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, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. Today we’re wrapping our coverage of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Assail.
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, but 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.
Note: Amanda will be adding her comments later.
Assail Book Wrap
Since Assail closes one stage of this narrative universe, I’ll start with an overall context in terms of where I’d put it amongst the others. I think think the first two novels, Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard had some nagging issues with elements such as pacing, balance, and characterization, aspects that were mostly if not completely smoothed out beginning with Stonewielder. For me, the run of those next three, Stonewielder; Orb, Sceptre, Throne; and Blood and Bone is the strongest stretch of the series. I’d have a hard time naming a favorite among those, probably OST but on another day maybe BB. Assail was a bit of a drop off for me, though still stronger I’d say than NoK and RotCG. In my original review, I gave it a 3.5 out of 5 in comparison to 4s for the others, so not much of a drop off. If I’m going for full context, I’ll just note I think Dancer’s Lament is the best book yet. As for specifics:
It’s tough to top the setting job in BB, and the settings in Assail didn’t grab me as wholly as did those in the jungle story. Part of that is probably due to the episodic nature and geographic skipping around that we do, so it’s tough to get a sense of a singular place. That said, there were many a time where I absolutely loved the vividness and sharpness of the setting details in individual scenes, especially the natural settings and particular the mountains/alpine forests. I think naturalistic detail has become a major strength in Esslemont’s writing.
- Jute and Ieleen: Oh, how I loved these two. I think this was a wonderfully evoked successful adult relationship, one full of warmth, mutual respect, intimacy, wry humor, and of course love. It’s not the usual relationship we see in this series, quieter, more evolved, less battered by surrounding events. Loved everything about it. As individuals, I liked both characters and though both were sharply drawn. I thoroughly enjoyed Jute’s curiosity, again, a simpler, cleaner motivation we don’t often see. And I like Ieleen’s sense of competence and confidence. I actually wish we could have seen more of her.
- Orman: Another character I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with. I really liked his journey from beginning to end, which felt wholly organic and natural as an outgrowth of both character and events. I liked his tug of war between tradition and a sense of ethics/morality, and the way in which Esslemont put him in situations to highlight said tug of war. I have no problem seeing him building that Greathall and being a leader to his people, helping unify them and moving them away from feuds and vendettas as a way of life.
- Cartheron: Old Guard! Old Guard! There’s just something about when these people step on the stage. They just seem to dominate scenes. Energy ramps up. Often the humor does as well. And as I keep pointing out, I just love their audacious, “bring it on!” nature. I enjoyed every scene he was in, was moved by his response to Possum’s death (laughed out loud at his “never liked him” afterthought), and was on my first read always nervous we were about to see him exit the stage for good.
- Reuth: I liked his character quite a bit, and though he would make a nice parallel/contrast to Orman—two young men trying to find their way in untraditional fashion among their cultures, but I thought he was too abruptly dropped and not as fully mined for his potential as I would have preferred.
- Jethiss: This one is mixed. I liked his character as his character. But I thought the is he-isn’t he was played a bit too cutely/coyly, and it also felt a bit like character redux from Morn/Orchid in OST. I think I would have liked him to just be an Andii, giving us another, maybe different view of that world. And while he makes that splash ending, similar to a few others noted, I thought he also disappeared at times in the tale.
- Kyle: I think you all know my long-running thoughts about Kyle and this book hasn’t changed them at all. If the old adage about polishing his Whiteblade so much he goes blind comes true, I can’t say I’d be sorry if it means he’s no longer around. ‘Course, it would probably just end up with him stumbling unknowing into some mêlée, severing a few hands and heads, and then getting congratulated for being “instrumental” in solving world peace and inventing calorie-free chocolate cake.
- Lyan: Another character who got dropped, but if it meant no more romance that’s ok, because as wholly as I fell for Jute and Ieleen, I just as completely never bought Lyan and Kyle.
- Shimmer: It was hard for me to separate the Vow storyline, and her obtuseness, from Shimmer. I wanted to like her, and she did have some strong moments, but I wished for more from a character I’ve always enjoyed in the past. I think I’d say the same about Fisher as well. And Silverfox, who was just too passive.
Random Plot Thoughts
- The Vow: Raise your hands if you don’t know where this is going. Ok, you in the back can stay; the rest of you should feel free to grab a drink. I won’t belabor what I’ve said throughout (at least not too much). I thought we were pretty clear where we were going with this several books ago (even on my first read-through as I’ve recently checked) and so dragging it out for hundreds more pages just seemed unnecessary to me and made lines/references unnaturally portentous. Don’t get me wrong; I really like the whole idea about the connection with the T’lan Imass; I just thought it became stretched beyond the breaking point (recognizing completely that others might feel very different about that). Beyond that, another issue with this storyline are: Why did they have to travel all around the world to find out what everyone already knew (and don’t tell me they only “suspected”—I’m reading that as either a euphemism for “knew,” or a cop-out on why nobody did the natural thing which was to Say Something! Which is another problem—the utter lack of communication. I just don’t find it plausible, I think it paints characters in horrible fashion, and it feels artificial in that it’s just a means to drive plot. I’ll admit, this—plot being driven by people not talking to each other in normal fashion—is a pet peeve of mine (Oh Lost, how you betrayed me after season one… ). And finally, I thought the whole closing bit about it was, as noted in my last post, a bit too muddy. Though I’m happy to confess that may be my fault entirely.
- Kyle’s narrative: ‘nuff said.
- Forkrul: The end scene felt anticlimactic to me, which to be honest, may have been the point and part of the purpose. But still.
- Shimmer’s rape scene: felt like a major misstep to me.
- Invasion/Imperialism/Pillaging: Liked this overarching theme, the disregard for indigenous people, the idea that might makes right, the motivating power of greed. But also how it’s complicated by a few lines about what the earlier Empire brought and what it ended.
- Great Scenes: The keep defense against Omtose Phellack at the end. Ranks as one of my favorite scenes in the series for sheer spectacle and power. I also loved the naval scenes, something as I’ve noted that I believe Esslemont does particularly well throughout this entire series. Cartheron recruiting in the gold rush camp. The Sharr attack on the CG’s ship. The first meeting of Ut’el and the Matriarch all those thousands of years ago. The first internecine fighting amongst the T’lan Imass scene all those years ago. Teal standing before the Omtose onslaught. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner-like scene on the sea. Possum’s death.
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.