When the Old Guard Were New: Deadhouse Landing by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Because it occurs not that far along into Deadhouse Landing, I don’t feel bad about revealing that at one point our erstwhile heroes Wu and Dancer are forced into confronting one of the most dire threats of the Malazan Universe—being taken by an Azath.  A revelation that I’m sure will have many of you wondering which of the many great powers of that universe could have driven them onto those perilous grounds: K’rul?  T’riss?  Kallor, a Matron, Icarium? Worthy candidates all, but none powerful enough. Because it turns out each pales beside the unstoppable, the irresistible puissance of . . . the double-dare.

“G’wan,” the lad called, “we double-dare you.”

Wu looked at the overcast sky in exasperation. “Fine.” He stepped out among the dead knee-high grasses and weeds. “There. You happy now?”

“Wow, he actually is that stupid,” the lad whispered to his friends in wonderment…

All at once something yanked the mage off his feet [and] soon both [Wu and Dancer] were….being pulled directly toward the nearest mound…

“Well,” the mage said, his voice tight with pain. “This is rather embarrassing.”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Though — spoiler alert for the second book of a prequel trilogy—they do manage to escape. Happily, for us readers, as the duo’s evolving partnership beyond this point is one of the true joys of this immensely fun read. That joy is partly, and most obviously, due to the many, many laughs said partnership engenders, which gives this book somewhat of a Road to Malaz City feel. But it’s also in no small measure due as well to the sincerely deep emotional bond we witness Dancer gradually acknowledge, much to his own surprise.

The two of them, following their misadventures in Li Heng, have ended up on Malaz Island, as long-time Malazan fans knew they always would. Here, Wu buys a bar that happens to come with a handful of Napan civil war refugees, including a waitress named Surly and a cook named Urko. Wu explain to the skeptical Dancer that Smiley’s is to be their base of operation as they engage in “our forte… ambush and hijacking,” all in in service of taking over, well, “everything.” Dream big, Wu always says.  “Everything” most immediately includes Malaz City itself, currently led by Admiral-But-Wants-To-Be-King Mock, and the Shadow realm, which has its own already established forces that need to be overcome.

While Wu and Dancer set their…well, “plans” probably gives them too much credit, into action, the Napans work their own secret plots, Mock and his mage mistress plan an invasion, an aloofly naïve priest of D’rek becomes dangerously embroiled in temple politics, the Mortal Sword of Hood tries to resign, and an ancient power comes down from the hills to take the sea air (and get some vengeance).

All these subplots lead to Deadhouse Landing being more structurally complex than Dancer’s Lament, switching—not just chapter to chapter but within chapters as well—between nearly a dozen POVs, including Dancer, Dassem, Tayschrenn, Cartheron, Tattersail, Nedurian, as well as several brand-new characters. Thankfully, Esslemont shows a deft hand in managing so many POVs, with the shifts being consistently fluid and easy to follow. And even if Landing isn’t as restrained in terms of POV as Lament was, in comparison to the earlier series it’s still pretty streamlined.

That said, perhaps in part due to all these POVs, and despite so much happening, the novel can feel strangely static at times, or perhaps “paused” is a better word, with the narrative slowing down now and then while the required actors are each brought on stage and then moved into necessary position. In Malazan terminology we meet the Old Guard when they’re the New Guard. A slew of characters that, based on what we know from the earlier series, have to be introduced around this time, make their appearance—some immediately familiar, others eventually becoming so in a frisson of pleasurable recognition. Relationships that have to form begin to coalesce, though not all, not yet. Those who need new names (i.e. the ones we know them by in those earlier series), choose them or are given them.

All of this means that more than with its predecessor, one feels in Deadhouse Landing a sense of pre-fab construction, of things being put into place both for and based upon future events. Long-time fans won’t begrudge at all this sort of thing—every new introduction, for instance, is another delightful, sometimes surprising, reunion with a character they’ve probably missed—but I do think readers new to this world will not only miss out on those pleasures but might also find the book a bit slow in its earlier or middle stages. They also will probably be at sea, now and then, as to why they’re spending so much time in what seems a tangential plot involving a character who seems wholly disconnected, though Esslemont does successfully bring the threads all home by the end.

Another minor downside comes from the fact that because so much time in a relatively slim novel (by Malazan standards) is spent on introductions and the sort of “maintenance” work getting things set up for the next book, there’s less room for character development, as say, we saw with Dancer’s arc in book one. The same holds true for thematic development, as well as the vividness of the setting. Malay City, for instance, feels less vibrantly real as a place here than it has in the past or than Li Heng did in Dancer’s Lament, as plot takes precedence over the other elements in order to assemble all the pieces required for book three.

In terms of plotting, the primary storyline (and my favorite) involves Wu and Dancer, of course, particularly with regard to their exploration of Shadow (a quick aside to note that the cover, which depicts a moment of that journey, is absolutely stunningly beautiful), though I also enjoyed their more mundane experiences trying to take over Malaz City. Their story was filled with humor, tension, and a surprising amount of warmth and emotion. Dassem’s subplot, meanwhile, was perhaps the most bluntly “prequel-ish”—filling in the background for one of the more mysterious character from the other series, while Tayschrenn and Tattersail’s plots vied for most surprising in terms of the early version of their characters.

Action-wise, Esslemont offers up in the first three-quarters of the book another trademark naval battle (well done as always), several strong fight scenes, a few horrid executions, and a wonderfully tense urban stalking scene. But things really pick up in the last 60 pages with several fantastic set pieces, including a mage battle, a one-man stand, and a long-awaited one-on-one knife fight. As you can see from just this partial list, the narrative encompasses a wide range with regard to type of action (beyond just sword fights say, or battle scenes) and even action genre—some of these moments are more horror than anything, something Esslemont has always excelled at, I’d say.

Deadhouse Landing was more of a “bridge” book than I expected, based on how both Esslemont and Erikson have managed to avoid the usual prequel pitfalls so far. But if it sacrifices a bit of thematic depth and offers up a few lines/moments that seem forced in order to explain how we get from here to the main series’ characters/events, it never stops having fun. The Path to Ascendancy series is in a different tonal color than the other works, and it’s a stylistic change that so far is playing quite well with Esslemont’s strengths, with the first two books showcasing I’d say his best writing yet. You can sense that this is a writer fully confident in himself and his work, and I can’t wait to see the next installment. I dare you to read this and think differently.

No. I double-dare you.

Deadhouse Landing is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here.

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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