Favourite Fantasy Books Part 1 : Magician by Raymond E Feist

Magician-cover 1

The cover of the first edition of Magician that I ever owned.

Favourite Fantasy Books

Part 1 : Magician by Raymond E Feist

 

This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy.  Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great.  But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.

 

Magician by Raymond E. Feist is the first book of the massive Riftwar Cycle, although back when I read it, all those years ago, it was simply Magician and book one of a trilogy, the Riftwar Saga.  Something a great deal more manageable than the 30 book ‘cycle’ it is now.  I was probably 12 or so when I picked it up in my local Waterstones bookshop.  It wasn’t the first fantasy book I ever read, but it has certainly been one of the most influential on my early fantasy reading tastes (even though they have evolved over time) and it really consolidated my love for fantasy.

 

For those that don’t know it, spoilers abound below, but let’s face it when a book is published in the early 1980s and has been republished many times since, you can’t really call foul on spoilers.  At some point you have to admit that a story is fair game particularly after 30 years.  But the warning is there regardless.

 

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Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

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Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

At the heart of a significant proportion of fantasy is the diegetic reality, the setting itself, the diegesis or storyworld.  It is one of the things that often sets fantasy apart from other forms of literature, those stories that use the real world as the foundational basis for the setting of the narrative.

Fantasy, like a lot of SF and Horror, creates a new reality in which the narrative resides.  So where Dickens, Austen, the Brontёs set their work in a contemporaneous, if fictionalised, England, the settings of their works did not need to be invented as they simply lifted complete societies, customs, economics, races, prejudices and biases from England, the real world.  Not only that, but their diegetic storyworld did not have to be fundamentally altered or disguised, it could be a fairly accurate depiction of the real world.  They could pretty much copy wholesale from what was outside their window.  And lastly, the setting would be immediately familiar to their readers because it was not invented.

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Some Thoughts on Advance Reading (Part 2)

 

Reading

Some Thoughts on Advance Reading (Part 2)

 

In a previous post I talked a little about the process of being an Advance Reader for an author.  So this time around I thought I might talk a bit about what that actually means for me as a reader of fantasy, science fiction and genre literature.  The pros and cons of the job, if you will.

 

From a fan perspective this sounds like the world’s greatest job… you get to talk to/meet/e-mail/have dinner with authors whose work you love, you get to read the books well in advance of publication, and… very occasionally… they may make some changes to the book based on your opinion.  What’s not to love?  It is a fan’s dream.

 

However, as with any job there are a couple of downsides.

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Time for a (lack of) Change: The Passage of Time in Fantasyland.

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Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction. 

Crone, Toll the Hounds

 

This paper was intended to be a brief look at some of the temporal anomalies that occur in genre fantasy writing and using Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books to illustrate different approaches to solving these issues.

However over the course of researching this I realised that this issue was a great deal more complicated and far reaching than I had originally thought and therefore this paper has become more of a series of questions rather than an attempt to illustrate the answers.

In essence however it is an attempt to show that suspension of disbelief is not enough, there must be a rationality and coherency present for a fantasy world to truly function and captivate.  In fact a world must be internally coherent as well as rationally consistent in order for suspension of disbelief to function effectively.  And the treatment of time is one of the major elements whereby fantasy fails to be rational.

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Teaching Genre Fantasy : One Approach

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What I am going to discuss today is my experience with and attempts to construct a 12 week undergraduate syllabus for the study of Genre Fantasy Literature.

So a couple of very quick disclaimers:

  1. This is not prescriptive; this is a starting point for discussion.
  2. This is based on my experience of teaching in the UK therefore it is a 12 week block comprised of four hours contact time each week, with a ‘reading week’ or ‘independent study week’ occurring in the second half of the semester.
  3. The four hours are divided between a 1 hour lecture, a 1 hour workshop in which the lecture is discussed and questions answered, and a 2 hour seminar discussion group in which the reading for the week is discussed in relation to the lecture and topic.
  4. In the UK system we favour essays over class tests so the examination criteria reflect this.
  5. The focus is on Genre Fantasy literature, not fantastic literature in general, SF, horror, genres of fantasy, speculative fiction. Therefore this is a pretty specific remit that does not take into account mythology, folklore, faerie tale, the Gothic, Weird Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera, the Fantastic, Fantastik, Fantastique, and so on.  So there are a great many texts that have been excluded or that don’t fall under the rubric for the class.
  6. As with so many subject syllabi, this was an exercise in practical and pragmatic selection, so a number of texts were chosen for their expediency rather than their status or critical appreciation.
  7. The class is aimed at English Literature Students, it would be an elective module, and would be second or third year undergraduates.
  8. The module follows a thematic overview of Genre Fantasy rather than an historical perspective of the genre, although elements of genre history will obviously be discussed.
  9. Each of the three mini-sections utilises a single key primary text, in addition to excerpts from additional texts, short stories and critical works.
  10. Lastly, the focus of this class was to teach critical awareness of Genre Fantasy, Genre Theory, Literary Theory and to develop skills in textual analysis, and as a result texts were chosen that aided the teaching of the subject and that fitted in with the approach that I wanted to take.

