“Return of the Crimson Guard”, Ian C. Esslemont (2008)

Return of the Crimson Guard is the second Esslemont novel set in the Erikson/Esslemont shared world of the Malazan Empire, and rebellion is afoot in the heart of the empire. Quon Tali is the continent that forms the core of the empire and its cities, kingdoms, and various peoples want to go back to the good ol’ days before the Pax Malazica. The list of players in the dramas that unfold in this installment is really too long to go into right here but titular Crimson Guard deserve a wee mention. A mercenary group sworn to end the Malazan Empire and their story as a group and the stories about some of the members are the core which everything else swirls, directly or indirectly. That vow has some very interesting effects on the members of the Guard, no spoilers sorry, and how they go about the business of trying to fulfilling that vow.  As I said lots of characters so plenty of other things going on as well; political rebellion, economic rebellion, profiteering, the unleashing of old magics, revenge, regicide, and other forms of mayhem. Plenty of sword and sorcery action but mixed with a solid explanations of the nasty personal and dirty political motivations behind much of the action giving this a bit of gritty edge. Not as heavy as some of the Erikson material but still no Sunday stroll through the park. The lack of heaviness worked for me because it comes as a bit of a relief, in all honesty, to see the Malazan world through different eyes.

I have read a bunch of interviews given by both Esslemont and Erikson when thinking about this and both stated that they want each book to stand on its own completing its story arc. Well this book does that for sure but it really needs the reader to be familiar with all things Malazian in order to get the full richness, this is true for most books in a series and is more of a warning: Don’t read this until you have read most everything up to “The Bone Hunters” and read before “Toll the Hounds”.

Okay,getting that caveat out of the way, Esslemont retains a distinct voice apart from Erikson even if he deploys similar devices as Erikson – wondering pair of travellers, young man on spiritual quest,  just to name two. In fact the similarities help this book feel more a part of the series and serve to emphasize his different voice and narrative style. I think this a solid addition to the Malazan world but can really only recommend it to folks familiar with other works from Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont set in this world, it would make an awkward starting point for readers new to the world. Start with Esslemont’s “Knight of Knives” then move onto Erikson’s “Gardens of the Moon”.

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