Monday, August 18, 2008

Ian Cameron Esslemont - Return of the Crimson Guard (Book Review)

"Return of the Crimson Guard" (Amazon: UK, US)
by Ian Cameron Esslemont
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: PS publishing, Bantam Books

Avowed are coming for their vengeance. It's been a better part of a century since the Crimson Guard took their vow. They scattered across the world, looking for allies, conscripts and power, knowing that they can't stand against the entire might of the empire. But the empire is overstretched and purely defended. Whirlwind took Coltain's host and after Tavore's Bounhunters (with a little help) destroyed Sha'ik they became outlawed. Of Onearms/Parans host little remain after the plague and the homeland suffers in wake of the constant warfare.
---Now the four winds are bringing the Avowed back, for that dish best served cold. But there is still some might in the troubled land, so a quick and precise strike is called for. Straight in the heart of the empire, it's capital - Unta. But the centre is unwell also. Empress Lassen is by all impressions losing her grip on the rains. New players are raising their heads and by all accounts they're playing for keeps. Some with cloaks and daggers, other openly with armies. The weakening of centre has brought about an insurrection on the other side of the continent. Among the rebels there are some dream of past might, some of gods better left caged and some of vengeance against the empress. More and more it seems that this will be another bloody conflict between Surly and followers of her predecessor. With an army the empress sails for Cawn, following the insurgents inland, toward Li Heng.
---Crimson guard must perforce follow, for raising Unta to the ground, but not killing empress would serve no purpose. But their heart is also unwell. Their leader K'azz D'avore has gone missing decades ago and returning or not, nobody knows what is his true will. Nonetheless, the decision has been made and under poorly maintained walls of Li Heng a mighty conflict is starting.


I'll tell you two things directly, to avoid misunderstanding:
  1. As you well know, the impression that one forms during reading is always influenced by his mood. This brings us to point number 2
  2. I dislike reading from my computer (and yes, I've had to read this one from my faithful monitior)
This out of the way, let's get to the essence of things: "Return of the Crimson Guard" is basically – tepid.

Ian Cameron Esslemont has decided to write an epic book. Taking us over several continents (or at least island chains) he brings us to the continent of Quon Tali. We visit numerous locations, previously only hinted at – Unta, the dreaded Stormwall, more of otataral mines, Wickan planes and of course Li Heng and lands of Seti. And all of these will leave you unsatisfied.
Unta and Li Heng have no soul, Stomwall it's function and his assailants still remain a mystery, otataral mines seem more like an prison camp for elderly and senile, and lands of Seti and Wickans nothing but a green blots in the distance. True, the main worldbuilding has been done by Esslemont and Erikson years ago, but still one expects something more tangible when it comes to local geography. So don't expect Seven Cities or Darujhistan from MBoF, or even Malaz city from "Night of Knives". Here the places are no more than badly painted scenography in front of which the story unravels.

And the story itself again is epic. It's the clash of mighty: Lassen and her army, the insurgents that outnumber them greatly, besieged city forced to desperate solutions and of course almost ascended-level Crimson Guard… and all this for nought.
The descriptions of the clashes are usually too disorganised, sometimes, especially in the last part of the book that describes the conflict around Li Heng Esslemont jumps so much from one part of the battlefield to another that you completely loose the main thread for every single piece of mosaic, and for turning of wheels and consequences it brings. The unveiling of the Kurald Galain for instance, that is suppose to present a monumental milestone in the conflict is watered down completely when the story simply runs its course unabated making it look as an afterthought. And less we say about Tayschrenns dues ex machine appearance toward the end the better.
I realise that one of the main objections readers had over the "Gardens of the Moon" was that everybody was too much of a bada*s, but here even those that are supposed to be leave at the best a shallow impression. In general characters for all their might and fame bring little or nothing of it in the story. Laseen (IMHO intentionally) remains a mystery. Kellanved's warleaders: Urko and Toc the Elder, that had subtly became almost legends themselves, play insignificant roles – not in appearance but on epic level. Toc is shown almost as a sidefigure, on occasion (especially in the end) almost pathetic (:sniff: you promised, come back :sniff:). Urko, that had supposedly avoided assassins some two dozen times and leads a big part of the insurgents seems brooding at best and inclined to rely – like the author – on the myth that his name became, leaving most of the leading and work to others, punching away on the frontlines like some kind of blue skinned Chuck Norris. What had happened to the personality, talent and charisma that enabled them to become prominent generals Esslemont only knows.

As usual for the E&E books the entire 'cast' of characters takes on an almost epic quantity, but their interaction I can again only describe as tepid. Interaction between new conscripts and supposedly estranged avowed leaves no such impression, Erekos group is meant to be closely knit but it seems almost vaporous and Malazan solders have lost their usual spunk and cynicism (with one exception – I love the entire 'incest' dialogue).

I have thought for two weeks what to write for the conclusion after all this critique. "Return of the Crimson Guard" is not a bad read, but it's not a good one either. It is a meeting of old friends, comfortable and cozy. You fall in the routine of decoding the world without much effort, but also with a feeling of a listening to an old joke. Again.
So from me it gets:

Related posts:
PS: You can also read an interview that Fantasybookspots Jay Tomio had with Ian Cameron Esslemont here
~ Blindman ~


MikeB said...

A really negative review! I guess sometimes you just don't have nothing good to say about a certain book?

BlindMan said...

BlindMan said...

Believe me or not, but I've tried.
At first I've thought to give it two appraisals.
First one for being 'malazan' - this one would come to about three fruitcakes. Since no matter how one looks at it the entire Malazan world is still great, even if has been built years ago.
And the second one would be for the overall impresion of the book which would come to no more than 2 f'cakes.
Finaly I've deciced to split the difference and give it 2,5. I do hope Esslemont will take more time with his next work (and hopefully some writing lessons)

S.R.G. said...

Yeah, it's hard to rate a book - especially when you have to consider it in the fantasy genre as a whole and as a part of a specific series,shared-world or if you only comapare it to other works of the same author.


Aidan Moher said...

Interesting review.

I've not read either of Esslemont's books, and I've always been curious about whether he was on the same level as Erikson.

A Dribble of Ink

Larry said...

I haven't read this, but I did read Esslemont's Night of Knives and I thought it was a bit meh, so I am not surprised that "tepid" is the one word applied to this volume. I'll eventually read it and Erikson's latest in the next few months, but right now, not really all that excited about it.

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