So this is not a typical paper presentation.  I thought I would take you through how I designed a Genre Fantasy Syllabus, and at the end we could discuss the pros and cons of approaching teaching this way.

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer? Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer?  Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

The relationship between Fantasy literature and Role Playing Games is well known but is often overlooked and at times misunderstood.  Many consider fantasy literature to be the inspiration behind or inspiration of RPGs and overlook the reciprocal nature of this relationship.  I am hoping that this paper will show how the use of RPG conventions and processes can be used as a basic analytical tool when it comes to understanding and analysing fantasy narratives.

So let us begin with a very brief breakdown of my terminology; Genre fantasy, RPGs or roleplaying games and series fantasy.

Genre fantasy is perhaps the most ambiguous of the three, even if it is bandied about frequently, and we all tend to understand it in our own way. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute and Grant lay out a few guiding terms in order to define this ethereal concept.  The first is that there is a secondary world where magic exists or can exist, for example Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Feist’s Midkemia, and Brooks’ Shannara.  The world is usually populated by several different races and tribes that may or may not be magical, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Orcs for example in addition to humans.  The narratives usually correspond to recognisable sub-genres of fantasy such as high fantasy, epic fantasy and sword and sorcery.   But really those terms are often just as vague or misleading as genre fantasy itself.  To use an analogy, genre fantasy is as wide and varied as Science Fiction, we know it when we see it, but there are so many variants and sub-sets that an overarching definition eludes us.  I am using it to mean typical examples of what we generally call fantasy, for example books by Gemmell, Feist, Jordan, and Goodkind.

RPGs then.  We run into similar problems of scope here too. Roleplaying games can be as different from each other as genres of fiction can be.  Their game mechanics can vary enormously as do their settings, aims and objectives.  However like genre fantasy some general concepts can be found which can be used to describe a lot of, if not all, RPGs.  They usually involve the creation of a player character, who has defined physical and mental characteristics, who then engages with other player characters in a scenario created and managed by a Gamesmaster GM or Dungeonmaster DM.  The players ‘play’ through the scenarios, solving puzzles, defeating foes and accrue experience points or XP and riches which then allow them to develop their character further and get better equipment.  The scenarios are usually set in a gameworld which is different to our own and quite often resembles the secondary world setting found in genre fantasy.  To keep things simple I will be referring to fantasy rpgs when I use the term rpg.

A brief look at fantasy RPGs then.  They come in various forms, Pen and Paper or D20 traditional role-playing games.  Things like Dungeons and Dragons and its many offspring.  Well known and wide spread, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance are examples of the AD&D approach to gaming.  Computer and console games, ranging from Sony’s Final Fantasy series, through Nintendo’s Zelda all the way back to D&D based games like Baldur’s Gate.  They vary in form and content and can be puzzle based, hack and slash, action adventure or a combination of all these things.  They usually have some sort of overarching narrative that can be as intricate or sparse as the game developer thinks will sell.  Varying from a thin plot to excuse monster slaying, to an intricate narrative that is more like an interactive novel.  There are also the MMORPGs or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games, of which World of Warcraft is a leading example (with over 10 million subscribers as of January this year).  Again these games focus on players creating a character and joining other characters on quests and adventures in order to gain experience and wealth.

