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2008 is proving to be something of a bumper year for fans of the Malazan universe. Steven Erikson's eighth novel in the setting, Toll the Hounds, was published back in June and the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon, has seen two reprintings this year. The first was as a new, wallet-friendly budget edition from Bantam designed to entice new readers to the series, whilst Subterranean Press are about to release a new, limited edition beautifully illustrated by the mighty Michael Kormack. And to top it all off, Ian Cameron Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan world, has had his second novel published.

Return of the Crimson Guard starts shortly after the events of Erikson's sixth book, The Bonehunters. The Malazan Empire is in trouble. Whilst the Genabackan campaign has ended in peaceful negotiations with Anomander Rake's Tiste Andii and the remaining free cities, the Seven Cities theatre has turned into a bloodbath. The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been crushed only at a truly staggering cost, whilst the subcontinent has been devastated by plague. The two most disgraced officers of that campaign, Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom, have somehow come up smelling of roses and risen to high office within the Empire. They have turned the blame for that campaign on the Wickans, and now Malazan settlers desperate for new land are embarking on a pogrom of the Wickan homelands. Elsewhere, the near-annihilation of the elite imperial assassin-mages, the Claw, in the battle for Malaz City has seen Empress Laseen's position weakened and long-quiescent nationalist movements across Quon Tali, the Empire's heartland, have awoken with a passion. The 'old guard' who believe that Laseen betrayed the first Emperor, Kellenvad, have joined forces with the Talian League on a mission to pull Laseen down.

Whilst the Malazan Empire braces itself for its first major civil war, its enemies prepare to move against it. A century ago, when the Malazans overran the Duchy of Avore, its leader, K'azz D'avore, swore a vow not to rest, not even to die, until the Empire was destroyed. Thus was born the Crimson Guard, the most elite fighting force in the world who have opposed the Malazans on multiple fronts. Now the Guard are regrouping in Stratem with one goal: to strike at the Empire in its moment of weakness and utterly destroy it.

Whilst Erikson's novels have concentrated mostly on the Empire's foreign theatres and events in distant lands, Esslemont has clearly made it his job to examine the Empire itself. Night of Knives was the story of a tumultuous single night in the history of the Empire, whilst Return of the Crimson Guard shows the consequences of some of the events in Erikson's books on the Empire's heartland. Whilst Night of Knives was a bonus or add-on story, Return of the Crimson Guards is a much more important, integral part of the overall Malazan series. Characters only briefly seen or alluded to in Erikson's books are on centre stage here. Major, earth-shattering events take place which will have a major fall-out on future Malazan books. There's even a running gag from Erikson's books (involving a bunch of arrogant Tiste Liosan) which gets revisited here.

Quality-wise, Return is a major improvement over Knives. The events are much bigger, with multiple storylines, each quite complex on its own, building to a huge convergence on the Seti Plains for the conclusion which doesn't disappoint: the biggest battle in the entire series to date, which considering the likes of the Chain of Dogs or the Siege of Capustan, is really saying something. The story is told by a large number of POV characters, including a young Crimson Guard recruit, the unwilling figurehead of the Talian League and multiple soldiers and mages. Shockingly, a lot of these characters talk like people actually would talk, rather than engaging in Proust-style discourses on the metaphysical nature of truth or something at random moments (one of Erikson's key flaws). Esslemont also has a much clearer writing style that Erikson and doesn't get bogged down as much in pointless naval-gazing semantics (as a result the book is easily 300 pages shorter than if Erikson had written it), although on the flipside his writing doesn't quite reach the heights of Erikson when he is on-form. Esslemont also has a great sense of humour going on here, with the increasingly bad luck of the Chief Factor of Cawn and the Untan citizenry's reaction to the news they are being 'liberated' being notable comic high points. The traditional Malazan problem of enigmatic figures turning up, making dire pronouncements and then vanishing, only to be explained three books down the line, continues to irritate, however.

