Ian Esslemont is writing some of the best high fantasy novels out there nowadays. High fantasy, with its sprawling plotlines, dozens of characters, huge magic and complex plots, is rather a rare beast nowadays. Growing up, high fantasy was where it was at. From Robert Adams to Roger Zelanzy, I read a lot of secondary world fantasies. But the genre seems to be dying out as of the 2000’s. One of the big, last gasps of the multi-volume doorstoppers was the Malazan Books of the Fallen, mostly written by Steven Erickson* Despite their huge world, large scope and some serious cribbing from Glen Cook’s work, they mostly fail. But Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan setting**, gets it right and he does it by paying attention to his characters.
If you’ve read my reviews of Erickson’s work, you’ll know I really dislike his characters. Esslemont is just the opposite. His characters live, breathe, love and, yes, weep. Though not to emo-Erickson levels. And though there are some head-scratchers at the ending and some plot flaws, I enjoyed this book very much. Ok, so let’s get on the review.
Complex and sympathetic characters, even the antagonists, make this fantasy novel a joy. The ending has some serious flaws but the journey is much more enjoyable than any the characters endure in Blood and Bone. The plot is complex with a number of sub-plots, most of which are resolved by the end of the novel but with one main thread that will lead into the sequel. The magic system of the Thaumaturg***, a sort of biokinesis that controls the body, is very cool and ties in nicely with the title****. We have a nice mix of soldiers, mages, gods and young girls as protagonists which gives a nice variety of points of view.
The plot is complex but I’ll sum it up as briefly as I can. In the main plot thread, the mages of Thamaturgs are invading the jungle of Himitan to reach the legendary city of Jakal Viharn and its protector the demi-goddess Ardata. Meanwhile, Saeng, a village girl, has been chosen as a new High Priestess of…something? Light maybe? That’s vague. But her desire to protect her family, especially her brother, and her basic decency makes her story one of main cores of the novel. Meanwhile, again, two renegade Malzan mages, Murk and Sour, are hired to retrieve a fragment of the Shattered God, the Big Bad of the whole series. Meanwhile yet again, the leader of the semi-immortal Crimson Guard, K’azz is semi-compelled to come to Jakal Viharn to confront the renegade Disavowed, though this plot thread is viewed mostly through two women: Shimmer and Mara on the Disavowed side. Meanwhile yet once more, a mysterious mercenary convinces the Tribes of the Adwami to invade the Thamaturg lands, this plot line is mostly viewed through the young prince Jatal. I’m leaving out a lot of sub plots and sub characters here :) These plot threads mostly converge at Jakal Viharn as a meteor kinda-sorta is being brought down by a magical ritual caused by the Thamaturgs.
Whew. There’s a lot going on here, probably too much. That’s why the ending doesn’t quite satisfy.
What does satisfy are characters. Everyone here, from the villains to the heroes, have problems. They care about things, about people. This is huge and is missing from the Erickson books. Just watching the Thamaturg Master Golan having to deal with a prissy and passive-aggressive Principle Sage (appropriately named Thorn) gives us so much empathy (and amusement) for a character that would be easy to be a one or two dimensional bad guy in Erickson’s work. See, I’m pretty sure Erickson sees his characters (they are shared between books sometimes) as just this well-rounded with the same rich, inner life. But he never puts it on the page or if he does, he drenches it in bathos and pathos. Esslemont just gets it right. I’ll be using this book as an example of good character writing from now on.
Ok, that’s the short version, something I can share on Goodreads and Amazon without putting too many people to sleep. I do want to dig into what was good and what was bad in the book, because it isn’t flawless.
As I mentioned, the characters. Barely a misstep here, almost everyone has a clear motivation for what they’re doing and has problems accomplishing it. The setting is vast, very much larger-than-life with a world that seems filled with history and politics that Blood and Bone barely scratches the surface of. Which is how it should be. The fight scenes are clear, including those involving magic. The setting was amazing, a fantasy makeover of China/Southeast Asia (Himatan is Cambodia/Thailand, it felt like)...just don’t think too much about the geography and climate. The humor. Mostly in the Murk/Sour scenes but as I mentioned, Golan is not without chuckles and even the Crimson Guard/Renegade plots are not without light moments. Not everything has to be doom and gloom or slapstick. People love. Seriously, they act like real people in these books. It’s just a breath of fresh air and since I’m wrapping back to characters again, let’s move on.
