Welcome to the Malazan Re-read of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda (with Amanda, new to the series, going first), and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll do a wrap up of Return of the Crimson Guard (RotCG).
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing. Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Just a note regarding book order and our break before plunging into the next title.
Here is the future order of the novels:
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God
Orb, Sceptre, Throne
Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach
Blood and Bone
If people still want us around after Blood and Bone, we’ll tackle Forge of Darkness.
We will be taking two weeks off after the Cam Q&A, so our next post—starting Toll the Hounds—will be on 10th April.
Whole Book Wrap—Amanda
I don’t think I’m as forgiving as Bill about this novel, and even he is conflicted. You see, when I came to the end of it—and even disregarding it as part of the Malazan series—my overwhelming response was “is that it?” We slog through an awful lot of pages that don’t really amount to all that much. There are some deeply unnecessary sections. Even were this a novel from another series, I wouldn’t rate it that highly.
So, what were the problems for me?
First and foremost, the structure of the novel just didn’t work. We flitted between POVs—some of which didn’t add anything to the overall story—and didn’t stay long enough with those POVs to really get a sense of the characters or how the events shaped them. Sometimes we didn’t go back to a POV until the details were a little muzzy in my head, causing me to flick backwards and forwards to try and sort out what was occurring.
And it all built to something that didn’t feel like a tremendous climax or convergence. Yes, we had a battle between the Guard and the Malazans, but it wasn’t connected to plenty that we had read about, so it didn’t feel as though it brought everything together. Yes, we had a rent, but that came rather out of leftfield for me, and didn’t feel as though it sat logically with the rest of the story. Yes, we had the death of Laseen, which affected me more than I thought I would, but happened very abruptly—to the point that a few commenters said on their first run through they hadn’t realised it had taken place. Yes, we had the battle with Ryllandaras, which was pretty epic, but which didn’t slot into the rest of the story very easily. Like I said, this novel is piecemeal.
I would have far preferred a novel that handled less POVs, but really got to the heart of them. When Esslemont allowed himself the luxury of staying with a POV for enough time, we started to get glimpses of what he could accomplish with characterisation and dialogue. Nait and his squad were an absolute highlight. I really enjoyed Ullen. It was fab to spend time with Rillish. If we’d seen virtually everything from their POV, I think this would have been a damn fine novel. It feels almost as though, because Erikson writes numerous POVs, Esslemont felt he had to deploy the same structure and method of building tension, and I think the novel suffered for it.
I do feel as though Esslemont oscillates between telling his readers too much—belabouring parts of the story—and not telling them enough. It took me doing some external reading to be 100% sure that Traveller was Dessembrae, so some of that last scene in the epilogue of them together lost a part of its impact because I hadn’t followed the connection. Reader fault, or author fault? Not sure.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Those who followed the posts each week will know that I delighted in a few scenes and felt that they really showed Esslemont’s burgeoning talent. As I say, the whole storyline involving Nait and how he built his new squad of sappers was just brilliantly handled.
And, even though he merely flitted in and out of the book, I loved the way that Tayschrenn was introduced and did his thing. But how much of that is to do with the background I’ve already read to this character in a few other books?
The two characters that fell most flat were Ghelel and Kyle. Neither had the agency or drive to really push their storylines into something that I wanted to read. At least Kyle had the benefit of other characters around him that were of interest, like Traveller. Ghelel was just a novel non-entity—which is a terrible shame, because she looked like an Arya Stark sort of gal when we first met her.
So, altogether, my rather harsh verdict is a rather lacklustre 2/5. I want to like his books more than I do. Mind, I’m not put off from giving him another go!
Whole Book Wrap—Bill
Just a note that Cam will be joining us for the usual question session. And also as usual, Amanda and I will be taking a small break between books. Look for the notification on Cam’s Q and A from Tor soon.
When I first read Return of the Crimson Guard, I thought it was an improvement on Night of Knives but still had issues with various aspects of the novel. The reread hasn’t radically changed my first impression, but I will say the book held up well on a second read, making me think it is perhaps a bit stronger than I’d first given it credit for.
