Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Deadhouse Landing - Ian C. Esslemont

Deadhouse Landing is the second in Ian C. Esslemont’s ‘Path to Ascendancy’ series. Set within the larger universe of Malazan, the series serves as a prequel of sorts. It follows the adventures of Dancer and Wu, a nefarious, lethal and frightfully amusing pair of schemers. Readers of other stories in the Malazan universe may recognise both characters as playing larger roles later in the chronology. The first book in this sequence, Dancer’s Lament, was smart, tightly plotted, and thoroughly enjoyable – so I’ve been looking forward to this sequel immensely.

Wu remains as Machiavellian and downright strange as ever. He seems to drift from encounter to encounter, things falling into his hands almost despite his rather cavalier attitude. He’s also clearly got an incisive, probing intelligence. Quite how much of the incidental madness which seems to surround him is planned or part of the image, and how much is any, er, actual madness, remains to be seen. It’s great to have a character who is both clearly playing for deeper staes and presents something of a facile façade. Wu is fun to read, because you’re not only always wondering what happens next, but also how or if it fits into the deeper plan, or if it’s just another amusing misadventure.

Personally I like to think that Wu is slowly growing in power and influence almost entirely by accident, but your mileage may vary.

Dancer is something else again. He’s a man slowly being pushed into the boundaries fo responsibility, accepting loyalties and proffering his in return. He feels older, perhaps more experienced, in this volume than the last, which is all to the good. Dancer’s wry scepticism and intolerance for Wu’s general chaos-mongering means he serves as a spectacular straight-man. It helps that he’s self-aware enough to view his colleague somewhat askance, and accept his own shifting role. If Wu brings the comedy and the longer-playing game, Dancer is less inscrutable, the reader’s way into the schemes. There are moments in this book which carry a lot of emotional freight, and Dancer is the one who reaches out and sells that to the reader – his own commitment, hurt and adrenaline splashed across the page.

They’re joined by a veritable who’s who of the Malazan series so far I won’t spoil it, but really, the chances of running into your favourite character from the wider series is quite high. I suppose this makes sense in the narrative context – Malazan as a whole deals with a band broken apart, so the early history would bring them all together – though ti can be a bit overwhelming. Still, it’s great to see the ‘twenty years earlier’ version of some series favourites, and if only some get enough time on the page, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of others later.

The world – well, we’ve moved on now to Malaz, the dour, ensorcelled island which gives the Malazan series its name. There’s a sense of decline here, of something not quite ready. It’s an island ruled by a pirate king and his mistress, trying to turn a small fleet of ships and some stone walls into political leverage. The atmosphere is fraught with both decay and a growing sense of purpose. The island, with its mysterious mists and sorcerous seas is almost a character in its own right. Mock’s broken-down Hold is pitch perfect – moss on the walls, and drunkards and charlatans within. There’s also some wider story time spent on surrounding nations, which helps provide a broader context for the intimate portrayal of the world in our current view. In any event, this is a vivid, detailed and convincing world.

The plot…well, suffice to say that it’s complicated. There’s crosses. There’s double crosses. There may or may not be further crosses thereafter. Quite who is doing what, and for whom, can be a bit opaque at times, but this feels like it’s by design. The whip-crack dialogue and the adrenaline-fuelled action scenes help carry the plot when you want to stop working things out and have someone hit something – and the larger narrative threads all tie together and pay off throughout the text.

Is it worth reading? If you’ve an interest in the early days of the Malazan series, absolutely. There’s lots of familiar faces, there’s more than a few surprises and revelations, and it’s all wrapped up in a cracking story. 

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