The continent of Assail. . . Most dangerous and mysterious place in the Malazan universe, or so we've been led to believe. Ever since Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, the mere mention of Assail and its secrets has gotten Malazan fans giddy with excitement. And now, finally, Assail's mysteries would be revealed in what is dubbed "the final novel of the Malazan Empire." Problem is, could Ian Cameron Esslemont pull it off?
Esslemont's writing has been divisive from the very beginning, when Night of Knives was first released as a limited edition. From then on, a number of Erikson fans wrote him off and turned their backs on the Malazan co-creator. Others elected to stick with him and were rewarded by two thrilling and fascinating additions to the Malazan canon, Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. Unfortunately, two major letdowns in a row, Orb Sceptre Throne and Blood and Bone, made even some die-hard fans lose hope in Ian Cameron Esslemont. So much so that even on malazanempire.com, the emperor's own palace, so to speak, the biggest Malazan aficionados appear to be split into two camps. On the one hand, you have those who are happy with whatever helps further flesh out Steven Erikson's storylines. And on the other, you have those, like me, who have pretty much lost faith with Esslemont and bemoan the fact that the author seems to be unable to make his Malazan novels live up to the lofty expectations generated by his friend and fellow co-creator.
Understandably, my expectations were as low as humanly possible when I set out to read Assail. For some reason, it appears that the epilogue novel(s) is/are no longer scheduled to be published. Hence, Assail, to all ends and purposes, will likely be the last Malazan installment covering the main story arcs introduced by Steven Erikson. Early on, when the novel was slow-moving and focused on extraneous plotlines, it was obvious that Assail would fail to wrap everything up in true Malazan fashion. And in the end, this book miserably failed to meet even my oh-so low expectations. . .
Assail is Ian Cameron Esslemont's The Crippled God. The culmination of a variety of far-reaching storylines spread through his last four novels. Some of them first explored by Erikson in the original sequence, years ago. And although many fans doubted that Esslemont could close the show the way Erikson did in the last volume of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, I would never have expected that Assail would be such a disheartening disappointment. . .
Here's the blurb:
Tens of thousands of years of ice is melting, and the land of Assail, long a byword for menace and inaccessibility, is at last yielding its secrets. Tales of gold discovered in the region’s north circulate in every waterfront dive and sailor’s tavern and now countless adventurers and fortune-seekers have set sail in search of riches. All these adventurers have to guide them are legends and garbled tales of the dangers that lie in wait - hostile coasts, fields of ice, impassable barriers and strange, terrifying creatures. But all accounts concur that the people of the north meet all trespassers with the sword. And beyond are rumoured to lurk Elder monsters out of history’s very beginnings. Into this turmoil ventures the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. Not drawn by contract, but by the promise of answers: answers that Shimmer, second in command, feels should not be sought. Also heading north, as part of an uneasy alliance of Malazan fortune-hunters and Letherii soldiery, comes the bard Fisher kel Tath. With him is a Tiste Andii who was found washed ashore and cannot remember his past and yet commands far more power than he really should. It is also rumoured that a warrior, bearer of a sword that slays gods and who once fought for the Malazans, is also journeying that way. But far to the south, a woman patiently guards the shore. She awaits both allies and enemies. She is Silverfox, newly incarnate Summoner of the undying army of the T’lan Imass, and she will do anything to stop the renewal of an ages-old crusade that could lay waste to the entire continent and beyond. Casting light on mysteries spanning the Malazan empire, and offering a glimpse of the storied and epic history that shaped it, Assail brings the epic story of the Empire of Malaz to a thrilling close.
The worldbuilding is always one of the key ingredients in every Malazan installment. And in this regard at least, Esslemont doesn't usually disappoint. Almost nothing is known with certainty about Assail, and like all fans I relished the idea of getting an opportunity to explore this mysterious corner of Wu. Sadly, unlike Blood and Bone, in which I felt the author captured the Southeast Asian jungle setting to perfection in his depiction of the Himatan jungle in Jacuruku, Assail feels more or less like Northern British Columbia or Alaska. And yet, it's not the imagery that's the problem. Esslemont's descriptive narrative is probably as good as in any of his other novels. It's the essence of Assail, its mysteries, its aura, its dangers; all of these the author failed to convey. We are talking about a continent which the Emperor and Dancer steered clear of, for it was deemed too dangerous. A place where human rulers supposedly not only stood up against legions of T'lan Imass, but destroyed thousands of them in the process. But for all that, there is nothing in the narrative that conveys that aura of utmost danger. Frankly, Erikson's depiction of Seven Cities felt a hundred times more perilous. Readers looking forward to revelations about Assail's numerous secrets will also be disappointed. The book offers very little in that regard, which makes me wonder how/why Assail could ever be the final volume of the Malazan Empire.
The characterization is by far the weakest aspect of this work. How the hell it could once again be that bad, I'll never know. While the plotlines don't necessarily lack any sense of direction the way they did in Blood and Bone, they are nevertheless uninvolving for the most part, and most of the protagonists remain flat, generic, cardboard cutout characters. Especially anything involving the members of the Crimson Guard, which is reminiscent of inane Forgotten Realms-like crap. How unimpressive, boring, and pathetic have they all become. . . And the dialogue? As was the case in Blood and Bone, too often is the back-and-forth between the protagonists adolescent and puerile. In addition, the unexpected romance between two members turned out to be a little lame. The plotline exploring Silverfox and the T'lan Imass is by far the least exploited. Which is odd, as I expected it to lie at the heart of the tale. One of Assail's biggest shortcomings is the inexplicably high number of points of view. With so little taking place throughout this book, one has to wonder why Esslemont felt the need for readers to witness events occur through the eyes of so many characters. Following several extraneous plotlines that often bring little or nothing to the overall story arc killed the flow of the novel and slowed the rhythm to a crawl in various portions of the story. I could have done without many of the sailors' POVs. Other than Cartheron Crust, who somehow stole the show in every scene in which he appeared. Still, way too much "air time" was devoted to Kyle and Orman. Fisher and Jethiss' storyline proved to be one of the most interesting, and kudos to Esslemont for the unanticipated surprise at the end!
In the past, we have often overlooked Esslemont's occasional shortcomings, maintaining that he was "fleshing out" Erikson's storylines, providing answers and raising more questions. No matter from what angle you look at it, Assail remains a somewhat poor and unispired work. As was the case with its two predecessors, with Assail it is evident that Ian Cameron Esslemont didn't have what it takes as an author to truly do justice to the storylines that were his. Though the quality of both Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder argues against such a statement. Now that his arcs are done, it is obvious that, unlike Steven Erikson, his skills were not necessarily up to the task. Which is a shame, as he had some awesome plotlines to work with, chief among those the Crimson Guard, the T'lan Imass, and the mysteries of Assail.
The only positive facet of Assail would be its ending. It was a good ending. Not great, but good. In no way a fitting end to the Malazan saga, however. Truth to tell, it wasn't even an ending per se. Hence, without the epilogue book(s), it makes very little sense for the saga to end this way. There was no major convergence, no mindfuck, no proverbial shit hitting the fan. It is decidedly anticlimactic, but it does tie up all the Ian Cameron Esslemont books. So does the ending save the entire book? No way. Not by a long shot. Assail is 80% filler material, bloating up the book between the scenes that actually matters.
So in the end, Assail is not a total loss. No matter how anticlimactic the endgame proved to be, Esslemont closed the show on a high note. But for the most part, Assail can be nothing but another major disappointment. . .