One of the most interesting backstories of the Malazan books was the Ascension of Dancer and Emperor Kellanved and the creation of the Malazan Empire. By the time of Gardens of the Moon, the Empire has expanded onto multiple continents, the Emperor and his assassin companion, Dancer has been murdered and a new Empress, Lasseen, is on the throne. For all the flaws of the Malazan Books of the Fallen, and they are legion, the worldbuilding hooked me.
Now Ian Cameron Esslemont has begun to tell those stories and I couldn't be happier. Well...I could, actually.
See, unlike "Steven Erikson" (ie. Steven Lundin), Esslemont's strengths are in narrowly-focused stories and characters who feel more real than the emo demigods of Erikson's books. The book wasn't perfect and I will try to address what I perceive as the flaws but on the whole, I'm glad this book was written and I'm looking forward to the books to come.
The book is from Dancer's point of view. It introduces us to him and to the Emperor-to-be. Neither of them are what they will become but some of the core personality traits are there. In fact, both characters are so different from how they appear in the Malazan books, at least in Dancer's case, that they seem like different people entirely.
Of the two, the Emperor -currently masquerading as 'Wu' and more than a little crazy already- is the most similar to the scheming Kellanved. Both are young, ages aren't given but they seem to be in their late teens. This is a bit confused as neither really feels like a teenager, Wu spends most of the book magically disguised as an old man (he says he already 'fully inhabits his illusions'). Dancer does have all the arrogance and impulsiveness of youth, so he's closer to what might be expected of an un-worldly boy setting out to make his mark on the world. But apparently his assassination training gelded him or he suffers from low testosterone or something. He doesn't have the hormonal cocktail pumping through his veins that I recall so clearly from my late teen years. Minor nit pick, perhaps.
The pair of them meet early in the novel, both sneaking into what seems to be an Azath house and we get our first of many, many cameos of characters who will play major roles in the future, Gothos. I did find it interesting that they were permitted to leave, partially signaling their legendary escape from the supposedly impregnable Azath house in Malazan.
You have to tolerate or enjoy these cameos because they happen throughout the book. Sometimes they feel graceful and natural and sometimes they're about as subtle as a Jerry Lewis telethon. I won't go into a full list of who appears and under what circumstances or I'll be writing this review for the next week. Rest assured, there is fan service aplenty here.
But back to the main plot, Dancer and Kellanved (if not using those names, yet), come to a major walled trade city intending to make their mark on the world. Dancer intends to be a famous assassin, having been trained from early childhood in the art of murder. Kellanved's goals are more mysterious, though they eventually seem to involve an attempt to seize control of the city. However, the city already has a powerful ruler and we get to see her from another POV character, the City Mage (whatever that is supposed to mean, apart from literal) Silk. The city comes under siege as the forces of Ito Kane try to seize the location to take advantage of its central location in the continent. We also have some side issues with dragons in female form, a super shapeshifter of sorts named Ryllandaras and various other powers and potentates poking around briefly.
Most of the story is from Dancer's point of view as he tries to become a big deal. His halting, almost one-sided relationship with Ullara - a bird collecting girl with hidden talents - provides much of the emotional progress for the character. Good thing too, otherwise we'd just have to listen to him complain in most of his scenes. That gets old in a hurry.
The number of point of view characters is limited, compared to an Erikson book, which keeps the page count of this novel low. The page count is already slight for a fantasy novel but I feel that at least one of the POV characters should have been cut. Iko, a 'sword dancer', does not advance the plot and never takes any action that impacts...anything. She feels like a cameo for a character who'll get their own novel. Unlike Silk, whose POV chapters give us very valuable information about the plot and the setting, Iko spends most of her time sequestered in the palace, squabbling with her fellow female sword dancers. You could cut every scene she's in and you would miss noting, she never interacts in any meaningful way with any main character or the plot itself.
Silk is given a lot of time on page, which I enjoyed. It allowed us to see more sides of the city, it's powerful, inhuman female ruler, and the plots and politics that would be missed by a more narrowly-focused POV centered on Dancer.
Wu/Kellanved does not get a POV, which might be a good idea as it keeps him mysterious but I feel a little cheated. I wanted to get inside the one-day Emperor's head. I wanted to see what motivated him, what secrets he held. I don't get that, everything is from the outside. And he starts off acting crazy and mysterious. I think that's a mistake. He should have started from somewhere instead appearing already crazed, powerful and frankly, a jerk.
We also have the aforementioned cameos by the Crimson Guard, on both sides of the seige and by Dassem -who will be a major force in the empire one day. Again, if you know these characters already, they might be fun to see before their allegiances got locked in. But if you go in cold, some of the weight of them is easy to miss.
The magic was good, the plot serviceable and it was an entertaining read. I wish it had been given another layer of polish/trimming and had made different characterization choices but I didn't dislike the book. I probably will re-read it but on the whole, I have to rank it below his previous Malazan efforts. That said, I am eagerly awaiting his next novel. Maybe that will show me what I want...