The third term, series fantasy, admittedly from Wikipedia, is useful here.  Series fantasy is basically a genre fantasy narrative which utilises an RPG gameworld as its secondary world, so we could rename it Gaming Fantasy to give it an air of credibility.  As such it would appear to be the closest type of genre fantasy to role-play gaming.  It tends to be more simplistic in nature than other sub-genres of fantasy and relies extensively on quest narrative and adventure stories.  Of all the types of genre fantasy, series fantasy seems to be the clearest example of what we call the fantasy template.  That of fantasy by numbers.  We can map out narrative events with a Proppian approach to narrative, we can deconstruct characters using Jungian Archetypes (like the trickster, the wise old man etc.) and because of its connection to the rpg world, we can use the rpg to breakdown many of the incidentals of the story not covered by the approaches above.

However something to bear in mind about Series fantasy is that although it is intrinsically linked to RPGs and these novels number in the hundreds and sell by the thousand.  There is something of a chicken and the egg problem here.  Some fantasy novels have inspired the creation of RPGs, which then in turn inspire more novels in the series, which in turn inspire more games set in and out of the series, as well as some RPGs have inspired novels which inspire the gamers which can lead to more novels and so on.

So why am I proposing to use RPG gaming conventions for genre fantasy analysis and not just series fantasy.  Well the answer to that is basically that the interrelationship between RPGs and fantasy is a great deal more extensive than many of us suppose.  It can influence how we think about fantasy.

So on to the conventions of RPGs and my point.  I want to look at some very specific aspects of RPGs and those are generally all concerned with character creation.  In particular the statistical breakdown, physical description and language of weaponry.

So let’s pretend we are the hero who has to go slay a dragon. It can be a tough job so a group of friends to help us out is likely to be useful, therefore some sort of quest group should be formed.  So who do we need first?  Knocking on the dragon’s front door seems to be a slightly foolhardy plan, and fantasy wisdom dictates that every dragon’s lair has a secret entrance.  So we need someone to find the secret entrance to its lair, and then guide us through a booby trapped dungeon before we can reach the dragon.  We therefore need a sneaky burglary expert or ‘thief’ to locate the secret entrance, disarm the traps, and pick the locks of the inevitably locked secret doors and treasure chests the dragon’s loot will be in.

Sneaky McStab – Thief Extraordinaire

So what sort of things does the thief need to have?  Or, in gaming terms, what attributes must he have.

Well strength isn’t a huge concern, he doesn’t have to be Atlas, but we don’t want a wimp either, so he needs a reasonable amount.

Dexterity must be high so that he can pick locks and disarm trip wires etc., he should also be able to scale walls and lower a rope down for the rest of us so dexterity is a priority.

We don’t want him dieing from the first wound he takes and as he lives in the rough and tumble world of the professional thief he will need to be a little hardy and so we will put at least a few points into constitution.

On to the mental characteristics.  Well he doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist so he doesn’t need huge levels of intelligence, but we would like him to be able to lace his own boots and to be able to work out which items have the greatest value to a fence, so he needs some street smarts and a bit of numeracy.

Wisdom and thieves don’t necessarily go together, but some level of commonsense would be nice, such as enough to realise that picking up the golden idol on the pedestal might be a bad idea until after you have checked for the pressure pad.

So that leaves charisma.  Well this can be important if he is the kind of thief that relies on cons and scams but a dislikable thief can be just as useful to a dragon slayer, we won’t be trying to convince the dragon to invest in a pyramid scheme.  So it is a personal choice but hardly a necessity.

He should be fairly flexible and acrobatic so in broad terms a younger character is probably best, but there aren’t many elderly thieves out there regardless.

Now we have to get him ready for battle.  Well he can’t wear plate mail as it isn’t really conducive to climbing, sneaking around and generally being stealthy.  Chainmail is a possibility but it might limit his manoeuvrability and possibly make too much noise.  So we will probably settle on leather armour as it is flexible, durable and doesn’t clank. Due to the fact that he will be hiding in shadows and dark crevices we should probably use dark leather, blacks and dark browns rather than something in the oxblood or bright yellow suede range.

What weapons should he have?  Well as a stealthy guy he probably will be sneaking up on people so daggers would be useful, maybe a short sword in case someone fights back.  Big swords and shields would probably get in the way of sneaking through airshafts so let’s avoid them.  Maybe a small bow or crossbow if he needs to take out a sentry from afar, but the bigger versions would be impractical for the same reason as the shields and longswords.

Now we will probably want a wizard too, in case of magical traps that the thief can’t disarm, and in case we have to lob a fireball at the inevitable mob of hench-monsters in the dragon’s employ.

Professor Fireball – Grumpy Wizard

Well we want a good one, so they will need to older and have plenty of experience as well as years of research and practice to make them powerful, not one straight out of wizard grad school.  We also want them to be versatile and know lots of different spells in order to defeat the predictably insurmountable obstacles in our way.  Therefore they will have to be very intelligent and have a good memory.

However we are not expecting them to lug around a lot of equipment or loot so they don’t have to be particularly strong. Nor are we expecting them to shimmy up a craggy rock face or walk across a tightrope to reach a ledge so they don’t have to be particularly dextrous.

We don’t want them to faint at the first sign of blood but we don’t expect them to get into fist fights so they don’t have to be hugely hardy.

We would like them to be wise but as long as they know all the spells and do what we tell them who cares if they think it is a bad idea?  But as they are messing with the forces of nature some wisdom is probably a good idea.

In terms of charisma, well once again it is a matter of whether or not you mind working with a boring unsociable wizard or want one to go out drinking with afterwards.

In terms of armour, magic, like lots of other forms of energy finds metal to be a great conductor, so a lot of armour is right out unless we want an extra crispy mage.  Also, as he is slightly older, leather might chafe a little so we will just let him wear his robes.  He won’t be doing much hand to hand fighting in any case so he may as well be comfortable.  He might carry a ritual dagger for one spell or another but really we will be relying on his spells rather than his ability to hit people.  He can always bring his big walking stick to bash heads with if he is feeling particularly vigorous.

Now, while we are busy being heroic and generally championy we need a bodyguard to look after the others and to take on incidental minions.

Tank the Meatshield – ‘If it moves, hit it with a rock’

We want him to be able to break heads and take names so he is going to have to be tough, hard as nails as well as strong as an ox.  We need someone to do most of the heavy lifting, dragon hoarded gold isn’t light you know.

We would like him to be co-ordinated enough that he won’t accidentally kill us whilst he is dispatching nameless minions 7 and 8, so a bit of dexterity would be welcome.

In terms of wisdom and intelligence as long as he can obey simple commands like ‘kill them not us’ and doesn’t have to be told not to eat the yellow snow we are ok.

Anyway, I would prefer a bodyguard who spent all his time practicing killing things than one who slacked off in order to read Shakespeare and who likes to debate post-Cartesian philosophy.

As for charisma, we need him to be an unstoppable killing machine not spokesperson for the wayward orc home.

As he is going to be slaughtering hundreds of the evil fantasy equivalent of red shirts he is going to need as much armour as he can wear, preferably inch thick metal.  He is also going to need big heavy weapons that are not going to break after a dozen fights.

Ok so that is the core of our support group; Sneaky McStab, Professor Fireball and Tank the Meat Shield.  Basically the point of this was to show that by defining the role that the character needed to fill to make our quest successful we basically ended up with the stereotypical fantasy group.  And this of course is pretty much the way some rpgs work.

This is the list of steps you take to create a character in the RPG Baldur’s Gate, and apart from the very superficial starting points the first major decision is class, and everything then follows that decision, from what armour they can wear, what weapons they can use and what skills they have.  Of course a hard core gamer might decide to play a stupid wizard, a weak warrior or a clumsy thief, but it can be a bit hard to progress through the game if your character is bad at his job.

So now we have seen how you build these characters from the ground up let’s apply this type of analysis to David Gemmel’s Waylander, which is a well known and popular genre fantasy novel, to see if it can work in the opposite direction.

The initial descriptions of Waylander highlight some important characteristics.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered and a black leather cloak was drawn about him.  (P.11)

From twin sheaths he produced two black-bladed knives. (P.12)

So perhaps the first thing to pick out here is the fact that he is “Tall and Broad Shouldered”, this is perhaps the stereotypical way to describe a warrior hero type.  It carries connotations of health, athleticism and strength.

But more important in this sentence is the black cloak.  Now standard fantasy semiotics would suggest that because the cloak is black this is going to be an evil character, but in terms of RPGs we can draw something more interesting out.  The fact that the cloak is made of leather suggests that the cloak is a practical garment, it serves a function.  Now this is because it is not made of velvet, or silk or some other decorative fabric, this is a hard wearing, protective and water-proof garment making it useful.

