Once upon a time, one could speak of the “upcoming conclusion” to the tales of the Malazan Empire, the multi-volume shared world series by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. But with Erikson currently writing the second book in his prequel trilogy, and both he and Esslemont contracted for more books set in this world, it’s best nowadays to perhaps muse on “resting points” rather than “conclusions.”
And so it is with Esslemont’s sixth book, Assail, billed as bringing to “a thrilling close” the “epic story of the Malazan Empire,” but which also, even as it ties up some loose plot threads, raises entirely new questions. And that’s fine; even with my admittedly mixed response to Assail, I’d be happy to spend lots more time in the Malazan universe.
Assail is set on the oft-mentioned but never seen continent of (wait for it), Assail, which has long been rumored to be the most dangerous land in the world. But the promise of riches will overcome a lot of fear and when new rumors arise that go something like, “Gold! Gold in them thar hills!” the rush is on. A mix of fortune-seekers, pirates, thugs, merchants descend upon the continent, most of them willing to go right through its native inhabitants with nary a backward glance. Joining the fortune hunters, though with their own reasons for journeying to Assail, are some familiar faces: Kyle, now known as “Whiteblade” from earlier events on Korel; Shimmer, Bars, Blues, K’azz, and other members of the Crimson Guard; the bard Fisher, returning home much to his own surprise; Silverfox and the T’lan Imass, though not necessarily working in concert, and a few others, including one amnesiac Tiste Andii who may or may not be someone we’ve met before. As one would expect, the multiple storylines and POVs converge by the end, which if not the “conclusion” to the series is at least a good place to stop and rest.
In my last few reviews of Esslemont’s books, I’ve noted how each shows improvement over its predecessor, and this remains true of Assail, even though I had some issues with it. Two of the biggest improvements over time have come in the pacing and narrative structure. While earlier books sometimes lagged in places or had abrupt shifts, Assail’s 500-plus pages sailed by quickly and in a single sitting, smoothly shifting back and forth amongst the multiple POVs. The pace and fluidity went a long way toward overcoming some of the book’s flaws, making for a fast and enjoyable read, and while I might argue for losing some pages, it wouldn’t be to speed up the pace.
Instead, it would be to excise some repetitive elements: Kyle’s storyline, for instance, involves a lot of running and fighting, and I confess to growing a bit weary of it even before we had more than one person slice their fingers off trying to wield his magic sword (I may as well also confess here that I’m generally not a fan of magic swords that allow a single person to slaughter vastly superior numbers). Other hostile encounters, as well as some of the traveling, also felt a bit redundant, while the aforementioned amnesiac of mysterious origin and great power was a little too similar for my liking to a character from one of Esslemont’s earlier novels.
Beyond the repetitive nature of some of the plot, I do wish less of it was created by people simply not talking to one another (I blame my greatly lessened tolerance for this on Lost). And I wished as well for a better overarching sense of things; while it flowed smoothly from one thread to another, and the convergence did lend a sense of cohesion to it all at the end, events at times felt a bit arbitrary—I wasn’t quite sure how they fit into the larger world. Though to be fair, a gold rush in and of itself is more than a little arbitrary and chaotic, and so this might have been part of the point.
On the positive side of things with regard to plot, conflict is a dominant thread, and if some individual scenes felt a little redundant, in a broad way, Esslemont does a great job of varying the forms conflict takes. We have one-on-one duels, sieges, naval encounters (a particular strength of this author), sorcerous battles, betrayals, and more, including one especially taut attempted ambush at sea, a deliciously creepy segment imbued with a wonderful sense of gothic horror (think “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” meets the ship scene in Dracula), and an absolutely spectacular scene describing the defense of a keep, the imagery of which rivals nearly anything that has come in the 10, 000-plus pages of the Malazan Empire prior. The reviewer in me desperately wants to quote at length from that particular event to convey just how fantastic a scene it is, but even though it technically wouldn’t be much of a plot “spoiler,” the reader in me just won’t let me diminish my fellow readers’ experience. Damn it.
