Those who became acquainted with the Malazan universe know very well that this world had been originally created by two authors: Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. It is no coincidence, though, that Esslemont’s name hadn’t appeared on this blog before (except as a necessary mention in this entry…) I fully stand by my words – Esslemont is no Erikson. And it seems to me that he never will be.
Erikson and Esslemont divided between the two of them the enormous cast of characters populating the world of Malazan. Until that division was kept, I was fine with it. Keep the Crimson Guard, ICE – K’azz d’Avore is boring, and I couldn’t care less for the rest of them. I suspect this indifference is too an effect of Esslemont’s writing for the Crimson Guard in itself seems a very fine concept, it’s its execution that is irrevocably flawed. But Esslemont in his share of 10 books grabbed some characters that he should have not reached for – Anomandaris Rake is just the most glaringly obvious example. I still shudder when I remember Assail…
So why on Earth did I reach for another ICE’s book? I should have known better. I’ve read Orb Sceptre Throne (simply terrible), Blood and Bone (interesting worldbuilding, clearly Esslemont’s read Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness or at least has seen Apocalypse Now! ;), but not much else) and Assail (words fail me with this one, I guess that’s the main reason why I didn’t write a review of this book at all), and I promised myself I would not go there again. Why did I then?
The answer is two-fold. First, like any true Malazan fan, I keenly feel the symptoms of withdrawal. Erikson finished his 10-book series in 2011 and the two subsequent books, The Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light, are set in the same universe (sort of ;)), but much earlier. So when I realized I have a chance to read about Dancer’s and Kellanved’s past, I was sorely tempted. What’s more – and that’s the second reason – I have read a bunch of literally glowing reviews of Dancer’s Lament. Praised as the best Esslemont’s book to date, a thrilling comeback to the world of the Malazan, the best grimdark book of 2016… I decided I would give it a shot.
It indeed is the best Esslemont’s book to date. Problem is, it doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t mean, for example, that it’s on par with any of Erikson’s books – and he, too, over the 3.3 million words, had his highs and lows. Esslemont never comes even close. Where Erikson’s prose is convoluted, poetic, even whimsical, Esslemont’s is plain, crude and simplified to within an inch of its life. “He went. He fell asleep. He snored.” Where Erikson becomes an inspired priest in a cruel cult of intertwining fate and coincidence, an adept of the ancient art of tragedy and catharsis, Esslemont is your average contemporary craftsman of entertainment, skilled in transforming great ideas into already digested and regurgitated fast food. Easy on its way in, easy on its way out. You won’t even feel the difference.
And that’s the case of Dancer’s Lament. It takes great ideas, great characters, and changes it into something unrecognizable. It’s the Philosopher’s Stone à rebours: you take gold and change it into… manure. Sure, that other thing is very important, necessary even. But it’s not valuable. Everyone can produce manure, with things far more common than gold. But how in the name of everything that’s sacred could you do that to Kellanved and Dancer, ICE?!
Except for some instances of worldbuilding – the city state of Li Heng, the plains, the maze of catacombs full of lurking dangers – and a couple of memorable scenes – a fight between Faruj’s adepts, and a ritual of Light – Dancer’s Lament reads like a rather unsuccessful case of fanfiction. The characters feel flat and lifeless, in some cases they have become caricatures of themselves (Kellanved!). The dialogues are stilted, the attempts at humor ill-advised and badly executed, and the prose is just a little better than in Assail, which is to say… bad. There is, however, the unmistakable spirit of Malazan – say whatever you want about Esslemont, he is deeply invested in his characters, and none of the bad things he does to them are intentional. And as much as the one-dimensionality of Wu and Dorin is painful – and believe me, the word’s VERY – I cannot totally condemn Esslemont; they are also his characters. I only wish he didn’t dabble with them and left their stories to Erikson, who is so absolutely one of the best contemporary storytellers.
The end result of Esslemont’s good intentions and bad writing is something akin to Hannibal Rising. Whereas The Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece at least partly due to the mystery shrouding Hannibal Lecter (and, of course, Anthony Hopkins!) Hannibal Rising is an impotent attempt of bad tailors to cover the fact that the king is naked by loud praising of his rich clothes. Mystery is transformed into just another wartime trauma, evil becomes something banal and mundane, and the audience is left with one question: is this really it?
This was my exact reaction to the grand reveal of Wu and Dorin. How are they supposed to become the infamous Dancer and Kellanved, the Ascendants who cheated Death Himself and shook the foundations of their world, irrevocably altering it forever? They are one-dimensional, plain and simple, and in one case severely mentally addled… If you don’t have a really good explanation for mystery, don’t even touch it. Or try to learn from the best: Eco, Powers, Cook … The list is actually quite long.
What else is there? Esslemont was hard at work putting all the Easter eggs into their hiding places – in Dancer’s Lament we meet many of the characters we’ve learned to cherish in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, from obvious future Crimson Guard members Silk, Shimmer and Smokey and Cal-Brin, to K’rull and his Sister of the Cold Nights, Liss, Dassem Ultor, and plenty of others. Funny how the world’s small, huh? 😛 All of them rather conspicuously meeting at one time in one place. But hell, there is a certain pleasure to be derived from seeing the future fearsome shakers and movers in their rather unflattering childhoods/early adulthoods/very well, in some cases a rather constant state of late adulthood.
Will I reach for the second and third installment in the Path to Ascendancy series? That’s the most infuriating part. I even might. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is in my opinion one of the best fantasy cycles out there. And Esslemont’s books, however bad, are official parts of it – well, tie-ins, to be precise. I don’t count them as The Malazan Book of the Fallen :P. I probably won’t buy a hardcover edition of the Deadhouse Landing like I did with Dancer’s Lament, but I will probably read it sooner or later, silently begging Erikson to take the characters of Dancer and Kellanved back from ICE.