Assail is the 6th book by Ian C. Esslemont which takes place in the setting of co-collaborator Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and is, like most of the rest of the books which take place in this world, too complicated to quickly summarize in an intro like this. Needless to say, if you enjoyed any of the previous Malazan novels, you will enjoy this one, and it was one of the better overall to me as well. A few great characters, some issues resolved that it feels like we’ve been waiting years to see dealt with, and all of the excellent craft and care I’ve come to expect from Esslemont and Erikson with their sprawling world.
Tens of thousands of years of ice is melting, and the land of Assail, long a byword for menace and inaccessibility, is at last yielding its secrets. Tales of gold discovered in the region’s north circulate in every waterfront dive and sailor’s tavern and now countless adventurers and fortune-seekers have set sail in search of riches. All these adventures have to guide them are legends and garbled tales of the dangers that lie in wait — hostile coasts, fields of ice, impassable barriers and strange, terrifying creatures. But all accounts concur that the people of the north meet all trespassers with the sword. And beyond are rumoured to lurk Elder monsters out of history’s very beginnings.
Into this turmoil ventures the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. Not drawn by contract, but by the promise of answers: answers to mysteries that Shimmer, second in command, wonders should even be sought. Arriving also, part of an uneasy alliance of Malazan fortune-hunters and Letherii soldiery, comes the bard Fisher kel Tath. And with him is a Tiste Andii who was found washed ashore and who cannot remember his past life, yet who commands far more power than he really should. Also venturing north is said to be a mighty champion, a man who once fought for the Malazans, the bearer of a sword that slays gods: Whiteblade.
And lastly, far to the south, a woman guards the shore awaiting both her allies and her enemies. Silverfox, newly incarnated Summoner of the undying army of the T’lan Imass, will do anything to stop the renewal of an ages-old crusade that could lay waste to the entire continent and beyond.
Casting light on mysteries spanning the Malazan Empire, and offering a glimpse of the storied and epic history that shaped it, “Assail” is the final chapter in the epic story of the Empire of Malaz.
Where to begin? I’ve often found myself called upon when referencing some of the bigger fantasy epic series (Wheel of Time, et al) to answer the question ‘So what is it about?’ And of course, given that we’re looking at plus of ten thousand pages written over the course of decades, that’s not exactly an easy answer. With Malazan, it can be difficult to even succinctly summarize one book let alone the series, and Assail is no exception. I’d say I counted no less than six complete storylines in what was only 537 pages. What Esslemont does so well that so many other authors who write this way tend to flub, is exactly the right pace of inching each story towards the point where they start to intertwine. There’s a certain graceful inevitability in a Malazan novel. You spend the first fifth of the book trying to get all the names straight and who is who and where, and then you’ll have some favourites, and some you don’t especially care for, but you hit a point around forty percent of the way in where it just sort of clicks, and then you’re in. I enjoy a novel that asks a little bit of me instead of trying to just spoonfeed everything in with exposition dumps. Then you reach that point right near the end, where everything is coming to a head, and all the story elements are about to combine and you just can’t stop reading because finally all the serious crap is going to go down! It’s an experience more than a novel.
One of the things about the Malazan world and novels is that there is virtually no end to the history of this world. There are people walking around in the books who are plus of 100,000 years old. This is an OLD world. There are a lot of very powerful people and what is fascinating is the way that by and large, they keep their heads down. A lot of characters have their names met with strong reactions from those around them, and there’s not often a lot to show you why that is. Assail features the bard Fisher Kel Tath who is a perfect example of this. He hasn’t really -done- anything that I’d call impressive. He’s just been around, turns up where major things are happening, and writes really good songs and poems. But there are hints. He’s been around longer than maybe a regular dude should have, he knows a lot of very powerful people and they respect him. You wonder what might happen if he should have to bust out what he’s fully capable of. This is what you get from virtually every major character in these novels.
Assail leans heavily on two plotlines which have been a long time in resolving. That of the T’lan Imass, the undead warrior people who wage an unending war on the powerful but now mostly gone Jaghut, and the Crimson Guard, the not undead warrior people who wage an unending war on the powerful and totally still here Malazan Empire. The Guard barely show up in the main series by Erikson, but they get a whole novel Return of the Crimson Guard by Esslemont (which was great, by the way) which really endeared me to their cause and how generally bad ass they are. Fans of the main series will also be happy to find out that Silverfox finally does something besides gripe, argue with herself, and get awesome characters killed. My copy of this book says ‘The Final Novel of the Malazan Empire’ which on the one hand is a little disappointing, because it means the rest of the novels these two authors write (And at the time of this writing I believe Erikson is contracted for 5 more, and Esslemont for 2 or 3) are going to be further afield and maybe about people I don’t already know. While it will be awesome to see what else this setting has in store, there are still a lot of unanswered questions and unresolved plot lines.
And fundamentally, that is what I think makes Assail so great. It does close up a few pretty major storylines and does so in a suitably awesome way, but this series has always been about the people more than the events. There was no possible way to resolve everything for everybody and sometimes people don’t get resolution. They just do what they can with what is in front of them and that’s enough. As grandiose as the scale of the plot of Assail is, and it is, it still captures such intimately close moments of the characters involved. Whether they are somebody we’ve seen crop up across multiple books or somebody we’ve just met, Esslemont can fill them out with only a few sketched lines of history or description, in a way that manages to make you really care about what happens to them. These small revelations of information about who somebody truly is or what they truly want can hit shockingly hard. And the major revelations are even worse/better. There’s a lot in this book to enjoy if this is the very first Malazan novel you’ve ever read and even more if you’re a veteran of the series. I hope that ending their novels about the Empire specifically won’t stop Erikson and Esslemont from continuing to unveil this world to us all.