My first 5-star rating this year, and it’s a Malazan book.
I love the world of Malazan, and the Malazan Book of the Fallen stands as my favourite grimdark fantasy series. However, these are not books which one can pick up to read for ‘fun’. Not only were the worldbuilding complex and the cast of characters extensive, but the prose was also dense and philosophical. Moreover, the narrative frequently messaged dark and bleak themes. To be honest, it felt like work sometimes to read MBOTF, albeit work that I thoroughly enjoyed.
As such, my rating should not come as a surprise. Except, that this is the same author for Night of Knives, which I only gave 2.5 stars, and Return of the Crimson Guard, which I rated 3.5 stars. I have not even continued with the rest of the Malazan Empire series.
The most notable difference between Dancer’s Lament and those two mentioned above was Esslemont’s writing, which improved greatly. This is good and accessible writing that makes reading effortless – a first for Malazan books. In Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, I felt that Esslemont was trying to write like Erikson and it didn’t work for me. This time though, I would say that Esslemont had found his groove when he wrote Dancer’s Lament, and I loved the result.
Even better, this prequel trilogy’s main characters are two of my favourite characters in MBOTF – Dancer and Kellanved. Dancer’s Lament was the story of how a Talian assassin and a Dal Honese mage formed an unlikely partnership in the city of Li Heng. While they were not known by those names at the start of the book, not-too-subtle hints and descriptions were all it took for me to identify them as our eponymous duo.
A few well-placed thrusts and their stashes of coin rode tightly wrapped in a baldric across his chest – a baldric that also supported a selection of graded blades and lengths of rope. He was of the opinion that one can never carry too much rope.
Prequels are tricky to write because our investment in these main characters did not translate to any fear or concern of their well-being since we know that they survived. Notwithstanding, having the benefit of also understanding the future story and relationship between the main characters did add to the overall enjoyment as we slowly peel away the layers of history. Another great experience while reading prequels was when bits of foreshadowing started falling into place about what we knew of these individuals. The story behind how Dancer got his name and assassin’s sigil was beautifully poignant.
I believe that what truly makes a prequel work are the side characters. Primarily because these were the people who helped shape the person that our main character would become. The characterisation in his book was superb as Esslemont extends the readers’ empathy be it for a known, well-loved, or new face/name. Of course, we also get to see many other familiar and well-known names as these two personalities did have very far-reaching involvement (or to be more exact when it comes to Kellanved, meddling) in the affairs of the world.
Dancer’s Lament was also the funniest Malazan book I’ve ever read. The early interaction between Dancer and Kellanved was comedy gold. The writing style worked so well for this narrative. Regardless, this did not mean that the book was light-hearted, as we are talking about the world of Malazan after all. The ending chapters of the book illuminated the horrors of war with some rather graphic scenes of the casualties and their suffering.
Not only the name behind this sorcery troubled her; the very unleashing of the tactic worried her. For it was a truism of all the treatises of warfare and strategy that she’d read: just as the sword is answered by the sword, so too is sorcery answered by sorcery.
As with all that is of this world, the sorcery was blindingly devastating, and it came with a price. Even so, Dancer’s Lament lacked the typical epic convergence endings of MBOTF. The story’s focus on characterisation, however, did more than compensate for the absence of an epic climactic sequence.
In short, Dancer’s Lament is now one of my favourite Malazan books and the best novel by Esslemont that I’ve read to date. I usually take a short break in between books written in this intricate and complex world. However, with the ease of enjoyment I had with the first instalment of this series, I am going to dive right into the sequel next.
You can order this book from: Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide)