The empire is named for the tiny island and city of Malaz, now a sleepy, seedy backwater port. Tonight however, a once-in-a-generation Shadow Moon brings demon hounds and darker beings. And a prophecy promises the return of long missing Emperor Kellanved to the contended imperial throne. This night will determine the fate of the world.
Night of Knives is the first of Ian C. Esslemont’s six Malazan Empire books, which are designed to be read alongside the ten-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series written by Steven Erikson. Erikson and Esslemont co-created the incredible world of Malaz over thirty years ago, and given that they’re writing about the same world and characters I don’t think it’s at all unfair to directly compare Esslemont with Erikson . . . but, sadly, there is no real comparison here.
The story of Night of Knives is set several years before the events of Erikson’s (vastly superior) series, and focuses on an event that has hitherto been only mysteriously alluded to: the night the Emperor disappeared. It’s a great idea for a novel, and the actual story itself should feel quite nicely self-contained, set as it is over the course of a single night. Unfortunately Esslemont’s somewhat pedestrian writing style makes this relatively short novel feel like a real slog. The plot is slow and clumsy when it should be fast-paced and exciting; the settings are flat and repetitive when they should be evocative; and the characters are distant and passive when they should be sympathetic and engaging.
Night of Knives centres around two major POV characters: Kiska, a local-born thief; and Temper, former bodyguard to the great Dassem Ultor (another legendary figure name-dropped throughout the main series). While neither of these characters is dislikeable, I felt a complete lack of connection with Kiska, and had only marginally more sympathy for Temper due to the few flashbacks granting us a little of his history. Esslemont’s characterisation is far from subtle, with Kiska coming across as an irritating self-centred youth and Temper’s every action seemingly completely contradicting his thoughts. I found that I had no idea what either character was going to do next, and even less idea of whether or not I cared.
I think one of the main problems regarding the characters is how little they actually do. Characters from the main series such as Tayschrenn and Temper seem to spend most of the novel acting like curious bystanders rather than major players and, while it’s nice to see them given more page time here, they seem to have no real impact on the plot itself. Even Kiska spends pretty much the entirety of the book reacting to events rather than participating in them. This sense of passively witnessing proceedings, rather than actively taking part in them, is perhaps a large part of why Night of Knives doesn’t feel particularly engaging. Although Esslemont does manage to scrape together a nice (if somewhat feeble) air of tension, most of the real action happens off-screen, and as such the characters – and thus the reader – feel as though they are of little importance in the night’s events, and have even less at stake in their outcome.
And it’s not just the characters I had issues with: I also felt the pacing of events to be a little off, with the much-anticipated climax occurring off-screen, followed by another series of events with yet another climax. These final events involve a vague subplot comprising an Azath house and a magical attack on the island, and its relevance to the rest of the events is not made entirely clear. It all feels a bit bewildering, as though two separate stories have been shoehorned together. Another thing I found confusing was the surplus of ‘dark figures’ and ‘men in cloaks’; Esslemont’s use of noun phrases rather than names meant that I sometimes had difficulty keeping track of who was who, and just what the hell was going on, particularly in the ongoing conflict between the Claws and the shadow cultists.
However, it’d be unfair to say that there are no positives to be found in Esslemont’s debut novel. For instance, I really enjoyed the extended flashbacks involving Temper’s time in Y’Ghatan: these segments reveal a lot about events that have so far been only cryptically alluded to in the main series, and provide a nice bit of backstory for Temper’s character. The novel as a whole actually improves as it progresses, and the imagery the author manages to evoke – mystic ice-bound beings, fog, darkness and shadow, monstrous hounds, undead – creates a nicely eerie atmosphere. In fact, the entire concept of the novel – set on a single night, on an ice-besieged island, during a Shadow Moon – is awesome. It’s just a shame it’s so awkwardly executed, and that the presenting of circumstances seems so painfully contrived (what are the chances an unpredictable Shadow Moon would just happen to occur on this night of all nights?).
So, the premise of Night of Knives is fairly solid, and its resolution fairly satisfying. However, I find myself left with a lot of questions, such as: Why is Temper so desperate to involve himself in the night’s events when his current mission in life is to remain under the empire’s radar? What exactly is a Shadow Moon? Why are they so unpredictable, how do they work, and why are they never mentioned in the main series? Who is Agayla? Who was the old man in the fishing boat? Who was the old man in the pub? What was that vague mention of a prophecy all about?
Why couldn’t Steven Erikson have written this book instead?