It's no secret around here that I'm a big Malazan fan. Although Ian Cameron Esslemont is no Steven Erikson, up until 2011 I had always enjoyed his novels. Each of them were, in my humble opinion, a worthy addition to the Malazan canon. Especially Stonewielder, which was Esslemont at his very best.
There were two Malazan installments from Esslemont scheduled to see the light in 2012. Malazan aficionados rejoiced, for with Erikson's Forge of Darkness we would get more than our usual Malazan fix. Trouble is, Esslemont's Orb, Sceptre, Throne, though it brought the entire Darujhistan story arc to a close, turned out to be sort of a letdown. The book had a great premise and engrossing concepts and ideas, but the poor execution precluded the tale from being as good as Return of the Crimson Guard or Stonewielder.
Hence, my expectations were lower than usual when Bantam announced the release of Ian Cameron Esslemont's Blood and Bone. Not only had Orb, Sceptre, Throne not met with widespread approval among the legions of Malazan fans, but this new Jacuruku book had never been planned in the original sequence of novels Esslemont was meant to produce. According to this interview and others that came after, beyond Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, Esslemont was supposed to write a book dedicated to the Korel campaigns (Stonewielder), a return to Darujhistan (Orb, Sceptre, Throne), and, finally, the mysteries of the Assail continent. There will also be an epilogue to The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which may well be split into two volumes. I'm not sure when and why it was decided to add a Jacuruku book to the sequence. But given its structure or lack thereof, for the most part Blood and Bone is a meandering sort of work without any sense of direction. And sadly, it is by far the weakest Malazan offering to date.
Here's the blurb:
In the western sky the bright emerald banner of the Visitor descends like a portent of annihilation. On the continent of Jacuruku, the Thaumaturgs have mounted another expedition in a bid to tame the neighbouring wild jungle. Yet this is no normal wilderness. It is called Himatan, and it is said to be half of the spirit-realm and half of the earth. And it is said to be ruled by a powerful entity who some name the Queen of Witches and some a goddess: the ancient Ardata.
Saeng grew up knowing only the rule of the magus Thaumaturgs – but it was the voices from that land's forgotten past that she listened to. And when her rulers launch their invasion of this jungle, those voices send her and her brother on a desperate mission.
To the south, the desert tribes are united by the arrival of a foreign warleader, a veteran commander in battered ashen mail men call the Grey Ghost. This warrior leads these tribes on a raid unlike any other, deep into the heart of Thaumaturg lands.
While word comes to K'azz, and mercenary company the Crimson Guard, of a contract in Jacuruku. And their employer? Could it be the goddess herself...
The worldbuilding has always been one of the key ingredients in every Malazan installment. And in this regard at least, Esslemont doesn't disappoint. Very little is known about the continent of Jacuruku. Hence, fans relished the idea of getting an opportunity to explore this mysterious corner of Wu. I feel that the author captured the Southeast Asian jungle setting to perfection in his depiction of the Himatan jungle. His descriptive narrative creates an imagery that makes you experience the jungle is if you were right there with the characters. This aspect of the book is absolutely brilliant. The last time I encountered such a genuine environment that basically leap off the pages was in Dan Simmons' The Terror. Unfortunately, too much effort was put into this, and the greater part of the novel has to do with random wanderings through the jungle. I mean, there is more walking around in this book than in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.
Unlike Orb, Sceptre, Throne, which had several fascinating concepts that somehow fell short due to subpar execution, Blood and Bone offers very little in terms of overall plot. The storylines, like the characters, appear to be drifting aimlessly, utterly directionless, lost in the jungle. It's a book that goes nowhere for nearly 400 pages, and the lackluster resolution at the end cannot even begin to save the day. The Thaumaturgs, supposedly powerful wizards, are depicted as a bunch of inept, almost caricatural dumbasses. The same can be said of the Adwami desert tribes. In virtually every facet but the jungle setting, Blood and Bone was an uninspired effort that fell quite short of the usual Malazan standard.
The characterization is by far the weakest aspect of this work. How the hell it could be that bad, I'll never know. Throughout Blood and Bone, one gets the feeling that one is reading a Forgotten Realms book. While the plotlines are uninvolving and lack any sense of direction, the protagonists are flat, generic, cardboard cutout characters. Protagonists such as Golan, Commander of the Army of Righteous Chastisement, and Prince Jatal make you long for well-drawn and three-dimensional characters that you can root for or hate powerfully. Whatever happened to the Avowed and Disavowed of the Crimson Guard? How unimpressive, boring, and pathetic have they all become in this novel. And the dialogue? Too often is the back-and-forth between the protagonists adolescent and puerile. I was so excited when I realized that men and women from both the Avowed and Disavowed would get POV "air time," but these portions were so disappointing. Shimmer, K'azz, Skinner, Mara, and everybody else are a world away from Iron Bars, Blues, and Fingers. And the interchangeable Malazan soldiers playing a key role in every book, as well as the likeable but not the sharpest tools in the shed Malazan mages; these plot devices have to go.
As was the case in Orb, Sceptre, Throne, the narrative is often disordered and can feel relatively incohesive at times. Too often, it felt as though Esslemont was making it up as he went along. In the past, readers have often overlooked Esslemont's occasional shortcomings, maintaining that he was "fleshing out" Erikson's storylines, providing answers and raising more questions. And yet, this is Esslemont's fifth novel and as an author he must stand on his own, even if he shares a universe with Erikson. No matter from what angle you look at it, regardless of the fact that Blood and Bone does provide a few answers and raises yet more questions, and regardless of the fact that it brings us ever closer to the eagerly anticipated Assail book, it remains a somewhat poor and unispired work that sadly doesn't deserve its place in the Malazan canon.
There is no way to sugarcoat it. The pace throughout the novel is atrocious. From start to finish, the plot keeps on drifting, directionless, without any sense of purpose. The poor characterization doesn't help, making Blood and Bone a chore to get through. Execution was once again an issue. Indeed, it's too easy to realize who the Warleader is, which robs one of the most important plotlines of the novel of its impact. Even worse, the long-awaited resolution of the Skinner storyline was so lackluster that it made me want to throw the book across my living room.
When I reviewed Stonewielder, I was foaming at the mouth at the thought of the Assail installment. This was Ian Cameron Esslemont at his peak. Now, with two consecutive Malazan offerings that failed to live up to the hype, I have my doubts. The Assail book, after all the foreshadowing and the expectations, will be to Esslemont what The Crippled God was to Erikson. With all the build-up, it can make or break him. And given how his last two novels failed to live up to the potential generated by Return of thee Crimson Guard and Stonewielder, I'm not sure anymore whether or not Esslemont can pull it off. Time will tell. . .