Kellanved's Reach by Ian C Esslemont (Path to Ascendancy #3)

Anyone who pays attention to the Fantasy Book Review Twitter account (@FanBooRev) in early January might have seen a burgeoning contest to see who would write the first review for the much-anticipated Kellanved’s Reach by one of our favourites, Ian C. Esslemont.

I have no idea who won – I’m not game to check.

Regardless, I finished reading over the weekend and am again reminded just how blessed we are as fantasy readers and fans to have Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont in our lives. And while Kellanved’s Reach, the third book in Esslemont’s ‘Path to Ascendancy’ series, may have fallen into a similar trap as the previous two books in the series, I was nevertheless enamoured and captivated by being finally able to witness the birth of the Malazan Empire.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Yes, at times it felt as if Esslemont was trying to complete his Malazan Empire Bingo card so as to ensure he beat Steven Erikson. In a way, this is not surprising – they all had to meet at some point, it’s just mildly surprising it happened all within a fortnight.

That being said, some of the best plot arcs from this book were in fact those surrounding secondary and tertiary characters. Kellanved and Dancer almost become secondary characters themselves – which I can imagine, for some people, would be disappointing, but given what we already knew about the Malazan Empire and the world at large, this makes a lot of sense. I especially loved the rise of characters who will form the core of the Crimson Guard – their stories forming some of the most interesting subplots.

It was also really rewarding to visit so many locales on Quon Tali that we haven’t had a chance to see much of – not in their pre-Malazan state, and especially not in a way that showed us what these cities were like in and of themselves. Being able to meet the Wickans, for example, and experience their loss was a welcome sombre note that spoke of the coming end.

Kellanved’s Reach also bore many of the hallmark characteristics of a Malazan book – numerous plot lines, interweaving or running frighteningly parallel to one another; hints left completely untouched, but left nevertheless for the keen-eyed observer; and a cheapness of life which, at times, is simply heart-breaking. It could be said that Esslemont doesn’t have the same subtle hand as Erikson, but in my opinion it is like comparing apples and oranges: Erikson chose to write a very metaphysical-heavy story, loaded with historical weight and philosophical ponderings; Esslemont, on the other hand, writes more traditionally – which is highlighted both by the greater simplicity of his storytelling and the length of his books.

When you look at the story of Kellanved’s Reach then, you’re not going to walk away feeling the ponderous weight of needing to revaluate the nature of history and the evilness of mankind – and this is one of the reasons I have always loved what Esslemont brought to the Malazan universe, whose books served more to tell smaller, character-driven stories. There may be less polish and heft in Esslemont’s books than that found in those of his writing companion, but we are instead provided with answers, a deeper look into the lives of various characters and groups, and a fast-paced story that is all the more captivating.

In reading Kellanved’s Reach I found myself suitably pleased with the attention given to all the many and varied characters. A longer book could have given us greater time with Kellanved and Dancer or with the Napan’s, but that has never been Esslemont’s style. The time given to each story and character was pretty close to perfect, and always left me wanting more, never wishing for less. I’m excited for more stories told in a pre-Malazan Book of the Fallen world as we see the Malazan Empire take shape and conquer the world, though I’m unclear as to exactly how those stories will be told. (In my interview with Esslemont in late-2017 he suggested that the series could expand.)

While not a book that would serve as a jumping-on point, Kellanved’s Reach is nevertheless a fantastic addition to the trilogy, Ian C. Esslemont’s bibliography, and the world of the Malazan Empire. Equal parts majestic, captivating, thrilling, funny, and mystifying, Kellanved’s Reach is a dream come true for fans of the Malazan Empire. 
Joshua S Hill, 8/10

"The elders were powerful and dreadful - it was a blessing their days were over. Only a fool, or an insane power-craving... He shook his head once again, this time in exasperation. Ah..."

I received an advanced review copy of Kellanved's Reach in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Ian C. Esselmont and TransworldBooks/ Penguin Books UK. Before I start the review proper I will quickly state that I am quite lucky as a reviewer because of some of the books I get to read early. Ever so often a book arrives on your doorstep and everything else ceases to exist until a certain novel has been completed. This was one such occasion. I was deep through Mark Lawrence's Holy Sister and John Gwynne's A Time of Blood - by far, two of my favourite authors but the works of Erikson and Esslemont, and the world they've created is incomparable and the pinnacle of not just fantasy but current literature in general. I had to drop everything and start this immediately. 

