Book Review: Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont
Format: Hardback, First Edition (U.S.), 2009
Reading Time: about 5 hours
Night of Knives takes place over the course of a single night, under a Shadow Moon, when a conjunction opens a portal to the realm of Shadow and allows mortals to ascend. At the same time, the Empire’s 3rd in command, Surly, is attempting to consolidate her hold on rulership. These events all occur on the island of Malaz. The story is told from two viewpoints: Kiska, a young girl who wants to leave the island, and Temper, a veteran soldier hiding from his past. Esslemont and Steven Erikson are writing about events in the same world, in the same time period. Chronologically it occurs before Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon.
Some other reviews of Night of Knives around the ‘net:
Temper is a decent character: he has a strong sense of duty and honor, determination, stubbornness, and a skilled combatant. Through his backstory we are given insight into the Sword of the Empire and the Seven Cities campaign that later sets the stage for Erikson’s second novel, Deadhouse Gates. The same cannot be said for Kiska, who I found incredibly annoying, especially in the way she would insert herself into events, her insistence that she has “skills” despite being constantly caught off guard, and her pouty-yet-cocky attitude that has her blurting out questions and being unwilling to do what anyone instructs her to.
The novel has some other issues. The first is that the writing is very choppy. Esslemont will write an entire paragraph of simple sentences that inhibit any kind of attempt at a free-flowing narrative. He does a better job in the second half of the book, but occasionally it resurfaces with a jarring effect.
Another issue is that so much action is crammed into the last 40 pages that it is sometimes difficult to tell where characters are in relation to their surroundings. The Deadhouse needs far more description than is devoted to it, for instance, and as Temper battles the guardians of the Deadhouse I was frequently asking myself “where the heck is this taking place?” Supporting character motivations aren’t really explained…things just happen, with the reasons left unclear.
I also had a problem with the many deus ex machina devices in this book. Just as characters are about to die, someone comes along and saves them, sometimes for no reason, while other characters are left to die…this happens multiple times. Rarely am I given the impression that the main characters survived due to their wits – it’s usually due to luck or stubbornness. They are able to withstand forces others can’t stand against, often surviving magic battles, encounters with Hounds, powerful guardians, grenades, etc. Lots of people in the story take horrible wounds and gush blood, but they stay on their feet, continue fighting, and perform heroic acts. It’s all a bit much and totally unbelievable.
Finally, most authors will present backstory in italics, to clearly separate past events from the present. Esslemont slips into the backstory of a character without italics. This has the effect of making past events suddenly become current. It can be disorientating and awkward, and for me it does not work well.
Some people recommend reading this book after several of Erikson’s books. I actually recommend reading it first. Despite its shortcomings, Night of Knives does help explain things like Gates, Ascendancy, Shadowthrone, Cotillion, the Empire, the Seven Cities, Claws, Bridgeburners, etc. There aren’t really any major spoilers that would ruin Erikson’s stories; in fact, I might argue that Esslemont hasn’t gone far enough in this area.
Night of Knives was a quick read while I was waiting for The Wise Man’s Fear to arrive, and while I have some serious issues with content, I wouldn’t say that the book is awful – rather, it’s an “okay” read. Since most reviews claim that Esslemont’s sequel, Return of the Crimson Guard, is an improvement over Night of Knives, and it’s in the Malazan world, I’ll give Esslemont another chance. I’d recommend this book only to those who want to dive into the Malazan universe and experience all it has to offer. But if you decide to skip Night of Knives, you’ll still be okay…
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