An interview with Ian C Esslemont

Joshua S. Hill talks to Ian C. Esslemont following the release of Deadhouse Landing, the second book in his Path to Ascendency series which further explores the Malazan universe he co-created with Steven Erikson.

JSH: In your own words, give us a brief description of yourself and what you do when you aren’t writing?

ICE: A brief description of myself, hey?  Well, I’m a part-time writer, full-time stay at home dad, chauffeur, cleaner, and chief bottle-washer to a family of five.  That takes care of all my time and then some.       

JSH: What is your favourite reading genre and what are your favourite books?

ICE: I haven’t the time to do nearly the reading I used to.  I think I’ve taken that corner from “taking things in” to “turning them out.”  Reading time is unfortunately too much like writing time now.  But, when I do get the chance, I have many favourite genres – I encourage everyone to read widely and not limit themselves to any one genre.  Fantasy and SF, of course, but also contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction war histories and suchlike. 

JSH: How did you and Steven Erikson first meet, and what was it that drew you together as friends? 

ICE: Steve and I met on an archaeological dig in western Ontario.  We were thrown together to share a tent all summer in the bush.  And when that happens you either end up wanting to murder your roommate, or you end up best friends.  Luckily, we hit it off as we found we shared so much: love of fantasy and SF literature, love of gaming, love of history and archaeology and mythology, and a secret ambition to write.   

JSH: Would you mind sharing the story behind how you and Steven created and built your Malazan universe?

ICE: This has been discussed before so I won’t belabour it too much.  He and I were roommates for many years at university and over that time we gamed and built the world.  We tried to take all the best features and elements of fantasy that we loved and mix it all together.

JSH: You entered into the Malazan universe with Night of Knives; what was your purpose in starting out on the Isle of Malaz?

ICE: Its where everything started – so to speak – if anything can be said to have a beginning, which, rather deliberately, Steve and I constantly undermine in our fiction anyway.   My purpose was manifold.  For one thing, I wanted to demonstrate that ‘epic’ fantasy need not be broad or vast – or ‘shapeless and rambling’ – as critics would have it.  Also, I wanted to provide a sort of compact primer, or condensed sampling, of what our world was all about.

JSH: What was your primary goal in writing the Novels of the Malazan Empire?

ICE: To try to provide a grasp of the world for the readers.  Each one tackles a different region of the world, introducing it, and demonstrating how it fits in.

JSH: How did you and Steven decide who would cover what? Were there any tussles over a particular character or period?

ICE: We sat down over pizza and beer in a restaurant in Victoria, Canada (or it may have actually been when he was in grad school at Iowa and I came down to visit him for a few weeks there) and we each wrote up a wish-list of which regions and time periods we’d like to tackle.  When we compared them we found almost no overlap.  As for characters, no tussles at all.  We each take the ones necessary for the story we’re currently exploring.  Of course, we always keep the other updated.

JSH: How would you describe the different styles of writing you and Steven employ? Are these conscious choices in an effort to match your different stories, or more representative of your own writing styles?

ICE: I think I can speak for Steve when I say that we’re each just pursuing our own artistic vision in our styles.  They’re very different, just as the styles of any two writers would, and should, be.   As to describing styles – very dangerous territory for any writer, but I will say that I guess my style is rather direct and sparse, while Steve’s is very poetic.

Path to Ascendancy started out telling the tale of the two miscreants who would eventually become Kellanved and Dancer. In Deadhouse Landing the story exploded exponentially to bring in a whole host of would-be heroes and big-name characters from the Malazan Universe.  

JSH: Was it always the plan to introduce so many characters in the second book?

ICE: Yes, that was the whole point.  Funnily, its rather true to how things went originally.  And I like to think that the readers would (and will) enjoy it.  Despite this, the story should still work even if one hasn’t read the other books of the world and isn’t familiar with the characters.  At least I hope so.

JSH: When you say it was “true to how things went originally”, are you referring to the original creation process back when? Could you elaborate a little on this?

ICE: Yes, I’m referring to the original creation.  I was trying to do justice to Steve and my original vision.  I may have misremembered here and there; but the intent was to attempt to capture the fun of that process of discovery.

