Review: Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy Book 1) by Ian C. Esslemont
A great fantasy novel that is quintessentially ‘Malazan’ but in a streamlined, more story-centred form. The three main POVs give a tight focus to the first step of Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s legendary journey. A brilliant entry point to the Malazan universe for new readers as well as established Malazan fans.
When Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson whiled away the hours on archaeological digs by creating the intricate fantasy world of the Malazan Empire and gaming adventures in it with the GURPS system, they also created the bedrock for one of the most engaging secondary world Epic fantasies in the genre. It is rare that two authors share ownership of a world and continue to produce well-crafted stories that intertwine and overlap, but never repeat. While co-creators they each possess their own writing style, and with Dancer’s Lament Esslemont demonstrates his command of both the fictive reality and a tightly focused, story-centric narrative.
The book is the first of a trilogy that follows two legendary characters from the Malazan world, Shadowthrone and Cotillion, and their rise to power as criminal bosses, kings, emperors, and ultimately gods. This first novel closely follows the young assassin Dorin, a well-trained and talented but inexperienced killer, as he makes his way to the city of Li Heng to set up shop. What should have been a relatively easy path to becoming a power in the criminal underworld is complicated by the fact that Li Heng is currently experiencing some diplomatic difficulties with its militaristic neighbour Itko Kan. Not to mention that the Protectoress, the mysterious powerful mage who runs the city, is none too happy about an assassin trying to establish himself in her city and tasks one of her mage cadre, Silk, to investigate. The last piece of the story is told from the perspective of Iko, a whip-sword wielding bodyguard, who is part of the Kanese diplomatic mission to Li Heng. These three main points of view provide the narrative threads that together form a narrative tapestry that depicts the events.
Also, it doesn’t have a ship on the cover, a fact for which I am ever so glad.
For those readers new to the Malazan series this is an excellent entry point. The story is not dependent on prior knowledge of the realm, and, although written in an immersive style, does not throw so much at the reader that they will become lost. It has all the hallmarks of the Malazan world; complex morality, well drawn characters, interesting plots, and a build up to a convergence of power, but it follows a tighter narrative focus that streamlines the story and delivers more of a traditional adventure feel than some of the other Malazan stories. Due to the limited POV characters, the story is very easy to follow, while not being shy about the depth of the world, and the story’s place in the greater Malazan meta-narrative. As a result this is a great place to dip your toes into the deeper Malazan ocean and get a feel for the narrative waters without being afraid of drowning in detail or swallowed up by back-story sharks.
The structure follows the established pattern of a slower paced early section punctuated by action and, at times, comedy, which lays the foundations necessary for the story to grow in depth and complexity, before bringing things together and interweaving them to form a significant and satisfying convergence of events. It should also be noted that while the earlier sections tend to be a little slower moving in terms of setting up the story, there are a lot of smaller incidents of action and humour that really break up the narrative and give welcome changes of pace. Esslemont has also included some really nice touches of humanity and character development that add to the appreciation of the story without detracting from over-all progression.
The narrative style is again in the recognisable close, third-person, subjective meaning that the world feels immediate and real, and it allows for contrasting interpretation of events as each character sees the world differently. Dorin, Silk, and Iko provide a balanced view of the various spheres of the city and the building conflict, with each giving the reader insight into the different aspects of the story from the internal political to the criminal underworld and the external perspective, and it is a great blend of perspectives. While there is no doubt that Dorin is the central character, both Silk and Iko are essential to the wider story and don’t feel extraneous or supplemental.
Another hallmark of the Malzan world is the complexity of the morality at play in all the characters and each of them demonstrates admirable qualities and flaws aplenty. Mistakes are made on all sides and it is a testament to how Esslemont makes you care about the characters that you want to engage with them and save them from themselves. Each of the central figures is well rounded and developed creating the impression that they are real rather than ink-stains on a page.
But the last thing to note if you are a new reader is that this is a prequel of sorts, an early entry in the world in which many of the major players are figuring out what is going on as much as you are, as a result it is an easy read that gives you a helping hand along the way. While Esslemont characteristically doesn’t spoon-feed the reader, he does take pity on those that are less familiar with the world and works in exposition and explanation along the way in a fairly seamless and natural way. For example, the story is predominantly located in the city environment of Li Heng and as it is new to both Iko and Dorin there are several moments when they discover something about the city allowing the reader to discover and understand it along with them.
For fans of the Malazan series there is a lot here to like. Finally the early days of the Old Guard are being revealed, but given how mysterious the players involved are, don’t be expecting everything to work out the way you expect. But hey, when is anything what you expect when Shadowthrone is involved? There are a number of well-known characters from the Malazan series being hinted at and dropped into the story without fanfare. Some will be immediately obvious, others are less so. Finding these little Easter eggs is an added layer of enjoyment in this well told story, especially as this is an essential part of Malazan history being explored. While this is a shorter and more focused tale than the usual tomes released in the Malazan series, the story is not lacking. In fact, Esslemont crams in a surprising amount of information, backstory, and history of the world that thus far has only been speculated about. Some fans will no doubt be disappointed that X or Y is not how they thought they would be, but what is here is very satisfying.
It is always a challenge to present the early days of legendary characters, especially as fans will have built up such strong visions of those hinted at events in their minds. We only need to look at the discussions surrounding Erikson’s mythic-prequel Forge of Darkness to see that in action. But while Esslemont doesn’t depict these characters quite the way I expected them to be, I was absolutely enthralled and engaged with them. There are few fantasy novels, especially in the Epic sub-genre, that make me laugh out loud, and this is one of those rare ones. There are some really brilliant moments of humour that provide fantastic comic relief, yet they never detract from the story, rather, they push it even further forward. There are some characters that Esslemont can just write and when you read those sections I think you will be as entertained as I was.
As to how this ties into the rest of the Malazan saga, well we all knew that the infamous pair had to meet sometime, and this is how it happened. But like all chance meetings in the real world, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t clean. Esslemont teases out some of the very narrative developments that I was desperate to read about, so much so that at times I was tempted to skip ahead. But, and this is important, the whole book works well as a story, and so those moments that build toward the broader meta-arc are interwoven with the main plots developed here.
When I finished this I was desperate for the next one. While many of Esslemont’s other novels have engaged and interested me in various ways, this is the first that outright entertained me at the same time as immersing me in the world. Of all the styles he was written in thus far, and of the different writing techniques he has deployed, I think this book really lets his abilities as an author shine. Great storytelling, brilliantly entertaining characters, well-paced and engaging structure, and a tight focus that allows him to play with those aspects of the world that serve the narrative. Dancer’s Lament is a must read for Malazan fans, and fans of fantasy that like a well told story. I loved it and couldn’t put it down.