Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C Esslemont

Rating 8.0/10
This toned down Malazan book is still a heavyweight

This book simply is an extra volume of the Malazan series. Originally, when I heard that I.C.E. was going to write some companion books to Mr. Erikson's, I was expecting them to be more of a set of histories akin to Lost Tales or something, explaining all those little things that were only alluded to and have started many a good debate. Like who was Draconus' father, or was Kruppe really a forgotten god who lost his memories when he lost his followers, but hadn't faded away so was living as a human because he knew no better. You know the drill.

Having never read Erikson, I decided to start with Esslemont. My review of “Night of Knives” acknowledged that a lack of knowledge about the Malazan Empire made the going tough, as though I was watching a film with missing chunks. That said, I got to the end and appreciated the quality of the author’s work.

I have to say, that having now read a vastly more expansive tome, the second of Esslemont’s forays into the world both he and Erikson have forged prove the man’s ability to write epic fantasy. Again I struggled with the opening three hundred pages, but experience taught me to persevere. The main reason was that I was meeting characters from the Erikson novels, trying to figure out politics and alliances that did not make immediate sense, coming to terms with the previous timelines and characterisation that gave insights to the decisions in this book. I found the book never kept track of one thread long enough for me to understand what was going on. Indeed I only figured out the novel occurs about ten or so years after “Night of Knives” when a more vastly experienced Kiska appears as an ex-claw with almost demi-god fighting prowess – and that was nearly half way through this thousand+ page paperback.

But as I skated between the stories of Ereko and Traveller; of the politics in Unta with the Empress Laseen/Surly, Possum and Mallick; followed the growth of Kyle with his powerful sword; wondered if Ghelel would ever realise her true birthright; cantered on horseback with the likes of Toc, Choss, Liss, Rell, and the Seti; found myself in a sodden ditches with the munitions of sapper sergeant Nait and his band of “lost kids”; stalked the warrens of power with the Avowed Shimmer, Skinner, Hurl, Silk, Storo and many others… I came to understand that Esslemont was, in fact, weaving many strands together. That the story was of the struggle of a de facto Talian League coming together to converge on the city of Li Heng to attempt the overthrow of the Malazan Empire that held Quon Tali in thrall after Erikson’s invasion by Kellanved. At its heart the novel is concerned with the return of those feared gone…of mythical monsters such as Ryllandaras, of returning Gods like Osserc, of ancient seas like Otataral and, most importantly, of the return of the Avowed and the Crimson Guard.

“The Diaspora ends. The Guard returns. The appointed time has come to us.” This intonation by Surat to Ereko is the fundamental core of the book. The rest is a struggle for power fought by mages and by soldiers – both needing the other to succeed. Esslemont displays his command of the epic, his mastery of myth, his understanding of how to weave legends out of historical deeds…his PhD in literature is obvious in his ability to construct narrative, both conversant and descriptive, his grounding in archaeology lends him to provide proof after proof of the story before the reader.

Yes, it took me nearly five hundred pages to understand much of this world; but, having persevered, I broke through into a fantasy world that is a rich tapestry indeed. Two hundred or so pages dedicated not just to a battle but a war has catapulted Esslemont in to the circle of few fantasy authors who are truly capable of generating an epic.

Is it better than Erikson? I have absolutely no idea. Nor do I care. Esslemont is a fine fantasy author purely on his own merit and this book is the proof.
Mark, 9/10

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I would have continued being right if things had kept to the original formula that had been started out in Night of Knives. But I was mistaken. I was half right in the sense that this book is filling in gaps from the Malazan series. But the hook is that this book follows events of such importance as to make it a must read.

As I was reading through this book I was always feeling like I was reading a first edit copy of a true Malazan book. Or maybe a fan site story. It was very well done, but everything seemed to be one step less. The formula was the same, crazy marines, awesome magical displays, and larger than life characters pulling us along into overwhelming events. But where Erikson was bold and firm, I found Esslemont was a bit washed and tentative.

I really do recommend as a must read, as this toned down Malazan book is still a heavyweight, but if it wasn't for these previously omitted and important events, I would not have been so satisfied at the end.
George Roesch, 7/10

This Return of the Crimson Guard book review was written by and George Roesch

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