Wednesday, October 8, 2014

[Review] Ian C. Esslemont's ASSAIL

When I began reading Assail, the latest volume of lore set in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, I was excited and went through the first chapters pretty fast. It was good to be back in the setting created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont, and I was curious about this mysterious continent of Assail, and how Esslemont would tie up the many plots found in the five books preceding this one, Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne, and Blood & Bone. I loved that last one, with the adventures in Jacaruku, a story full of humid jungles and mystery. This time, we get a story full of frigid northern landscapes and a little less mystery (but still more than enough to confuse me, as Malazan books always do).
However, about halfway through, the story began to sag under its own weight of similar plot-lines and characters that became indistinguishable. Everybody was moving, either by foot or by ship, through similar landscapes and it all became a blur. Some characters were more interesting than others, but in general Esslemont once again struggles making them really come alive and leap off the paper - something George R.R. Martin remains the master of, and something that Erikson improved over his ten books in the Malazan saga.

From a technical viewpoint, Assail is similar to the other Esslemont novels in that the text is fairly straightforward, at times so blunt it kind of hurts a little. His sentences often lack variety, which results in long paragraphs of very stilted reading, where each sentence has the same cadence or rhythm one after the other, almost like reading a grocery list. Here's an example from the online excerpt:

He walked the uneven cobbles of the wharf’s main way. It bore ruts from centuries of foot and cart traffic. The cortex of many stones had eroded through to the creamy brown flint beneath. Through the evening gloom of clouds, smoke and mist he could just make out the looming shapes of the nearest moored vessels. All thrusting so tall and proud their sculpted galley bow-figures of waves, dolphins, and, of course, the obligatory women.
The excerpt's first lines are very similar in structure, which leads to a monotonous whole, and there's a lot of it in Assail. Another small thing that bugs me with the writing in this novel is the overabundance of exclamation marks!!

So there's a lot of traveling in this story, and I do enjoy this kind of tale, always loved the "how to get there" the best, but somehow it becomes stale after a while because everybody is experiencing similar situations and encounters and I kind of lost track of the plots as well, not quite understanding what was going on, why characters did what they did, and why I should care. In the end I did care because it is after all one of my favorite settings by now, and I am sure a re-read will do wonders to my understanding (there are elements that go back all the way to the second Esslemont novel, Return of the Crimson Guard that I probably have forgotten and thus did not make much sense when reading it now).

The book does not have a typical structure with a clear beginning, middle, and end; it feels more like a continuous flow of events and meetings and wandering - lots of wandering - with a small convergence toward the end that left me scratching my head rather than vowed. Avowed. I did enjoy the awesome powers of nature ice magic, I did enjoy some of the character interactions and events (the bridge of bones was an interesting, if typically high fantasy, location/adversary), but the book lacks the droll humor, the wit, and the passionate delving into humanity that are the trademarks of the main series, Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen cycle.

It was nice to be back in the setting, as it was the first long wait between Malazan books (nothing compared to waiting for dragons and winter though - the previous Malazan novel, Forge of Darkness, was published September 18, 2012, and I believe we got a novella in between there as well), but the last half of the book was a slog through rocky mountain valleys laden with snow; perhaps the book came too close to depicting the travails of Kyle and Orman and Fisher in a real sense. Speaking of Fisher, I really hoped we got to learn more about this mysterious fellow, but we didn't. Not enough to conclude who he really is, anyway. Some kind of god or avatar of a god?

In the end I think I have to settle on a score somewhere around 6 or 7 out of 10, placing the book a tier lower than some of the other Malazan Empire novels. A good read, but not one I feel like re-reading any time soon. Next up is Joe Abercrombie's Half a King which I'll start tonight, and which I'm looking forward to, because, you know, it's Joe.

In other news, I have come, at last, and after some hardship (which translates to frantic clicking of buttons, either to hit monsters or to move tiles) come to the dreaded Castle Cimmeria by way of the Catwalk Caverns and am now in the very den of evil - in other words, I'm getting close to beating Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, the 1990 fantasy computer role-playing game that's kept me up a little later than usual in the evenings (along with that damnable app, QuizUp). Compared to modern fantasy game titles, this one is pretty difficult and I can imagine a lot of people giving up on it back in the day when you couldn't just go online and find a walkthrough to help you through the more challenging bits. Last night I was stuck mightily in the hellish dungeons of the Xeob, having, according to my map, explored everything yet there was one door in the center of the location with a lock I could not pick. I scoured the dungeon, tile by tile, for a key I might have overlooked; re-visited battered, opened chests to see if I had forgotten to pick up a key; in the end, almost giving up, I went back to the Xeob, who had instructed me to slay all the Knowles in the level, and that solved it. I had killed all the Knowles and so the Xeobs gave me the damned key I had been looking for. Opening that last door led me to a staircase and right up into Castle Cimmeria. So I was in its basement all along! I didn't know that.

The game sure doesn't hold my hands as I haven't really got the faintest idea what I'm supposed to do next. I began exploring the corridors but they were deadly so I gave up and went to bed to finish Assail, so I still have some adventuring to do - I suppose I am now looking for Scotia, the witch, and Richard, the king frozen in carbonite, and...

Reaching the first level of Castle Cimmeria, it gives off a classic "Temple of Elemental Evil"-vibe. 

... only one week to go before Legend of Grimrock 2 is released. Lands of Lore provided a lovely nostalgic RPG feeling to tide me over until the release of Almost Human's sequel. More dungeoneering to come, woo! Sometimes I wonder why I love exploring dungeons so much. Does it go back to that first journey through the long dark of Moria? Is it because Eye of the Beholder 2: The Legend of Darkmoon gripped me so back in the day? Is the combination of game mechanics and adventure, a look into the shadowy unknown? I don't know, but I do know that A Song of Ice and Fire could use some more traveling through dark and dangerous passages. The closest thing to a "dungeon" I suppose is the House of the Undying, which was a pretty cool place. I'm not thinking of actual dungeons where characters are imprisoned of course, but the more magical variety with traps and strange creatures or strange devices yadyada. Maybe in The Winds of Winter. Or maybe not - these books are good enough without dungeons as well. The Malazan world also has precious few dungeons, come to think of it. Y'Ghatan was kind of a dungeon adventure (in The Bonehunters, a must-read for any fan of epic fantasy!), I suppose. And the Azath Houses are kind of small dungeons. 

Enough about dungeons, time to get back to real life and work. In which I sometimes imagine the long hallways I traverse to and from classrooms to be...dungeons.

And here's my updated "Six Tiers of Fantasy" list, with Assail landing on Tier 4 (the rest of the series I've put on Tier 3, so there is a quality drop I feel). The more I think about Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire books, the more I'm thinking they should probably be moved up to Tier 2 in terms of how much I enjoyed reading them. I'm going to buy his fourth book, the first in a new trilogy in the same setting, and let that influence the decision later.

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Steven Erikson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country
Patrik Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles

Mark Lawrence, The Broken Empire Trilogy
Richard K. Morgan, A Land Fit for Heroes
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms
Ian C. Esslemont, The Malazan Empire

Anthony Ryan, Raven's Shadow
Peter Staveley, The Emperor's Blades
Scott Lynch, The Gentlemen Bastards
Brandon Sanderson, The Stormlight Archive
Grey Keyes, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone
Ian C. Esslemont, Assail 

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time (I admit I stopped during book four)
R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms books & other Dungeons & Dragons novels

TIER 6 (almost, and in some cases, actually unreadable):
Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress

1 comment:

  1. Good review! I breezed through it as I never read any Malazan books...yet. But from what I've been hearing, I should have instead of getting into The Wheel of Time.