I was extremely eager to sink my teeth into this book! Regardless of what some people might say, Night of Knives was more novella than novel, and as such it prevented us from fully evaluating Ian Cameron Esslemont's potential and talent and how it compared to Steven Erikson's.Weighing in at more than 250,000 words, Return of the Crimson Guard would allow us to test the mettle of the co-creator of the Malazan universe. And although this novel suffers from a few shortcomings, let me tell you that Esslemont passed the test with flying colors!
Habitually, I endeavor to judge every book I read on its own merit. That proved to be impossible where Return of the Crimson Guard is concerned. Indeed, since to all ends and purposes the novel is an integral part of Erikson's body of work (adding as much as it borrows to the what has already been established in past volumes), one can do nothing but judge it from the overall Malazan perspective. And as a thread in the ever-growing and far-reaching The Malazan Book of the Fallen tapestry, Return of the Crimson Guard can stand tall and proud beside any of Steven Erikson's Malazan installment.
As far as the timeline is concerned, Return of the Crimson Guard takes place roughly at the same time as The Bonehunters,or shortly thereafter Hence, I recommend that you read up until that point before giving this one a shot. Better yet, since there are a few scenes that have repercussions in Esslemont's latest, you should read up to Reaper's Gale to avoid any spoilers, minor though they may be.
Things are not going well for the Malazan Empire. Military campaigns on various continents have taken a turn for the worst. This incessant warfare has drained the Empire of men and resources. As Empress Laseen's grip seemingly continues to weaken, conquered kingdoms and principalities across Quon Tali seek to reclaim their independence.
When Malazan soldiers fail to kidnap her, a young girl named Ghelel is rescued by an unlikely group of men. To her dismay, she'll learn that she is the third generation in hiding of the old Tayliin family, the family which ruled the last Hegemony of Quon Tali before it was destroyed by Kellanved and Dancer. Used as a figurehead by the Talian League as they marche toward Li Heng to challenge the Empress' rule, Ghelel will come to understand that many of the men surrounding her and those who are gradually joining her army are from the Emperor's Old Guard. Moreover, the man who saved her used to be in charge of Dancer's elite coterie of assassins. Soon, it appears that the entire continent is on the brink of civil war.
Prince K'azz's Vow was for the Crimson Guard's eternal opposition enduring until the Malazan Empire should fall. For nearly a century, the Guardsmen have opposed the Empire on every front. When they were forced to flee Quon Tali, the Crimson Guard settled in Stratem. But their hiding place was ultimately discovered, and Kellanved tried to wipe them out once and for all. Against all odds, Skinner fought Dassem Ultor to a standstill, and the Diaspora was ordered to preserve the Crimson Guard for the future. But now, after years spent traveling around the globe, bidding their time and recruiting, the Brethren have summoned the Guardsmen. They are to make their way to Fortress Haven, where Skinner claimed he would await their return and where all forces would reunite under his command. The time has come to set sail for Quon Tali, back to their homeland, and to fulfill K'azz's Vow. But the Diaspora has spawned rivalries within the ranks of the Crimson Guard. Shimmer and a number of Avowed will soon realize that Skinner and Cowl, High Mage and leader of the Veils, once rival to Dancer himself, appear to follow an agenda of their own. Greymane, now a deserter with a price on his head both in Korelri and the Empire, tries to make Shimmer see the truth before it's to late.
Having escaped from the dreaded Stormwall, Traveller and his giant friend Ereko embark on strange journey that will take each of them to meet their destinies. On the shores of Jacurucku, their lives will change forever, and Traveller will set foot on a path that will lead him to a confrontation which has been in the making for years.
As Laseen prepares to face the insurrectionists, Mallick Rel manipulates events to take control of the Assembly and is poised to make his move. But the unexpected appearance of the Crimson Guard which lays waste to Unta, and the even more surprising news of the Wickan uprising after being decimated by bloody pogroms and now riding south toward the capital, could well throw all of Rel's plans into jeopardy.
Meanwhile, two new prisoners are brought to Otataral Isle. Considered Malazan spies at first, the prisoner mages working in the otataral mines will soon discover that the two strangers come with an offer which is too good to be true. Little do they know that one of the prisoners harbors a profound hatred and will stop at nothing to strike back at the Empire that sent him to the Pit.
And in Li Heng, as the city must face the combined forces of the Talian League and a Seti army led by a Malazan office presumed dead, a mage will unleash a curse that could change the course of the entire war.
As Empress Laseen takes the field, everything hangs in the balance and will be determined under the walls of Li Heng.
The worldbuilding is, as always, of the first order. Esslemont builds on a panoply of plotlines introduced by Erikson. Thankfully, Return of the Crimson Guard answers quite a few questions. And yet, in true Malazan fashion, it raises its fair share of questions as well. If you believe that things were bad in Seven Cities, buckle up for Quon Tali is fast becoming a boiling kettle that's about to explode. Return of the Crimson Guard echoes with as much depth as any of Erikson's volumes, and its convoluted plot should please all fans of the series.
Still, Esslemont's prose is not as fluid as Erikson's. Also, some of the dialogues are at times a bit uneven. Now, that doesn't take much away from the overall reading experience. Nevertheless, I felt that some scenes lacked the necessary emotional impact because of that shortcoming.
I think that Esslemont handled the characterization aspect rather well. I particularly enjoyed the sequences showcasing Traveller and Ereko. On the other hand, Ghelel's character was a bit annoying. Which is too bad, considering that her storyline includes most of the assembled "Old Hands" of Emperor Kellanved, which I totally enjoyed. Two characters remain complete enigmas, however: Mallick Rel and Laseen. As was the case with Erikson, though I can see it occurring as I read along, I can't quite get how Rel can manipulate everything the way he does. I guess I'm not buying what he's selling, and I can't figure out why people in the books are. As for Laseen, it's incredible how such an important power player in the series managed to remain so mysterious during the course of all those novels. As you reach the end of Return of the Crimson Guard, you can't exactly say whether she is the stupidest dumbass ever for running the Malazan Empire into the ground, or one of the most brilliant strategists out there. We do see a few signs of what made Surly, the Mistress of the Claw, such a fearsome figure in Kellanved's time. And the dissension among the Crimson Guard was interesting to follow, no question.
I think the book's biggest shortcoming would have to be the pace. Following the Malazan tradition, Return of the Crimson Guard starts slowly. Yet as the story progresses, the novel picks up a lot of momentum. Unfortunately, the climax is preceded by about 300 pages' worth of battle scenes. Which, in the end, sort of blunts the impact of the finale. Action scene lovers will not be disappointed. There are more Moranth munitions blowing up in this one than in all of Erikson's books combined! I suspect that Esslemont could have been "coached" by James Barclay, whose motto is "When in doubt, throw in another big battle!" But fear not, for Ian Cameron Esslemont knows how to close the show in style.
Although Esslemont's prose might not be as fluid as Erikson's, in terms of depth and storylines Return of the Crimson Guard delivers on all fronts and is a worthy addition to the Malazan canon. No longer will Ian Cameron Esslemont be seen as "the other guy" or simply the Malazan universe's co-creator. With Return of the Crimson Guard, Esslemont establishes once and for all that he is for real! Roll on Stonewielder!
You can safely pre-order this one! By the way, in case you didn't know, the prologue and the first chapter are available on http://www.malazanempire.com/. Finally, many thanks to Pete at PS Publishing for the ARC of this limited edition.:-)
The final verdict: 8.5/10