You asked and Ian Cameron Esslemont responded! In conjunction with the conclusion of the Night of Knives Malazan reread, we’ve got the answers to your questions about the Malazan series, Night of Knives, and more. (Just a small note before we begin, submitted questions were condensed and collected by username.) Click through to start reading!
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Firstly, let me give all of you a huge thanks for this fantastic re-read. It’s just great to see. My god, the amount of reading you’ve agreed to take on….
shalter: One point of discussion that would be interesting to have some light shed upon is—“Just how dead were Kel and Dancer before entering the Deadhouse?” Were they just kind of wounded? Or, were they not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead? (And then completed the walk in shadow night semi-ghost form?)
Now that you have three novels under your belt, what lessons about the craft of writing have you learned as you’ve gone along? Are Temper’s “curved longswords” double edged and cruciform or single edged? I’m picturing a double edged blade myself, but I’ve seen speculation otherwise.
Ian Cameron Esslemont: In many mythologies and religions you’ll find that for apotheosis, the transfiguration into another state, or level of being, the bonds of the flesh must first be weakened. So it was for one famous casualty of the Roman Empire, for example. As for most completely dead, well, only those who have walked the twilight shore between could say for sure….
And to lessons under the belt from manuscripts done…actually four now! Just completed the next novel to follow Stonewielder. It’s set in Darujhistan, titled Orb Sceptre, Throne.
Frankly, in tackling each project it seems that absolutely everything has to be relearned over and over. It’s a new proposition every day. I suppose it’s not for me to say what I’m succeeding at or not succeeding at, but I do believe I see some slow refinement and greater understanding of the craft from draft to draft. (At least I hope). Stonewielder isn’t out in the U.S. yet and I will say that I’m quite happy with that one—but then I think writers are always happiest with their most recent book. In the vein of craft lessons, I am currently working on an essay for inclusion in a small-press book on writing heroic fantasy (and I believe Steve may be as well). As someone who has taught creative writing (and it’s always easiest to see the weaknesses in others work) I hope to be able to offer some helpful hints on that.
For Temper’s swords: My first instinct is for double-edged as well, but thinking on it now I see him as a very heavy hitter relying on his strength for striking and for parrying and so I’d have to go with single-edged on that, and quite robust in cross-section.
RobMRobM : I also just noted something from Deadhouse Gates - one character is described as being someone whose father watched Kel and Dan ascend by going into the Deadhouse. I had not recognized that on earlier readthroughs. Who is the father being referred to?
Ian Cameron Esslemont: I have to say I’m not sure which parent that might be. The father of anyone from Malaz of that time, I suppose. Steve drives my crazy tossing off these character backstories that I then have to square to my already nearly completed manuscript!! To be fair, though, that’s only happened a few times. Very few given the sprawling monster we’ve created.
It’s really hit and miss on these details. Sometimes they catch and sometimes they fall to the ground. Sometimes entire stories can arise because of them as well. For example, Steve needed to have Leoman escape Y’Ghatan somehow and so we kicked it around together for a time and came up with his deal with the Enchantress. That detail gave me a great idea as to just who, of her agents, might show up again in the future….
Marc Rikmenspoel: When was the first draft of Night of Knives written? And the same for Return of the Crimson Guard? I’ve heard those were first written 20 years ago or so, and then re-written in the past few years. Is Stonewielder newly written for the first time in the past few years?
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Oh god, that was a long time ago. When did GotM first come out in the U.K.? Looking at my sagging shelves I see the old Bantam edition of 1999 (the one with Rake holding up Dragnipur—though that city is way too small for Pale or Darujhistan). So, if Gardens finally came out in 1999, then that would put Knives and Return back to the eighties, certainly. After 1999, Steve convinced me to take out the manuscripts to shop them around as the world appeared to have been well received and fantasy readers enjoyed it; and so I revised them to be shown around. There was great reluctance at first from Bantam and other publishers, and justifiably so in that both do have their flaws. However, after Pete Crowther at PS Publishing put out Knives Bantam relented, or admitted there might be some potential there, and offered a contract. So, yes, originally completed long ago, then revised and updated to incorporate facts and precedents from the subsequent evolution in the world. As for Stonewielder, the events in Korel had originally been set aside for me to present (but we knew both knew the big picture of what would happen there and had even ran games set there). That manuscript was only completed two years ago.