Originally touted as being a trilogy, I can safely say that the way this book ends we will have a lot more in store in this prequel series, but I'll come back to that shortly. Kellanved, now the ruler of Malaz with his friend, the dexterous and handily swift assassin Dancer continue the shadowy Mage's conquest for utter world domination. Kellanved found a flint spearhead at the end of Deadhouse Landing and believes it is the key to unlock an elder mystery and obtain and perhaps even control an overwhelming ancient power that could tip the balance in his favour - to aid his plan, even though nobody is truly aware of what he wants to accomplish. Not even Dancer.  

I would say 25% of the narrative follows the exploits of my favourite fantasy duo but, like all Malazan books, you cannot rest on your laurels with what you already know. About another 100 new characters are introduced. As if there weren't already enough in this behemothic but amazing fantasy experience! For anyone who has (and if you haven't I recommend you do) read the main series' before, you'll be happy that many of the series superstars and most important players are featured and more and more are introduced. 

"The main body of the force was some thirty Malazan fighters, hand-picked and led by Dassem, and including their early recruit Dujek and his shadow, Jack... Tasyschrenn stood with Dancer."

*Minor spoiler* -

So many great moments I've really been waiting for are revealed here. Such as how Whiskeyjack earned his name, how Greymane joined the Malazan Empire and why Shimmer is such a bad-ass. 

*End of spoiler*

Apart from Dancer and Kellanved's story, it seems war is waging everywhere and we witness events from both sides of multiple battles that are happening concurrently. Typical to Malazan, generally there are no 'black or white' good or bad guys during point of view perspectives, so you feel for the players on both sides. To begin with, it was confusing as to who had an allegiance with who and what their required end game was and what their objectives were. At about 30% it all clicked and then it seemed to flow expertly. After reading 60% of this book and reading some stunning set-pieces, in my opinion, up there with some of the best in the overall Malazan canon, I couldn't put this book down and I couldn't see this book getting less than a 9/10. 

Dancer's Lament had 3 point of view perspectives, Silk, Iko and Dancer. This new entry has approximately 15. As previously hinted at, with unfamiliar character perspectives it takes a few of their passages to work out where they fit on the board of the greater game but all will come clear. I don't think there was a single perspective I didn't enjoy. These included Dancer's friend and blind bird lady Ullara who is wandering without knowing what fate has in store, Gregor and his mage accomplice (who cannot be hit) who both wish to join the Crimson Guard, and war commander Orjin who really doesn't know his place in this waring world at the moment but just knows he can aid somehow. We see brief but excellent snippets of The Crimson Guard hierarchy before K'azz D'Avore was commander and seeing his character at this stage was really interesting. Warning - I made the typical newbie mistake. There was a new character who I wasn't familiar with who seemed like a stunning creation so I Googled his name and was told who he'd become and what his alias is, and that he's very important in later novels. Do not make the same mistake! 

On many forums, there are often heated debates of the best way to start the Malazan series to get the best experience. I personally think there are 5 ways to start but that's an unpopular view. After reading this the image of Ouroboros came to my mind. If you start with the Path of Ascendancy series then Gardens of the Moon won't be so difficult. However, if you don't read the main series first then you'll miss the amazing reveals and air fist-bump moments (which I'm sad to admit happened a lot whilst I was reading this book so made me look like a lunatic to my housemate!)

So, why didn't it get 10/10? It was doing everything perfectly, until the ending. There is nothing wrong with what actually happens at the climax but it seemed a bit muddled and out of order for me. There is a stunning set-piece, the typical BOOM - wow that was amazing Malazan finale experience. Then, it spent about 6% of the book wrapping other characters arcs off. I must admit these chapters were done well, but it completely disjointed the pacing and experience. It was almost as if we'd had the finale and Esslemont was just tidying up a few threads before moving on. It might be my personal opinion but I enjoy the explosive, climatic culmination to be the final segment in a novel and that I then will not be able to stop thinking about it for weeks. This is perhaps just personal taste though. To conclude, the works of Malazan are by far my favourite fantasy series and experience I've had with reading, period. I rate quite harshly on this site because I don't think I'll ever read a book again that is as good as Midnight Tides which is my only 10/10 rating. I don't need to do a sexy statement for a blurb here. If you are reading this you know how good this series and Malazan in general is. Pre-order it now!
James Tivendale, 9/10

9/10 The world created is incomparable and the pinnacle of not just fantasy but current literature in general. I had to drop everything and start this immediately.

Reviews by and James Tivendale

Ian C Esslemont interview

Kellanved's Reach reader reviews

8.5/10 from 1 reviews

All Ian C Esslemont Reviews