Dancer’s Lament by Ian Esslemont

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Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy #1)

 

After reading Deadhouse Landing a few months ago I decided to reread Dancer’s Lament. It took me a month to locate the book in my (small) house, and then I had to finish the annual holiday magazine deluge before I could start.

I really enjoyed the second reading more than the first as I caught a good deal on the second reading that I missed the first time. Names and events that are just mentioned once often loom much larger in later books by both Esslemont and his partner in the Malazan universe Steve Erikson. The same with how people develop into friends and foes.  Just as Dancer and Kellanved undergo name changes as they mature and their roles alter so to do the names and identities of people that they interact with in this book as they emerge as allies or enemies.

Overall, just as Kellanved emerges as a more fully developed character in Deadhouse Landing, Dancer is filled out in this book. Originally named Dorin he was the last pupil of the last practitioner of a legendary school of assassins. He has big ambitions, but they are relatively undefined. He has all of the arrogance of someone who is young and inexperienced but very talented.

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Just as so many do when they are young some of his actions puzzle him, as they go against what he desires, or thinks that he desires. Even his eventual partnership with Kellanved, named Wu in this book, is mostly involuntary and he cannot quite understand how it comes about. Eventually he gives up and just starts following where Wu leads.

The basic plot is that the two are traveling on the continent of Quon Tali and both end up in the city of Li Heng, which has been shielded from outside conflicts for ages by a might wizardess called the Protectress, who is aided by a cadre of mages in guarding the city.

Close behind the two travelers is a young man sworn to Hood, the god of death and further behind is an invading army from Quon Tali that has been slowly subjugating half of the continent.  After the two arrive, separately, they get involved in everything from petty crime to helping to deal with the invaders. We also see Wu’s first steps into Shadow, and a hint at some of the forces behind him leading him there and the potential forces that will seek to thwart him.

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I was interested in the degrees of potency that the different mages had, as compared to some of the other characters that inhabit the pages namely the elder races and elder gods. It is much clearer here than in any opf the other books in the series and helped me understand the balance of power between different forces in later books.

Overall once again the one trend that really leaped out at me and greatly impressed me is how well the overall Malazan universe is knitted together. With the huge existing body of work split between two authors I would expect some gaping holes in plot lines and character motivation, and yet if there are any, aside from no doubt some very minor ones, I did not find them.

Originally this series was set to be a trilogy but it now looks like it might go longer, something I hope it does. Here is an interesting read on the creative process from the author given to Fantasy Book Review. If you are a fan of the Malazan novels this is a great read and if you are new to it, it’s also a great place to start.

Deadhouse Landing by Ian C. Esslemont

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Deadhouse Landing: Path to Ascendancy Book 2 is the second installment in the prequel trilogy being written by Esslemont that will serve as a prelude to Steven Erikson’s ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. While Erikson’s name is the byline for all ten books, he and Esslemont are partners in this universe, codeveloping the ideas and now splitting writing duties on different offshoots from the main story.

I did not review the first of this series, Dancer’s Lament: Path to Ascendancy Book 1, but may at some future point. I did greatly enjoy it, which is hardly surprising since the Fallen series is probably my second favorite fantasy series. The focus of the newest trilogy is on how two of the main characters amass their original core of people who help conquer a good deal of the known world and create the Malazan Empire.

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I said that I enjoyed Dancer’s Lament but Deadhouse is even better. Esslemont started building momentum in introducing the cast of characters that will play both important and minor roles in the Fallen series in Dancer’s Lament but quickens the pace considerably. It had been some time since I had finished the Fallen series and needed to keep notes to remind me who some of the players were.

The first book revolved around how Dancer and (the soon to be named) Kellanved met and their first moves towards empire and first steps to ascendancy. In hind sight it is interesting that two of the central characters in a ten volume series have rather minor appearances in the series, and yet all revolves around them. Very little information about their back story is provided. This trilogy fills in the gap.

One of the things I have enjoyed about the original Malazan series and in this trilogy as well is that there is no information dump. No long interludes that gives the background of events or people. Starting with Gardens of the Moon you are almost instantly thrust into action with a cast of characters you know nothing about, and little idea what their motives and plans are. I have always hated the info dump in many books because not only do they rehash previous events in case you had started in the middle of the series, but may do it in each volume of a series. Ugh.

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In Deadhouse Landing the two have reached Malaz Island and proceed with developing a crew to take over the island and much more. At the same time the two are in search of clues as to how to enter the Deadhouse, and start the path to ascendancy, or godhood. The book jumps around to multiple characters and starts to bring the different threads together.

I think that Esslemont does an excellent job filling in the motives and back story to many of the people involved in the main series, and in doing so answers a number of questions that I have always had about the series. Just one instance is that Kellanved is always portrayed as a powerful mage in the Fallen series, but does little compared to a number of others mages in the Fallen series. In Deadhouse Landing you see why he is considered powerful.

What I have always found amazing is how Esslemont and Erikson keep track of all of the people, places, races, gods, powers etc…and how they all interact. They provide a Dramatis Personae at the start of the books but you really need to reference the excellent Malazan Wiki page to stay abreast. Minor events in one book can have a major impact later so focus is required.

I think that this is the best off shoot book yet in the growing number of books in the Malazan Empire series. If you are new to the series I think starting here would be best, the problem being that you would have to wait until the third volume is available before starting the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Of course that would give you time to read the Kharkanas Trilogy that covers other important events prior to the Fallen series. The trouble with that strategy is that only the first two books have been written, this time by Erikson, and he is delaying finishing the third to start on a different, but related series called the Karsa Orlong Trilogy, with the first book tentatively entitled The God is not Willing. So good luck picking a starting point.

Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison

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Cal Carver is dashingly handsome, clever, witty, resourceful, brave and heroic. Well maybe one of these features at least. But he believes it darn it and he will do what a man needs to do. Cal is the hero, of sorts, in Space Team, a tongue in cheek Sci-Fi book by Barry J. Hutchinson that is the first in a five book series.

Cal is just a low level criminal who has been tossed in a cell with a hardened criminal nicknamed “The Butcher”, a cannibal that has eaten and killed 48 people-some eating starting prior to death apparently. However the book does not dwell on such morbid issues, much. Instead it is the adventures of Cal (originally masquerading as the Butcher) and a team of misfits that Zertex, giant corporation/government, hires to get some damaging footage from a planetary warlord before it starts an interstellar war

The team includes Mizette, a werewolf type who is very much a woman. Mech, a huge cyborg that can go from being a genius to a killing machine with the twist of a dial and who probably goes by the name Mech as his birth name is Cluk Disselpoof.  and Gunso Loren, a Zertex officer who has issues of her own rounds out the team. Oh and a green blob named Splurt that can assume the shape of anything, and its functionality.

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I have read a number of Sci-Fi and fantasy humor books in the past, but I think few have done it as well as Space Crew. The humor always seems fresh, and Hutchison constantly comes up with a line that makes me break out laughing. The closest book I have read that compares is probably Steven Erikson’s Willful Child.

However Ericson’s protagonist, Hadrian Sawbuck, is a supremely competent officer while Carver is only supremely confident, but believes that he is equally competent. However there is more to Cal than meets the eye. He is brave, and willing to instantly take steps. Has the ability to think things through, and gets to the obvious issues quickly rather than being distracted by side issues. It is that his mouth runs away from him and he is not as clever as he thinks he is. He likes to poke, poke, poke everybody around him.

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Captain Sternn

I try and avoid mashups when writing about books, you know a blurb that says something like “Gone With the Wind” meets “Aliens.” However Carver seems to be a mix between Captain Sternn from Heavy Metal and Peter MacNicol’s annoying camp councilor in Addams Family Values.

 

There are some reviews out there that compared this to either Terry Pratchett or to Douglas Adams and I don’t really see the comparisons, except that they are all comedies. I really believe that the Space Team stands on its own merits and highly recommend it. How can you not love a book that has an alien made out of stone who likes Dolly Parton, a zombie God, an evil soda company, and a quick guest appearance by Tobey Maguire. Also there are some clever plot twists.

When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner

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I bought this book without even reading the blurb on the back. I was in a rush and had credit on my Powell’s card and it looked interesting. What more do you need? Fantasy is one of the genres that I particularly like, and one that I tend to be very critical of, compared to say Sci-Fi where I find I can enjoy almost anything.

However over the years as complex characters that are neither all good or all evil and better world building has evolved my expectations of what I expect from a good fantasy novel have changed. It is no longer enough to have a hero or group of heroes on a quest to find gold, slay the evil wizard, stop the rampaging god or whatever. I am tired of elves and dwarfs. I dislike a character that is the greatest anything, swordsman, thief, cunning mastermind, you name it. Occasionally these can be elements that work but for the most part are played out.

The characters need to be believable and fully fleshed. They do not simply walk through a forest as if it’s a stroll thru Central Park, but the flora and fauna are also described as well as issues such as the difficulty of crossing a stream or finding food. Logistics issues are important. Why are they doing something? I dislike it when every major decision seems to be a childish whim, more in keeping with what a child or young adult of the 22 century would do rather than someone that has grown up in gritty, if fictional times.

I think that there is a range of current authors that are breaking out of this shell such as Erikson, Rothfuss and Abercrombie, to name a few, and this is my first shot at Turner, who is definitely in their class as a differentiated writer. As a side note several of these authors are worth following on Twitter as they can be pretty funny. Also maps. Did I mention maps? I like to see where the places that are referenced are and how far from point A to point B is.

While at the start of When the Heavens Fall seems to be your standard adventure, a disgruntled elite warrior is called back for a mission, rebellious and unhappy and forced to travel with unwanted companions. As his story line develops additional major characters are introduced as well as additional story lines that do not seem related, creating a complex picture in which at least one major player’s motives are unclear.

It is obviously a huge world with a complex past and many races and gods, immortals, forms of magic and rules on how and when they can be used. All of these features are introduced fairly slowly so that you are not overwhelmed by too much information, and there is a lot of it. Some are explained in a fair amount of detail and others just passing, as is needed. Most of the characters develop as the story progresses which I enjoyed a good deal. Their motives change, or are questioned, their relationships with others grows and their future goals start to emerge.

I felt it dragged a bit at about the midpoint, with the adventurers slowly inching closer to the goal. But as a first book I think that this was very good, and even in the slow parts important facts are dropped that I suspect will be important clues in future books.

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The book ends with lots of unanswered questions, but not as a cliff hanger. As I think back about the story lines I see new ones emerging as well as some that I wondered about all book. The big one is about the subtitle The Chronicles of the Exile. Who is or was exiled?  Reading the blurb online about the next book- Dragon Hunters– it seems that none of the characters from this book will be present, which is too bad since there is so much unanswered, but I suspect that Turner will bring it all together in future novels.