SneakyVerin: Thank you for a great read...I really enjoyed this book. I am very curious about Oleg, and the story between he and Kellanved. Is this story going to be told somewhere in the series? If it has, and I just haven’t gotten that far yet, please excuse me, but I found it something I was wondering about when I finished this book.
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Thanks for that great speculation. You know, Steve and I have talked over presenting those stories from the beginning of the Empire: K & D’s first meeting and such. We agreed that I might tackle them as novellas just like his Bauchelain and Korbel Broach pieces. They’d be non-sequential moments from the histories showing various encounters and pivotal moments. All will have to wait however, until I finish the last two of my first six for Bantam.
Mieneke: Hi Cam, I was wondering how hard it was to keep the characters that crossover into Steven’s books on the right line personality-wise. To me that would seem the hardest. Did you have to pay a lot of attention to them not developing quirks that would fit in your story, but would be a continuity conflict with Steven’s books?
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Yes, keeping broaches of continuity to a minimum is our bugbear. I try to follow along as accurately as I can with what Steve has established in print while at the same time adding touches or evolutions that are true to what exists already. But sometimes mistakes do slip through. Actually, its easier for us than it might seem in that we know a great many of these characters very well already: we took turns playing them back when we developed the world!
Some of the surface detail differences can be understood as just normal variation in people’s lives; beards are grown, hair gets cut or is gown long; people get lots of sun or wind and darken—or go to live in Seattle and loose all colour; armour or clothes break or wear out and are changed.
Robin55077: Hello Cam and thank you for your additions to this great series! My question is two-part: First, what were some of the difficulties you found once you started writing into a series that already existed by Steven? Obviously there were advantages as well, but it seems that you may have encountered some difficulties that you maybe hadn’t expected ahead of time? I am just curious about that and how you dealt with them.
Second, and yes, perhaps outside the realm here, but is your wife planning on publishing anything else? Anything new in the works?
Cam, I have another question I just have to ask.... Why did you tell us early in the book that Temper filed “false papers” to join the guard in Malaz City, but not have him use an alias? I am assuming that you probably read the posts so I won’t go over it all again here, but just wondering about why there was no alias. I still haven’t been able to figure that out. Thanks for taking the time to answer questions for us. It is such a treat!
Ian Cameron Esslemont: As you know, most of the full arc of our first set of books in the world was worked out together. So, the big picture was set out and known to both of us. It’s in those small details that the terrifying differences and new inventions lay. Those have been my greatest heart-stopping moments. As an example, one of the the biggest problems we had to date was in the conquering of Li Heng. Steve and I remembered it differently. And so, while I was working on Return, Steve let drop a memory from one of his characters regarding the fall of Li Heng—which was completely different from how I’d just portrayed it in Return! The emails flew then, I tell you. Anyway, we managed to square it away. That was one of our most significant close calls out of what actually has been very few—given just how disastrously things might have spun out of control.
And you mention my wife, Gerri Brightwell, and her writing! Wow, many thanks. Yes, as you may know she has out a literary historical fiction novel set in nineteenth century England, titled Dark Lantern. Right now she’s shopping another historical novel inspired by the true historical incident of an attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory. Many thanks for asking!
As for Temper and his reenlistment. Ah yes. He certainly doesn’t think like a thief, does he? He knew he had to falsify his service record, of course, but as for a new name, well…. It wasn’t his birth name anyway, but he’d earned it, and no one was going to take it away from him! You want it, you can come and try to take it! (or so the thinking might’ve gone).
alt146: I haven’t seen any interviews with Cam, so I am going to start with the boring question of who are your favourite Malazan characters and scenes?
