Dancer's Lament by Ian C Esslemont

Rating 8.0/10
Filled with rooftop knife fights, devastating magery, and underworld evil.

When Dancer’s Lament by Ian C. Esslemont appeared on my doorstep the other day, it was unfortunate for the other books and activities I had been in the middle of. I had not expected it to arrive so quickly, but when given the opportunity to read about the early days of Dancer and Shadowthrone, I dropped everything and started reading.

It appears that some people are not as positive about Ian C. Esslemont’s writing as I have been in the past – which baffles me for several reasons. Not only does Esslemont have a beautiful grasp on this world that he, along with his partner and friend Steven Erikson, created, but his ability to write characters so well-known and written by someone else seems, to me, flawless. Without any hiccup. Failing in such an endeavour would seriously hamper Esslemont’s stories, for he is – by linear standards – secondary to Erikson. He was published second, and after Erikson had already had several books out. That some characters from Erikson’s books would end up in Esslemont’s was natural, and I for one have never encountered a discrepancy between the two depictions.

This becomes even more of an issue when you fly backwards in time, to the time and place wherein Dancer’s Lament is set. Not only do you have to write characters we’ve already seen elsewhere (both in Erikson- and Esslemont-written novels), you need to devolve them to their former selves.

In this, we encounter Dorin and Wu (among others) – younger versions of titanic heavyweights who will, in years to come, literally rule the world. And at first, I was a little surprised to find Wu so irreverent and seemingly-hapless, and Dorin so stuck-up. 

But of course they were!

Spend any time with Dancer and Shadowthrone (Cotillion and Kellanved, The Rope and Ammanas – take your pick of their names) throughout their later-reign, and this is exactly what they should sound like. We are only provided brief glimpses into their relationship, but it is one of equal levels of mutual respect and irreverence. 

As for the story of Dancer’s Lament, I really appreciated the pace and method of telling this story. My preconceptions about how this series was going to play out were thwarted by the author’s better knowledge of events and how he wanted to pace them, and the time I was given in Li Heng with all its myriad of citizens, criminals, mages, and invading soldiers, was worth every moment. It never felt like it was too slow or too fast, but rather each point the author intended to dwell upon was the right choice. Time sped faster in places, and slowed down in others, but it all played to reveal to us motivations, characters, and events which shape those same motivations and characters. 

Esslemont has definitely grown as a writer, and now has a much more solid feel for his own style and how he wants to write these characters. There are similarities to Erikson in the way that he treats the world at large, its history and myriad secrets, but there are also dissimilarities which remind you that you are not simply reading a carbon-copy of someone else’s world. Both Erikson and Esslemont created the world of Malazan, and you can feel that now in the way Esslemont writes. 

For fans of the Malazan world, be it Erikson or Esslemont, Dancer’s Lament is a brilliant return to one of the most majestic and mystifying fantasy worlds ever to be created. Filled with rooftop knife fights, devastating magery, and underworld evil, this book hits all the right notes at all the right times.

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