There were also several strong non-conflict-centered scenes. One set in a wonderfully realized tent city that could have easily come out of a well-written historical novel set during the California Gold Rush, and another set at a bridge of bones (OK, both of these setting do end up embroiled in conflict, but still… ).
Like the plot, characterization has its ups and downs. Interestingly, I was much more captivated by Esslemont’s new characters rather that the familiar faces, especially Jute, a ship’s captain, and Orman, an Assail clansman. Orman is young and active, but despite being the product of a warrior/blood feud culture, he is often torn by the violence required of him. Witness to what might be the end of his kind, he is a mythic sort of character—a defender, a quester, a wielder of a legendary and seemingly magic weapon. This mythic context is nicely played off against his youth and inexperience, making for a rich characterization.
Jute, meanwhile, is middle-aged, married to the love of his life and sailing partner (a blind sea-witch), more observer than a man of action, yet while he often gives lip service to caution and moderation (especially to his resigned wife), his curiosity tends to get him into situations where he is over his head. These were without a doubt my favorite main characters. I also enjoyed the characterization of Reuth, a young navigator forced to mature more quickly than his years. All three of these characters grow over the course of the novel, learning more about themselves in the process; all three form (or already have) a warm and believable emotional bond with another character that deepens our view of them, and I became fully invested in what happened to each.
I was less enamored of some of the other major players. Kyle has never been a very compelling creation for me, and events in Assail didn’t convince me otherwise. He always seems more reactive than active, he doesn’t seem to grow or change much over time, he’s got that damn magic sword, and here, while he’s supposed to be torn over his violence, his actions seem to belie what his internal monologue tells us (I found Orman’s similar feelings on violence to be much more believable and moving). Finally, he has what for me seemed implausible feelings for two other characters. While we’re on that topic, I won’t go into spoiler details, but most of the romance/sex in the novel seemed to come out of nowhere and return to nowhere; in other words, I never truly “felt” it or believed it.
Fisher’s story didn’t do much for me, mostly because it spent much of the time focused on the mysterious Andii, a storyline that, as I’ve mentioned, felt a little too familiar. Neither character came much alive for me. The same was disappointingly true of the Crimson Guard. Beyond the plot issues—this was the big one with regard to lack of communication driving much of the plot, and I can’t say the big reveal was much of a surprise—I was disappointed in the portrayals of Shimmer, Bars, and Blues, some of my favorite characters from prior books. There was too little spark there in these characters, and while I get that they are quest-driven in this book, and that a shadow hangs over them because of that quest, I still wanted more sense of personality from all of them. Silverfox, meanwhile, suffered from too much of a one-note tone, and I think her lack of page time also did a disservice to the character.
Despite having several issues with two of the more basic storytelling elements—plot and character—I thoroughly enjoyed Assail. Sure, I marked places in my margins where scenes felt repetitive, or where there was some clumsy exposition or romance. And yes, part of me wouldn’t have minded if Esslemont had pulled a shocker and knocked off Kyle (maybe had him slice his own limbs off accidentally). But the book’s structural strengths—its pace and smooth shifts in POV, plus its several vividly exciting set scenes—the sea ambush, the keep’s defense, and others, combined with two particularly compelling characters in Jute and Orman, meant that the novel’s positives easily outweighed its negatives, thus making it an easy recommendation on its own.
But of course, one can’t look at this novel simply on its own. Presented as a “concluding” novel in a major series, one has to ask how Assail does in that context as well. Esslemont does answer several running questions in the series—about the Crimson Guard’s vow, Silverfox’s role as the Summoner, the T’lan-Jaghut war, about what happened to several characters whose fates were left hanging in earlier books, and of course, about the deeply mysterious continent of Assail itself. Some of these answers pack more of a punch than others (some pack quite a bit). And the ending really does bring, in some ways, an entirely satisfying sense of closure in a way that feels wholly logical and appropriate. But this wouldn’t be a Malazan book if some questions remain unanswered, and if new questions weren’t raised. And if that ending does close down some paths, it opens up others. I for one, would be happy knowing we might still travel down one or two as readers in the future.