Monday, October 27, 2014

Microreview [book]: Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

One Fateful, Disappointing Night in Malaz City
The Malazan Book of the Fallen series is enormous, and spans several continents, dozens of major characters, and huge stretches of time. As such, there are some stories that remain untold. In Night of Knives, Esslemont tells one such story; the death of the Malazan Emperor. What generally happened is known to anyone sufficiently far enough into the prime Malazan Book of the Fallen series written by Steven Erikson, but Esslemont fills in the blanks and digs deeper into the event. In some ways, he succeeds in bringing a major event in the Malazen series to light. In other ways, he fails to give sufficient perspective into the death of Kellanved and Dancer.

Night of Knives does not follow Kellanved and Dancer. It follows Kiska and Temper. Kiska is a talent, an untrained mage. Temper is a Malazan veteran, whose former glory came from being part of Dassem Ultor's retinue, The Sword. The entire story takes place during a single 24 hour period, in which Malaz City is in close enough proximity with the Shadow warren that it's easy for creatures from that world to cross over into the mundane world. While most of the city's denizens stay indoors to avoid meeting unpleasant deaths, Kiska is charged with delivering a dead man's message and has ambitions of finally getting out of the island city by showing her worth to the island's mysterious visitors. Temper, seemingly content with being a guard at Mock's Hold, is nonetheless drawn out by concerns for his female companion. The two cross paths a number of times, and cross paths with many major characters from the Malazan universe in the fateful night that ends Kellanved's reign.

This story is considerately smaller in scope than those of the Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. Following only two characters, and primarily only focused on a single day, it makes up for the small scope by fleshing out the details of the environment much more than necessary. I noted several instances in which a room was described with more detail than most of the conflicts in the novel. Esslemont seems to gloss over the details in fights to the point that it is hard to follow what just happened. Fights are often described, more or less, as a shuffle of bodies with one standing victorious and the other lying dead. The next paragraph is a detailed description of a room. The parts that I wanted to have described in detail are lacking, while the parts I could not care less about are given many words. I also found that following the perspectives of Temper and Kiska led to many situations in which Important Things were occurring were obscured by the fact that those characters were nearby but not present for the events. What is one of the most important events in the story is described from the perspective of someone listening to it occurring one floor above them, then going to look at the aftermath. That was disappointing, to say the least.

I often found the novel also suffers from some mechanical problems. Esslemont has a bad habit of giving two characters voice in a single short paragraph. This often came in the form of line of dialog, character switch, line of dialog, end paragraph. This made dialog very hard to follow sometimes as I expect voices to change by paragraph, not within a single paragraph. It also features something common to the Malazan books that some might like more than others. Sections of the book are presented in the third person but following a single character. Everything is described from that character's perspective. If the reader knows Kiska is talking to or describing a particular character, but Kiska doesn't know them, it is written in a manner that would befit Kiska's knowledge. If I just read a section in which Temper fights something, and Kiska is observing this but does not know Temper, Kiska's observation will be written without any mention of Temper, just a description of a heavily-armored man with two swords. But the Malazan series has many heavily-armored men with two swords, so the descriptions are not unique enough to make it clear who is being described sometimes. It often left me feeling like I was seeing something important happening but didn't pick up on the full significance of events. Combine this with another Malazan trademark of characters possessing many names, and we have a story that is certainly interesting and worth reading but hard to follow at times and almost requiring a re-reading for further insights.

Finally, if you have not read any of the other Malazan books, particularly Erikson's series, you will not only be lost in the details, but miss all of what makes this story important. Night of Knives may be the start of Esslemont's Malazan contributions, but it is far from the start of the story. In fact, I would not even recommend reading this without having first read up to book six of Erikson's series, The Bonehunters

By now, it probably sounds like I did not enjoy Night of Knives! That is not the case. Despite being slightly difficult to follow for many of the above reasons, the story is worth reading if you're a Malazan fan. Temper is an interesting character, and the flashback to his time in The Sword is a fascinating look back at Dassem Ultor. The treachery within the Malazan empire is in full focus, and several of its best characters are given special attention in the story. There is even a subplot involving the Stormriders that is given very little attention but sounds as interesting as the story being told. Unfortunately, if you're not a Malazan fan, there are not many good reasons to start with Night of Knives.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 if you've read up to The Bonehunters and are a Malazan fan. +1 for the Dassem Ultor flashback. +1 for the tiny bits of Stormriders teasing.

Penalties: -1 for being a bad start if you have not read six other enormous novels before getting into Malazan. -1 for too much time spent describing scenery. -1 for mechanical problems and slavishly adhering to perspective to the point of confusing the reader.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 if you're going into it with no Malazan knowledge. (Just bad), 5/10 if you're a Malazan reader. (Problematic, but has redeeming qualities)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Esslemont, Ian Cameron. Night of Knives [Tor Books, 2004]