Mar 22 2013 12:00pm

Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Return of the Crimson Guard, Novel Wrap Up

The Malazan Re-read of the Fallen on Return of the Crimson Guard, Novel Wrap-upWelcome 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 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.

1. TallJames
Is Lassen dead though? We don't see her corpse in a POV and i'm a bit lost on the timelines. From what I recall other books occur after this and in them the implication is that shes alive and in the background being Empress, or am I just confused?
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Good wrap ups from both Bill and Amanda. I pretty much concur with Bill's works/didn'ts. I would add votes for Laseen and Tay here as being well done and very important pieces of the story.
The Mallick Rel portions were also intersting in what they seem to portend for the future.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
TallJames@1:As far as we know at this point Laseen is dead.
Tricia Irish
4. Tektonica
Thanks, Amanda and Bill, for finally getting me through this book. I agree with you whole heartedly, Amanda. The jumping around povs, really put me off. In fact I quit reading this book long ago, and only finished with you.

I didn't get a sense of most of the characters...Ghelel, Kyle. It all seemed frustratingly disjointed to me. I did like Nait/Jumpy, et al. And the appearance of several characters that we already knew...Osserc, Tayschren, Laseen....still, and forever a cypher.

Thank you for doing Toll the Hounds next. Looking forward to it.
5. Tufty
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.

Looks like a good order to me, though I'm surprised at the insertion of all the B&KB books. I guess most of them are already out-of-timeline at this point so it doesn't matter much, but on the other hand I think they tend to work better as fun little individual interludes between the heftier full novels, rather than put all together. Plus I think Crack'd Pot Trail really makes a great sort of "epilogue" for the entire series as a whole with its commentary on storytelling and storytellers.

Assail is also supposed to come out this year, so you may end up wanting to put that in after B&B before diving into the prequel trilogies, but we can figure that out when we're closer to the end of the list.

Since you're adding the B&KB novellas, any plans to insert the Goats of Glory short story into there? Between TtH and DoD would be optimal for it timeline-wise, though it doesn't really matter much.
Tai Tastigon
6. Taitastigon
Hi everybody,

back in after a while. Tbh, until this specific reread was done. I´m sorry, guys, but I just don´t *dig* ICE. He is a very sweet guy, from what I have read so far, and he seems to improve in latter tomes, but no thanks, sorry. Maybe I am spoiled from SE´s very intense, idiosyncratic style. If I took a cinematographic standpoint to explain: SE is Martin Scorsese doing Francis Ford Coppola, period from Godfathers 1 & 2 to Apocalypse Now. ICE is McG doing a remake of 'John Carter from Mars' on half the budget.That may hit some tastes. Mine it doesn´t.
Re the specific details of RotCG: Amanda is spot-on. No need to expand further.
See you guys around when TtH starts (and boy, is that going to be a contrast...)
Darren Kuik
7. djk1978
Wow, I'm surprised at the negativity. I too found a few scenes and plotlines flat, the same ones as everyone else, but I thought the good stuff more than made up for it. I liked this book a lot. Yes the authors are different but I still enjoyed RotCG immensely.
Steven Halter
8. stevenhalter
djk1978@7:I thought the good did outweigh the bad, also.
Chris Hawks
9. SaltManZ
My vote's for "Not great, but worth the time, if barely." Which maybe seems a little out-of-sorts with my 4/5 star rating. I put it right in the middle of the ICE pack, going (best to worst): SW, BaB, RotCG, NoK, OST.

And am the only one with concerns about reading Blood and Bone before Forge of Darkness? It makes sense if we're not necessarily going to go into the Khark trilogy, I guess, but still.

And does the B&KB reread only include the three collected stories, or will Crack'd Pot Trail and Wurms of Blearmouth (if it's widely available by that time) be in there as well? I suppose that's still a ways off anyway.
10. Tufty
I guess I'm not surprised by the negativity, though I don't agree with it. ICE strongpoints has always been his action (and horror) sequences, and spreading things out to a chapter a week does make the pacing seem more spread out, IMO, whereas I know when I first read this I more or less couldn't help myself from reading from the Talian-vs-Malazans battle to the end in one sitting. I imagine TtH might suffer from being spread across too much bread, too.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

@Salt-ManZ, I don't think leaving FoD aside until after getting through the combined "present" series will be a problem. There is that one particular word and its implications, but the word does come up before B&B, too. Like the TtH builder, it will just be a bit more built-up of a mystery until revelations abound in FoD.

Same goes for the various characters whom we have different perspectives of between the Tiste prequels and main series - for those who haven't read FoD before B&B it will just be more of what they are like in GotM-to-OST, and FoD will have bigger unveilings because of it.
Jamie Watkins
11. Treesinger
It is funny but I just finished reading Toll the Hounds the other day and I read Return of the Crimson Guard just before that and I have the same complaints about TtH that are voiced about RotCG. The confusing and constant change of POV's were hard to follow. I thoroughly enjoyed RotCG and I think the criticisms are too harsh. Erickson is just as guilty as Esselmont.
12. worrywort
My opinion of the book improved upon re-read (from like a 2.5 to a 3.5 on the Goodreads scale I guess). I had basically no problem following any of the storylines, and was pleasantly surprised by how well (upon reflection) it fit the tapestry of the whole series. Picked up a whole lot more of the Light throughline too. And the failures of the Old Guard rang more true, even if they were underserved on screen time.

I also had no problem with Ghelel, and thought the notion of tackling the rise and fall (ie abandonment) of a token figurehead an interesting thing to include. I didn't find it emotionally resonant, besides some sympathy, but didn't need to. Also found the Otataral Island crew pretty interesting...a few nice characters, a pretty neat life-is-unfair punch to the gut at their escape, and also some extra Crimson Guard diaspora stuff. I could have done with even more diaspora stuff, to be honest.

If I agree strongly with any of the criticisms, it's that Kyle was flat and bland. I liked plenty of the events his story carries us through, but his POV rarely rises to the occasion. And if I have a criticism of my own, it's simply that there weren't enough Crimson Guard POVs. Even one-offs with minor Guardsmen during the big fight would have been nice.
Brian R
13. Mayhem
I'm pretty solidly with Bill in likes/dislikes, giving the book as a whole around a 7/10.Solid work, with flashes of brilliance, but a definite drop from expectations.
I personally would have preferred he dropped the Ghelel storyline entirely in return for more time with the others, but on the other hand I quite liked Kyle's journey, and I think with a bit more time invested in it it would have worked better. The discovery of Kazz and the end of Ereko definitely needed work, but I really liked Ereko's journey.
That being said, I'm amazed how many little shadowings I missed on first and second readthroughs, especially all the references to Light and Osserc in the way that the main sequence books tend to refer to Shadow or Darkness. There's a surprising amount of subtlety there, though the relative straightforwardness of the narrative tends to disguise it.

I have to say, Esslemont really knows how to write a compelling action scene - I've never managed to read the later chapters without going right through to the end, and to that end he only gets better as he goes on.

I do feel I would have liked to have seen more of the Crimson Guard themselves, to explore their motivations, and especially to get a better feel for the different factions. Shimmer, Skinner, Smoky & Stoop were the only ones to get a real brushstroke. Cowl, Mara, Isha and the others were barely sketches, and the rest are merely impressions of paint. The five on the bridge manage to reveal so much with barely a few lines, I think a similar look at other parts of the diaspora would have been well rewarded, and made The Last Stand of the Avowed slightly easier for many to swallow.
14. Raven728
I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite a while, but I have to admit that about a third of the way into it, I had a strong urge to put it down and move on to TtH. I stuck with it, however, and I'm glad I did, because when things really got going it became very enjoyable. I can definitely see the improvement in ICE's writing from Night of Knives to this, so I'm interested to see it improve further in Stonewielder.
karl oswald
15. Toster
poor ghelel and kyle, the eternal punching bags :P

it may be an interesting idea to explore a token figureheads rise and fall, but unfortunately, here, it does not deserve an entire POV. ghelel just isn't interesting enough. some say they'd have liked to see her part chopped. i just wish we could have gotten choss and amaron POV's, instead of hers. or really anyone around her. molk would have been great.

kyle, on the other hand, is like a fish out of water, and since i have no idea what a bael tribesman is supposed to be like, i have no idea the impression, or image he gives off. the people around him don't really reflect anything either, since they're rather exotic themselves. this leaves kyle almost a ghost unfortunately.

what these two POV's share is their insular nature. kyle's group is sailing for most of the book, and ghelel goes through the book basically being carried in kid's gloves. even just one extra POV in these plotlines could have added depth. as it is, i think people feel the book jumps around because so many plotlines have only a single POV. there's no other points of reference besides these charaters experience. another plotline considered weak is the pit. the POV, singular, from Ho.

these two plotlines also take place at a great remove from the central conflict of the book, even despite ghelel's seeming importance in it. combine that with weak characters and i'm afraid that readers are going to find it somewhat unpalatable. even i, who has tsked in distaste at tales of people skipping large sections of books, didn't read a lot of ghelel's story this time around.

however, the rest of the book i mostly find to be a strong entry in the world, and love the way it ties into SE's work. very cool how they somewhat divide aspects. shadow is shared between them, while SE largely writes of darkness, and ICE moreso of light.
16. aaronthere
it seems like there are two different layers of criticism here. We have an almost universal complaint regarding RotCG as a stand alone book, which is an argument with merit if comments do indeed reflect public opinion here.

the argument about this novel in regard to the series is another pertinent discussion. I wonder what the value of this book is to the series as a whole, and more importantly, what ICE's contribution to the series is.

the beauty and depth of SE's writing are undeniable for most on this board. I think the way each book feels a part of a deep history that is at the same time moving toward something big is what gives the series momentum, even when it doesn't necessarily feel like much is happening, or that there is a character here and there that aren't that engaging.

With ICE, it seems much easier to dismiss these aspects, because the readers don't feel like what they are commiting to merits the time to get these same rewards. I wonder if the amount of additional enrichment that these additional 5 (wil it be 6?) books are going to add to the series as a whole. Am I going to get to the Crippled God after having now read an additional 3 or 4 more books, and say "Ah! Now this all makes sense. It was these missing pieces that were preventing me from full comprehension of the series."

