I’m a huge fan of the everything Malazan. I am of the opinion that Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is the single finest fantasy series this or any other world has ever seen, surpassing my past and still very much loved favorites by George R. R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Tolkien, and Patricia McKillip (because picking up Riddle of the Stars mesmerized me as a child).
Fans of Erikson’s series would get chapters and tales from Ian Cameron Esslemont, Erikson’s co-creator of the setting. I think it’s fair to say these efforts were met with mixed reactions.
The first of Esslemont’s entries was Night of Knives, which no doubt is meant to echo our own history’s Night of the Long Knives, and details the ascension of Kellanved and Dancer.
Before I go on, I first want to point to interviews I conducted with both Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont from several years ago that I think most fans of all things Malazan would enjoy if they haven’t read them already.
I first want to say that I’ve always liked Night of Knives and a lot of it had to do with place. Night of Knives came out after and in the same year as Erikson’s Midnight Tides which was a ballsy shift and almost unbelievably expanding upon on the what was already shaping up to be the most ambitious fantasy series we’d ever seen. Esslemont debuts dialing us a bit back, recounting a specific 24-hour period in one small location, Malaz City, a bit of an Imperial backwater outpost that was also where the very origins of the Empire began, where legends go to hide and where dreamers want to escape.
The events of Night of Knives takes place after the prologue of Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon but before the actual rest of the novel, and offers us the perspective of Temper and Kiska through the events of a Shadow Moon, where a good old fashioned convergence is taking place, where thrones would be secured and empresses crowned.
My affection for Night of Knives has always been associated with how Old Guard it was, and because it featured Kellanved and Dancer, two characters I was always drawn too. These guys became gods not to become gods, but because godhood was the most convenient path to facilitate their other interests. Being excessively pragmatic myself that always appealed to me. It informs you on everything you need to know about the duo, immortality was not the goal, merely a goal, a stepping stone, to actually get other things done. It’s not about living forever, it’s about what you do and plan to do with it. In a lot of works of speculative fiction you will get quotes as chapter headers, and many in Erikson’s work are often attributed to Kellanved. It solidifies this idea that while we are reading this book and a series of fantasy, chronicling legendary feats and events, there are also living legends within it. As media seems to be moving toward smaller, mundane, and grounded in some effort to understood and palatable to the dreamless, the Malazan series seeks to grow, to go further, where populations ascend and followers become strong enough to strike at their gods from a universe away.
Where Night of Knives takes place epitomizes this. It begins where many stories do. In a bar. This is where a group of exceptional people came together at Smiley’s Bar, took over Malaz Island, and created the Malazan Empire. So much was given to us here including the breaking of the sword, because if Dassem could not be here for this reunion than a member of his retinue should. If for nothing else, to witness.
But even while it’s an Old Guard night with old scores to settle, Esslemont also gives us something new. A classic fantasy or even just fiction story many of us have lived, of someone who is just trying to get out of their hometown and move on to bigger things. Little does she know a spectacular convergence and pivotal moment in history is about to occur right where she lives. In a way Kiska is us trying to get as close as we can to the actions, of people of import, to measure ourselves, because in the Malazan series even the gods take note and often times what they see are mortals who are primed to kick them in their ass and put their feet on their couch. Kiska, like former infamous denizens of Malaz Island look out and say “why not me?’, while others like Temper, have come to lay low.
Which leads me to one of my favorite moments in all of the Malazan books. A small moment that always reminds of a climactic moment within the pages of Susanna Clarke’s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, when a presence is felt, when power and the fantastic unveils itself and effects what’s in its wake. What recognizes it. Esslemont is not Susanna, JS&MN is one of the finest novels of the fantastic of the last few decades, but he does have several Erikson novels worth of primer working for him. Because of this we have experience, more than enough to have long since come to know how powerful Tayschrenn is. That makes the scene in which Kellanved and Dancer appear in a showdown with Laseen and the Claw with his warren unveiled always so noteworthy to me.
We’ve had very few instances of pre-ascended Kellanved.
An overpowering sensation of pressure bore down upon her like an invisible hand. A gravid deadly presence too huge to grant her notice. She glanced to Tayschrenn and saw him grimace, fingertips pressed against his temples. A droplet of blood fell from his nose.
The goddamn Emperor is back!!!!
Okay, let me collect myself.
Tay also later references Kellanved when looking at the Stormriders, describing it as reminding him of the Emperor at his most brutal.
