Review: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

(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’.

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)

Review: Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson


Forge of Darkness: The Kharkanas Trilogy 1  by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness is the first book in a new trilogy by Steven Erikson. While linked to the world and events of his ten book epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBotF), the Kharkanas trilogy is a prequel to those events and is set millennia earlier, in a different land and it explores the mythic prehistory of the enigmatic Tiste race. The story focuses on a turning point in the history of the Tiste, focalised in the city of Kharkanas, the home of the queen and newly styled goddess, Mother Dark. Tensions have developed in the court due to a classic love triangle developing between Mother Dark, her acknowledged consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus, and her politically pragmatic betrothal to Lord Vatha Urusander, former commander of the Legions. Added to this charged situation are the various groups of disenfranchised and ill-treated soldiers of the various armed forces and House guards, each pledged to a specific faction, and the ever present machinations of a powerful, elite and decadent noble class. The blend of political manoeuvrings, a civilisation in decline, the emergence of a new religion and of wide-spread social unrest creates a classic framework for the interweaving of the personal narratives of key players, their supporters and the innocent bystanders drawn in against their will. This story of politics and the collapse of a civilisation is played out against a metaphysical backdrop of realms of magic and Gods that are being forced to change and alter as the destiny of the world reshapes itself. That Erikson never lets the story become overly complicated or convoluted is again evidence of his mastery of this style of writing.

The tone of Forge is strongly reminiscent of Shakespeare, as are elements of the plot and the structure of the story. At times even the dialogue takes on a courtly Elizabethan feel. Yet this does not feel out of place in a Fantasy novel involving courtly politics and the stirrings of war. In fact it adds to the classical style of the novel and the writing itself remains recognisable as Erikson. He continues to write with the weight and layering of a complex short story and almost none of the expositionary excess verbiage commonly associated with fat Fantasy tomes. His language remains deft, economical and rewards careful reading (and re-reading). The structure of multiple and apparently disparate narrative threads which slowly interweave into a narrative confluence and convergence will be immediately recognisable to fans of the earlier series, although as a Book One, not all threads are fully resolved within the novel and plenty has been left for further development. It should be noted that there is plenty of closure within the novel and several sequences in key places provide excellent reader satisfaction. But where many of the books of the MBotF were written as stand-alone novels set in a broader series, Forge is definitely part of what has become a traditional trilogy format in Fantasy storytelling.

As a prequel to the MBotF, in so much as it occurs millennia before the events of those novels, Forge functions as an accessible entry point for new readers, perhaps more so than Gardens of the Moon (the first book in the MBotF). While there is certainly a large cast of point of view characters and participants, this seems less overwhelming in Forge than it did in Gardens and will perhaps prove less daunting to an audience who have been familiarised with this style by George R. R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (and of course the HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones). Although, in the interests of full disclosure, being familiar with the MBotF may have simply blinded me to some of the challenges faced by new readers. There is, however, a sense that Erikson has streamlined this narrative slightly and has taken some pity on his readers, a result of which is the fact that the story begins at an understandable point of entry rather than right in the middle of a complex conflict, and each of the major figures and focal characters are slowly introduced in sections rather than in a headlong whirl of narrative action. In some respects Forge represents a much more traditional structure, tone and narrative focus than previous Malazan novels, but has done so without compromising the integrity and style that Erikson has developed over the last decade of writing.

Erikson again utilises a tight narrative focalisation through the use of multiple character perspectives to negotiate not only the different story threads but also to reveal a cross section of perspective on the mounting tensions and social unrest. His use of key characters, noble and commoner alike, powerful and powerless, gives a palpable sense of verisimilitude and believability to the world in order to balance the epic and mythic nature of the story. This is not just a story of the great and the good or a band of do-gooding nobles on a quest, but a story concerned with the fabric of a society seen from each of the different factions and levels. As a result, despite many of the metaphysical elements and strange magical constructions, this world feels real. Erikson’s novel creates moral complexity and narrative tensions by narrating the evolving conflict from diverse character perspectives. This both grounds the diegetic reality in distressed and worn realism as well as presenting the metaphysical magically aspects as matter-of-fact and part of the very fabric of reality. As the reader follows the lives of those drawn into this conflict, either at its centre or initially on its fringes, there is never a sense of forced or dictated narrative but rather a sense of exploration and witnessing of a true world event as complex and as complicated as our own.