Return of the Crimson Guard (****) is a breathlessly enjoyable novel, featuring a relentless, driving pace the Malazan series has not enjoyed since Memories of Ice. It is certainly not flawless, but I found it to be the best overall Malazan novel since Midnight Tides.
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on 24 September 2008
A while back, during a lull in Erikson's Book of the Fallen release cycle, Esslemont's Night of Knives: A Novel of the Malazan Empire came out, and I, keen to get some further Malazan word nourishment, snapped up the hardback off Amazon. Unfortunately it was somewhat disappointing and I was left worrying that perhaps Esslemont would not add to this rich world that he and Erikson co-created as much as I (and I'm sure you) were hoping.

I saw this tome with a reduced price while browsing a local bookshop and, as nothing else had taken my fancy (as well as its rather more promising size and the lure of the Crimson Guard in the title) thought 'why not?' and decided to give him another go. Why do I mention this? Because I am now very glad I did! If like me you were sitting on the fence about this I can heartily recommend that you do the same, I'm certain you won't regret it.

The only people I'm assuming are reading this review are those who've already read Erikson's stuff (if you haven't then you really should before getting started on this one (you've got a treat in store!)) so to you: RotCG picks up where Erikson left off (figuratively speaking) and tells the story (unsurprisingly) of the Crimson Guard, who've only made cameo appearances in Erikson's stuff so far, and their return to Unta to take their long-awaited revenge on the Malazan empire. I won't spoil any of the plot points here, but if you were wanting to hear more about Skinner, Iron Bars, Cowl et al then you won't be disappointed. There's also the usual cast of marines, sappers, mages and all the rest you'll know and love including (but still not enough!) some appearances by various Seguleh as well... Although this doesn't come under the 'Book of the Fallen', regardless, it is set in that world and contains important happenings that Erikson will of course have to factor in his future stuff too - as such it's not to be missed by any fans of the series! The writing is certainly more direct and accessible than some of Erikson's more recent stuff has been at times, and in my eyes that was no bad thing.

In summary: a great read, fine addition to the series and mustn't be missed by any Malazan aficionados. I'm already looking forward to his next one!
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on 24 October 2012
Having never read Erikson, I decided to start with Esslemont. My review of "Night of Knives" acknowledged that a lack of knowledge about the Malazan Empire made the going tough, as though I was watching a film with missing chunks. That said, I got to the end and appreciated the quality of the author's work.
I have to say, that having now read a vastly more expansive tome, the second of Esslemont's forays into the world both he and Erikson have forged prove the man's ability to write epic fantasy. Again I struggled with the opening three hundred pages, but experience taught me to persevere. The main reason was that I was meeting characters from the Erikson novels, trying to figure out politics and alliances that did not make immediate sense, coming to terms with the previous timelines and characterisation that gave insights to the decisions in this book. I found the book never kept track of one thread long enough for me to understand what was going on. Indeed I only figured out the novel occurs about ten or so years after "Night of Knives" when a more vastly experienced Kiska appears as an ex-claw with almost demi-god fighting prowess - and that was nearly half way through this thousand+ page paperback.
But as I skated between the stories of Ereko and Traveller; of the politics in Unta with the Empress Laseen/Surly, Possum and Mallick; followed the growth of Kyle with his powerful sword; wondered if Ghelel would ever realise her true birthright; cantered on horseback with the likes of Toc, Choss, Liss, Rell, and the Seti; found myself in a sodden ditches with the munitions of sapper sergeant Nait and his band of "lost kids"; stalked the warrens of power with the Avowed Shimmer, Skinner, Hurl, Silk, Storo and many others...I came to understand that Esslemont was, in fact, weaving many strands together. That the story was of the struggle of a de facto Talian League coming together to converge on the city of Li Heng to attempt the overthrow of the Malazan Empire that held Quon Tali in thrall after Erikson's invasion by Kellanved. At its heart the novel is concerned with the return of those feared gone...of mythical monsters such as Ryllandaras, of returning Gods like Osserc, of ancient seas like Otataral and, most importantly, of the return of the Avowed and the Crimson Guard.
"The Diaspora ends. The Guard returns. The appointed time has come to us." This intonation by Surat to Ereko is the fundamental core of the book. The rest is a struggle for power fought by mages and by soldiers - both needing the other to succeed. Esslemont displays his command of the epic, his mastery of myth, his understanding of how to weave legends out of historical deeds...his PhD in literature is obvious in his ability to construct narrative, both conversant and descriptive, his grounding in archaeology lends him to provide proof after proof of the story before the reader.
Yes, it took me nearly five hundred pages to understand much of this world; but, having persevered, I broke through into a fantasy world that is a rich tapestry indeed. Two hundred or so pages dedicated not just to a battle but a war has catapulted Esslemont in to the circle of few fantasy authors who are truly capable of generating an epic.
Is it better than Erikson? I have absolutely no idea. Nor do I care. Esslemont is a fine fantasy author purely on his own merit and this book is the proof.
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on 14 August 2011
Esslemont's first book was a relatively low-key affair by the standards of the Malazan universe; fairly restricted in location and timeframe, it gave the impression of a new writer testing the waters. In this, his second offering, the promise he showed in Night of Knives explodes.

