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Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont
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Book Name: Night Of Knives
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher(s): Bantam
Formatt: Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: May 12, 2009

Before I start, I need to make a confession.

I picked up Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon a while back, got around 100 pages in and gave up. To me, it was a reminder of everything that made me stop reading fantasy all those years ago; too many mages, too many all-powerful spells – there were even different dimensions, the Warrens, where each aspect of magic reigned supreme. At least, I think that’s what they were…

Magic, while a staple part of the genre, has felt like nothing more than a spectacular ‘get out of jail free card’ to which heroes could turn when trapped. Not always the case, I know, but the presence of a shadowy figure in robes is often enough to put me off.

So, I surprised myself by picking up Ian C Esslemont’s Night of Knives, and finding that it appealed to me.

“This night there is to be a convergence, the once-in-a-generation appearance of a Shadow Moon – an occasion that threatens the good people of Malaz with demon hounds and other, darker things.”

Sounds like a book the old Alister would have put back on the shelf and avoided the plague, doesn’t it? And, for a moment, the thought did cross my mind, but something made me hold onto that little paperback. Perhaps it was that the story takes place over a single night, and the two characters – a thief called Kiska and a war-weary veteran known as Temper – sounded like they were drawn unawares into the mystical confrontation that ensues. They’d be in over their heads and wondering what was going on as much as I was, which would at least provide me with some empathy for them.

At 450 pages, it is only six chapters long, bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. There’s a cast of characters, a glossary at the end, and two maps. Again, this would once have been enough for me to carefully slip a book back on the shelf and pretend I’d never touched it, but I persevered.

And it was worth it! I found Night of Knives to be utterly engrossing, relentless in pace; it’s a page-turning romp that I couldn’t put down, almost the fantasy version of an airport thriller. Yet, it’s not a shallow tale. It’s loaded with history, filled with background and gripped me from the very first page. Long chapters? I hardly noticed – except when I finished one to pause for breath before starting the next.

Of the two characters we follow this dark night, I find it hard to pick a favourite. In one corner, there’s Temper, the hard-bitten and scarred veteran of numerous conflicts, a man whose work on the backwater island of Malaz allows him to keep his head down following his escape from his final battle. In the other there’s Kiska, a young thief who dreams of excitement and escape from the island. I don’t know if both of these characters are known to those who’ve read the Tales of the Fallen series, but if I was missing a future connection, it didn’t matter; Temper and Kiska are both interesting characters in their own right, one with a hidden past, while the other has the future ahead of her. As a warrior and a thief, their ‘classes’ are easily identifiable and empathic, but the usual clichés are avoided: despite all his experience, Temper is often bewildered by what is going on around him, sometimes even more so than Kiska, who – while good at what she does – finds herself entirely out of her depth.

Other characters are seen through the eyes of these two protagonists. While some had names familiar from my brief time with Gardens of the Moon (perhaps dropped in to satisfy fans, or link the novel with Erikson’s work), their presence never felt forced. Other recognisable names are casually dropped into conversation; as Temper is a former soldier, this comes as no surprise. Yet, for me it was the ‘new’ characters who felt more vivid, as if Esslemont knows his readers have already read Erikson and he doesn’t need too much detail. That said, what he does do is enough to form an image, without detracting from the pace of the story. Here is a book that could be – has been, in my case – read before the Tales of the Fallen, and that lack of knowledge really doesn’t matter; Night of Knives stands up as a story in its own right.

As one would expect on such an auspicious night, there’s magic. Lots of it. Oh, and there are brief sojourns into the Shadow realm, too. Plenty of them. Yet, rather than push me away from the book, these pulled me in; not once did anything feel forced – never like a ‘cheat’ – instead, such events were integral to the story. When powerful spells are used – and, boy, are they – they take their toll on the caster. Some are even killed.

Esslemont is a good writer, and his clever trick was letting the reader view all these events through the eyes of his two main characters, as if he knows he will have two types of reader. The first, like Temper, will have experience of the Malaz world. The second, like Kiska and myself, somewhat naïve. This really worked for me, drawing me into the story. When Temper recalls his past, it never feels like an info dump, and there is a heart and soul to every page of the novel.

I’ve surprised myself with this one. I never expected to enjoy it, more felt obliged to give it a go. I’m glad I did; while Night of Knives hasn’t battered me into submission, it has reminded me with a friendly punch on the arm that magic in fantasy can work when it’s done properly; while I remain wary of it, in future I won’t avoid a book because it exists. Now that Erikson’s works are complete, I’m even tempted to start those.

Well done and thank you, Ian C Esslemont. You’ve turned me from a bitter cynic into a more open-minded reader. It looks like I now have a lot of catching up to do…

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Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)
Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont, 10.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings
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4 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Awesome review 🙂 I’ve heard some great things about this first book 😀 Certainly bumping it up the reading list now 😉

  2. Khaldun says:

    Someone else who read the first 100 pages of Malazan and gave up, eh? That’s exactly what happened to me when I first tried to read them after incessant prompting from friends. I’ll stick to ASOIAF for now

    • Larik says:

      I had the exact same thought. I read the first fifty pages and found it a very confusing story. It was… Well, you know how if you were to plot a story very well ( i.e. Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings ) you run the risk of writing it too naturally and forgetting to explain it to the readers in some way shape or form? Where Brandon Sanderson succeeds immensely, I thought Erikson just smothered me with weird names, spells, gods, and uninteresting characters.

  3. To be fair, though, Gardens of the Moon is fairly uniformly recognised as the worst book in the series by Malazan fans: it was written ten years before the others, I believe.

    Great review, though! I do agree regarding magic as a deus-ex-machina “get out of jail free” card.

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