JSH: What was it like navigating all those type-A personalities – bringing them out of the woodwork and slowly revealing these Malazan heroes and villains?

ICE: As above: it was great fun (or was intended to be).  Each came out strong and swinging.  In fact, I’m having a rather hard time keeping each from taking over the narrative.

JSH: What was it like shaping the early-lives of some of the most famous Malazan characters? Did you feel any pressure to ‘get it right’?

ICE: Steve and I have worked out most of the ‘early-lives’ stuff.  Much of it is mentioned in the books already.  For example, Tayschrenn came from Kartool where he was high in the cult of D’rek – all this had been set out already.   Yet of course I did feel a great deal of pressure to ‘get it right.’  And all that pressure came from myself only.  I was very scared of dropping the ball, as they say, on that.  I hope the readers will enjoy the glimpses they get.

JSH: Was there a particular character that was particularly nerve-wracking “to get right”? I would imagine Surly would be up there.

ICE: Yes, Surly was right up there, as is Dancer of course.  I must say that I’m rather more concerned about getting the established ‘facts’ right.  Continuity between Steve and I is my bugbear.  He may have shot off one line in one of his novels that I missed, or don’t remember, changing a character’s backstory!  Oh well, there’s bound to be some measure of disjointedness between our differing visions / memories of things.

JSH: What was the decision-making process like for choosing which character to grant point-of-view to, and who to leave hidden behind the mask of separation?

ICE: Choosing a POV for any scene is one of the most important choices a writer must make.  The centrepiece characters will always remain hidden away while we, the writer acting as the reader, can only look on, witness, report, and wonder.   

JSH: Was it as fun for you to write (as it was for me to read) the return of some of the characters you first introduced in Night of Knives?

ICE: It was a great deal of fun.  I enjoyed it immensely, and I hope that delight is conveyed in the story.

JSH: It certainly is. Who is your favourite current character to write?

ICE: My favourite current character?  You mean a new character never before seen, or one I am currently writing?  Well, I’m currently writing Kellanved for the third novel, and he’s one of my favourites.  For ‘new’, well, we’ll have to wait for the third one to come out!

JSH: What was it like building the more fleshed-out Dancer and Kellanved? They are both so unique – Kellanved particularly; How did you go about creating their individual personalities?

ICE: Yes, Kellanved is particularly enjoyable.  I never know what he’s going to say or do until I’m in the scene with him.   During these times my POV Dancer, as we both wait to see what’s going to happen.  Funnily enough, originally, Kellanved was my character and Dancer was Steve’s, but I found that I had to switch things in order to present the history in writing.

JSH: Path to Ascendancy is a trilogy, correct?

ICE: Currently, the Path to Ascendancy series stands as a trilogy (sort of).  It may expand, but that will all depend upon its execution and reception.  In other words, if it works and I enjoy it as much as the readers, then there is a chance it could expand.

JSH: What is your current tease for the third book in the Path to Ascendancy series?

ICE: Gah, I have no current tease.  What I will say is that just as Deadhouse Landing picked up right after Dancer’s Lament, so too will the next pick up, and that its current working title is Kellanved’s Reach.

JSH: Do you think you’ll ever write books outside of the Malazan universe?

ICE: I am working on some projects outside the world and I do hope to complete them – if I ever have the time.  Malaz is quite consuming, there are a lot of facts and precedents to chase up and keep track of.  I find if difficult to switch over in mid-stride, so to speak, into another wholly separate world.

JSH: Have you and Steven ever considered publishing miscellaneous material, along the same lines as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth, or will the Malazan universe always be contained in your more-traditional prose series?

ICE: God I hope not!  My notes and miscellaneous works are all very messy.  Just as at a butcher’s shop – you don’t want to peek behind the swinging doors to see how the sausage is made.  Believe me, it’s ugly.

