At first, I wasn't sure whether or not I'd be reading Ian Cameron Esslemont's Dancer's Lament. Sure, a prequel trilogy focusing on how an assassin and Kellanved Ascended and became Dancer and Shadowthrone was intriguing. But given how disappointing Esslemont's last three Malazan books turned out to be, I was afraid to get burned again. The advance reviews were quite positive, yet they mostly came from fans who loved everything the author has published thus far. Hence, against my better judgement, I finally decided to give this novel a shot. And barely 15 pages into it, I realized that it had been a mistake. I elected to persevere, but to no avail. . .
As I mentioned in my review of Assail, Esslemont's writing has been divisive from the very beginning, when Night of Knives was first released as a limited edition by PS Publishing. 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 with 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, regardless of its quality. 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. Assail was 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, many 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. As a matter of course, my expectations were as low as humanly possible when I set out to read Dancer's Lament. . .
So why waste my time and read it? Call my crazy, but I still harbor the hope that Esslemont can somehow return to the form that saw him write gripping yarns such as Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. But it was not to be. Not this time.
Here's the blurb:
It was once a land ravaged by war, minor city states, baronies and principates fight for supremacy, and then the rival cities of Tali and Quon formed an alliance and so Quon Tali came into being. However that was generations ago, that dynasty has collapsed and the regional powers are now clawing at each others throats once more. But at the heart of Quon Tali lies the powerful city state of Li Heng which has for centuries enjoyed relative stability under the guidance of the powerful sorceress known as the “Protectress”. She is not someone likely to tolerate the arrival of two particular young men into her domain: one is determined to prove he is the most skilled assassin of his age; the other is his quarry - a Dal Hon mage who is proving annoyingly difficult to kill. The sorceress and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions, so how could two such trouble-makers upset her iron-fisted rule? And now, under a new and ambitious king, the forces of Itko Kan are marching on Li Heng from the south. His own assassins, the Nightblades, have been sent ahead into the city, and rumours abound that he has inhuman, nightmarish forces at his command. So as shadows and mistrust swirl and monstrous beasts that people say appear from nowhere, run rampage through Li Heng's streets, it seems chaos is come - but in chaos, as a certain young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity . . .
The worldbuilding is always one of the key ingredients in every Malazan installment. And in this regard at least, Esslemont doesn't usually disappoint. Indeed, even lackluster novels like Orb Sceptre Throne and Blood and Bone featured superb worldbuilding. I still remember how the author captured the Southeast Asian jungle setting to perfection in his depiction of the Himatan jungle in the latter. His descriptive narrative created an imagery that made you experience the jungle as if you were right there with the characters. This aspect doesn't play as important a role in Dancer's Lament. It's probably due to the fact that we are revisiting locales that have been seen before, albeit a few decades in the past. Not as dense as the other Malazan titles, Dancer's Lament just might be the most accessible Malazan book to date. On the flipside, however, it is also a work that lacks much in terms of depth.
Ian Cameron Esslemont's previous three novels introduced several fascinating concepts that somehow fell short due to subpar execution, and this is once again a problem in this book. The Malazan Book of the Fallen would have been a veritable train wreck had it not been written by an author as ambitious and as gifted as Steven Erikson. In the past, we Malazan fans have often overlooked Esslemont's occasional shortcomings, maintaining that he was "fleshing out" Erikson's storylines, providing answers and raising yet more captivating questions. No matter from what angle you look at them, Esslemont's last four offerings remain somewhat poor and unispired works of fantasy. Reaching the last page of Assail, it became 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, it is obvious that, unlike Steven Erikson, his skills were not necessarily up to the task. And unfortunately, the same can be said of Dancer's Lament. This new series will chronicle the genesis of the creation of the Malazan Empire, and although Esslemont shares Erikson's grand ambition, he simply doesn't possess the gift that allows his friend to work his magic and mesmerize readers the way he does in The Malazan Book of the Fallen and the Kharkanas trilogy. I'm currently reading Erikson's Fall of Light and by comparison the writing in Dancer's Lament occasionally feels like fanfic.
It is unfortunate, for a number of storylines could have been enthralling. I mean, not only do we have young men destined for greatness in Dancer and Kellanved, but there is so much more. Shalmanat, the Protectress of Li Heng, and her back story and her relationship with Ryllandaras. Sister Night and K'rul. Dassem as a young man. Silk. Shimmer. Smokey. The Crimson Guard. With elements such as these, one would expect this book to be a homerun. Sadly, the execution is such that it prevents the tale from truly lifting off.
As was the case in Esslemont's last three novels, the characterization is by far the weakest aspect of this work. How it could once more be that bad, I have no idea. While the plotlines don't necessarily lack any sense of direction the way they did in Blood and Bone, they are uninvolving for the most part, and most of the characters remain flat, generic, cardboard cutout characters. Dancer's Lament features three principal POV protagonists. Dorin Rav, a young assassin trying to make a name for himself in Li Heng and who will one day become the legendary Dancer, takes center stage. Iko, one of the Kanese Sword-Dancers, is a young woman destined to become Shimmer. And Silk, a city mage in the employ of the Protectress of Li Heng with his own secrets. I was so looking forward to discovering more about the younger version of Dancer, yet his interaction with Wu, the enigmatic Dal Hon mage who is in truth Kellanved, was quite lame. More often than not, once again the dialogue between the characters is adolescent and puerile. Iko's storyline is there to show how events unfold through the eyes of the enemy troops, while Silk's plotline allows readers to witness what is taking place through the eyes of the defenders of Li Heng. There are plenty of familiar faces showing up throughout the book, some more obvious than others. And that can be interesting, but overall the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It's evident that there was not enough material here to warrant a full novel, so expect more filler than killer as you read along.
Like a majority of Malazan fans, I relish any opportunities that can help shed some light on past events, characters, and secrets from Erikson's magnum opus. Sadly, it has now become quite obvious that Ian Cameron Esslemont cannot match Steven Erikson as far as writing skills are concerned. Problem is, there are a panoply of storylines that "belong" to him, which means that he can never do them justice and come up with something that lives up to the hype. Were Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder just flukes, or can the author one day return to form and write another thrilling addition that will be a worthy addition to the Malazan canon? Only time will tell. . .
So will I read the next two installments in the Path to Ascendancy trilogy, or am I through with Esslemont? Hard to say. When I reviewed Assail, I told myself that I was done. But as a big Malazan fan, I was really intrigued by the blurb for Dancer's Lament. And even though I'm well aware that the second volume will miserably fail to satisfy me, chances are that I'll end up reading the next installment, secretly hoping that it will be more akin to Stonewielder instead of sucking like Blood and Bone.