Slightly more meatier question—when you wrote Night of Knives, you were obviously targetting a fan-base established by Steve who are familiar with the Malazan world and its history. If you had been able to get a book out before or around Gardens of the Moon, would you still have chosen to cover the same subject? Or would we have seen a vastly different Return of the Crimson Guard as your debut? Steve has stated before the Malazan series is essentially a dialogue between you and him—which would make it a fundamentally different experience for you to have read the books. For the majority of us, entry into the series involved a lot of confusion, eventual understanding and recognition of the myriad clues and hints we missed the first time round. You on the other hand would almost be in reread mode from the first book.
The question buried in all this is has Steve ever managed to catch you off guard, or shock and amaze you the way he routinely does all of us? How often in the series have you felt there was something in the books meant primarily for you (an obscure reference to a particularly fun night or campaign, etc.) rather than for the benefit of regular readers? So far your novels have dealt primarily with people and places introduced to us by Steve—especially the supporting cast. Do you have plans for a Midnight Tides-esque introduction of your own only loosely related story arcs, locations and characters? My apologies if Stonewielder is that book, I’m still waiting for stock to hit our shores and have avoided reviews and the like for fear of spoilers.
Ian Cameron Esslemont: On questions of favourites of course the author must answer that they’re like one’s children and there are no favourites. And, true enough, of my own I can’t really point to any one. But I will say that one of my favourite moments, and I believe Steve’s, is approached by Knives. It’s the moment Laseen takes the empire and Kellanved and Dancer have been usurped to journey on to an uncertain, but perhaps greater, future. They lie wet and dying on the shore and Kellanved howls: Noooooo! We laughed so much when we played the moment. It’s still one of my favourites.
Knives and Return were actually first written before Steve managed to convince a publisher to take on his novelization of our Gardens screenplay. So, with Knives, I wasn’t targeting any audience—nothing had yet been published! So too with Return. In fact, Steve’s novels were all written knowing already events of Knives and Return. So, as he says, it has been a dialogue from the beginning.
As the years passed, and Steve found great success with his Fallen series of Malaz novels (far greater success than either of us had ever imagined!), the manuscripts stayed in my drawer while I pursued an academic teaching career. He, however, kept encouraging me to take the leap as well and so, eventually, I dared as well.
As for Steve surprising me… man, all the time! In every way! Reading his vision of the world is as astounding to me as it is to any reader, I assure you. And inside jokes—very few actually. Very few. There are a few direct moments which we sculpt hoping to please each other. One of the most recent was him presenting that brief conversation in which Temper tells Kellanved to **ck off!
For a Midnight Tides style clean-slate beginning, Stonewielder does deal with a new region and so will be that sort of a change of venue.
And if I may be permitted a self-serving plug: just go to a .ca or .uk online store and order a copy! We’re all one big reading community these days—those nineteenth-century old-fashioned notions of separations in national markets are now irrelevant.
Karsa Hello: Thanks yet again for taking our questions! In Memories of Ice, one of the characters says
“Artanthos...,“ Silverfox quietly murmured. ”He’s not used that name in a long time. Nor is he as he appears.”
When I first read it, I of course had no idea what it meant. But after readying NoK, we know exactly who it is...and that changes the payoff a bit when it is revealed in the MoI...and if I was really paying attention, there would be no surprise for me who Artan is if I had paid closer attention to MoI ....so, is this something you worry about as your timelines cross over—the unintentional (or intentional?) spoilers that come because the timelines aren’t contiguous and the order you read the books in between the two series isn’t set?
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Confusion is a worry, and some readers will be turned off. They will walk away frustrated as not enough threads match up or play out in what they have seen so far. However, Steve and I trust that in time many will return as they come to understand that, eventually, it will all pay off and things match up (well, most things anyway). It’s a big bet but it’s the artistic one we made when we created the world and the series.
