Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
Blood and Bone is the third (third!) novel released this year within Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan setting. The rate at which these two men are churning out these books is astounding, particularly considering their generally high quality. With Erikson currently focused upon his ‘Kharkanas Trilogy’, telling us the ancient tale of the Tiste, the Jaghut and the Elder Gods in a dimension separate to that of the main series, it falls to Esslemont to keep us up to date with what’s going on in the main timeline. It’s difficult not to view Esslemont as the ‘B’ author of the Malazan universe; Erikson did start the series, and is probably a better writer. Despite this, Esslemont has some great novels under his belt, particularly Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard. I was far from impressed with the recently released Orb, Sceptre, Throne, which suffered for being set on Genabackis in the aftermath of Erikson’s Toll the Hounds, largely dealing with Erikson’s characters and a world which he built. Esslemont is at his best when showing us new lands only hinted at in Erikson’s novels and dealing with either new characters or characters who played only minor roles in Erikson’s central ‘Malazan Books of the Fallen.’ After having given us a long awaited glimpse of mainland Quon Tali in Return of the Crimson Guard and the much discussed but never seen land of Korel in Stonewielder, in Blood and Bone Esslemont turns his gaze to Jacuruku, a location known to long time readers as the seat of the ancient fallen empire of Kallor, and the location of the original summoning of the Crippled God. It’s wonderful to finally visit a location which is semi-mythical to many of the inhabitants of already established lands, and thankfully this time Esslemont does not disappoint.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Stonewielder, I was somewhat disappointed that Korel seemed rather similar in culture and geography to other Malazan locations such as Genabackis and Quon Tali. I rather missed exposure to all new cultures and peoples as we were in the desert Seven Cities in and the obsessively capitalist Lether. Thankfully, Jucuruku in Blood and Bone feels unlike any other location which we have previously visited in the Malazan series. Much of the novel is set in Himatan, a vast jungle which covers most of the east of the continent, the demesne of the much hyped Elder Goddess Ardata. Himatan is a wonderful location, and incredibly atmospheric, intentionally kept secluded from the rest of the Malazan world, allowing a bundle of wonderfully weird flora and fauna to have developed. Bordering Himatan is the land of the Thaumaturgs, the descendants of the mages who summoned the Crippled God to destroy Kallor, and Esslemont does a wonderful job of depicting a deeply twisted and cruel society almost as loathsome as the Pannion Domin in Erikson’s Memories of Ice. Jacuruku is probably the smallest continent thus featured in the Malazan series, which leads to a tightness to the world building unlike the other novels in the series (the oddball Night of Knives excepted). Where we readers have got used to seeing maps filled with cities and nations which we’ll never even see, in Jacuruku we gain possibly the most complete portrait of a land seen so far in the series. Part of this is simply because Jacuruku is mostly jungle and wasteland, and there simply isn’t quite as much going on here as there is in Lether or Seven Cities, but I do believe that Esslemont deserves some credit for how complete and immersive his portrayal of Jacuruku is. With only one continent yet to be visited in the Malazan series, the incredibly hyped Assail, it’s nice to see that we can still be surprised.
The Malazan timeline is one of the most convoluted in modern fantasy, but Esslemont does a good job of placing Blood and Bone within a very specific timeframe. Blood and Bone takes place at the same time as Stonewielder and Erikson’s finale The Crippled God. The novel contains many cross references to what’s going on in Kolanse in The Crippled God, and it’s really cool to see this level of coherence in a series which biggest flaw is a lack of coherence. In classic Malazan fashion, the plot follows many strands which converge towards the end. Pretty much every Malazan novel is structured this way, and it really works for them. New characters introduced to the series include the pilgrimage of siblings Saeng and Hanu to avert a coming catastrophe and the amusing Thaumaturg invasion force of Himatan, with the journey of the arrogant and deluded leader Golan into a somewhat remorseful and rundown figure was a lot of fun to read about. One of my favourite plot strands followed Jatal, a tribal prince who joins an invasion of the Thaumaturg homeland under the command of a mysterious foreign mercenary known as ‘the Warleader’, whose real identity will be painfully obvious to any long term Malazan fans. There are also plenty of strands following established figure in the mythology; we are finally given an insight into Skinner’s Disavowed as they dash around Jacuruku collecting fragments of the Crippled God, and we are also given the opposing Crimson Guard view from Shimmer under the leadership of the enigmatic K’azz D’Avore. An amusing bunch of ex-Malazan mercenaries under the hire of Spite, daughter of Draconus and sister to Lady Envy, are one of the stand out POVs of the novel. There are regular scenes featuring the POV of Osserc, as he has some incredibly intriguing and revelatory conversations with Gothos, which provide some of most juicy tidbits of new info for those of us hungry for every possible detail we can wring out of the Malazan world. Rounding out the main characters is the journey of T’riss, the Queen of Dreams, with her Seguleh bodyguard Ina into Jacuruku, unable to travel magically due to a blockage by Ardata.
