It's no secret that I'm a huge Malazan aficionado. And though Ian Cameron Esslemont is no Steven Erikson, thus far I've always enjoyed his novels, each of them a worthy addition to the Malazan canon.
And yet, I was aware that Orb Sceptre Throne could pose a problem to me. For quite some time before Esslemont unveiled its title, Orb Sceptre Throne was simply known as the "Darujhistan book." If you recall my review of Erikson's Toll the Hounds, you know that the entire Darujhistan storyline doesn't really appeal to me anymore. It turns out that a lot of what I felt was extraneous material in Toll the Hounds turned out to be Erikson paving the way for Esslemont's novel.
Unfortunately, those particular plotlines failed to reel me in in Toll the Hounds, and the same can be said about Orb Sceptre Throne. Although I was a bit predisposed not to get into Esslemont's latest Malazan offering, what with the whole Darujhistan story arc coming to a close, the book failed to meet even my relatively low expectations.
Here's the blurb:
The epic new chapter in the history of Malaz -- the new epic fantasy from Steven Erikson's friend and co-creator of this extraordinary and exciting imagined world.
Darujhistan, city of dreams, city of blue flames, is peaceful at last; its citizens free to return to politicking, bickering, trading and, above all, enjoying the good things in life. Yet there are those who will not allow the past to remain buried. A scholar digging in the plains stumbles across an ancient sealed vault. The merchant Humble Measure schemes to drive out the remaining Malazan invaders. And the surviving agents of a long-lost power are stirring, for they sense change and so, opportunity. While, as ever at the centre of everything, a thief in a red waistcoat and of rotund proportions walks the streets, juggling in one hand custard pastries, and in the other the fate of the city itself.
Far to the south, fragments of the titanic Moon's Spawn have crashed into the Rivan Sea creating a series of isles... and a fortune hunter's dream. A Malazan veteran calling himself 'Red' ventures out to try his luck -- and perhaps say goodbye to old friends. But there he finds far more than he'd bargained for as the rush to claim the Spawn's treasures descends into a mad scramble of chaos and bloodshed. For powers from across the world have gathered here, searching for the legendary Throne of Night. The impact of these events are far reaching, it seems. On an unremarkable island off the coast of Genabackis, a people who had turned their backs upon all such strivings now lift their masked faces towards the mainland and recall the ancient prophecy of a return.
And what about the ex-Claw of the Malazan Empire who now walks the uttermost edge of creation? His mission -- the success or failure of which the Queen of Dreams saw long ago -- is destined to shape far more than anyone could have ever imagined.
The most appealing aspect of Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, and Stonewielder was the fact that Esslemont focused on plotlines and events Steven Erikson had only alluded to. Erikson had always claimed that those storylines were Esslemont's territory and it was a joy to finally discover more about them and realize just where they fit in the overall scheme of things. One of the main problems with this book is that, instead of focusing on new characters and events, Orb Sceptre Throne features mostly protagonists and plotlines created and developed by Steven Erikson. And a bit like Brandon Sanderson writing in Robert Jordan's stead, sometimes it works and sometimes it fails miserably. In the past, some readers have explained that they couldn't get into Esslemont's books because his voice was so different from that of Erikson. Well, it's never been as obvious and it's never had as much of an impact as in Orb Sceptre Throne.
The worldbuilding, which, in every Malazan installment, has always been head and shoulders above the competition, leaves a little to be desired in this one. Which is odd, considering that the premise is awesome. The entire Jaghut Tyrant story arc, which has been building up since Gardens of the Moon, proved to be kind of a failure to launch. Very little in the way of details is provided and the absence of a somewhat clear back story takes a lot away from what is essentially the backbone of the tale. I was foaming at the mouth at the thought of finally discovering the truth about the Moranth and the Seguleh. Sadly, so very little is unveiled about their past, other than they were mortal enemies and the Seguleh drove the Moranth to exile themselves to their mountain fastness, that I found the whole thing to be one of the most disappointing Malazan plotlines ever. The exploration of the ruins of Moon's Spawn was fascinating, yet I felt there was not enough of it to make it truly worthwhile.
The characterization was quite uneven. On the one hand, Esslemont fails to make some of Erikson's characters feel genuine. For example, he butchered Kruppe the way Sanderson killed Mat in The Gathering Storm. I've never been a fan of Kruppe, but in Orb Sceptre Throne it feels as though the Eel is a stranger that we've never met before. And given Kruppe's importance in the resolution of the tale, it's more than a little off-putting. Leoman and Kiska are two others that he doesn't get quite right. Jan and the Seguleh don't fare much better, to tell the truth. Yet on the other hand, Esslemont does a great job fleshing out certain characters. Indeed, in this one Antsy becomes as fun and interesting as any of the other Bridgeburners we fell in love with in previous Malazan installments. He also has no problem with characters such as Picker, Blend, Spindle, Duiker, and Barathol.
The narrative is often disordered and can feel relatively incohesive at times. As is Esslemont's wont, there are a number of disparate and seemingly unrelated plotlines sharing the spotlight, with most of them coming together at the end. And yet, some of these storylines appear to be superfluous. Some seem to refer to plotlines which might be explored in the future, while others appear to refer, albeit rather obliquely, to story arcs from past Malazan volumes. The ending fails to shine some light on these uncertain plot points, somewhat taking something away from the overall reading experience.
As was the case with Erikson's Toll the Hounds, the pace can be sluggigh in certain portions of the book. Yet unlike the 8th installment in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Orb Sceptre Throne cannot rely on a mind-blowing ending to save the entire novel. Hence, one has to go through a decidedly disjointed narrative to reach an ending that is not as satisfying as one would have envisioned. Ian Cameron Esslemont demonstrated that he could cap it all off with style and aplomb in both Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about his latest novel.
Orb Scpetre Throne does have its moments of greatness, mind you. There are some important and fascinating revelations made, which in turn raise their fair share of new questions. Since I don't do spoilers, I'll refrain from elaborating on them. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by some atrociously slow-moving plotlines, as well as seemingly unnecessary sequences showcasing Scorch and Leff, Lady Envy, and more characters whose importance in the greater scheme of things makes you question their presence within the narrative in the first place.
It pains me to say this, but Orb Sceptre Throne is the least appealing Malazan work yet. Great premise and engrossing concepts and ideas, but the execution precluded the tale from being as good as Esslemont's last two books.