We’ve seen similar pressure in the series, I think most notably when Anomander Rake arrives at camp in Memories of Ice and in Gardens of the Moon when he arrives at Baruk’s. It’s hard to say whether or not Kellanved was already ascended or not but it was certainly pre-godhood, so the old man was packing even as a mortal. I won’t get into how many interpretations there are for what occurred during the confrontation, but in the end it seems like everyone involved got what they wanted.
I think Esslemont tends to have effective moments. I think of this one, Surly’s stand in her tent in Return of Crimson Guard and some others but there are lapses that are too chronic to feel like anything other than books being put out maybe 8 months to a year before they should be and I think we could see this even in the editing of some of his Malazan efforts. Certain moments that should really play or grab the reader do not strike the perfect chord, and as readers we are trained to know when this happens. Night of Knives, however, doesn’t have as many because it’s a bit of a condensed story but also because nobody REALLY knows what the fuck is going on.
Let me explain.
Shadow Moon is a lot like how we’ve all seen supernatural fiction handle Halloween. We even have a haunted house. Night of Knives reads like a frantic horror film. Everyone is being told to stay inside this night yet all of our players are very much out and about with none of them truly knowing what’s going on.
The three people who we think have a clue include a dead guy spouting off warren-ology and two guys nobody really even know if they are alive who are trying to get themselves killed, enter a mystical house, and become gods. It’s not exactly solid, even Tay doesn’t seem to buy it and he has a life where in this very book he helps beat back an army of magical alien-like warrior surfers.
The problem, however, is that like a horror film all of it is buildup, but unlike one we are robbed of the payoff, the kill(er) scene, and even revelation because we all know at this point who Shadowthrone and Dancer are. It’s all build-up. Confrontation is promised and passed on and Esslemont does this a lot even in the scenes I mentioned which are among his best. Where Erikson confronts convergence, Esslemont sidesteps. These are legendary moments because we weren’t there before, nothing more than whispers and rumors among the rank and file but if you are going to write a book about it later which places us there, we should see what happens. We should witness. Except we can’t. Because like many things seeing it happen is never as good as the legend of it.
Is there method to it?
There’s something said to be left to the imagination but not when we are there. Not when we are going back specifically to this one night. We all are left to wonder and talk about how an invalid Kellanved was in a room full of otataral, how proficiently brutal Dancer had to be to protect both of them, and while our general instinct is to say that Dancer would be able to destroy any number of Claw in the room — way more than evidence suggests was in the room — we all now have Esslemont’s portrayal of Laseen from Return of the Crimson Guard and can totally see her surviving an encounter with enough help. Then again, none of us think they were going in with any desire to walk out. At least alive.
What else I got out of Night Knives, perhaps got most out of it, was friendship.
I know one can easily view the partnership of Kellanved and Dancer as one that merely benefits and is convenient for both, and, yes, we’ve had passages in the book that make us consider just how tight they may be (even one that makes us consider that Dassem and Dancer were even more close). I think these guys are bros, which is what made me ask Erikson and Esslemont many years ago if they were indeed the avatars of the authors themselves — something they admitted.
It makes sense when considering the Malazan Book of the Fallen and Esslemont’s novels as a whole. These two friends taking on this huge project, reaching for the stars and beyond, against all comers and doing it for… humanity? Us. Even the book(s) are called a book. They are out killing gods, pillars who achieved but have since been stagnant and didn’t go far enough. Epic fantasy meet your postmodern gods. They stand with chaos. Dancer and Kellanved created the Malazan Empire. There story is not one of conquest, it’s past that, it’s more.
There is a scene where one thinks Dancer, Erikson, may have considered going at it alone. Why not?
Shadowthrone was trapped in their last leg of entering Deadhouse, and Dancer saved him, dragging him by his feet to their destiny. Kiska, our stand in, looked on and in what may be our first example of this, one of the Malazan creators felt her gaze, acknowledged us, and dared us to follow. We wanted to. We couldn’t. We were held back but here we witnessed. We continue to do so.
Upon entering Deadhouse, Edgewalker, as old as anything we have been confronted with, view the duo as I do everytime I pick up a novel of Malaz.
“… the continuing the possibility of progression”
Malazan, the creation of it, was a game to Erikson and Esslemont. Night of Knives may have been a retelling of one of their best sessions.
Mere moments after Shadowthrone and Cotillion first appear in their new lodgings as gods, Shadowthrone turns it into their home, hearth and all. They are at home anywhere they can play their game, it’s all that matters. Throughout Erikson’s series most mentions of the duo are of as players. No one really know what they are doing, even as they impose themselves upon everyone. Gods, or close enough to it, willingly sacrifice themselves in moves that further their ambitions, a pair of rogue dungeon masters leaving and building stories and legends in their wake.