The strong sense of social inequality and regimented class system of the Tiste could be attributed to Erikson’s time in the UK over the last few years and the British preoccupation with class and hierarchy, but this would be to ignore the applicability of the conceptual stratification to social, economic and racial divides present throughout our modern world. Given that the various conflicts and tensions within the text are predicated on characters acting through either personal agendas or for what they believe is a greater good, there is ample room in Forge to read modern political and economic debates as an analogue of these conflicts. But there is also a strong evocation of the politics and history of Julius Caesar’s Rome. This could perhaps be laid at the feet of Erikson the former archaeologist and anthropologist and his view of the circular nature of history, and the mistakes we are doomed to repeat. Yet this classical connection to Ancient Rome, coupled with the Shakespearean feel and tone signals Forge’s nature as a tragedy, rather than an epic Fantasy romp. So without resorting to stealing a classical setting or specifics from world history Erikson evokes both Greek tragedy and Roman history in this expanding of the mythic backstory. The focus on the leading patrician families, those recently elevated as well as those in decline, in addition to commoners who could unkindly be labelled Rude Mechanicals, certainly adds to the feeling of Classical history being told through a Shakespearean lens. While the by-play of economics, inherited power, political polemic and the treatment of the military as a central theme to the story not only suggests an Ancient Roman influence on the narrative, but also strikes a resonant chord with today’s world. An apt comparison to a modern example would be HBO’s and BBC’s short-lived series Rome which explored the historical narrative through both noble powerbrokers and common soldiers, giving a sense of both the domestic and political world of Ancient Rome, a sense of the epic and the mundane.

The Malazan series is known for its complex morality and lack of clear cut heroes and villains, and a strength of Forge is that it exhibits much of this same moral ambiguity. Every character in the novel feels rounded and developed over time, yet no character is a paragon of virtue or grotesquely evil. The strengths and flaws of each character, coupled with their subjective perspective, personal goals and ambitions, leads to deeply intriguing characters whom the reader is free to like or dislike. Although, as is customary in Erikson’s writing, readers should be prepared to have their opinions of characters challenged on a regular basis. The movement in modern Genre Fantasy toward moral complexity has on occasion been confused with Nihilism, for example in Leo Grin’s articles on Big Hollywood. In some respects Grin is not wholly wrong. There has certainly been a significant move toward increasing numbers of violent psychopathic protagonists, yet unlike many of the ‘gritty’ modern genre fantasy stories, for example Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Erikson does not create dark anti-heroes or malevolent, Machiavellian misanthropes in an effort to make the story darker and more gripping, rather he relies on the moments when characters’ actions create genuine moments of horror, pain or, most often, tragedy. There is no cackling Dark Lord or supernaturally diabolical destructive force behind the action, only people. His fiction focuses on those moments and decisions, seemingly big or small, which, with hindsight, we can see led us on a path of inevitable destruction. As a misspoken command can turn the tide of a battle, or the wrong word at the wrong time can lead to war, Erikson feels no need to invent a devilish villain to create narrative tension. This gives much of the tragic air to Erikson’s writing as the reader witnesses how miscommunication, pride, honour, love and duty collide in an inevitable catastrophic confluence which reshapes the world irrevocably. While some of the characters appear motivated by personal ambition and damn the consequences, others are forced into action as the circumstances dictate, and yet all have understandable, if not always agreeable, motivations. The tight narrative focus on character perspective means that the reader is often faced with a series of actions that they completely agree with, only to have their judgement challenged when the story shifts to the perspective of another faction or character.

Erikson pulls as few emotional punches in his writing as he does intellectual, instead he tends to face emotional and brutal truths of the human condition face on. Forge is no exception in this regard. One scene in particular is particularly distressing and harrowing. Yet Erikson’s depiction of a brutal gang rape and murder is never salacious, never misogynist and never a glorification of rape. He does not sexualise or fetishize one of the most deplorable acts of violence humans are capable of and as a result the scene is disturbing and violent in a way that Fantasy fiction rarely details. That the scene was necessary for the narrative may be a cause of debate among some, others will feel outrage at its inclusion, so those expecting a consolatory tour through fantasyland may wish to look elsewhere. One thing is certain though, those Fantasy readers accustomed to casual sexual violence against women as entertainment will have their perspective radically challenged and will be forced to rethink think the easy way rape is often portrayed in the genre. Yet Erikson’s works have never flinched in challenging readers to confront hard issues. His work is characterised by its complex nature and one of the great strengths of his writing is his ability to challenge reader expectation and complacency. There are no simple answers in Erikson’s world, only the heart rending tragedy of honest, flawed individuals being caught up in a world descending into chaos, victims and perpetrators alike. Again, his use of shifting points of view makes the reader view these uncomfortable truths from multiple perspectives providing insight into aspects of the human condition that we might not otherwise consider.

The world building retains Erikson’s strength of vision and presence, yet the physical locale seems more metaphysical, closer to a mindscape linked to the characters than a geographically fixed mundane world. This mixture of a solid world locale and a more nebulous Faerie realm marks a slight departure from the MBotF which was firmly rooted in a defined reality. An apt parallel might be to describe it as similar to mythic Olympus as it is connected to the concrete landscape of Greece. As the various travellers cross the Realm the reader is exposed to shifting boundaries of a truly mythic land with areas of fixed solidity. Akin to Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the world building of Forge remains thoughtful, detailed and intricately rendered, while at the same time never feeling forced, laboured or overly emphasised. In essence it is a well-crafted world with enough information to fill the mind but not belabouring detail and exposition.

While much of the new book will prove to be a good entry point for new readers, fans of the MBotF will not be disappointed. The prehistory features several of the key characters introduced in the first series who have long remained enigmatic and whose history has been both mysteriously alluded to and yet never fully known. There are a number of ‘reveals’ about key events in this mythic past that shaped the characters that fans have come to know and demand more detail of. In particular, the history and story of Anomander Rake and his brothers Andarist and Silchas Ruin forms one of the central threads of the narrative tapestry in Forge and is a key focal point of the trilogy. An interesting side effect of this strategy of focusing on the familial dimension to a civil conflict is that it not only rewards fans of the previous series, but it also emphasises the import and severity of a civil conflict and how it can pit brother against brother. As expected, characters such as the oft referred to Mother Dark and the enigmatic Draconus feature heavily. Yet Erikson resists the temptation to dictate to his readers and usually presents these figures from the perspective of external witnesses to their actions rather than narrating from their point of view. This discipline serves the dual function of sating fan interest in the history of these key mythic figures while still allowing some mystery and enigma to survive. So while readers new to the Malazan series are given plenty of help to negotiate the story (the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at Erikson’s first Malazan novel Gardens of the Moon) this does not result in pedantic exposition that will alienate fans. Indeed those fans of the series will have a great many questions answered, but as has become a feature of Erikson’s writing, those answers are not necessarily the expected ones and often lead to further questions. But the investigation of Tiste culture, the exploration of Kharkanas and the surrounding environs as well as a more detailed examination of the legendary hust swords are more than enough to sate fans of the series.

Something to note about the narrative frame of Forge is that Erikson has styled this as the telling of the story between one legendary master poet, Blind Gallan, to a younger poet, Fisher kel Tath, who will be a familiar character to fans of the series. In part this returns to part of the focus of Erikson’s novella Crack’d Pot Trail which concerned the nature of storytelling, but it may in fact be a simple defence to forestall criticism that he has altered some of the facts alluded to in the main series. Fans of Erikson’s works are used to the cry of ‘the timeline doesn’t matter’ and in this instance Erikson has the poet admit that he has changed some of the story to fit his poetic sensibilities, ‘what I do not recall I shall invent’(‘Prelude’ 1st page 4th paragraph). However, to simply label it as this would be a disservice to Erikson as this framework fits neatly with the feel of epic tragedy, the Shakesperean tone and the subject matter of the fall of a civilisation. It is also a recognition of the genre’s debt to and evolution from the great epic poems of the past.

For those who have found the length of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to be a daunting barrier to experiencing Erikson’s writing, and those who could not navigate through Gardens of the Moon, Forge of Darkness provides the perfect opportunity to access the work of a unique voice in Fantasy that has grown and developed to true mastery. For fans and new readers alike, Forge is a study in how original, intelligent and astonishing a work of Epic Fantasy can be.

(originally reviewed in NYRSF)