I'm guessing now that the answer to this is no. I do feel like there are some crucial elements found here. i.e. Laseen's death, and the conversation between Hood and Dassem, that do feel like they add something necessary.

But ultimately it seems like Erickson really took control of the situation, took the elements from this extremely complicated storyline to craft a tight, directed and propulsive series, and basically left ICE with the trimmings to fill in the gaps.

So a tough job on his end, if this is true. and perhaps one that he succeeds at more admirably given this context.

Anyway just my two sense. I haven't read any other ICE book besides these two so I could be totally wrong in this assessment. SE did lose me with the last two books, and I really was hoping for some clarity with where the series ends up with these additional books. I'm hoping now that this meticulously crafted re read will give me the additional insights that I crave. Keep up the good work Bill, and Amanda too!
Brian R
17. Mayhem
@16 Aaronthere

To be honest, ICE really improves after this - Night of Knives suffered from being both a first novel, and a sharply defined well known event.
In RotCG he properly finds his voice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but he clearly knows what he wants to say.

Stonewielder I really like .. it has great characters, and is an entirely new location that needed illumination and he carries it well. OST is rewarding in that it brings closure to a storyline that badly needed it, if not necessarily how people expected. B&B I haven't read yet, but I hear it isn't bad.

The main criticism of ICE is he isn't as multilayered a writer as SE, with less intensity and depth. But then, neither is almost anyone else. What he is for sure is deeply familiar with the world. What he writes is sometimes compelling, sometimes distracting, but always always emphatically Malazan in tone and feel. And now he's got the space to work in, I always look forward to seeing what will emerge.
18. endymion
I know I'm in the minority here, but I really think SW and OST are a step back for ICE after ROtG (not that it was perfect). I haven't gotten a chance to read B&B yet, looking forward to it!
Bill Capossere
19. Billcap
I did think of interspersing the novellas, but really didn't want to break up Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God at all. Hadn't thought of Goats of Glory, but not a bad idea. And yes, we thought of Assail, but figured we'd have lots of time to see where to plug things in with the prequel, as schedules aren't always met, as many of us know . . .

Mayhem--good points on more Guard p-o-vs

I do think, if I didn't make it clear, that the good outweighed the bad here, though it was a closer mix than I'd have preferred. And I agree with many (though not all) here that the next few books are steps up in quality. I really felt these first two were feeling out the world/characters and honing skills and we see the evidence of experience very clearly going forward.
20. BDG91
I think there is a lot of things ICE does better than SE (Horror and be to quite honest consistent humour to name a few) but I think RCG highlights one of things I don't think ICE does all that well. That is making his deconstructions more apparent and being important to the story. For me the heart of the series after tradegy is one of post-modern deconstruction of fantasy tropes and voice. Ghelel was a pretty clever deconstruction of the long lost monarch but didn't really add all that much to the story (though that might change, I think it would be better to not look at these stories as standalone but disconnected sequels that are building up to a big final). Kyle I think was a deconstruction of the Chosen One, he given a great power at random and is constantly out of his depth, surround by beings who are in the know which doesn't give him much agency.

Through out the series we are given multiply voices that tell the story (one of the reasons I think the opening poems and passages are more important because they give us even more voice throughout time) but with RCG it doesn't seem to be to give us this, but rather a more 'monotone' of themes and voices. It gets better as we go but that was one of things that took away from the story for me. (And a reason FOD is something I find less appealing than MBotF)

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it though! A lot of complaints I find about the book was ICE story doesn't met the wants of the reader but not in a bad way. The Old Guard for instance, a lot of people were angry that they were shown as kind of old, over grown and pretty much irrelevant. This is of course a major theme of the series and I would argue RCG as a book. I can't find fault the people who dislike it but I quite enjoyed it because it showed once again those that grow old and arrgoant aren't always right and powerful.
George A
21. Kulp
I'm seeing a lot of negativity about this book and ICE in general. I think ICE is still developing his skills as a writer in this book, and the comparison to SE isn't fair. SE is clearly the superior writer, I don't think anyone is going to argue that point. But just because they write in the same universe doesn't mean that ICE's books aren't worth reading. I definitely didn't enjoy this book as much as anything in the main sequence of stories. But I don't think that means his works should be disregarded or that ICE is a bad writer. He's a good writer that writes about a world filled with characters that I love. I've read books from authors with a lot less skill than ICE about worlds I don't care as much about, and I think because he writes in a world shared with SE he gets a lot more criticism than he deserves.

That being said, I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. After reading NoK I was a little worried about deviating from SE's sequence into ICE territory. NoK wasn't enjoyable for me, and the whole time I was reading it I was wishing I could just move on to TBH. Not so with RotCG. I will admit the first third of this book was a slog. I was worried that this was going to be another NoK experience. But once storylines started to pick up steam and we hit some action sequences, I couldn't put this book down. I agree with most of the Works/Didn't Works above, but looking back on this book after finishing it I really enjoyed it. Really looking forward to SW after this one.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment