Return of the Crimson Guard
Ian Cameron Esslemont
PS Publishing (Bantam), 2008 (UK)
While Steven Erikson handles the “main” of the Malazan world his friend and co-creator Ian C. Esslemont handles events elsewhere. In his first novel, Night of Knives, Esslemont details the genesis of Malazan Empire as we know it by dealing with events surrounding the “death” of the Emporer and Dancer due to the machinations of Surly, the woman who would become Empress Lasseen. The timeline for Return of the Crimson Guard fits somewhere just after Erikson’s The Bonehunters and deals with the titular Crimson Guard and their vow to see the Malazan Empire fall.
Esslemont handles things admirably but not with same aplomb as Erikson. This is most noticeable early in the novel as much of the soldierly dialogue the Erikson excels at falls a bit flat. There is considerably improvement about halfway through the novel especially as things ramp up towards the end. While a recent post on the Wertzone handles this a bit more in depth than I will here Return of the Crimson Guard suffers from several plot threads that don’t seem to aid in the overall narrative and, while certainly interesting, weaken the impact of the narrative by causing the pace to lag. In particular the sections on the Oratatal mining facility. Esslemont touches on the Jade Statues (last seen in Deadhouse Gates, I think) but again offering no answers to the strange creations. The narrative thread dealing with last descendant of the original Talian monarchy suffers similarly but lacks even the interesting aspects of the doings at the mining camp. No doubt (or at least very little) both these narratives will be touched upon in future books but, regardless these sections of the narrative interupt characters and plot threads that are entirely more relevant to the business at hand. Narrative foreshadowing is certainly welcome but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the current volume.
Return of the Crimson Guard is, in my opinion, a significant improvement (in terms of craft) over Night of Knives. In particular the last hundred and fifty pages or so, a lengthy battle sequence, of RotCG is at least equal in complexity to the frenzed action in Night of Knives but is infinitely easier to follow. It is in this final section of the novel that things really come together. Then again it could be my natural predilection towards any Malazan narrative dealing with sappers, I love those crazy bastards, but Esslemont comes close to equaling Erikson in the portrayal of the Malazan regulars in the final moments of the book.
In the end Return of the Crimson Guard is a worthy entry to the series that stands shoulder to shoulder with the rest of books set on the Malazan world. Unlike the “prequel” Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, features important and major events that may impact books in by both Erikson and Esslemont. The convergence that takes place in the final quarter of the book is the equal to anything seen in the series so far. Return of the Crimson Guard is a good read with great characters (both new and old) that is a natural extension of the work already done by Erikson; highly recommended for fans of the other books.