Steven Erikson’s ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series is one of the best and most important fantasy works of recent years. Important because it takes the concept of ‘epic fantasy’ to another level, telling a story that takes place on multiple continents, involving multiple sentient species, parallel magical worlds called warrens that are the source of different varieties of magic, a convoluted pantheon of gods and god-like beings and a cast of scores, maybe hundreds of viewpoint characters. It’s so vast in its scope and ambition that it’s actually quite difficult to keep track – even vaguely – of everything that goes on; sometimes its complexity is its own worst enemy.
Night of Knives is a much simpler narrative to digest. The world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was created by Erikson and Esslemont for the purposes of roleplaying gaming. Erikson has enjoyed great success with his books, and since then, Esslemont has also begun contributing to the published canon. Night of Knives is the first of several books by Erikson’s friend that fill out the story being told in the main sequence. In it, we see what happened on the Night of Knives, an event that is referenced several times in Erikson’s books, but that happens before the first volume, Gardens of the Moon.
Night of Knives is short compared to Erikson’s books – only 450 pages, and not much text on each page. There are also only two main viewpoint characters and the action takes place in one city – Malaz – and over a single night.
While Malaz gives its name to the huge, militaristic Malazan Empire, it’s protrayed as a backwater town that has been superseded in importance by other Malazan acquisitions. It feels authentically Malazan, however, and to whatever degree Esslemont deliberately tried to model his work on Erikson’s, he succeeded.
The characters generally work well within the context of the two series of books. Temper is an old soldier – a classic Malazan character – jaded and bored. Kiska, on the other hand is a young woman who fancies herself as a spy and who takes it upon herself to follow some mysterious characters when they turn up in Malaz. While Temper fits perfectly into the Malazan scheme – his backstory is also part of Malazan history – and his presence and importance in the Night of Knives is apt, Kiska, on the other hand, is a little contrived. She just happens to want to do what the narrative requires of her and she survives the night only by good fortune and the tolerance of various powerful characters. I didn’t dislike her, but Temper seemed the more well conceived of the two.
The quality of Esslemont’s writing wasn’t quite as good as Erikson’s, but it was still pretty good. For the most part things moved along swiftly and the descriptions were direct and effective. There were a lot of flashbacks early on, however, that held back and confused the narrative. I noticed three uses of the word ‘mulch’ that seemed unusual: twice referring to the surface of the sea – being mulched with ice, or something similar – and once to brains bursting out of someone’s head that was being crushed in the jaws of a giant hound.
I had a little problem with the format of the book. As I said, there wasn’t much text on each page; the typeface wasn’t especially big, but the column of text was quite narrow. The publishers did this because fantasy books are supposed to be fat – that’s what readers want. That narrow column, though, made me feel I was reading something dumbed-down or aimed at children.
In some ways, this was an easier, more enjoyable read than any of the main sequence books, but in other ways it was less satisfying. Firstly, it’s a prequel – and prequels are kind of pointless: by definition, you already know how it’s going to turn out. Secondly, the size and scope of Erikson’s books – the challenge of following the multi-layered story – are part of those books’ appeal; Night of Knives is a different kind of novel. Thirdly, the characterisation – while perfectly in keeping with the Malazan Book of the Fallen pattern – was a little shallow in the context of a book where there are only two protagonists.
Still, Night of Knives is a decent read and a must for any Malazan Book of the Fallen fan.