Welcome back to the Malazan Reread 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 cover our overall responses to Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Orb Sceptre Throne.
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.
Okay, I want to say upfront that I enjoyed the reading of this novel. It was pretty slick in terms of language and there were some scenes that really resonated for me. But I did rate it 3 stars on Goodreads, and I believe that this is because of two things: consistency and depth.
In terms of consistency, I felt that some storylines/characters didn’t have the richness of others, and I ended up skimming certain sections. If the whole book had maintained the same level of atmosphere and humour and adventure, then it would have garnered more stars from me.
Depth was my other issue. Although there were some sections, again, that went against this—adding more to the history and mystery of the Seguleh, for instance—some of the rest of the book felt more like a generic epic fantasy novel than something that had the depth and brilliance of a Malazan novel.
So somewhat hit or miss for me—but compared to previous Cam novels, definitely a massive improvement and overall very enjoyable.
I do think that Bill and I responded fairly similarly to this novel, so there won’t be much surprise in how we judged particular elements!
Spindle was a joy in this novel. He added to virtually every scene he was in, with his interactions and his reluctance to unleash his Warren and then that final bit where the animals went crazy and he indirectly caused us to get that wonderful picture of Brood holding the fretful kitty.
In the same way, spending time with Antsy was great—and gave us a great comparison between two Malazan soldiers and their reactions/capabilities. Both were brilliant.
Jan, Sall and Lo were wonderful characters, and this was where Cam came closest to giving us a true Malazan novel. He took the Seguleh and made them something wonderful. He was clever as well, with these two Seguleh storylines—in one we got the perspective of the Seguleh from the Seguleh, with all the subtle nuances in the way they reacted to each other; in the other we got the perspective of the Seguleh from an outsider who spent some time with them, and started realising more about their culture and attitudes. This gave us two very different pictures.
Cam’s writing of (a) horror-esque and (b) fight scenes. This is where he comes into his own, especially with the former.
The treatment of characters like Caladan Brood and Baruk, Vorcan and Rallick, and the reappeared Topper—these all felt very natural and I found that Cam’s writing helped to give them further dimensions.
Scorch and Leff—yeah, y’all knew how little I got on with these two guys. I just found the humour to be misplaced, the resolution of the Tyrant storyline thanks to them absurd, and the way they spent so much time wandering around and getting in the way of more interesting things frustrating.
Kiska and Leoman and the bloody cave. Ugh, this was dull, dull, dull—and then to find that this indirectly led into one of the largest revelations of the novel? Just not judged well at all.
The pacing—sometimes things felt rushed (the Malazans fighting the Rhivi/Seguleh, Bendan’s development) and sometimes thing felt glacially slow (THE BLOODY CAVE).
The portrayal of Kruppe in this novel. The light touch and delicate humour of the Erikson character was caricatured for me into something almost unrecognisable. Not enjoyable.
Will be great to see your views!
In this point in our reread of Cam’s books, despite having some issues, OST is I think his strongest so far, though Stonewielder comes close. While I still have some issues with the novel as I’ll note below, in general craftsmanship, I think these last two show some serious writerly growth, with a stronger sense of pacing and structure, amongst other improvements.
Besides being perhaps the best crafted of the novels so far, or at least the second best, OST, is also for me his “warmest” novel. There’s a connection between or among characters, and between characters and reader, an intimacy that if not wholly lacking in earlier books is raised to a higher, more engaging level here. I’m thinking specifically of Antsy’s relationship to Orchid, or Sall and Lo, or Jan and Palla, or amongst the Malazans at K’rul’s and others. But again, it isn’t just relationships between characters. There’s a vulnerability as well that makes these characters easy to root and feel for: Antsy and his sense of loss, the way he is seeking his own death; Spindle and his sense of inadequacy; Baruk, caught in a horrible situation, trying his best to help his city; Scillara and Barathol trying to find their way in their new family. Even a relatively minor character like K’ess. It’s a rooting for these characters not to defeat the big bad or find the bauble or whatever the “quest” is; it’s a rooting for them to find themselves, a sense of purpose and/or peace. And this quality, along with the improved craftsmanship, is why it’s my favorite to this point.
A few more specific takes in my usual wrap-up fashion:
The Spawns: I loved the idea of Moon’s Spawn not simply disappearing from the story, but like so much else in this series having a ripple effect in some fashion. So I loved the idea of it crashing, of it forming its own eco-system, of an entire economy/culture building up around it, of how it acted as a magnet (as it certainly would have) to all sorts. Just a great idea.
The Spawns storyline. I also liked just about the entire plot set in the Spawns. Orchid’s story of coming into her own and finding out who she really is and what she is capable of. And of course, Antsy’s storyline, which I thought was incredibly moving and handled quite well. The mysteries surrounding both Morn and Orchid, and thought this was a plot where ambiguity was rightfully baked right in. The whole Cannonball Run/Mad, Mad World/Gold Rush kind of background to the whole place.
Antsy: He may very well be my favorite character in the novel, and his story my favorite plot. As noted above, I found his purpose there, and its resolution, to be very moving and emotional. I loved his modesty, the way people respected him, his take-charge quality, his concern for Orchid, the way he shows us how a soldier never forgets, never puts down the burden of all they’ve seen and done. Just a great character all around.