Unlike previous Esslemont novels, there were no plot strands that I didn’t enjoy; each character feels entertaining and fun to read about. All of the plot strands feel relevant to the conclusion, compared to the bafflingly unnecessary (if entertaining) Ivanr subplot in Stonewielder. The novel does rather stick too much to the ‘travelogue’ style of fantasy, in that most of the novel is spent travelling, and it can sometimes feel that perhaps this artificially extends the novel as we await the inevitable convergence which defines the Malazan series. The finale is also something of an anti-climax, although not nearly as bad as that of Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Esslemont attempts to emulate Erikson in withholding information and keeping things vague, refusing to spell things out with exposition, yet still isn’t able to do this as well as Erikson can. Erikson usually leaves enough information there to piece together what’s happened, as seen very clearly in his masterful conclusion to the main series, The Crippled God. Esslemont simply isn’t good at this; Stonewielder had an unnecessarily obtuse ending as well, withholding information about the Stormriders that many readers were hoping for in a novel about Korel. Blood and Bone’s Stormriders is Ardata, a highly mysterious Azathanai Elder God, which this novel barely reveals anything more about. As frustrating as this is, and it is Esslemont’s biggest flaw as a writer, the fact remains that this novel is probably the most coherent and well structured that he has written so far, never boring or containing dips in interest as was the case of many of his other novels.
Esslemont improves as a writer with every novel he publishes, and Blood and Bone is his best written yet. Esslemont isn’t quite as good at conjuring a compelling atmosphere of tragedy as Erikson is; this was most notable in the embarrassing ‘crying soldiers’ scene in Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Thankfully, Esslemont doesn’t attempt this in Blood and Bone, but where he does succeed is in creating a feeling of visceral horror in the degradations of Thaumaturg culture, where he not only manages to match Erikson in this regard but even surpass him. Himatan is beautifully depicted, as wonderfully vivid a location as Erikson conjured in Raraku in Deadhouse Gates and the Letherii wastes in Dust of Dreams. I suspect that Esslemont has spent some time in Vietnam, and the Asian influenced jungle setting feels refreshingly new and interesting. Esslemont shows his flair for comedy which was first exhibited in the hilarious Ipshank and Manask in Stonewielder through the entertaining bromance between the two ex-Malazan mages Murk and Sour. The highly amusingly passive aggressive relationship between the Thaumaturg general Golan and his po-faced scribe Thorn was a real highlight of the novel, and show that Esslemont has more than one literary asset to his name.
If there’s any clear triumph of this novel, and any clear indication of Esslemont’s growth as a writer, it’s in his characterisation. The ex-Malazan mages Murk and Sour can stand proudly alongside Icarium and Mappo, Trull and Onrack, Tehol and Bugg as another classic bromance, in a series filled with them. I was particularly impressed by Esslemont’s portrayal of the Disavowed, figures who have seemed as archly villainous in other novels here get rather humanised. In particular Skinner, one of the major antagonists of the series, is given his most interesting portrait yet. I was very impressed with what Esslemont did with ancient Elder forces such as Osserc and T’riss, who seem to match their younger forms seen in Forge of Darkness rather than their rather more esoteric appearances earlier in the series. If I have any complaint it would be in the characterisation of Jatal, a new character who goes upon a highly unconvincing Rand al’Thor-esque emo trip. Despite this slight misstep, this is a novel filled with great , interesting characters.
Blood and Bone is Esslemont’s best novel so far, which is all the more impressive considering how unimpressed I was with Orb, Sceptre, Throne, released less than a year ago. Esslemont only has announced plans for one more novel, set in the frustratingly intriguing Assail. Assail as a location has began to be hyped up all the way back in Memories of Ice, so Esslemont has a lot of pressure to deliver with this next novel. I truly hope that this isn’t the last we hear from Esslemont in the Malazan setting. I’d love for him to follow the Erikson route and begin some prequels, perhaps a trilogy detailing the foundation of the Malazan Empire, and the rise of Kellanved and Dancer to power. All future speculation aside, this is an excellent novel and a must read for any Malazan fan; Esslemont really delivered in his depiction of Jacuruku.