In this hefty story, Esslemont once again returns us to the very heart of the empire, as it comes under assault from threats both internal and external.

There are several protagonist characters this time around, most notably Kyle, a new recruit to the Crimson Guard who gets swept up in their long-awaited return to Quon Tali. He's interestingly written, and his status as a neophyte allows the reader to learn about the group as he does.

We also have several Malazan characers to follow, and for a change they're portrayed as defenders rather than invaders. The battle scenes, when they come, are as exciting and as epic as anything in Erikson's canon.

This book also, unlike the first one, has major ramifications for the setting as a whole; plotlines such as the Wickan betrayal are continued, and there is a development at the end of the novel that promises big changes for both writers' future stories (you'll know it when you get there).

All in all, a vast improvement on Esslemont's first already impressive effort, and an intriguing bunch of characters that I hope we'll see more of very soon.
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on 21 September 2008
Basics first. This is part of a long running series, if you've not read any Malazan novels, go start with Gardens of the Moon & get ready for a treat. This book is set just before Toll the Hounds.

This is quite a mixed book. It takes a while to get going - like most of the series and there are some dead ends (or clumsy settings up of the next book) some confusing sections and some hard to explain events (eg how did X pop up there & where'd he go), with the odd section not matching previous books (eg the Osserc bit) which is annoying. On the other hand there are some terrific battles, and some *really* important events for the series as a whole. Without giving too much away: we finally meet Skinner, Cowl, Urko, Choss, Toc the Elder and more. There are fights between Traveller and Skinner, Traveller and Khalor, Laseen and Cowl, Iron Bars and a Seglueh, Tayschern and a new High Mage, and some huge set piece army v's army with lots of magery - which made for some very gripping sections.

Compared to Erikson's novels there is less philosophy, with a more action oriented approach. The book also feels a little more stereotyped (girl discovers she is a princess sets off to recover destiny with faithful servant, heroes super hard to kill especially by the cannon fodder) It does however feel like a big step up from Night of Knives, and by the end of the book the world has changed significantly so its worth reading this before Erikson's next.

So despite problems, there are some real payoffs from reading the book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the series. & the series to anyone who likes epic fantasy.
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on 5 March 2014
Esslemont finds his feet in this second book in the series. A large cast of characters contends for rulership of the Malazan empire; like Erickson's books this work is epic in scope, with incredible detail and a intricate and fascinating magic system, which somehow manages to be mysterious and consistant at the same time. I will definitely be reading the next in the series.
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on 20 September 2008
This book is written in the setting and timeline of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which starts with Gardens of the Moon), it is not a standalone book.

The book is well written, though the author isn't quite as good as Erikson. The book expands the Malazan universe, focusing mainly on the content of Quon Tali, and is set before Toll of the Hounds. A surprisingly large number of important events occur for a book that isn't in the 'main sequence' of the MBotF story arc.

If you're reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen you should read this. If you're not consider having a look at Gardens of the Moon.
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on 24 November 2008
'The Return of the Crimson Guard' by Ian C Esslemont, is the second book revolving around Steven Erikson's original 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' series.

