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Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe world of the Malazan Empire is actually the co-creation of both Steven Erikson and his old school chum Ian Esslemont, who whiled away their spare time as students gaming in it, thereby cementing their friendship in a bond of geek obsessiveness that would eventually shape both their futures. 

Both men made long-term plans to produce Malazan novels. But although it took Esslemont a few years longer than Erikson to bring his stories to fruition, his first book was worth the wait, in the purest sense of that cliché. By the standards of these books, Night of Knives, at under 300 pages, is a short, sharp shock. But it’s literally unlike most any fantasy I imagine you’ve read, even Erikson’s, though Esslemont does give Knives a familarity with Erikson’s style that makes it instantly accessible to the established fan base. Atmospheric and even chilling to a degree that must be read to be believed, Esslemont’s maiden effort not only delivers suspense and action as well, but a command of character and narrative structure superior to what Erikson himself managed in Gardens of the Moon. Despite its share of rough-around-the-edges moments you expect of most first novels, Night of Knives is a taut, sinister, portentous little dance of death, swathed in shadow and the delicious shudder of bad dreams.

Key to its success is that Esslemont seems aware of his limitations as a first-timer and avoids over-extending himself. The bulk of the story takes place over a single harrowing night in a single city. (In the series’ chronology, it’s set between the prologue and first chapter of Gardens of the Moon.) And where Erikson just flings a cast of thousands at you and expects you to sink or swim as best you can, Esslemont keeps his cast managable and provides two principal viewpoint characters for the narrative.

Malaz City, the main port on Malaz Isle, may no longer be the seat of the Malazan Empire. But it is key to the plans of Emperor Kellanved, who has neglected his rule in his pursuit of ascension to godhood. Warrens are otherworldly realms from which magic power originates, and Kellanved, who has been using the Deadhouse in Malaz City to travel from realm to realm, intends to rule over the Shadow Realm. On the night of the dreaded Shadow Moon, when the hounds of Shadow run loose in the city’s streets and sensible citizens bar their doors, Kellanved’s return to the city is anticipated, and a number of forces are mustering to either stop or aid him. Against him is Surly, the assassin whom the Emperor has left in charge, and who has decided she wants the throne for herself a little more permanently. There are also mages, cultists, soldiers, and a horde of terrifying merman-like creatures called Stormriders waiting in the wings, all of whom will converge upon this dank little town on this one fearful night.

Esslemont struggles a bit in keeping all of his distinct factions and their agendas clear to the reader, a problem often shared by Erikson. But he benefits greatly through his choice of viewpoint characters. Kiska is a rebellious young girl a little too eager to see the world, and in the way of all such youths, finds herself in well over her head as conflicts whirl around her whose motives she only vaguely understands. And Temper is a grizzled, veteran Malazan soldier who once fought under the empire’s Supreme Commander and First Sword, Dassem Ultor. Now working as a guard at the hold adjoining Malaz City, Temper isn’t your usual embittered vet. But he’s seen his share of bloody betrayal and is content, largely, that the hard-fighting days of his youth are behind him. He doesn’t ask to be swept up in the unfolding events. But when it happens, he knows he must deal with it as only a good soldier would.

Those of you who like your fantasies immersed in fog-enshrouded dark streets, fearful nocturnal perils, quiet fireplace-lit taverns where ominous threats lurk just beyond the threshold, and sinister ancient magics will quite simply be in heaven here. Though it lacks the monstrous, epic length of Erikson’s own (and even Esslemont’s later) novels, here, brevity allows the work to maximize its overall power without overstaying its welcome or branching off into countless narrative digressions. Esslemont understands that “epic” isn’t a size issue, and the reader comes away convinced that events here have a real sense of consequence. There isn’t much room for wit, and in the end, his characters are only as well developed as the immediate narrative needs them to be. But by the standards of any debut, Night of Knives cuts right to the quick. With an unpretentious and tight little tale that makes for a far more accessible introduction to the Malazan saga than Erikson’s Gardens, Ian Esslemont has proven to be his old friend’s match in every way, and then some.

Followed by Return of the Crimson Guard.