Night of Knives is the first book by Ian Esslemont set in the same world as the Malazan Book of the Fallen series of Steven Erikson’s. I read this after the first five of Erikson’s books, so please bear in mind that this review may contain references or spoilers from those earlier volumes.
Jumping back in time to the last year of Kellanved’s reign, the story takes place on Malaz Isle and mainly follows the exploits of two characters: Temper, a veteran soldier who served under Dassem Ultor, and Kiska, a young girl with ambitions to escape the confines of the island on which nothing interesting happens. It tells the story of one night, a night we’ve already heard of but have yet to see firsthand: The assassination of Kellanved and Dancer and the claiming of the Deadhouse.
Kiska’s side of the story quickly began to grate on me. She’s a walking stereotype: Precocious child, check. Wants to escape homeland and see the world, check. Has a mysterious mentor who feeds information at plot-convenient points, check. Has a talent she has yet to fully realise, check… Hers also felt like a poor choice of POV to experience these events through. She has no real connection to them, requiring interminable amounts of sneaking about after considerably more interesting people, eavesdropping on conversations, accidentally stumbling into warrens, and generally getting underfoot. It’s not a long book to begin with, but if you cut out every instance in which you’re waiting for Kiska to stumble across something you already know or are forced to read another lengthy description of her trudging after/running away from something, I suspect what you’ll be left with is a novella. I did initially empathise with her as a young woman frustrated by her inability to affect the world around her, but not enough to enjoy the rest of her story, except when she was dealing with some of the characters who most intrigue me (Dancer, Tayschrenn).
Temper was more interesting to read about. As a worn-down soldier with a past full of familiar names and places he immediately felt like a better fit for a Malazan tale, and the flashbacks to his time with Dassem were my favourite parts of the book. I felt like Esslemont was more confident when writing about him as well, as the narrative was less choppy and the dialogue more convincing, although he still fell into the trap of having too many “As you know, Bob…” info-dumps. They certainly weren’t that blatant compared to some fantasy authors, but comparing (perhaps unfairly) one Malazan author to another, it was jarring. I’m not sure if it’s the reader or his own abilities that he doubts, but he also came across a little too strongly with the foreshadowing.
I’ve been quite critical here because the flaws in this book hampered what could have been a really exciting chapter in Malazan history, but even if it’s not a perfect Malazan book, it’s still a good fantasy story. The author can definitely turn a phrase, and there’s an immediacy to his prose that Erikson sometimes lacks. The ending had a twist that, while it seemed a poor fit for the story told in Night of Knives, promises a very interesting sequel or two. My next read, The Bonehunters, takes me back to Erikson’s work, but I will be interested to reach Return of the Crimson Guard in a couple of books’ time and see if Esslemont has stepped outside the boundaries of conventional fantasy and learned to take some of the risks that Erikson so deftly manages. If he does, then it could be something really special.