Dancer’s Lament by Ian Cameron Esslemont
I’m what can only be called a Malazan superfan. The prospect of any journey back into this world makes me somewhat giddy with excitement, but I can’t deny that the series is occasionally uneven. Ian Cameron Esslemont isn’t as consistently good as his co-creator Steven Erikson, but nonetheless has written some great books. Return of the Crimson Guard and Blood and Bone are great; Orb, Sceptre, Throne and Assail not so much. I was therefore a bit nervous about Dancer’s Lament, the first of the trilogy which details the rise of the Malazan Empire and the human lives of the men who go on to become Shadowthrone and Cotillion. Thankfully, Dancer’s Lament is Esslemont’s best book so far and a fantastic introduction to two of the most fascinating figures in the series.
The city of Li Heng, at the heart of the continent of Quon Tali, has stood untaken for generations, with massive walls built to repel the monstrous man-jackal Ryllandaras. The predatory eye of the King of Itko Kan has turned upon the city and is now laying siege, which is governed by the mysterious sorcerer known as the Protectress, Shalmanat. At this turbulent time two figures enter the city; one is Dorin Rav, apprentice to a legendary master assassin seeking to make his name and the other is the bizarre Dal Hon mage who goes by the name of Wu. The two soon form a partnership, using their complementing skills and personalities, to shape the city of Li Heng and, eventually, the entire world.
No points for Malazan fans who work out who Dorin Rav and Wu are and who they become, but the mystery isn’t important. I was a bit disappointed that Forge of Darkness shied away from focusing on Anomander Rake; I can see why Erikson did it but it was still disappointing. Esslemont does not take this approach in Dancer’s Lament, with Dorin Rav being very clearly the main protagonist. In fact, Dorin is the clearest main protagonist in any Malazan book so far, which have instead usually featured sprawling, vast casts. This focus benefits Esslemont considerably. Erikson is very good at creating a sense of scale with a wide range of storylines, but Esslemont simply isn’t that good at it. When he focuses his writing on (mostly) one storyline and city, everything improves massively. It may have taken six books to get there, but it feels in Dancer’s Lament that Esslemont has finally found his voice as a writer.
It isn’t perfect; the final confrontation is a bit underwhelming, but Dancer’s Lament is solid in a way that few of Esslemont’s books have been. This is still a Malazan book, so we have a few scenes of ancient beings talking cryptically to each other. That may sound critical, but when written well I actually really like these scenes. Esslemont hasn’t always been so good at these, but as with every other area Dancer’s Lament improves in the sense of wider world building and scale significantly.
The characterisation is a strong point, with Dorin being human enough to empathise with but with signs to see of what he will become. Dorin has trained himself to be uncaring, but seeing empathy and passion burst through anyway is lovely to see and completely in keeping with the conflicted God of Assassins he eventually ascends to. Wu, the eventual Kellanved (presumably) is a bit more mysterious, which makes sense as the longer plans are ultimately his. There are some great familiar faces, with my favourite being a young Dassem Ultor, appearing as a passionate and dour Sword for his God Hood. Malazan fans know how this particular arrangement ends up and I can’t wait to finally see how it happens. We also finally see a bit more of Nightchill, an intriguing Elder Goddess who was killed off half way through Gardens of the Moon. Knowing where these characters end up doesn’t make things less exciting; I’m desperate to see how these figures become the legends and, in more than one case, Gods they eventually become.
Dancer’s Lament is a great book and a worthy addition to the Malazan canon. I cannot wait to read the rest in the ‘Path to Ascendancy series and continue the journey. With Fall of Light releasing in a little over a month I am thrilled to be jumping head first back into the Malazan world. There really is nothing else like it.