What didn’t work:
Little stuff first: Esslemont seems to suffer from a mild case of Hyperpolysyllabicomia. He can’t resist exotic or unnecessarily long words.***** Though Esslemont wrote some very well-rounded characters, he’s still playing in the Malazan world. So though Shimmer is a well-written female warrior, there are a lot of ‘man with tits’ characters here as well like Ursa, Burastan among others. The entire plot line with Gothos and Osserc could have/should have been cut. Little is resolved, little is accomplished except for bloviating and post-modern physchological digressions that are way out of place. Some of the dialog, especially with Osserc and Gothos felt too contemporary, down to using slang words. Very odd. The plot has too many threads here and they don’t all wrap up in a satisfying way. Let me go into that a bit.
Ok, the ending of the book just feels rushed. Up until the last 10% or so, things have been proceeding organically. Like the author is an exploration writer and he’s just been telling the story the way it felt to him it should unfold. Then suddenly, he noticed he was near his wordcount limit. So he rushes everyone to Jakal Viharn (or almost everyone, another flaw) and there the big confrontations happen only…except for one plot thread, Saen’s, the actual resolution happens off camera. Which is just weird. We’re teased and set up for this big confrontation between K’azz and Skinner, between Ardata and the Queen of Dreams, between the army of the Thamaturgs and Ardata’s Children, between Kallor and the Thamaturgs, between K’azz and Ardata and…most of it we don’t get to see.
Either the author didn’t pick the right POV characters or he couldn’t imagine a way to get them to the place to show us the action or…it was all a tease. Take K’azz and Ardata. Ardata took Skinner as a Consort. Skinner abandoned/betrayed her, just like he betrayed the Crimson Guard. Ardata says that she realized that it wasn’t Skinner she wanted it was K’azz. A man who could be her equal. That’s good, heavy stuff. A demi-goddess who wants love and companionship. Wouldn’t that conversation between her and K’azz be great? Full of drama and emotion? Well who knows, the two of them walk off alone and that’s all we get. Next we see Ardata, she’s offering to Skinner, again, to be Consort again. WTF? She’s said earlier that she didn’t want Skinner, she wanted K’azz.
So the climaxes happen but we mostly don’t see them. But the biggest disappointment is the one we do see. This is a nit-picky rant, so if you don’t want to read that, feel free. Go buy the book, read it. You’ll like it. Then maybe email me and we can chat offline about how you felt about the end.
Ok, Jatal is one of the best characters in the book. A young, bookish Prince who is expected to be a leader of this expedition. He falls in love with his family’s traditional rival. Real Romeo and Juliet kind of stuff. Only she seems to (and maybe does) betray him to sleep with and ally with Kallor in his mercenary warlord guise. And she dies in Jatal’s arms, thanks to Kallor, pledging her love to him with her dying breath. And Jatal is just broken, enraged, seeking death and vengeance. He goes on a huge (if brief) chase after Kallor. But Kallor is cursed, he cannot die and even a meteor seemingly falling on him doesn’t kill him. But what does Jatal do when he finally catches up to a wounded Kallor? He doesn’t even try to kill him. He basically pitches a fit and says, “I hate you, I hate you, you suck. Now kill me.” It is the MOST passive-aggressive thing I think I’ve ever seen in a book. It’s like Frodo getting to Mount Doom and yelling at Sauron and calling him names instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom.****** So Kallor kills him and…goes on his merry way. It’s just bizarre. It don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing but…who considers that a satisfying ending? That kind of passive-aggressive hissy fit?
Other parts of the ending don’t make a ton of sense. Spite’s whole plot line is gratuitous. She never is a mover or player after the novel begins. She’s just a naked shapeshifting dragon hottie. Which would be fine as a book cover but she’s not even there. Osserc SEEMS to divert the metor the Thaumaturgs are calling down (or is it a god?) but we don’t see that either. We don’t see final destruction of Golan’s army. We don’t know what religion Saeng is supposed to be High Priestess of (some Light-based faith or Warren? It really, really isn’t clear…even to Saeng). Ardata’s fate isn’t clear, is she a goddess in truth? What does that mean? We don’t get a resolution on what the Vow is that the Crimson Guard is or how it works, though that seems to be the real reason K’azz is there. It just sucks and these failures ruin what could have been a 5 star book.
I still recommend reading it, there’s a lot to love. And I will be getting the next book he comes out with. Esslemont can write, I’ll say that about him. He just needs someone to sit on him and hold him accountable for his plot threads. Or just trim them out.
* Real name Steve Lundin
** It was their GRUPS fantasy settings. As an old-school GRUPS player/GM, I love that.
*** Why he didn’t just call them Thaumaturges, I don’t know
**** It is similar to some stuff I’ve fiddled with in my game designing days, so I really enjoyed that.
***** Yes, I know what I did there
****** Yes, I know he doesn’t actually throw it in the Lord of the Rings.