Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dancer's Lament - Ian C. Esslemont

Dancer’s Lament is the first in a new fantasy series by Ian C. Esslemont. It’s set in the Malazan universe (which he shares with Steven Erikson), a place where gods meddle in the affairs of men, where mages throw fire and vanish into shadows, and where monstrosity and divinity keep remarkably close company.

In this case, the book begins the story of Dancer – a newly minted assassin-for-hire, with a rather high opinion of himself, and a skillset which almost marries up with that opinion. As the text opens, Dancer is shown as cold, arrogant and pragmatically selfish; though he’s also not cruel, and there’s a current of wry humour and self-awareness running beneath his internal monologue which makes it entertainingly charming. The author manages to show us Dancer as a man with a degree of practicality, looking for work and needing to gain a reputation and a client base – the mindset of a tradesman, who happens to deal in murder. In a parallel mental track, Dancer is also rather anti-authoritarian, at the start of the narrative, he hasn’t run into anyone who is really worth listening to for some time. This blends with a personal dislike of sadism and petty cruelties to make a man rather ill-suited to work in the world of crime.

As the narrative moves along, Dancer does undergo a gradual shift in character. If just as cool to humanity generally, he seems to collect a small group of people who he cares about, exposing the underpinning of his humanity. Esslemont shows us a man driven to succeed, defining who he is, and what he is (and is not) willing to do in order to achieve his goals. It’s believable, compelling and great fun to read.

Alongside Dancer is his partner, the mage Wu. A schemer, a byzantine plotter, and a man with a seemingly questionable grasp on reality. The reader doesn’t get into Wu’s head, but his presence helps define Dancer for us, as the latter reacts against several of Wu’s insanities. The relationship that builds between them is delightful – often humorous, occasionally deadly serious, and often rather odd. They make an excellent duo, and Wu’s lackadaisical attitude, matched with a laser-like mental acuity, make him a great pair with Dancer.

There’s a supporting cast here as well; I particularly enjoyed the City Mage, Silk, whose efforts to protect his city and its ruler from harm were entirely understandable; that it was laced with a subtle undercurrent of romance was unexpected, but pitch perfect. But there were others – the aloof and mysterious Protectoress, the extremely strange gang of City Mages acting alongside Silk, and an array of underworld denizens and mysterious characters. As ever with the world of Malazan, it feels like many of these may resurface, their agenda as yet obfuscated. I suppose we shall see in the enxt books in the series.

The book centres on the city of Li Heng, a city surrounded by walls and defined by its enmities. We spend a lot of time in the lower dens of the city, amongst the various bizarre and downright unpleasant characters that live and work there.. It’s a heaving place, scurrying with effort and intensity, with undertones of fear and the promise of violence on the edge of every word.  Credit to Esslemont for making the place feel very real, and also for making it seem very much like a place that I wouldn’t want to visit.

The contrast with the higher echelons of the city is, I imagine, deliberate. Here the pace ismore languid, though consequences for a mis-step probably no less acute. The city mages live in a world of marble walls and darkened catacombs,  and there’s a wonderful blend of the clean and the eerie in their world.

In the end, Esslemont has built a city that I can believe exists, an organic entity running on the hopes and fears of its denizens. It’s portrayed well enough that I cared what happened to the city as a whole, alongside the characters, and that indicates a very well drawn world.

Plot-wise – well, no spoilers, as ever. Dancer and Wu’s peregrinations through the city are entertaining, their freelancing escapades shifting from humour to cool violence and back again, in a way which makes it difficult to stop reading. Alongside this intimate portrayal of the beginnings of a partnership, there’s a broader epic sweep – battles, sieges, demons. War-magic and monstrosities. Heroism, cowardice, and the occasional bout of humanity. They’re all on show here, drawing the reader in, ratcheting up the tension, and then delivering the goods.

Is it worth reading? If you’re a Malazan fan already, yes. There’s some great shout-outs to earlier versions of familiar characters embedded in the text, and the story of Dancer and Wu is an intriguing one. As a standalone, for a new reader – again, yes. There’s no need to be familiar with the Malazan backstory to get into this, and it’s a very fine fantasy novel in its own right. It’s a streamlined piece, focused on characters and narrative, not yet embroiled in the sprawling Malazan backstory – so an ideal point to enter that world. In the end, it’s a well written fantasy novel, with epic scope, solid world building, and compelling, believable, entertaining characters – and that makes it worth a read in my book.

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