Our Ian C Esslemont reviews

Assail by Ian C Esslemont

Tens of thousands of years of ice is melting, and the land of Assail, long a byword for menace and inaccessibility, is at last yielding its secrets. Tales of gold discovered in the region’s north circulate in every waterfront dive and sailor’s tavern and now adventurers and fortune-seekers have set sail in search of riches. And all they have to guide them are legends and garbled tales of the dangers that lie in wait - hostile coasts, fields of ice, impassable barriers and strange, terrifying creatures. But all accounts concur that the people of the north meet all trespassers with the sword - and should you make it, beyond are rumoured to lurk Elder monsters out of history’s very beginnings. Into this turmoil ventures the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. Not drawn by contract, but by the promise of answers: answers that Shimmer, second in command, feels should not be sought. Also heading north, as part of an uneasy alliance of Malazan fortune-hunters and Letherii soldiery, comes the bard Fisher kel Tath. With him is a Tiste Andii who was found washed ashore and cannot remember his past and yet commands far more power than he really should. It is also rumoured that a warrior, bearer of a sword that slays gods and who once fought for the Malazans, is also journeying that way. But far to the south, a woman patiently guards the shore. She awaits both allies and enemies. She is Silverfox, newly incarnate Summoner of the undying army of the T’lan Imass, and she will do anything to stop the renewal of an ages-old crusade that could lay waste to the entire continent and beyond.

"Assail by Ian C Esslemont probably ranks as one of my favourite books of the year – albeit also one of the most anticipated. With characters we have come to love, and new ones to love, returning to the Malazan world is as joyous as I could ever have hoped."

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Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont

As I (we, I doubt I was alone in this one) so easily predicted, the storylines left dangling from the Malazan Book of the Fallen series are being finished off in these extra books. Or maybe this time extended. This book again is centred on the Crimson Guard and fills in a lot of the questions of the history of K’azz and Skinner and the splitting of the Guard. I was again mesmerized by the story and had fun trying to figure where this story fits into the greater timeline, and guessing who the warleader character really was. But most satisfying to me was the trip to Jacuruku we took. After 15 books, (with a combined reading of about 50x), I was also surprised by the complete lack of knowledge I had of the place. It made me think of my childhood memories of deepest darkest Africa and all the mystery and excitement those words had. And I find myself again waiting for the next book as I am completely on the hook when K’azz was told he would find the answers he was seeking in Assail. Assail! Another mystery name where all I can think of is a lost clan of T’lan Imass; I can hardly wait to see where this goes. And you better write it after dropping an Easter Egg like that Mr. Esslemont.

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Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C Esslemont

So here is the Fourth Novel of the Malazan Empire from ICE. It didn’t take me long after I started reading to see that this one was different from the previous ones. Stonewielder made me feel that Ian was Steven Erikson’s adoring little brother doing his best to imitate his hero. This one makes me think it was ghost-written by Erikson because he was only contracted for ten books, but still had so much to say, but not enough time to write 1000+ pages.

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Deadhouse Landing by Ian C Esslemont

After the disappointments of Li Heng, Dancer and Kellanved wash up on a small insignificant island named Malaz. Immediately, of course, Kellanved plans to take it over. To do so they join forces with a small band of Napans who have fled a civil war on their own home island. The plan, however, soon goes awry as Kellanved develops a strange and dangerous fascination for a mysterious ancient structure found on the island.

The chaos in the region extends to the metaphysical planes also as a young priest of D'rek starts to question the rot at the heart of the worship of the god of decay. And back in Li Heng, Dassem, now the proclaimed Sword of Hood, finds himself being blamed for a plague which leads him to a crisis of faith - and searching for answers.

During all this, war with the neighbouring island of Nap threatens, recruited allies wonder at Kellanved’s sanity, and powerful entities take more of an interest in the little mage from Dal Hon. Dancer faces a hard choice: should he give up on his partnership? Especially when the fellow’s obsession with shadows and ancient artefacts brings the both of them alarmingly close to death and destruction.

After all, who in his right mind would actually wish to enter an Elder mystery known to everyone as the 'Deadhouse'?

