It’s not very often you have the opportunity to read the same story told from two different perspectives. Occasionally we will see the same events through the eyes of two separate characters, but how often do we have a chance to read a whole series of books which run concurrent to another series? Well, this is exactly what Steven Erikson and Ian C Esslemont have been attempting to do with their epic fantasy series set in the mythical world of The Malazan Empire.
Erickson began the process with his ten book sequence The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, but Esslemont is quickly catching up with the publication of his 5th book set in the same world, Blood and Bone, from Random House Canada. As the books have been published over the years it’s become obvious the two men are not just telling the story of an Empire, but recounting the history of a world, if not a universe. While there are occasions when the authors’ work intersect and characters first met in one’s work show up the other’s, each of them are responsible for recounting different aspects of the history. At times events in one book are concurrent with those of the other series while on other occasions they take place at different times in the history.
While Erikson’s books have predominately centred around action within the Empire, Esslemont switches back and forth between the Empire and characters and locations only briefly mentioned in the other series. As with a previous book Blood and Bone features members of an elite fighting force who have taken a vow of eternal opposition to the Empire. The Avowed of the Crimson Guard, who are nominally a mercenary army, have gained immortality with their vow to follow their leader Prince K’azz Davore until the Empire has been overcome. However, dissension within the company has caused a split leading to around fifty warriors to be disavowed by the Prince for betraying the spirit of their oath. Unfortunately merely disavowing them turns out to be insufficient, and the book opens with K’azz being forced to gather his forces and head out to bring the renegade members of his troop to heel.
Unbeknown to the Guard the continent of Jacuruku where they are heading has become a lodestone for several powers who will all converge upon its shores simultaneously. Long ago the entire continent was under the rule of one so terrible that a group of sorcerers known as the Thaumaturgs attempted to depose him by bringing a god from another universe down upon his head. Unfortunately, all they succeeded in doing was killing themselves in the resulting conflagration, scattering pieces of the god all over the world, pissing off their former ruler and leaving the world vulnerable to the presence of a very angry and crippled alien god. Although his power was somewhat curtailed by various powers, the Crippled God has still managed to exert considerable influence in the world.
While Erikson recounted how the Crippled God’s story was resolved, in Blood and Bone Esslemont focuses on how some parts of the world are still dealing with the repercussions of his landing. After the fall Jacuruku gradually came back. While the descendants of the Thaumaturgs who caused the original destruction have carved out a kingdom they rule by means of terror and magic. A huge swath of the continent is covered by jungle ruled by the goddess like figure of Ardata–also known as Queen of The Witches. While expeditions into her jungle have never been successful–few who set out have ever returned alive–the Thaumaturgs have decided to send an army against her.
An ungainly beast which would be almost impossible to move under ideal conditions, the idea of trying to take an army and the thousands of bearers required to carry supplies through the jungle seems to be madness of the first degree. Ardata need not send out troops to defend her borders as the jungle itself appears to be sufficient to overcome any invaders. However, they aren’t the only invasion force heading into her heartland. A shard of The Crippled God buried near her land has attracted quite a bit of attention. The disavowed of the Crimson Guard have been sent by the Crippled God to try and recover this piece of himself in exchange for his patronage and protection. However, power attracts power, and the extremely powerful sorceress, Lady Spite, has hired a mercenary company made up of ex-Malazan marines and magicians to help her secure the same shard.
When the marines are stranded on the continent they are forced to attempt to cross through Ardata’s territory. Having recovered the shard of the Crippled God, at the cost of losing their employer temporarily, they have become a lodestone for other beings of power. So not only are they forced to deal with the jungle’s dangers, they also have to worry about what this piece of a god they are carrying around could call down upon them. While this struggle is being played out, a mysterious Warlord has landed on another coast with a mercenary force. He manages to unite the fractious desert warriors of the continent into an army and is now leading them in an invasion of the Taumaturg kingdom.
If that sounds like way too many plot lines to keep track of, and that’s not even all of them, you would be right if they were in the hands of a lessor author. Not only is Esslemont able to keep his hands firmly upon the reins of all the action taking place and tie them all together quite nicely, he also manages to bring the environment they take place in to life with remarkable vividness. Part dream world, part claustrophobic jungle and part nightmare we follow each party’s progress through one of the most inhospitable habitats you’ve ever encountered. Even more impressive is what we learn about the various characters and their cultures from the way they interact with this environment.
It might sound odd to say this, but Esslemont also manages to deal with all these social and personal examinations without ever taking himself or the circumstances too seriously. Not that he turns the experiences his characters undergo into a joke, but the story never becomes bogged down in needless naval gazing on the part of either himself or the characters. After all this is a fantasy novel, not some 19th century naturalistic examination of the human condition. So while you can make the obvious comparison with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, with its description of a journey into a land where the rules of civilization as we know them have vanished, there’s one major difference.
Instead of depicting his characters as having descended into some uncivilized dark pit, Esslemont makes it clear a social structure governed by rules of behaviour still exists, they’re just not the ones his characters are used to. Those who stubbornly refuse to adopt suffer while those who are willing to accept change have an easier time of it. Ironically, while the struggles of these characters seem loom huge in both our’s and their eyes, events in the world beyond this small continent end up making most of their voyages irrelevant. However, this in no ways diminishes the book, as Esslemont has done such a fine job of taking us on each journey the lack of any finite conclusion is irrelevant.
Blood and Bone is the latest chapter of the magnificent epic sequence set in the universe created by Esslemont and Erikson. Somehow or other they have done the seemingly impossible of finding ways of fleshing out the world and introducing new and exciting ingredients and characters with each book. Esslemont continues to show he’s every bit as imaginative and literate as Erikson. The ability to combine the fantastic with literary elegance is something I’ve come to take for granted with the writing of both authors, yet each time it catches me by surprise and takes my breath away. There really are no other books quite like them.