A Final, Welcome Return to the Malazan Empire’s Early Days

Kellanved’s Reach concludes Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Path to Ascendency, his prequel series of Malazan books (as opposed to Steven Erikson’s prequel series of Malazan books)… and while three is the classic book number in fantasy series, I personally wouldn’t mind if he snuck in another volume or two between this and Night of Knives, the next book chronologically in the series’ events.

The tale picks up not long after Deadhouse Landing, with Kellanved, Dancer, and the rest of the “Old Guard” (the “Current Guard” in this book’s timeline) in control of Mock Hold and Malaz Isle. Beyond their shores though, the world is filled with chaos and conflict, as Surly sums up early on:

Nom Purge remains in perpetual warfare with Quon Tali. Dal Hon is currently probing a weakened Itko Kan’s borders. The Seti continue to attack anyone other than travelers who enter the central plains. The War Marshall of the Bloorian League, in secret connivance with Unta, is steadily isolating Gris… while the city-state of Cawn sells arms and provides mercenaries to all sides.

Clearly what is needed to bring sanity, peace, and order to this world in turmoil is a mumbling, half-mad wizard with a disturbing tendency to disappear. I kid of course. Kellanved is more than “half” mad.  Despite that, soon enough, plans are readied for an expansion of territory, beginning with an assault on Nap, where Surly has some unfinished business. One of the many plotlines of the book deals with those preparations and then scaling up in order to execute them, with Surly handling the supervision, Tayschrenn the mage recruitment, and Nedurian the army training and organization (with help from Dassem). Meanwhile, Kellanved and Dancer continue the quest for knowledge of the Warrens, Shadow, and The Army of Dust and Bone, literally popping in and out now and then to check on how their empire-building is going.

The other storylines mostly involve the aforementioned chaos and conflict. One follows a pair of runaways (Gregar and Fingers) who seek to join the Crimson Guard but instead end up as grunts in the Bloorian League army as it invades Gris. Another involves the war between Quon Tali and Nom Purge, as the head of a mercenary company (Orjin) hired by Nom fights a desperately outnumbered action against the Quon Tali army. We also stop by for some quick visits with Malle of Gris planning her defense against the Bloorian League, Iko doing her best to protect her king from coup or attack in Kan, Silk worrying about portentous omens in Li Heng, Tarel (Surly’s brother) planning his defense of Nap, Heboric trying to figure out what’s causing major disturbances in the Warrens and pantheon, Ullara making her way to the far north though she’s unsure what calls her there, and a handful of others involved with their own schemes and ambitions. BTW, some of you will recognize the “pre-names” in that above list, but I’m leaving them as is (both to avoid spoilers or for those who may have forgotten who some of these people turn out to be).

That’s a lot of POVs (nearly 15 in total) and stories to juggle, but Esslemont keeps it all moving along smoothly. You get the sense you could toss another ball or even a knife or chainsaw at him and he’d just deftly slip them in between the mid-air bowling pin, apple, and billiard ball with nary a wasted motion or a pause in the flow. Once upon a time in my reviews of his Malazan works, I’d talk about Esslemont’s visible improvement in craft areas such as pacing or plotting, but he’s long since moved past such criticism. From the very start of this trilogy there has been an ease and naturalness that keeps the reader moving along in an uninterrupted glide of sheer pleasure, like coasting down an endless hill with your bike clenched between your knees, your arms out to catch the wind, and your head tilted back to feel the sun on your face.

And the same holds true here. It’s true that on the one hand, similar to Deadhouse Landing, there’s a sense at times of simply moving people and things (and sometimes places, given the fantasy elements) into place to set up what long-time Malazan readers know is coming. I want to say it therefore has a mechanical feel in places, and it definitely reads a bit flatter than the previous books, but both those words carry too much negative baggage with them, since I’m just having so much fun spending time with these characters. Save for a few missteps (an awkward “here’s how he got that nickname” scene or two, for instance), all those moving-into-place scenes feel organic to both story and character, so that as with the other two books, I read this through cover to cover in one sitting—the pace, plot, and characterization carrying me effortlessly along. If this series added another book or two, I’m not sure I’d feel we needed them all. But I am sure I wouldn’t begrudge having them all to enjoy…

Dancer and Kellanved remain an always entertaining pair, a mix of comedy banter and warm camaraderie that longtime readers can already see morphing into a familiar relationship. Gregar and Fingers add a second comic duo, but also offer an unusual perspective on the early days of the Crimson Guard as outsiders looking in, as well as the usual “grunt-level” view of things that makes the Malazan series so strong. Meanwhile, Orjin’s storyline provides a good amount of the tension and action, with a battle, a retreat, a fortress defense, a doomed last stand, a raid, a mad, scrambling run for safety and more, including several of the more moving scenes in the book. And of course, what’s an Esslemont novel without a naval engagement?

As expected with a well-written prequel, which this absolutely is, there are those wonderful built-in moments of recognition of Soon-to-be-Very-Important-People, including but not limited to: Hairlock, Nightchill, Imotan, Possom, Tool, Twist, and the Crippled God. The last is one of my favorite scenes in the book, while the first offered up one of the best subtle inside-joke lines, of which there are several, including I believe a nod to all the “ignore the timeline” advice Malazan veterans have been offering up for years.  Some of these meetings go the way you’d expect, some do not; some of these characters haven’t changed a whit while others clearly will grow into the selves they eventually become. And some have some nicely constructed parallels to later storylines they’ll be involved in.

Speaking of storylines, Esslemont does a fine job of seeding later plots as well as characters. Sometimes those are literal “plots,” as we see the beginning of a clear tension/separation between the Claw and the Talon. Or when Kellanved mentions his predilection for deception and Surly “tilt[ed] her head at that, as if filing the offhanded comment away for further reference.” Other plans are more long range, as when K’rul sets in motion events that won’t culminate until the end of the main series. The biggest tease, a bit surprisingly for a concluding volume (and I did check—this is the conclusion), comes at the end.  This does serve as a fitting closing point: By the end of Kellanved’s Reach we’ve got the basic relationships amongst the Old Guard, as well as the organizational structure of what will become the Malazan Empire, fully in place. Night of Knives, therefore, is more of a hop and a skip ahead in time rather than a running leap. But as any Malazan fan knows, there’s always lots more detail that could be filled in, and I for one would love to see at least one more book, and possibly more, doing just that. That desire is thanks in part to my love of all things Malazan, but is also due in large part to how Esslemont has hit his peak in this series.  It seems a shame, therefore, to have it end. Though maybe we shouldn’t take fully to heart the claim that this is the last novel, and keep in mind Kellanved’s reply when Dassem notes that “Deception is the first weapon of any duel”:

“It’s my main one.”

Kellanved’s Reach is available from Tor Books.

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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