It is my understanding that both Erikson and Esslemont are good friends and are co-operative co-authors of the Malazan world, and both are agreeable to and welcome each other contributions.

I'd like to comment on two different facets...

First, this book...

I was enthralled with this story right from the very beginning. It was well written, fast moving and exciting. There were the usual assortment of Malazan characters both good and evil who are forever plotting against one another, or someone or something. There was magic, treachery and betrayal, interesting event filled treks and voyages and some incredibly exciting battles. Also present was the witty and bantering camaraderie of the Malazan army regulars; a special group of mercenaries reminiscent of the 'bridgeburners' or the 'bonehunters' of previous novels. This book, simply had it all.

In traditional Erikson fashion, Esslemont starts off with several short glimpses involving many different persons or groups, however these stories progressed quickly, resulting in a tale that grabs you and just doesn't let go. The individuals' tales were told serially, but because each tale was so well written and interesting, you hated to see one segment come to an end, only to begin an account of someone else's adventure.

There was an good map of the area where a lot (but not all) of the action takes place. Also, there was an extensive list of the characters' names with their locations and 'occupations'; this was really helpful as there were a tremendous number of individuals from various geographic locales.

Second, Erikson and Esslemont...

This book, 'Return of the Crimson Guard' recaptures the style of writing that made the Malazan series SO great; it's the type of writing that Erikson needs to get back to.

I'm not sure what's going on with Steven Erikson, but, to me, the last book, 'Toll the Hounds' was at times quite confusing; especially some of the dialogue and also certain events and occurrences. I actually found myself skimming areas because it was difficult to follow OR I just got bored with the protracted mundane situations.

A few more novels of this quality and Esslemont may well become the preeminent writer of the future works in the Malazan series.

Conclusion:
A true Malazan tale to sink your teeth into; any Malazan fan/addict will be thrilled with this effort. It's got that quality of writing coupled with an intriguing story line what will pull you in from page one. It's a book that will make me read late into the night and have me looking forward to some quiet time to return to the story. (and no fantasy/adventure novel has done that recently since Joe Abercrombie's 'The First Law' trilogy)
Easily 5 Stars...more if I could.

Ray Nicholson
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After being a bit disappointed with Esslemont's first offering I was, to be honest, leaving this tale in my reading pile for a bit until I had not much else to chose from as I was a bit unhappy with his first offering. However I was surprised when I finally picked it up as within the pages Ian's writing style along with character development not only improved but also allowed the reader to experience a new dimension to the Malazan world (made famous by Steven Erikson.) A cracking offering and one that has left me wondering about what I can expect from his next offering when his writing has improved so much from the last instalment. A tale of combat and daring do as the Crimson Guard carve themselves a slice of the Malazan world leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and a book that is an ideal companion to the more established series.
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on 8 May 2009
I see people saying above "if you're a fan of the Malazan books then this is essential". Well, yes, it's interesting because we see some familiar characters and some we've only heard about, and that's all well and good. But beyond that this book was, to tell the truth, shocking.

It should be noted that I am very fussy about the books I read, but whilst Esslemont's plot was fine - very Eriksonish, unlike Night of Knives - his writing was frankly appalling. One place in particular that stuck in my mind I have found again - page 237 in my copy, chapter 1 of section II. If you read it and find nothing wrong then you may well enjoy this book. Personally this was simply one of many examples of writing that completely jarred you from the experience of reading.

Characters, too, are a problem. Some of them are simply pointless, some are infuriatingly irritating (Ghelel, for example), and some are simply the same of standard tropes - gruff sergeants, foul-mouthed corporals, and mages that we think are just weak and powerless when suddenly they open the full power of Kurald Liosan upon us! Of all the characters in the book the most interesting were by far Cowl and Skinner, and yet we saw nowhere near enough of these too.

All in all this was a far cry from even Erikson's weaker books, and comparing this to Memories of Ice or Gardens of the Moon is like comparing Lloyd-Webber to Beethoven.

Ed

PS I apologise if this seemed overly aggressive. It's just that I've just read the book and feel the need to vent about it.
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