Dancer’s Lament – Ian Esslemont

Dancer's Lament

Summary

Before the Malazan Empire, a young, highly-skilled assassin encounters an equally young, enigmatic mage, and follows him to the famous city of Li Heng, which despite its powerful Protectress and mages, is soon besieged by avaricious enemies.

Review

I've tried one of Steven Erikson's Malazan books. I know people who enjoy them, but I didn't find the world much to my taste - too much blood, not enough character. So, I'm almost entirely ignorant of the various forces - gods, nations, powers - at play. That's a hindrance to enjoying this start of a new prequel sequence by Ian Esslemont, which can be read without knowing Malazan, but would clearly be more enjoyable for fans.

It takes Esslemont a long time to get his story moving. While there are interesting elements, there's a very strong feel of rote assembly - a by-the-numbers approach of Stock Character #7, Reaction #4, Situation #23. In part, that's because his characters simply don't behave very consistently or logically. While there are several viewpoints on offer, we primarily follow a trained assassin, Dorin, who can't seem to decide what he wants out of life. That would work better if we hadn't been introduced to him as someone with clear goals and strong desires. Dorin spends much of the rest of the book wondering haphazardly what his career should look like. I'd have liked that to be the interesting part, but it wasn't. While he was engaging enough, he and other characters were so inconsistent that I stopped being interested in their introspection early on.

What did work in the book was the backdrop - the powerful and ancient magic forces, and the inquiry into new (or old) ones. Unfortunately, while it provides attractive scenery, very little of it is actually developed. It may well be that for Malazan afficionados, it all falls into place. For me, it offered only tantalizing glimpses of an infrastructure that was never fully exposed. That infrastructure, and the fact that Dorin is likeable (if uncertain), is the main reason I'd read a sequel, but it would be pretty low on my list of priorities. All in all, a smoothly written but formulaically constructed epic fantasy.

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