The problem (if you can call it that) is that we cannot control which of the books readers will come to first. Because of that we try to make each of them stand alone—yet obviously that isn’t entirely possible. Much will remain unexplained…we just hope not too much.
billcap: Hi Cam, thanks for helping us with this project! I had a few questions.
1.) One of my favorite scenes is the off-stage confrontation between Laseen and Dancer/Kel. I was wondering if you’d always planned for that to happen off-stage and if so, why and if not, what changed your mind? And what concerns you may have had, if any, about having such a prominent scene in the series happening off-stage.
.2.) Another favorite aspect was the opposing POV: one world-weary and experienced and one youthful and eager. I assume that decision came very early and was curious as to how directly it informed your writing throughout, in terms of apportioning plot events, dialogue, etc.
3.) I thought the brevity of the book sometimes worked against the reading experience, with some scenes feeling a bit rushed and while I rarely complain about a book being too short, I would have liked NoK to have another 50-100 pages for the reader to work with. I was just curious as to whether you wrote roughly to this length or wrote quite a bit more than cut it down a lot, as some authors do. Thanks again!
Ian Cameron Esslemont: I felt at the time that it had to be offstage; that in many ways it was actually an intensely private moment. Perhaps I should have tackled it, I don’t know. But what’s done is done. As to length, yes, looking back, if I could write it again it probably would be longer (but then it would be a different novel). So, what-ifs must remain mere thought experiments. In the apportioning of the narratives: it was easier, of course, to give voice to Temper in that he had a voice. Kiska was much harder in that she had yet to have developed hers. Balancing was the most difficult task in that regard (and I don’t know how well I succeeded in the end).
As to writing tons and cutting back, picking and choosing. No, I never do that. Sometimes scenes don’t work out and so I erase them and start again from scratch. That does happen now and then and man is that frustrating. A whole day’s writing that won’t show up in the MS! But that’s about the extent of any “structural” editing. As for paragraphs and sentences—lots there of course!
ksh1elds555: Hi Cam, I feel like it is a great honor to be able to interact with you and Steven and ask questions about this amazing series. Thank you thank you thank you! I have a quick question...I really loved the Stormriders as portrayed in NoK. They come across as dark and mysterious and full of some natural power, but are never fully understood (at least I don’t). I have just read up through Bonehunters...have not read RotCG or beyond yet. I would love to read more about the Stormriders and perhaps also the soldiers who man the StormWall. One of these is a pretty prominent soldier in the Bonehunters. Any chance we might see more of them in a future novel/novella/short story? Thanks again!
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Well, well, well. Stonewielder is the novel for you! (Though I would recommend you tackle it after Return). I’m very glad to hear that the Riders interested you. If you do get to Stonewielder my hope is that you will come away musing: ahh! So that’s how it all fits together…. Actually, that’s our hope for every novel in the series come to think about it.
Fiddler: I noticed that in RotCG and Stonewielder (or should we call that ’SW’ from now?) you are using the same kind of quotes at the start of a chapter as Steven does in his Malazan books. But in NoK you didn’t. Are you planning on adding some in the future, if that possibility presents itself? Since in this book we are witness to a few very big events, I think the story would benefit from them.
Ian Cameron Esslemont: Yes, in Knives brevity was the rule. I had more room in Return. For Stonewielder I also have quotes/observations as epigrams and I hope to continue to do so for the rest of the series. Though, man, are they getting tough! I spend way too much time worrying about those little pieces. Since the whole series is in fact a kind of “history” Steve and I can retrospectively comment on things, as it were. It’s a great advantage to have.
That’s about it for now. Thanks again to all of you. It’s great to have the chance to talk about Malaz and I look forward to chipping in more in the future.
Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.
Amanda Rutter contributes reviews and a regular World Wide Wednesday post to fantasyliterature.com, as well as reviews for her own site floortoceilingbooks.com (covering more genres than just speculative), Vector Reviews and Hub magazine.