On Prequels and the Origins of Malazan: An Interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont

To celebrate the release of the eagerly-awaited Malazan prequel Dancer’s Lament earlier this month, we thought we’d ask author Ian Cameron Esslemont to stop by for a chat about the novel’s genesis and composition.

Read on for his thoughts concerning some original nervousness about tackling the project, Shadowthrone’s “glaring… lack of sanity,” and why he chose this particular time and place to write about—plus a little tease about the next book in the series!


Bill Capossere: It’s been my experience with prequels that they can feel a bit bloodless and mechanical, feel like, as I mentioned in my review, that the author is sort of mechanically connecting dots or painting by the numbers. Were you leery of that at all when you first considered writing a prequel and how did you try to avoid it (as I’d argue you absolutely did) while writing Dancer’s Lament?

Ian Cameron Esslemont: Dear Bill, thanks for this opportunity to discuss Dancer’s Lament—and more. And many thanks to the rereaders! Congrats on a marathon task!

As to tackling a “prequel” (God I hate that word!), yes I had a great deal of trepidation regarding the project. I, and all you readers, have no doubt experienced the misfortune of coming across such efforts—and been far from impressed (as you hint in your question). Because of this frank distaste for ‘prequels’ I resisted the project for many years. Only Steve’s continued agitation saved it. Finally, after his enthusiasm, I sat down and gave serious thought to it, and to my surprise, a number of intriguing possibilities and directions came to mind. These interesting story ideas encouraged me to pitch the idea to Bantam—and they took it up.

I decided to frame the project as a series of books that happened to cover a period that came before the events of the extant series. As you and our readers know, the history of Malaz is immense, extending far back into prehistory, and beyond. Therefore the possibilities are in some sense, unlimited.

My other main concern was that the series mesh seamlessly with these extant series. I wanted to maintain—and honour—the organic whole of our work to date. And I hope I’ve achieved that so far.

I also have to confess that I had a secret weapon in the early gaming Steve and I did years ago when we first set down the characters of Dancer and Wu. This work provided the frame and architecture, or starting point, and I was able to jump off from there.

BC: Speaking of those dots, did you have a list of thing you felt necessary to cover, that you just knew you wanted to bring in, such as the Hounds or the origins of someone’s name? Any particular aspects of the later novels whose seeds you absolutely wanted to depict in this first book?

ICE: I have to say that I had no ‘list.’ I started with the period in the history of Dancer and Wu that I wanted to portray, that being their first meeting. All the rest just sort of logically unfolded from that (or at least I hope that is the impression). Within this unfolding, or revealing, certain other ‘firsts’ could then be tackled as opportunity arose. Foremost among these revealings were the names. Names, as our readers know, are very important in the Malaz world. I felt I would be held up as negligent if I didn’t cover that (or strung up by outraged fans). So, certain elements were more obligatory than others. Some I tried to slip in to reward sharp-eyed readers, others I hope will spin for a while until much later when the penny will drop.

BC: What made you choose the setting for Dancer’s Lament, both time and place? Did you consider any other starting points or alternate settings and if so, can you share them and your reasons for not using them?

ICE: As I said above, the time I’d chosen was the ‘first meeting’ of Dancer and Wu. Now, I could have run straight to the establishment of the ‘empire’ formally, but I decided that too much of the ‘backstory’ (gah! backstory—what an ugly Hollywood screenwriting term) for the world and so many characters would be lost if I did that. Also, so many of Steve and my novels mention the ‘old guard’ and make references to a history between various characters and races and such; I felt I should reward our readers for patiently suffering through so many asides.

I hope that the three works will go a good distance towards providing explanations for these central elements.

BC: Sticking to the theme of authorial choices, how did you decide upon the POVs you employed in the book: Dancer/Dorin, Silk, and Iko? Did you consider and discard any others and if so, can you delve about into your thinking on that? And, while I could make my own guesses, can you speak to your decision to not give Shadowthrone a POV?

