Prequels can be tricky things for authors. One obvious obstacle is that being a prequel, the story is robbed of at least some of its natural narrative tension, as readers already know that this or that character will not die, that this or that battle will not be won. Authors also run the risk of having painted themselves into narrative corners via the original work—this character has to do A to end up at C, this thingamabob has to appear because it’s the signature thingamabob of Character X and so on. In weaker prequels, it all feels very mechanical, as if the author just traced the lines backward and dutifully filled in the obvious and necessary plot points, character appearances, and portentous arrivals of requisite talismans. Even the author who successfully navigates all the prequel pitfalls can end up losing, à la an army of irate fans complaining, “Hey, that’s not how I imagined it happening!” Talk about a thankless task.
Well, it’s true that while reading Ian Cameron Esselmont’s Malazan prequel, Dancer’s Lament, I did several times think to myself, “That’s not how I imagined it happening!” And it’s also true that one or two signature thingamabobs (cough cough walking stick cough) make their appearance. But it was all to the good, because those moments are representative of the sort of balance between the familiar and the unexpected that is required of a good prequel. And Dancer’s Lament is just that. Equally impressive is that the prequel works just as fine as an entry point into the massive (and massively complex) Malazan universe. I’m not going to argue it’s a “better” entry point than Gardens of the Moon (by Steven Erikson), the usual starting point, but I would argue it’s a more accessible one.
While Erikson’s own prequel trilogy is set thousands of years earlier than the main sequence, Esslemont doesn’t go back nearly so far. Instead, we open up roughly a century or so before the events of the big series (very roughly, thanks to time being a somewhat fluid concept in this series and my own inability to hold a good timeline in my head), to the first meeting between the two who would eventually found the world-striding Malazan Empire—Shadowthrone and Dancer, known in Dancer’s Lament as Wu and Dorin, respectively. It’s an inauspicious meeting of two not-particularly-impressive (at least in any obvious fashion) figures to say the least, with no sense of them as the dominating figures of later books. And since this is the first of a trilogy, it’s no spoiler to say that we don’t see them much closer to that end point by the end.
In between, we basically have a highly entertaining origin story. Or stories, as Esslemont introduces a host of characters who will play roles in later books. Some of them will be immediately obvious to long-time readers, others may more slowly reveal themselves, and some may come as a large surprise, though there are hints along the way. One of the nice surprises for me is that the book is set not on the home of the Malazan Empire but on the continent of Quon Tali, specifically the central city of Li Heng, a setting we’ve seen before in Return of the Crimson Guard. The city has been able to remain independent for decades, mostly due to its powerful sorceress ruler Shalamanat, known as “The Protectress,” and her cadre of city mages: Silk, Ho, Mara, Smokey, and Koroll (and yes, some of those names should sound familiar to fans). The ambitious king of Itko Kan, however, Chulalorn the Third, has decided it’s time to expand his realm, and so he lays siege to Li Heng from without while also infiltrating the city from within via his assassins (the Nightblades) and a group of whip-swords who are ostensibly bodyguards to a diplomatic mission.
Dorin and Wu have entered the city, separately, just before the siege, and each has his own agenda—Dorin, who trained as an assassin, is trying to work his way up in the criminal underground, while Wu is attempting to suss out the secrets of, well, almost anything, but especially a particular warren/realm of magic. Much to Dorin’s dismay, the two keep crossing paths, until they decide to work together to achieve their ends. Also caught up in events are a group of a group of famed mercenaries, the Crimson Guard (pre-Vow); the deadly “man-beast” Ryllandaras, who roams the plains outside the city; the young Sword of Hood, Dassem, who has just taken up residence in a new shrine to the god (worship of Hood has been proscribed by the Protectress), and a few others in a mix of new and old faces.
Dancer’s Lament is pretty streamlined as far as Malazan novels go. It clocks in at just about 400 pages, has only three limited third-person POVs—Dorin, Silk, and Iko, a young Kanese whipsword—and runs between two basic plot-lines: the siege, which we see mostly from Silk’s POV, and the fitful rise (if one can call it that) of Dorin and Wu as partners (if one can call it that). The sharp focus and relatively few POVs, combined with the single setting, make for a very focused and easy to follow read.
Dorin is clearly the main character, a young, confident, some might say cocky, boy who differs in several ways from the figure he will become in the later series (unlike Wu, who doesn’t seem much different from the Shadowthrone we’ve all come to know and love). He’s less assured despite his cockiness, not as skilled (though still quite good), and prone to mistakes. In short, he’s young. The thing about the young though, is that they grow, and even in this relatively short book we can trace a clear character arc for Dorin, one that gradually shows him if not gaining a sense of empathy (I’d argue he always had it), at least beginning to directly acknowledge its presence within him and then eventually acting upon it. We also, more sadly, see the arc from Dorin to Dancer, a name that spring up early in the novel but which he does not fully inhabit until much later.
Silk’s growth somewhat parallels Dorin’s, as he too changes thanks to events, becoming less shallow and more involved with what happens to those around him. If Dorin recognizes a sense of empathy he already had within, one gets a feeling that Silk “grows” one, a fact commented upon more than once by those who have known him some time, and one which he himself muses on. Iko, meanwhile, has less of an arc than either Dorin or Silk, but still comes to some realizations about the world and herself.
Esslemont shows a nice balance in the mix of action and character focus, between grimness and humor. And there are a good number of funny moments and scenes throughout. Fans will recognize as well many of the usual Malazan themes, though here they appear all the more fresh for them appearing more nascent than fully formed, as with the emphasis for example on empathy or on the world’s treatment of children.
By the end of the novel we’ve seen familiar themes bloom and old friends step on the stage dressed in younger versions of themselves, even if not all characters are in their “correct” roles yet. In addition, names and alliances have been born and events have been set into action such that fans of the series can start to connect the dots to future “history,” even though there are still lots of space between those dots. And as noted above, Dancer’s Lament suits those who have not yet read the main series as well, even if they won’t get the chance to revel in those moments of recognition. Streamlined, tightly-plotted and structured, with limited POVs, an easygoing style, clear prose, and a good balance of emotion and of action/characterization, the novel makes for a welcoming entry point into the entire Malazan world (more so I’d say than Erikson’s prequel trilogy), and might just be the place I’d suggest newcomers start. When you can satisfy newbies and long-time readers, I’d say you’ve done something right.
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.