One of the obvious big changes is that the book is much, much longer and throws a lot more storylines and characters at you. It’s a book with a much wider scope than the first, and while I enjoyed that larger scope, I felt at times that the author was still feeling his way toward managing it, creating a somewhat uneven experience depending on where you were in the novel at the time. I wouldn’t have minded if some of the storylines were cut out or pared way back so others might get more emphasis, sort of like pruning back a rosebush to get better blooms.
Some of my favorite and least favorite aspects, parts that worked for me and parts that didn’t (not an exhaustive list).
Worked: Any of the scenes with Nait/Sergeant Jumpy. Having come to this having seen fully-fledged sapper/saboteur squads, I thought it was a brilliant move to show us the formation of one from the start. I loved the growth in Nait from the first time we see him to being in charge of his own group at the end, and especially liked how “in charge” was often tongue-in-cheek, as he often is prodded into an act or just ends up in the right place at the right time (or, depending on one’s view, the wrong place at the wrong time). All of his scenes were lively and engaging and it’s hard for me to imagine a reader not wanting to see more of him and his squad in the future.
Didn’t Work: Ghelel. Big surprise, I know. This whole plotline just didn’t work for me. I didn’t care about the main character at all or many of the side characters involved and it felt nearly entirely removed from other events in the novel. Every time we turned to this thread, I just wanted us to exit it as soon as possible.
Worked: The Li Heng scenes. The relationships among the characters, especially Sunny, Hurl, and Storo was strongly conveyed and moving in its results. The theme with regard to guilt/responsibility in connection to Ryllandaras gave this section added depth. And they get some nice fight scenes in as well.
Didn’t Work: The way we left these guys behind for too long a stretch. I thought it diminished the potential impact of what happens with Hurl’s group at the end.
Worked: Ereko. I really liked the idea of this character quite a bit: his thoughtfulness, gentleness, companionship, compassion and empathy, the sense of sadness that surrounds him over being the last of his kind and the sense of foreboding of what’s to come. I would not have minded at all spending more time with him and thought he didn’t quite meet his full potential as a character, despite mostly working for me.
Didn’t Work: Kyle. He just sort of was there for me. I didn’t dislike him, didn’t like him. His storyline wasn’t as annoying as Ghelel’s, but not as engaging as the others. I mostly just found him to be a relatively bland character. Beyond that, in general, his entire storyline didn’t do much for me and I found it very uneven.
Worked: Rillish and Talia and Chord. I liked all these characters in general and their interactions with each other. I thought the romance between the two was realistically and movingly handled and the fact that they are heading into war lent it a sharp sense of suspense and boding tragedy. And there were several particularly strong action scenes in this storyline, such as the ride through the warrants and the tense scene over what the Wickans were doing underground.
Didn’t Work: The otataral mines. This was better than the Ghelel subplot for me only because I found the characters more interesting and likable—Ho, Su, the two mages. But I can’t really say that I found them or the storyline all that engaging. And, as with Ghelel, it seemed too divorced from the other events until the big convergence at the end, where it felt more tacked on simply to ratchet things up a bit.
Worked: Tayschrenn. While I had issues with the ending(s), I did like his portrayal at the close when he appears, as well as his earlier moments.
Didn’t Work: Topper: I guess I mostly just didn’t get why he had to be all raggedyman insane.
Worked: Possum: I just found his POV wholly enjoyable, and loved how he kept getting it handed to him despite his high opinion of himself.
Didn’t Work: The endings. With the emphasis on the plural s. Though individually there was a lot to like, as I’ve said, I thought the close suffered from being over-packed, with events stacking atop events.
Worked: Just about all the battle scenes, large and small—at Heng, with Rillish, the Guard’s fight in the capitol (especially with Black and the discovery of the wagon full of munitions), the big battle at the end. Whether on a large scale or small scale, whether suspenseful or tragic or scary or played for humor, I thought Esslemont general did an excellent job with these scenes.
Worked: Laseen’s death. It somehow seemed appropriate that this character, such a cipher in so many ways, gets this kind of death. It was nice to see her skills before then and I thought the moment where her face returns to youth was surprisingly moving.
Worked: Osserc and the mop. And I’ll end with that one just because I like that image to linger.