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Book Review: Night Of Knives by Ian C Esslemont

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In 1982 two young men working together on an archeology dig began a role-playing game. Their educational background and interest in ancient civilizations made it only natural that they would create their own game world instead of buying anything pre-packaged. Just like many young men their age around the world, the more they played, the more elaborate their creation became.

They created characters, histories, continents, and even a system of magic. The characters ranged from human soldiers to gods, and included all sorts of non-human, sentient beings, including demons and other unsavory creatures, scattered about for variety. From this game came the idea of creating a screenplay they could shop around to various studios. They certainly seemed to have all the elements required for a movie already plotted out.

Perhaps their timing was bad and the studios weren't interested in works of fantasy in the mid eighties, or maybe it was because their work was too complex to be worked up into a movie script. Whatever the reason after a few years they decided to change tactics and attempt to find a publisher for a series of novels based on the world they had created.

It's hard enough for a brand new story to find acceptance with publishers, let alone one authored by one person and based on a world created by two. So it was decided that Steven Erikson would publish the initial books set in the world of the Malazan Empire, while Ian C. Esslemont would pick up other threads of the story at a later date.
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The best laid plans of mice and writers oft go awry, and it wasn't until 2005 that Ian's first book, Night Of Knives, in their mutually created world received limited release in England through P.S. Publishing. Finally this year it has been picked up for widespread release by Bantam Press, an imprint of Random House Canada and the same imprint that carries Steven Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence.

For those of you who have been reading the series all the way through from book one you'll know there are mysteries surrounding characters from the early days of the Empire. Names have been mentioned in passing and stories have been blurred by shadows and myth. Night Of Knives takes us back to the days before the events of Gardens Of The Moon (book one of the original series), before Lasheen became Emperor, to a night of terror on Malaz Island.

As is usual for stories involving the Malazan Empire plot lines weave, interconnect and separate until you're not sure which way is up. Two main characters provide a focus for us to follow the story, but of course we only see events from their perspective. In the end, we get the whole story and truths that only had been guessed at in other books are revealed and confirmed.

Kiska is a young girl native to Malaz Island who is desperate to be noticed by those who work for the Empire so they will put her talents of investigation and stalking to use. When she spots two boats pulling into the harbour that obviously contain high-ranking individuals in the Imperial command, she knows that she finally has an opportunity to be noticed. It's her chance to leave the boredom of island life behind forever. By the end of the night she has learned that there are some things and people who it is better not to be noticed by, especially on the night of a Shadow Moon.

Temper, an old veteran with plenty to hide, has learned long ago the dangers of being noticed. He has taken the course of hiding in plain view, joining the city guard and only half pretending to be an old drunk passing time until his name is called by death. The secret he is party to is only known by a few, and the others who share his knowledge would kill him if they knew he lived.

In earlier years, Temper fought with the man who once was the First Sword of the Empire, the mightiest warrior. The warrior supposedly died in a far off land during an early campaign of conquest. But as Temper was also supposed to have died at the same time, his very existence gives lie to that story. For that reason alone, he has plenty to worry about when the Imperial flagship shows up in port that stormy night, when the Shadow Moon shines down upon Malaz Island.

Shadow Moon is a time of convergence when the barriers between the Shadow realm and our world melt and you can walk from one to the other without noticing. If that wasn't bad enough to cause headaches for the islands magical community, another supposedly legendary creature, the Stormriders, have chosen this night to attempt an assault on the island.
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Giant blue man-shaped creatures armed with javelins of ice, riding giant beings of the sea and bringing storms of ice filled rain and massive seas wherever they travel, the Stormriders have always held back from attacking the straits of Mazal. But tonight they are freed of constraint as the same powers governing the Shadow Moon seems to have emboldened them to assault the one barrier keeping them from the rest of the world's oceans.

Ian Esslemont has done the nearly impossible as far as I'm concerned. He has written a chapter in a story that another author has been spinning on an ongoing basis for nearly a decade, and fits it in seamlessly. He's not attempted to copy Steven Erikson's style of writing but uses his own voice to augment the picture that Mr. Erikson started painting. Like a mural painted by two fine artists, you can detect the difference in their brush strokes, but not in the subject matter.

His intrinsic understanding of the world the Malazan Empire exists in, and the ways of the people who live in it, from street urchins like Kiska, soldiers like Temper, high ranking officials in the Imperial command, and life forms that inhabit the mists of legend and shadow, ensures that longstanding readers of the series will feel immediately at home in the pages of his book.

Finding a multi-book series of the Malazan Book Of The Fallen's calibre is rare enough as it is. To discover a second author equal to the first and books set in the same world, dealing with the same plot lines but from a different angle of approach, is as close to a miracle as I ever expect to see. With Night Of Knives Ian Esslemont hasn't just contributed an interesting chapter, he has made something wonderful even better.

Canadian readers wishing to buy Night Of Knives may do so directly from Random House Canada or from other online retailers like Amazon.ca

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.