Ian Cameron Esselmont’s Return of the Crimson Guard is the author’s second novel set in the shared world of the Malazan Empire, a setting already well known to readers of the work of Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, which was reaching its sixth volume around the time that Esselmont’s first novel was published.
Esselmont’s previous work, Night of Knives, was a short novel depicting events over the course of a single night in the city of Malaz, and while it showed Esselmont’s writing skills were not yet a match for co-creator Erikson’s, the difference in structure avoided many direct comparisons that might have been made.
Return of the Crimson Guard, then, is the work where Esselmont is truly establishing himself within this setting. Set on the continent of Quon Tali, heart of the Malazan Empire, the novel tells of a civil war that breaks out against the rule of the Empress Laseen, masterminded by a number of the “Old Guard” – officers and generals from the previous Emperor’s reign. Heading into the midst of this is the titular Crimson Guard, an old military organisation led by the Avowed, a group of individuals sworn to “undying opposition to the Empire”. Gathered together for the first time in recent history, many of the Guard themselves are uncertain of the reasons for their return.
The book is much larger in size and scope than Esselmont’s previous work, and follows much in the same structure of plot that Erikson’s novels do, inviting more direct comparison. Unfortunately for Esselmont, coming in at this point means that the books against which his work is inevitably compared are the latter volumes in a well established series – Erikson has years of experience and more than half of his series behind him, and the gap between the two authors has grown rather large, something that was made more obvious when I began after reading this novel to read Dust of Dreams, the ninth and penultimate book in Erikson’s series.
Return of the Crimson Guard has an engaging story, some interesting characters, and much of the familiar flavour of the Malazan series, from the big battle scenes down to the smaller details of character and minor storylines; however the fact that this is an early novel shows. In places the writing can be a little clumsy, particularly early in the novel. There are places where scene transitions occur, but the reader is not provided enough information immediately to determine the new setting, or which of the many characters are involved. Occasionally an awkward sentence would jar me out of my immersion in the story, though these were not common enough to spoil the experience as a whole.
The story itself was a little unstructured in places, some storylines stretching through the novel in small patches only to really become relevant toward the end, and within the major storylines there were sometimes elements where little more detail or explanation surrounding the appearance of a character or the revelation of a secret could have helped.
Aside from these flaws, the book does manage to entertain, and in many ways to live up to the epic storylines that readers have come to expect from the series. Though I say the work pales in comparison to the densely layered, skillfully written books that Erikson is currently producing, Return of the Crimson Guard would fare much more favourably against Erikson’s earlier work, particularly his first novel Gardens of the Moon, which itself suffered a number of the flaws that Esselmont’s novel contains. I can only hope that with time Esselmont’s skill will develop to the level that his co-creator’s has.
All in all, it may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a fitting contribution to this shared world setting, and if you’re a fan of Erikson’s work, I’d suggest giving this one a go.