It has been a real pleasure to watch the development of Ian Cameron Esslemont as a writer. Both Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard were solid offerings but burdened with problems of pacing and character, though Return of the Crimson Guard showed some improvement. Each seemed pretty clearly the product of a new author. Stonewielder, the third of Esslemont’s MALAZAN novels was a big jump forward in terms of quality and craft; though it shared some of its predecessors’ flaws, they were less frequent and less detrimental to the overall reading experience. I’m happy to say that trend continues with Esslemont’s newest — Orb, Sceptre, Throne — which I found to be his most thoroughly enjoyable book yet, though it had a few minor issues and one quite large one. In the end, there’s a part of me that happily ate the book up, and a part of me that had some digestive issues. But more on that later.
Orb, Sceptre, Throne focuses on events at Darujhistan and takes place roughly at the same time as the events of Stonewielder and The Crippled God, as several asides make clear. The major storyline is the rise of the ancient Tyrant that once ruled the city and his attempts to consolidate his rule while others try and stop him. Caught up in this are those we might expect (and perhaps a few surprises), including but not limited to: our group of retired Bridgeburners (Picker, Blend, Duiker, et al.), some resident assassins (Rallick Now, Vorcan), Kruppe of course, Torvald Nom, Barathol Mekhar, Lady Envy, Leff and Scorch, Baruk, Aragan (now ambassador to Darujhistan), and Caladan Brood.
Another storyline involves Antsy’s journey to the fallen remnants of Moon’s Spawn, which have become a magnet to treasure-seekers from across the continent. There he teams up with a few new characters, all of whom have their own personal and sometimes conflicting motivations for being there. A third plot line deals with the Seguleh, whose long-prophesied purpose seems to have arrived. Finally, a lesser storyline (in terms of pages) follows Kiska, Leoman, and Tayschrenn along the Shores of Creation. As one would expect, the multiple stories eventually converge, though of course they also open up new lines of plot yet to be investigated (it is, after all, a MALAZAN novel).
As mentioned, Orb, Sceptre, Throne is in my mind Esslemont’s finest, most complete, most fully enjoyable work to date. My version is just over 600 pages long and I happily finished it in two extended sittings, carried along mostly effortlessly by story and character, with only a few minor blips along the way. Pacing, a problem to varying degrees in all three prior books, is not at all an issue here. And while there were a few rough transitions here and there, they occurred infrequently and far enough apart that they were wholly insignificant in the overall reading experience.
The three major strands of plot are mostly engaging throughout. The Seguleh plot finally gives us an interior look into their homeland and culture and the major Seguleh characters are nicely drawn and complex. The action on “The Spawns” (the new “islands” created by fragments of Moon’s Spawn that have fallen) is a bit episodic and so is more variable in its success, but Antsy was a hugely welcome tour guide and the new characters were both engaging and suitably mysterious, keeping the reader guessing as to motivation, as to who was a good guy or bad guy (as much as one can use such labels in the Malazan universe), and sometimes just as to who the character actually was (who, for instance, was that Andii shade Morn? Who is Orchid?). Those character mysteries open up lots of fodder for fan speculation. The Tyrant’s plot is probably the weakest of the three, feeling a bit abstract, rushed, and lacking somewhat in underlying motivation. What saves it are some of the individual scenes that arise from the larger storyline: what happens to Baruk, a classic sabotage attempt, a small pitched battle involving undead, etc.
Characterization is also strong throughout Orb, Sceptre, Throne. I’ve already mentioned what a pleasure it was to travel along with Antsy, and hanging out with the rest of the Bridgeburners simply reminds one of just how special many of these characters such as Blend, Spindle, Duiker, etc. are. We’ve spent a lot of time with them and Esslemont gives them their due. The same is true of most of the other old-timers, whether major or minor characters, such as Kiska, Leoman, Leff and Scorch, Aragan, Rallick and others. Fisher, for example, gets some new facets that open him up to further exploration.
