Deadhouse Landing by Ian C Esslemont (Path to Ascendancy #2)

While J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and his wider ‘Silmarillion’ remains the most impactful and influential fantasy work ever written, I think it is not that difficult to argue that the combined efforts of Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont will be marked as the most important contribution to fantasy literature, if not since The Lord of the Rings, then at least in the 21st Century.

This sudden burst of hyperbole is due to the fact that I just finished reading Deadhouse Landing by Ian C. Esslemont, his second book in the Path to Ascendancy series which traces the journey and rise of Kellanved and Dancer from trouble-making criminals to two of the most powerful and influential characters in the Malazan world created by Erikson and Esslemont. Set in the immediate decades before Gardens of the Moon, Ascendancy is turning out to be some of my favourite books.

I’ll admit, while I absolutely believe that Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a masterpiece from top to bottom, I was always a little disappointed at how little time I was able to spend with the Malazan Empire during its height and power. The Malazan’s were the most interesting part of the entire series, for me, and the fact that we were brought in during their decline always left me wanting more. 

Which I guess might be a predetermined facet of the world’s creation, allowing Esslemont to come along later to write these books, filling in the gaps and revealing the creation of the Malazan Empire.

Deadhouse Landing is set primarily on the island of Malaz, after the first book in the series – Dancer’s Lament – took place in Li Heng. Landing is the crux of the creation of what will one day become the Malazan Empire, setting up a number of separate storylines which we will see come to fruition – or at least, if not come to fruition then at least witness the results of their fruition – in the main series written by Erikson and Esslemont. 

At this point – a spoiler – I want to make one complaint. I felt that the introduction of characters in Deadhouse Landing was a little convenient. A part of me certainly enjoyed the fact that all of a sudden, the isle of Malaz was suddenly filled with nearly the full cadre of powerbrokers who will direct the path of the Malazan Empire in years to come, but it was also a little disconcerting to suddenly have so many big-name characters suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere. Maybe Esslemont is under constraints in the number of books he’s choosing to write, but I felt that the introduction of so many big-name characters could have been spread out a little more. 

That being said, the Malazan fanboy side of me was thrilled. For the first time I was finally able to spend time with names that I either had far too little time with in the early books of Erikson’s Book of the Fallen, or never made it into the main series because of … incidents. Some of the Empire’s most heroic and influential names are here displayed in their younger, earlier days, and we get to begin painting in some of the blanks.

The story itself was tremendous, weaving together a number of different tales on the island of Malaz, possibly the greatest location in the entire universe. Dancer and Kellanved manage to traverse the entire world while also focusing their attention primarily on Malaz, while the introduction of the Napans and the Malazans introduced fascinating, if brief storylines which served to further cement the early creation of the Malazan Empire.

I loved having the opportunity to glimpse characters in a completely different light, and the creation of the Malazan Empire through the lens of reality rather than myth. Deadhouse Landing is one of Esslemont’s best books to date, a result of his continuing growth as an author and the coming together of threads of story that he and Erikson have been working on for decades. For fans of anything Malazan, this book is an absolute must. 
Joshua S Hill, 8/10

I received an advanced copy of Deadhouse Landing in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Ian C. Esslemont and Macmillan/Forge for this opportunity.

Deadhouse Landing is the engaging and stunning second novel within the Path to Ascendancy trilogy and is set prior to the events of Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen and Esslemont's Malazan Empire. We are presented an incredibly detailed world that the two friends co-created and share in their literary endeavours right down to the places, characters, histories, terminology, and magic. If you aren't familiar with their works then this would be a terrible place to start.

After the finale of Dancer's Lament the assassin Dancer, and his mysterious mage companion Wu, fled Li Heng after complications and now find themselves at the shores of Malaz City. Wu purchases a run-down bar called Smiley's which is found in the worst part of town, employing Napan staff including a barmaid named Surly. The public house will become the duos base of operations as Wu weaves another plot for world domination.

Wu thumped elbows to the desk and set his chin in his fists, frowning in hard thought. ‘Yes. Our plans. No sense tackling one of the corsair captains here – the crew wouldn’t follow us. I’ve never sailed. Mock rules from his Hold, but he probably doesn’t care who runs the streets. So, for now, we limit our attention to the shore. The merchants and bosses who control the markets and warehouses.

Dancer had pursed his lips, considering. ‘What do you propose?’

Wu raised his head, smiling. ‘Why, our forte, of course. Ambush and hijacking.’

Dancer is still the main character and focus during of this narrative. Wu is as complicated, interesting and potentially insane as ever. He often wanders off for days, perhaps playing with shadows to the extent that even his best friend and trusted partner has no idea what he's plotting or thinking. I found that Dancer's Lament could be a wise first step into the Malazan world following only 3 point of view perspectives. This book, although not as complex and occasionally confusing as say, The Return of the Crimson Guard, isn't as easy to read as the previous book and now the narrative features about 12 character viewpoints. The majority of these players are based in Malaz and many of their paths cross. It's definitely more linear in presentation than the 1000+ page 'door-stoppers' and is more story focused because of that. I'm aware that people will be reading the prelude trilogies for answers, however, nothing is that simple in the world of Malazan and just as many interesting questions have been crafted which means I'll read the follow-up as soon as I can. The points of view chapters include some of Malazan's most important players including Dancer, Tattersail, Tayschrenn, and Dassem Ultor as-well as new creations to an ensemble that must already be 4000+ strong.

Luel licked his bloodied lips and whispered, 'Who are you?' 'I am Dassem Ultor.'

Esslemont has improved his writing drastically since Night of Knives and in my opinion, his most recent releases have a stunning flow and swagger. The perspectives switch a few times per chapter giving an overview of all happenings. The majority of these chapters take around 20 minutes to read so it seems the days have passed since you could read a full book in the same time as an Esslemont chapter. The pacing throughout is top-notch and the culmination is brilliantly realised. We get 'master-assassin' showdowns, exploration of warrens, finding out more regarding the Azath houses and most importantly - we see scenes and actions that showcase why some of these characters will become legends across the complete Malazan universe and timeline. As mentioned before regarding cast size, the dramatis personae contains around forty names. A small quantity for this series perhaps, however, the character index omits about half the individuals involved. About five times I thought 'surely they can't be referring to x, what? It's him. He's in THIS book! I did not expect that.' It may just be me. I'm over-excitable.

The finale is as fully realised as that of Dancer's Lament and introduces within the epilogue the new directions that this tale may present readers next. If you're familiar with the Old Empire history then one possibility is unbelievably intriguing. Kellanved is slowly making his mark on what we know becomes his empire yet it's super exciting seeing how he gets there. Deadhouse Landing is a masterclass of Malazan awesomeness, it may be Esslemont's finest book to date and unlike Dancer and Wu, he is no longer in the shadows.
James Tivendale, 9.2/10

9/10 A masterclass of Malazan awesomeness

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