Monday, November 21, 2016

On the path to ascendancy

Finished Dancer's Lament last week - wow, what a fun fantasy novel. It helps, of course, to already be infatuated with the works of Steven Erikson, as well as the previous Malazan adventures penned by Ian C. Esslemont (does anyone really pen anymore?!), but yeah, there's something about Dancer's Lament that made it stand out even in the good company it belongs in.

Don't ask me how I managed it, but somehow I managed not to realize this is but the first of (yet) another Malazan series - I really thought this was a standalone novel for the longest time, and in a way, it actually does work as a standalone, even though it is (now that I notice) quite obviously the first part of a series called Path to Ascendancy. Whether you begin at the very beginning (Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, 1999) or here with 2016's Dancer's Lament, you're in for a treat, a treat that will force you to think a bit more than usual. I would actually recommend starting out with Dancer's Lament if you're curious about the setting and style but not sure wether to commit. Yes, there will be a lot of stuff that will fly right over your head (and which for long-time readers will be quite obvious and fun nods and winks), but the same thing can be said for Gardens of the Moon. The difference: In Dancer's Lament you are limited to far, far fewer POVs, and Esslemont has a clearer, simpler, less philosophical prose that may make it easier for a new reader to immerse him/herself. In Gardens, the 'real' start, you must acquaint yourself with so many characters and places, and there's no hand-holding (resulting in many people dropping the series before it gets going - and boy does it get going), whereas Dancer's Lament is focused mainly on the adventures of Dorin, as the main character, with the stories of Silk and Itko as two other main strands. That's not too many.

Right, so Dancer's Lament is a prequel, and, this is actually the first time I've read a prequel that I actually enjoy, and that doesn't take away from the already established canon. Erikson made a prequel too, of course, but it's so far back in time it doesn't really feel like one. Dancer's Lament, however, really feels like a prequel as it features two important characters from the "original saga" and how they, well, happened upon the titular path to ascendancy (in Erikson's work, they have already ascended). These two characters happen to be among the most interesting and perhaps fun characters from the main story, so seeing their "young" (or at least inexperienced) versions is good entertainment. While Esslemont is unable to deliver dry wit the way Erikson does so masterfully, he none the less manages to paint these characters with the right colors, and I end up 'believing' this story to be what actually happened prior to Gardens of the Moon. With fewer characters, who were already interesting and established, and keeping the story mainly to one (large) setting - the grand multi-walled city of Li Heng - I'd argue that Dancer's Lament is the easiest-to-read Malazan story so far, a perfect (re)introduction for new, unsuspecting readers. [That being said, I assume reading Dancer's Lament only after the main saga is even richer / more rewarding.]

It's like if the Star Wars prequels were actually interesting and made me believe their version was the actual, true backstory to the original trilogy. Dancer's Lament sticks to the Malazan formula in many ways - cryptic at times, violent and sorcerous, surprising, obtuse, different yet clearly fantastical - but Esslemont keeps it lean and easy, and the pacing is perfect. This novel, following Esslemont's first six under the Malazan Empire banner ("Night of Knives", "Return of the Crimson Guard", "Stonewielder", "Orb Sceptre Throne", "Blood and Bone", and "Assail"), is without a doubt Ian's best, to the point that many a fan has uttered that this even outshines Erikson's own return to the world of Malaz (his "Forge of Darkness" and "Fall of Light"). Not that I didn't enjoy all those books; it's just that Dancer's Lament strips away some of the more ponderous leanings of previous works, it's more focused, sharper...Yeah, definitely recommending this one. Gotta love the setting, the characters, the mythical atmosphere contrasted with the almost mundane banter.

Ian's been working in the shadow of Steven for many years, despite the two of them being joint creators of the Malazan setting; and it must be quite hard to get out of that shadow for Steven truly is an unheralded giant, but with Dancer's Lament, despite in many ways coming closer to classic Erikson, Esslemont shows more muscles and becomes a master of his world, too. The prose feels more confident, the story has a clear structure (for a Malaz tale, that is - plenty of folk might get confused by certain "side treks" in this tale which are obviously setting up the rest of the trilogy), and there's an abundance of creativity - as there should be in a Malazan tale - elements just begging to be incorporated in your next tabletop roleplaying game (as a GM, I really want to 'steal' Ryllandaras). FOR THE GLORY OF THE MALAZAN EMPIRE (and how it came to be)!!!!!!!!!1


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