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Kellanved's Reach by Ian C Esslemont

The incessant war between the bickering city states of Quon Tali rages. So engrossed are the warring lords and princes in their own petty feuds that few notice that an upstart mage from Dal Hon has gained control of the southern seas. But some powers are alarmed. And in the meantime, as Purge and Tali indulge in what seems like a their never-ending game of war, a mercenary caught up in the fight between the two states suddenly refuses to play along and causes all sorts of chaos. Simultaneously, a pair of escapees from Castle Gris make their way across this ravaged landscape of flame and butchery. Their intention to seek out the legendary Crimson Guard. And then there's Kellanved who could not care less about any of this petty politicking or strategy or war. Something other and altogether more mysterious has caught his attention and he - together with a reluctant and decidedly sceptical Dancer - traverse continents and journey through the Realms in pursuit . . . But this ancient mystery that has so captivated Kellanved is neither esoteric nor ephemeral. No, it is of an altogether darker and more dangerous hue. It involves the Elder races themselves, and more specifically - certainly more alarmingly - the semi-mythic, and universally dreaded, Army of Dust and Bone. Surely no one in their right mind would be so foolish as to embark on a journey from which none have returned? Well, no one except Kellanved that is... Returning to the turbulent early history of what would become the Malazan Empire, here is the third awesome chapter in Ian C. Esslemont's new epic fantasy sequence.

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Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C Esslemont

The return of the Crimson Guard could not have come at a worse time for an empire exhausted by warfare and weakened by betrayals and rivalries.

Into the seething cauldron of Quon Tali - the Malazan Empire's heartland - they march, and with their return comes the memory of their vow: undying opposition to the Empire. But elements within the Guard's élite, the Avowed, have set their sights on far greater power, while other, more ancient entities are rising up, intent on furthering their own arcane ends. And what of the swordsman called Traveller who, with his companion Ereko, seeks a confrontation from which none have ever returned?

As the Guard prepare to wage war, the Empress Laseen's generals and mages grow impatient at what they perceive as her mismanagement of the Empire. Is she losing her grip on power or has she outwitted them all? Could she be using the uprisings to draw out and finally eliminate the last irksome survivors from the days of Kellanved, her illustrious predecessor?

"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."

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Dancer's Lament by Ian C Esslemont

It was once a land ravaged by war, minor city states, baronies and principates fight for supremacy, and then the rival cities of Tali and Quon formed an alliance and so Quon Tali came into being. However that was generations ago, that dynasty has collapsed and the regional powers are now clawing at each others throats once more. But at the heart of Quon Tali lies the powerful city state of Li Heng which has for centuries enjoyed relative stability under the guidance of the powerful sorceress known as the "Protectress". She is not someone likely to tolerate the arrival of two particular young men into her domain: one is determined to prove he is the most skilled assassin of his age; the other is his quarry - a Dal Hon mage who is proving annoyingly difficult to kill. The sorceress and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions, so how could two such trouble-makers upset her iron-fisted rule? And now, under a new and ambitious king, the forces of Itko Kan are marching on Li Heng from the south. His own assassins, the Nightblades, have been sent ahead into the city, and rumours abound that he has inhuman, nightmarish forces at his command. So as shadows and mistrust swirl and monstrous beasts that people say appear from nowhere, run rampage through Li Heng's streets, it seems chaos is come - but in chaos, as a certain young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity...

"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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Night of Knives by Ian C Esslemont

The empire is named for the tiny island and city of Malaz, now a sleepy, seedy backwater port. Tonight however, a once-in-a-generation Shadow Moon brings demon hounds and darker beings. Also, a prophecy promises the return of long missing Emperor Kellanved to the contended imperial throne. This night will determine the fate of the world.

"Night of Knives whether you have read Erikson's books or not, is a gem of a read. And if you have read the Erikson books, then this is a book you can't afford not to have."

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Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont

Enter the universe of Malazan, where many a story unfolds and strife is easier to find than water in a well. After finishing their business elsewhere, the Malazan Empire finally focuses its eye on the Cult of the Lady, a fanatic religious cult that has spread among the lands of Korelri. Their numbers dwindling, the Stormguard keep up their valiant effort to keep Korelri safe from the abyssal Stormriders, as they have for hundreds of years. Yet while all their attention must remain on defending the Stormwall, Malazan forces are moving behind their back, plotting, conquering.

"Stonewielder is probably not a book to pick up not having read others, like 'Return of the Crimson Guard', 'Dust of Dreams' and 'The Crippled God', but it is a great addition to those books, complementing them as well as being an enjoyable read all on its own."

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