ICE: My hope in using Silk and Iko was that through them, the reader would get a strong sense of the world of Quon Tali pre-Malaz: the existing conflicts, rivalries, hatreds and such, that then drove so much of what came afterwards. Now, as to using Dorin/Dancer rather than Wu… well, your guess is probably the rather glaring case of Wu’s lack of sanity. His POV would frankly be far too disorienting and confusing. Therefore, Dancer/Dorin stands in as his interpreter and ‘straight-man’, so to speak. It is through his eyes that we can ‘see’ Wu.

BC: Can you talk about how you decided where to slot your characters in on their personal arcs as they journey from Dancer’s Lament to where we see them in the main line series? For instance, it seems to me that Dorin is further removed from Dancer of the main series than Wu is from the Shadowthrone of the main series, (feel free to disagree) though perhaps that’s just an artifact of the POV choices. Were there certain character/personality journeys you absolute wanted to detail in this book? For instance, the concept of compassion/empathy is so central to the main series, and it seems to me that Dancer’s Lament painstakingly, almost step by step, gives us Dorin’s movement along that path. While we’re on that topic, could you discuss what appear to be some parallels between Silk’s arc and Dorin’s?

ICE: It may be that Dorin is further away from the ‘Dancer’ of the series, I can’t speak to that. Some readers have written that they see him as quite close, so, perhaps it is open to interpretation.

My hope was to show the beginnings of their arcs (not the very beginnings, but close to it—much remains hidden in Wu’s history still). Now, the impression of distances along character evolutions may be an artifact of, well, opposites between Dancer and Wu. Dancer is growing as a normal human being might, while Wu … well, he is perhaps incapable of such (like some unfortunate people).

As to parallels between Silk and Dancer … hmmm. Interesting. Yes, I can see what you mean; however, both ‘arcs’ are far from over, and so we shall yet see.

BC: What sort of discussions, if any, did you have with Steven about the prequel trilogy? Did you two toss new ideas around, how much if any of these “early lives of… “concepts already existed in some form as part of your earlier game-playing or writing? Will anything we see in this prequel trilogy plant some seeds for the Karsa trilogy?

ICE: As I mentioned, Steve was central to pushing the ‘prequel’ series forward. It was originally one of the set of periods and regions I’d listed when he and I divvied up the world way back, but, for reasons given above, I was leery of tackling it. We’d originally gamed these ‘origins’ of course—they were among our first Malaz games—however, I had to diverge a fair bit in content (thought I hope the spirit was maintained). His more recent input on the series was to encourage me to take it seriously as perhaps being a legitimate contribution to the milieu, rather than a rote tacked-on backstory, such as has been the case in other fantasy series.

As to the Karsa series, sorry, can’t help you there.

BC: I thought that thanks to its relatively streamlined plot, limited POVs, and all-around accessibility, that in some ways Dancer’s Lament might even make for a more welcoming entry point to the Malazan universe instead of the usual starting point, Gardens of the Moon. Any thoughts on that?

ICE: Thank you, I’m very glad you see Lament as a possible entré to the world as a whole. One of my hopes in tackling the project was just such—that it might serve as a possible starting point. I originally sculpted Night of Knives to serve as a concentrated primer on what Steve and I hoped to achieve in Malaz. Many have complimented it as an excellent introduction to all things Malaz.

BC: Can you give us any sort of preview or tease for our next installment?

ICE: Well, I’m not sure what Bantam would allow me to reveal. What I can say is that the story picks up almost immediately after Lament. Dancer and Wu head south down the Idryn, and, if one traces this route on the Quon Tali map, continuing southwards, one arrives at a destination very central to the series.

In this second installment, tentatively titled, Deadhouse Landing, we will meet many personalities who will then go on to constitute the ‘old guard’ of the empire. And some of the central elements, or characteristics, of said empire will begin to coalesce.

That’s about all I’m willing to impart at this early stage.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss this, and here’s to further enjoyment, frustrations, laughter, and perhaps tears in the Malazan world.

Dancer’s Lament is available now from Tor Books.
Read the first four chapters of the novel here on Tor.com.

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.


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