A few characters from the past, admittedly, didn’t ring quite true to me. Envy, for instance. Brood to a lesser extent, though that may have been more due to his plot line, which seemed a bit forced and circuitous. Korbald and Bauchelain make a (tiny) appearance and while Bauchelain seems wholly in character, their presence seems shoehorned in just for old times’ sake and thus a bit arbitrary. The same is true for the mention of Karsa, which felt out of place and artificial (luckily it’s quite short). As for new characters, I was intrigued by nearly all the Seguleh we met, all of whom I thought were fully created characters thrust into difficult and revealing situations. I also liked the new characters (some possibly “old” characters) we met in the Spawns with Antsy, some of whom clearly have larger roles to play in future events. We meet a few more Malazans, such as Butcher, and some new Fists and, though they don’t get a lot of page time, they were sharply and at times movingly depicted.
Lastly, in terms of the many positives of the novel, it has to be noted that this is, I’d say, Esslemont’s most consistently humorous book. While he’s had great moments before — I give you Manask as example — there is a warmth and consistency of humor from multiple characters throughout this one. I smiled or chuckled through many, many moments of dialogue or interior monologue and laughed aloud frequently.
The flaws in the book range from relatively minor to, as mentioned at the outset, one large one. There are a lot of shifting POV’s and sometimes, especially at the start, the frequency of the shifts and the brevity of the scenes does a slight disservice to the novel. This may, however, be a personal quirk as I’m often not a fan of many short chapters one after another. Tom Clancy fans, on the other hand, may just shrug and move on. While I’ve said I liked quite a bit our view of the Seguleh in the book, I have to say that I’ve always had an issue with the invincible swordspeople type of character. I’m fine with them one-on-one, one-on-two, even taking on a small squad or so maybe. But I’ve got major plausibility issues with their battle scenes in Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Simply put: I just don’t buy it, especially against trained combat troops, and especially in that they don’t simply slaughter, but they do so with incredible (literally) precision. This was a real stumbling block for me toward the end of the novel, but only at the very end.
The larger issue for me is on the one hand a much worse problem and on the other a much lesser problem. It’s the sense that I never felt Orb, Sceptre, Throne had a firm underpinning of detail and thought underlying the whole construction, which is something that seems almost silly to say with regard to a book in a series that is over 10,000 pages long, filled with huge lists of characters and glossaries, and is clearly plotted out in advance. But still, basic answers and motivations seem curiously lacking in Orb, Sceptre, Throne. The Tyrant, for example, is clearly a Big Bad, but I never feel I know why he’s a Big Bad. I know he wants power and so forth, but I need my evil guy to be a bit more than to be an evil guy because we need an evil guy. We have a real opportunity to see inside the Moranth as we do the Seguleh, but aside from a relatively meaningless tidbit of information (“clans” are really “guilds”) and the idea that they are the mortal foe of the Seguleh, we learn nothing as to the whys and wherefores and hows, or next to nothing (not to mention their mysterious continuation of a military tactic that is having literally zero effect). Similarly, one gets the sense (at least I did) of purposely withheld information that seemed withheld for little reason — places where we wouldn’t get a name, for instance, where it would seem natural to be told it but the author wanted us to play a guessing game. And finally, very broadly, it didn’t quite have that sense of an overarching narrative — that big picture that gives me an idea of where all these people and these storylines are going, or that they’re going. It felt a bit detached.
I say this is a worse problem because it’s a more pervasive, “ecological” flaw as compared to just an abrupt transition or two, and it does undercut the overall enjoyment I had of the book. I say it’s a lesser problem because it didn’t really have any sort of negative impact until I’d finished the book and actively thought about it. And for some it may not be an issue at all. I don’t go see a new Diehard installment expecting to delve into its depths a la Tree of Life. And I don’t go to Tree of Life and walk out upset that not enough things blew up. I can absolutely see people happily reading Orb, Sceptre, Throne and considering it a great meal with no concerns at all. Some, though, may find it a bit empty of calories — good tasting but leaving you feeling a little empty in the end.
I stand by my claim that Orb, Sceptre, Throne is Esslemont’s finest novel to date and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I heartily and happily recommend it and think the vast majority of MALAZAN fans will have a great time reading it. Some, however, should be prepared to have their initial pleasure tempered the more they think about the book. In any case, if the trend in writerly craft continues, I’m absolutely looking forward to the next by Ian Cameron Esslemont.