Dancer’s Lament by Ian C. Esslemont
Synopsis from GoodReads:
For ages warfare has crippled the continent as minor city states, baronies, and principalities fought in an endless round of hostilities. Only the alliance of the rival Tali and Quon cities could field the resources to mount a hegemony from coast to coast — and thus become known as Quon Tali.
It is a generation since the collapse of this dynasty and regional powers are once more rousing themselves. Into this arena of renewed border wars come two youths to the powerful central city state that is Li Heng. One is named Dorin, and he comes determined to prove himself the most skilled assassin of his age; he is chasing the other youth — a Dal Hon mage who has proven himself annoyingly difficult to kill.
Li Heng has been guided and warded for centuries by the powerful sorceress known as the “Protectress”, and she allows no rivals. She and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions — what could two youths hope to accomplish under their stifling rule?
Yet under the new and ambitious King Chulalorn the Third, Itko Kan is on the march from the south. He sends his own assassin servants, the Nightblades, against the city, and there are hints that he also commands inhuman forces out of legend.
While above all, shadows swirl oddly about Li Heng, and monstrous slathering beasts seem to appear from nowhere to run howling through the street. It is a time of chaos and upheaval, and in chaos, as the young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity.
This book was everything I wanted in a Malazan prequel. It filled in some of the mysteries we read about in the main series – especially the early origins of Dancer and Kellanved’s odd relationship and some minor and not-so-minor cameos of characters who are later VERY important in various novels, from the Crimson Guard to Dassem Ultor, as well as beginning to sow the seeds of why various characters do what they do, oppose whom they fight, etc.
There has to be enormous pressure on Esslemont to deliver with the Path to Ascendancy series given how integral Dancer and Kellanved in particular are to the main series, to say nothing of trailing plot threads, keeping track of the ‘future’, and ensuring consistency with characters, although allowing room for character development in the future.
And, honestly, I think he delivered. Dorin is not Dancer, of course, but it’s clear to see how he can and will grow into Dancer through the course of his lifetime. And Kellanved is of course instantly recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with him – cocky, arrogant, prideful, ambitious, cunning, a survivalist… To say nothing of glimpses of a young Shimmer, a teenaged K’azz D’avore, Mara of all people, Ho and Liss, insights into the (in)famous Protectress of Li Heng (mentioned, posthumously, quite often in the main series), and, of course, a couple of gods and some people from the Elder Races.
And yes, of course there are characters present whom I don’t recall even hearing mentioned in the main series. While this is the world of Malaz and people change names all the time for the most random of reasons, most of them I can at least track or have a vague idea of. Not so with a couple, which, I’ll admit, makes me very worried about their futures going forward.
But it wouldn’t be a Malazan book if everyone lived, of course.
As for the plot, I thought everything well done with one minor exception: there were a lot of time jumps, both within and between chapters, and those weren’t always noted, making it hard to tell that time was moving or how much. I appreciate that we didn’t have a thousand pages of a siege atmosphere, but I would’ve appreciated having time jumps only between chapters if they weren’t going to be tracked. At least that way, I wouldn’t have been surprised by them.
I’m still finding Erikson to be the better ‘dense’ writer, but I appreciated having a more straightforward prequel novel, where I didn’t have to guess at everything. And, much as it would have been interesting to get Wu’s Point of View, I’m grateful we didn’t get a glimpse inside his insane thoughts. That would’ve been a bit more of a struggle than I really wanted, and Dorin was a very strong choice for primary POV.
One little quibble, however: Esslemont is normally fantastic at atmosphere, especially spooky ones, and description. Both of those were, unfortunately, rather lacking in Dancer’s Lament. I still can’t really picture Li Heng without looking at the map provided in the front of the book (and even then it’s fairly sparse) and none of the other locales made much of an impression. The only exception is in the Prologue; the place where Dancer and Kellanved first meet had some definite creepy atmosphere and a good amount of descriptions. But that was it, as far as I can recall.
Overall, however, a fantastic book that I would highly recommend for anyone who’s read the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and is looking for more.
4.5 out of 5 stars.