain who she is, so her identity and allegiance remain a mystery.) (This being the Malazan Empire and Laseen being Laseen, who survived a century in Kellanved's company, it's very possible she's not as "dead" as it appears.)

I don't want to leave the impression that I didn't enjoy the book (most of these quibbles arose upon reflection - immersed in reading, I was having too much fun). Esslemont is a good writer. He knows how to tell his story and keeps the reader entertained, with only a few stumbles. One of the strengths of RCG is that the author does manage to keep the focus on one major story with a few detours to set us up for future books. I compare Erikson and Esslemont to Patrick O'Brian, of Aubrey/Maturin fame, and Bernard Cornwall, of Richard Sharpe fame. Both are writing of the Napoleonic Wars (one from the British Navy's perspective, the other from its Army's) and both have created memorable characters. Cornwall, however, while good is just not quite as good as O'Brian. The same dynamic seems to be developing, for me, beween Erikson and Esslemont.

Definitely recommended to those already enspelled by Whiskeyjack, Anomander Rake, Trull Sengar, Karsa Orlong and all their compatriots. If you're not, you should begin with Erikson and get hooked before tackling Esslemont.