Assail by Ian Cameron Esslemont
I’ve said before how I’m utterly incapable of reviewing these books with any façade of objectivity right? Good, just so we’re clear. Assail is set in the Malazan universe, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to like it. I didn’t love it though, with this novel not quite living up to the promise of the most dangerous land in the world hinted at for over a dozen books now.
Being a Malazan book, Assail follows a series of characters on separate journeys which begin to converge and combine as the book progresses. Rumours of a gold rush in Assail have brought fleets from all over the world, from Malaz to Korel to Lether to Genabackis, almost every civilised nation holds an interest. The travellers include the Falaran Jute, who is caught up in a Malazan plot and Reuth, a young Korelri navigator. Meanwhile, in the mysterious Salt Mountains, the young warrior Orman Breggin comes into possession of a famed weapon, and seeks to join the clans who live in the foothills. Returning characters include Esslemont stalwart Kyle, now known as ‘Whiteblade’ following the events of Stonewielder, who is drawn back to his home continent. Meanwhile The Crimson Guard finally make their way to Assail to rescue the captured Cal-Brinn and his squad, as well as to learn the truth of their Vow, hinted at in Blood and Bone. The famed bard Fisher Kel’Tath returns to his homeland of Assail after his time in Darujhistan, and soon encounters an amnesiac Tiste Andii washed up on the shore. Finally, Silverfox has arrived to bring the gift of the Redeemer to the T’lan Imass clans on Assail, but instead suffers a terrible betrayal that sees the Imass moving north, slaughtering all in their path.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on, as per usual. I didn’t dislike any of the storylines, although several felt fairly superfluous to the central narrative. This is the big problem that can plague fantasy; there’s nothing wrong with a huge cast as long as they all seek to reinforce and strengthen the core narrative, but in the Malazan series that’s not always the case. Esslemont is worse for this, but Erikson has been guilty of it too. Assail is, much like Blood and Bone, a travelogue narrative, with lots of people wandering around and exploring in ships. I didn’t mind in the last book because Esslemont drew the South East Asian influenced Jucuruku really well, but the faintly Nordic continent of Assail never quite comes alive the same way. The palpable aura of menace which has surrounded the continent since way back in Memories of Ice doesn’t truly realise itself. Assail has been described as a coda for the Malazan series, but that’s not really the case. What it is is a wrapping up of several (but not all) of Esslemont’s storylines as well as Erikson’s Silverfox arc. I don’t want to sound too negative; I enjoyed most of this book, and the actual ending convergence is fantastic, but there’s so much stuff beforehand that simply retreads old ground. The highlights for me were the Fisher and Silverfox arcs, as well as Jute, the most likeable newcomer. There gets to a point where you’ve read sixteen books in a series that you’ll sort of have to enjoy each new instalment, a bit like a literary Stockholm Syndrome.
Esslemont’s writing improves in some ways but steps back in others. He’s always been good at action scenes, but Assail has probably one of the best conclusions in the entire series. Something I really missed was the lack of a good bromance, one of my favourite running themes of the series. In fact, humour isn’t really on much display here, which is a shame because Esslemont actually showed a real knack for it particularly in Stonewielder and Blood and Bone. The dialogue in general takes a few steps backwards, with relatively well drawn characters from previous books such as Iron Bars beginning to actually lose some of their nuance.
The new characters are probably the most mixed bunch Esslemont’s introduced yet, with most simply serving as passive observers of the actions of far more interesting returning characters. The scene stealer is Cartheron Crust, former High Fist under Kellanved, supposedly ‘drowned’ under Laseen’s purges. It really drives home that Esslemont is at his best when he’s writing about the Malazan Empire itself. Whereas in Erikson’s books the Empire which gave the series it’s title played a less and less vital role, Esslemont’s best work is to be found in stories about this central organisation, which despite the naming of the series there’s still a lot we don’t know about. Esslemont’s next book is a prequel series set in the Old Empire, which I’m actually really optimistic about, as it forces Esslemont into focusing on what he’s good at.
Assail is absolutely worth a read and shouldn’t be skipped by any Malazan fan, but don’t expect to visit the land of human tyrants crushing armies of T’lan Imass promised back in Memories of Ice. That’s not what we have. I can’t really be trusted though; if it’s set in the Malazan world, I’ll always be in.