The opening scenes down in Ebbin’s well and just afterward. I’ve said several times (I think, admittedly it’s a bit of a blur several years in) that Esslemont does horror quite well, and I think the revival of the Tyrant is a prime example of that—those scenes were tense, ugly, gruesome, and, well, horrific.
Raest. ‘Nuff said
Jan. I thought his character was excellent. But mostly I loved his slow evolution/realization of what was happening with his people, the pain of that realization, the slowness of it, and the strength of his resolution to deal with it. Liked this character and his story pretty much start to finish.
The close-up looks we get of the Seguleh in general, the way they are humanized individually and as part of a relationship (father-son, husband-wife (nearly) and also the tragedy of their prophecy.
The miner T’lan Imass wading through Seguleh to get to the Jaghut Tyrant and then going, “Never mind. My bad. Carry on.”
Baruk’s underground resistance movement.
The domestic details with regard to Scillara and Barathol, Tiserra and Torvald.
Tserig. His sense of dignity. And also his humor. His passionate distress over the horrible position his people are in. His distress over how they have chosen to respond to that position. His death. I like how it works in isolation as a strong character given moving dialogue and action and how it works also has an analogue to the clash of cultures in general, in particular for me in America, the Native American clash with Europeans/settlers.
Return of the Pickled Seguleh.
The general Tyrant storyline. I really like the idea behind it, the cyclical nature of it all. But it all felt a bit removed and abstract, as did the Tyrant himself. It’s hard to have a faceless, personality-challenged villain and while I can see some nice metaphorical reasons for such, I can’t say I felt Esslemont fully nailed this character (and the fact that I hesitated over using the word “character” emphasizes that for me).
Bendan: I like the idea of Bendan, and his growth. It just felt a little rushed for me.
Pacing: interestingly enough, I had no issue with pace on my first read. Here, though, the Shores of Creation felt very slow, and about halfway through I started to feel a bit of lag. If I had to hazard a guess, though, I’d say this was greatly exacerbated by the reread schedule, and had I read it as I do most books, in one or two sittings, this wouldn’t have been much of an issue at all.
Bauchelain and Korbald. I didn’t dislike their scenes at all; it’s just that they are such great characters in my mind that it felt their potential wasn’t met.
Similarly, I like what we see of the Moranth here, but felt we could have mined them for a bit more
Not so muches
Scorch and Leff. Every lengthy work with violence, impending doom, death, needs some comic relief. And there’s certainly something to be said for “average Joe(s)” getting mixed up in Great Events and having a major impact. But these two just didn’t do it for me, not from the very start, and I admit to sighing a bit each time they showed up after a certain while.
The Shores of Creation storyline. The Shores themselves? A fan. But Kiska and Leoman’s Excellent Adventures Going Back in the Cave? Not so much. That whole storyline just felt too repetitive, too removed, and too slow, almost as if it were being stalled so as to be able to match up with the other plots by the end. And the characters felt mostly very static the entire way, especially as compared to say Antsy or Orchid or Jan.
Envy. I guess because we knew she was here in Darujhistan she had to be dealt with as a character, but she never seemed fully right to me, her role was nearly non-existent, and so part of me wishes she’d just been ushered off the stage early on so we knew why she wasn’t being involved.
OK, yes, the whole Seguleh as nearly unkillable fighting machines. I’ve never been a fan in any series/movie/TV show of the single combatant taking on huge numbers, and for me (and I know some feel differently) the Seguleh go well beyond that here. I won’t belabor it, just restate as I said earlier that it isn’t even for me a matter of skill or training or method etc. but a matter of simple physics. For instance, a hail of arrows—two objects can’t share the same physical space and, well, not share the same physical space i.e.—hit the damned Seguleh. I just don’t care how evasive they are—it’s an area attack and they’re just not getting around physics. Now, I will happily grant that physics is broken all the time via magic here—so if you gave me some sense of magical enhancement etc. then I’m with you on this. But if the reader has to assume it based simply on its need (because otherwise it makes no sense), that’s a flaw to me. And this definitely took me out of the book each time it happened—the Rhivi camp, the Moranth attack, etc.
The Malazan reaction to the aerial bombardment. I like the idea behind it, but I don’t think the execution was there. First, because the Malazans have used munitions for years and it just doesn’t make sense to me that blowing up five people into little pieces and blowing up 100 people is going to make that major difference in the reaction. Second, the timing of it—the fact that the Malazans were getting slaughtered/maimed and were going to continue to do so makes me think the immediate response can’t be “oh no, don’t do that to those people cutting off our arms!” Later, yes, once the relief passes. But not right then.
The aerial bombardment of the dome. I just don’t get why after the first few passes the Moranth didn’t just stop trying to blow the dome up (since obviously it was having no effect at all), and just do their ground charge and use the munitions there. Especially as they saw this as a no return mission if necessary.
OK, I’m sure I’ll have more in response to others’ comments. Looking forward to hearing people’s overall response.
Note: We’ve also set up a discussion thread to collect your questions for Ian Cameron Esslemont, so head over there by Wednesday May 20th to make your voice heard!
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.