The fact that it is black suggests that the character is some sort of shady character, now it could be an aesthetic choice to have a black cloak, however as it is a functional garment the dark colour would suggest a practical purpose.  And one of these purposes would be to help the character hide in shadows and darkness.  This then would make the reader think that this character is some sort of warrior thief type.

Now the second description also reaffirms this.  He draws two black bladed knives.  Again the black would suggest ‘bad guy’ but it is more than that.  The blades of the daggers have been blackened to reduce their reflective properties.  Again apart from a strange aesthetic choice, the obvious reason for this is that they are to be stealth weapons, used to sneak up on someone in the dark and stab them.  Added to that is the fantasy idea that daggers or knives are dishonourable weapons, that is you don’t tend to challenge someone to a knife fight, you would duel with swords.  So daggers are quick, dirty wounding weapons used to incapacitate and then kill without mercy or honour.  Lastly in this is the fact that he draws two knives, so fighting with two weapons at the same time, suggesting he is ambidextrous and very competent.  So in RPG terms, a high dexterity score and signifier of a rogue class.
Swiftly the newcomer swept his cloak over one shoulder and lifted his right arm. A black bolt tore into the chest of the nearest man, a second entered the belly of a burly warrior with upraised sword. The stranger dropped the small double crossbow and lightly leapt back. (p.12)

This passage illustrates Waylander’s favourite weapon, a small double crossbow.  This is light and easily concealed, a perfect weapon for a rogue class.  Also unlike the noble longbow, which is usually romanticised, the crossbow is the fantasy equivalent of a hand gun, a point and shoot weapon that anyone can use without a lot of training.  It has a dirty reputation historically as it allowed untrained peasants to take down heavily armoured knights, although this example is far less powerful, has a reduced range but is no less deadly.  Oh and once again the crossbow and its bolts are black, so the dual evil and concealability issues rising.

Waylander is also wearing leathers and a partial chainmail shirt.  This again would suggest that he is a rogue character armoured for speed and agility rather than an out and out fight.

The man’s eyes were narrowed in concentration, but the priest noted that they were extraordinarily dark, deep sable-brown with flashing gold flecks. The warrior was unshaven, and the beard around his chin was speckled with grey. (P.13)

The first was a dark-haired warrior of a type she was coming to know too well; his face was hard, his eyes harder. (P.23)

In terms of his physical description, Waylander is dark haired, with dark brown almost black eyes.  With eyes being windows to the soul we can see how this easily reflects his dark status.  However they are also flecked with gold which would suggest that there is still something good, pure and precious in that darkness, leading to the possibility of redemption.  Also his dark beard shot with grey confirms this idea of darkness with a chance of light, and also lets you know he is not a young man.

Interestingly, as Waylander embarks on his redemptive quest he picks up some short swords (black handled and with black scabbards to be fair) and these add some air of nobility to his character whilst staying true to his roguish background.

So a combination of fantasy semiotics and rpg based analysis yields a great deal of information long before the author divulges secret dark past of his character.

Review: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail
Assail
(Book 6 Malzan Empire) by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail marks the culmination of Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series and is the final chapter of a series that has significantly explored and expanded the narrative universe co-created with Steven Erikson.  In this volume Esslemont has set himself a foreboding task in that expectations are always higher for the final novel in a series, even more so if the book is set in the most mysterious land of the fantasy world that has only ever been hinted at.  Luckily for readers, Esslemont delivers, although not necessarily in the way some might want.

The impetus for the main story of Assail is the revelation that the glacial coverage of the mysterious continent has receded sufficiently that previously impassable terrain is now accessible.  In fact, vast gold-fields have been exposed, prompting a mass rush to the land in order to exploit the natural resource.  As a result, all manner of people and groups are making their way to and through Assail including Imass, the Crimson Guard, prospectors, private armies, and long absent migrants finally returning ‘home’.

Assail
focuses on tying up the story of Kyle, the young guardsman first met in Return of the Crimson Guard, the Crimson Guard themselves and the investigation of their mysterious vow.  Another significant thread concerns the story of the Imass and Silverfox, which has woven through both Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen as well as Esslemont’s series.  Lastly, there are two related threads directly concerning the continent of Assail itself.  The first is focalised through the perspective of Orman, a young warrior, and explores Assail from a native’s perspective, playing with perceptions of culture, tribalism, barbarism and honour.  The other is split between the various prospectors and outsiders hastening to stake claims and set up frontier stations and explores the foreigners’ perspective of Assail.  In particular the story of Reuth, a young navigator tasked with getting his uncle’s ship to the gold fields of Assail. Both the stories of Reuth and Orman parallel one another, while being neat contrasts of the different approaches to life, Assail, and the journey to adulthood.  They also create a strong resonance with the story of Kyle, both his introduction in RotCG, and as a reminder that even as one actor’s story ends, other agents in the world will continue.

However, each of these potentially disparate tales is interwoven and lends itself to a nuanced and balanced investigation of the continent and its cultures and forms a genuinely cohesive story.  Despite the focus on Assail itself as the setting and background of the story, Esslemont has included several sections that focus on the travelling to Assail, most notably the various sea voyages and what that entails for the prospective parties.  This brings a significant diversity of story mode, setting and even genre to the book that otherwise might have superficially appeared to be a fantasy travelogue of a Scandinavian influenced continent.

Starting with some obvious points that nonetheless need noting.  As with the other novels in the Malazan Empire series, the style is once again a narrative told through multiple point of view characters.  While several of these characters are key to the narrative, Esslemont also uses witness characters to provide perspective on the events from outside the key actors’ perspectives.  As a result there is a pleasing change of perspective as instead of always sitting on a hero’s shoulders, the reader now has access to a broader narrative palette.  This is particularly interesting when you consider that this allows Esslemont to demonstrate how the events of the story reach further than just those acting or being acted upon.  Such a broadening of scope has the effect of consolidating the world-building (diegetic reality) and adding to the impression that the story-world is ‘real’.  It also neatly dovetails with Esslemont’s own background as an archaeologist and anthropologist who sees history as an interlocking system of events and not solely the result of the actions of a few great men.

Structurally Esslemont writes true to form with most of the first third of the book being used in set-up and foundational work.  He carefully re-introduces old characters (from his previous novels and from the wider Malazan universe) while also introducing some new characters to the story and familiarising the reader with the new setting of Assail.  By creating a pleasant blend of the familiar with an enticing mix of the new, the leisurely pace means that no reader is left behind.  This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting set pieces and action sequences along the way, but both Erikson and Esslemont are known for their deliberate crafting and building in the earlier chapters of their novels in order to set the board for grand finales.  The second third of the novel starts moving the various pieces around as the characters reach and explore the continent of Assail, tracking their interactions and near misses, and building toward the last third of the novel which handles the convergence of events and the resolution of the story and series.

It is with the last third of the novel that Esslemont both conforms to and defies his standard structural approach.  The last third of the novel contains multiple scenes of battle, action and a convergence of events, but if it is an all-out battle ending that you are longing for, you will be disappointed.  What Esslemont delivers is, in almost every way, far more satisfying.  He brings home multiple story threads and characters from throughout the series in an emotional and narrative convergence that provides a sensitive and resonating narrative closure.  While this is probably something of a risk for Esslemont given the desire in many fantasy fans for blood, gore and battle by the ever increasing bucket full, that he pulls it off should mark his increased prowess and command as an author.

It is of no surprise that the world of Assail is exquisitely realised.  In Blood and Bone Esslemont depicted the sweaty, steamy closeness of a jungle landscape with such clarity that it became a character in and of itself that was integral to the story.  In Assail, the various landscapes, climates and scenic types deployed by Esslemont are rendered in a beautiful cinematic language that gives a visceral quality to the description and helps lift the narrative off the page.  The various landscapes and settings reveal several influences on the book and have been well tied to the various themes and plots running through the volume and series.  Notably, the Odyssey and Sinbad inspired sea and sailing sections, in which several different attempts to reach the continent are described and reveal the dangers of even trying to get to this part of the world.  The wind-blasted, desolate coastline that emphasises the unwelcoming and foreboding nature of the land, but also the isolationist nature of the population and how cut off this is from the rest of the world.  The long rolling prairies and plains of Assail that evoke a sense of Esslemont’s Canadian homeland, a land that appears lush and welcoming, but has hidden dangers, and, like the beaches, emphasises the unwise and unwelcome intrusion of people into a world and space that does not want them.  But it is with the Alaskan and Scandanavian inspired mountains and glaciers that the book really finds a defining landscape that evokes the true nature of Assail.  The terrible beauty of the biting cold, the virgin forests filled with snow, the blues, greens and whites of glacial flow.  This is a harsh, pitiless, unwelcoming world to the human invaders, but a beautiful, sublime home to those people who live in concert with the land.   Each of these landscapes has been rendered with an eye for cinematic description that evokes the transcendentalist sense of nature’s beauty, as well as the brutal reality of inhospitable climes.

This descriptive backdrop neatly fits with the detail of the wider world which is also superbly rendered, in part due to the early books in the series, but also due to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series which features the same world.   By building on what has gone before, and assuming the reader’s foreknowledge of the world, Esslemont has been able to focus on what lies directly around the characters and this has led to a style that creates a perception of the fictive reality as something witnessed and existing, without needing to utilise endless exposition or overly-long descriptive passages.   The assumed knowledge is not necessary to enjoying the story as it unfolds, but it does add significant depth, breadth and colour to the story that uninitiated readers might miss.  As the narrative builds on this realised world and weaves the characters and their actions into it in order to build a cohesive story that reads and feels ‘real’, ultimately, it results in an immersive reality that the reader witnesses through the perspectives of the various point of view characters and creates a believable, solid weight to the story world that helps sell the more fantastic elements.

Given that the impetus of the story is based on the revelation of suddenly accessible gold-fields, and that the glaciers have retreated and exposed hitherto impassable sections of this relatively pristine land, there is a strong element of the frontier gold-rush myth to some of the storytelling.  While frontier stories are not that uncommon, the parallels to the current attitudes to exploiting natural resources in Canada and the US certainly form a strong undercurrent to this aspect of the story.  Esslemont’s description of the frontier mentality has far less of the noble mythos that has surrounded American gold rush stories, and presents a vicious reality about the unscrupulous plundering of natural resources over the objections of natives and indigenous inhabitants.  There is a strong suspicion that his experience of current mining and oil drilling in Alaska may have influenced some of the elements in the story.

The matter-of-fact destruction of natives and native environments by outsiders, in the name of progress and financial greed, is contrasted and compared to the tribal conflicts of the native inhabitants perpetrated on one another in the name of tradition and blood feuds, which are anything but dispassionate.  Esslemont succeeds in creating a credible series of tribal cultures and relationships that balance the tropes of the barbarian and the noble savage with a more objective perspective in an attempt to convey the complexity of tribal and clan societies without overly venerating or damning them.  These violent, destructive story threads are held up in comparison to the logical extension of their core premises in the story of the Imass and their genocidal pogrom sweeping through the land in an effort to cleanse a perceived racial taint.

As a series generally conceived of as high fantasy adventure epic, these are weighty, divisive and loaded issues that one would not expect to find.  However, part of Esslemont’s talent as a writer is to weave these contemporary concerns into his fantasy narrative seamlessly and make them appear as part of the very fabric of the fictive reality.   Not only that, but many aspects of these issues are presented without authorial comment or overt bias, letting the reader absorb the facets of the conflicts and appreciate the factors that led to characters making these decisions.  There are few obvious antagonists or villains in the story.  Indeed many of the foes faced by the characters are sympathetically or realistically presented in an effort to show the moral complexity of world, while the characters themselves are not always on the side of ‘good’.  Assail is a book of characters, not a book of heroes and villains.  By not directly signalling good or evil, and steering clear of fetishizing violence and idolising dark anti-heroes it may be that Esslemont has created too realistic a moral universe for his readers and some will overlook the actual complexity of morality at play.

Over the last few years Esslemont has faced significant and vicious criticism from many fans of Erikson’s Malazan series.  His work has been viewed or even dismissed as a companion piece to the real series.  His portrayals of characters and places in the world have been dismissed as less than authoritative.  His strengths as an author have been overlooked and his weaknesses have been exaggerated.  Despite this, Esslemont has continued to produce fantasy novels that exemplify the best that fantasy series have to offer and has continued to improve as a writer, an author and as a storyteller.  With Assail Esslemont has written a fascinating, thoughtful, exciting and engaging read.  It is a fitting finale to the Malazan Empire series, and a great book.  He masterfully weaves myth, legend, character, land and story together to create something that fulfils expectations but remains engaged with concerns of our own world.  He has always stood shoulder to shoulder with his co-creator, Erikson, but perhaps now he himself will believe it.

(Originally reviewed in NYRSF)