Port Of Shadows – Nefarious Nethers

port-of-shadows_fullOh boy, oh boy, a new Black Company book. The Quill to Live kinda had a ton of success on a large thought piece on The Black Company, by Glen Cook, so it is a special series to us (which can be found here, and I highly recommend you read our original piece instead if you are unfamiliar with this series). It is the grandfather of grimdark fantasy, a touching piece of fiction based on the Vietnam war, and one of our all-time favorite series. And, it just got a new addition to the series: Port of Shadows. The book takes place chronologically between books one and two in the original series, and details a side mission that The Company was tasked with while working under the Lady. But, before I get too far ahead of myself, let me give a big general rundown of this book to help ground you.

Port of Shadows is a hard book to review because you need a grounding in the full series to understand much of what I have to say about it. Along this line, despite taking place chronologically at the start of the series I would definitely wait until you had finished all 10 other books before you read it. While I enjoyed the book (review spoilers), it is definitely not for someone unfamiliar with the full series story and I think it would make an extremely unsatisfying read for anyone who hadn’t read the other books first. That being said, here is a general rundown of the plot.

The book follows The Black Company, a group of elite mercenaries, as they do a job for The Lady – a legendary tyrant and all around Big BadTM. The job is to camp out in a small city and locate the “Port of Shadows”, a woman who carries the blood of “The Dominator” (an even more ancient and evil tyrant) and to stop her from conceiving a child, as this would allow The Dominator to be reborn – something The Lady is very keen to avoid. The book essentially follows a huge number of the old cast, and many new characters, as they sit in this town, look for the Port, and react to things continually getting weirder. There are two timelines in the book: one that tells the story of a necromancer from many years prior and one that tells the story of the company. Although it is not immediately apparent how they are connected, they are unsurprisingly intertwined by the end. The story has all the hallmarks of the rest of the series: a terse but lovable protagonist, rampant unreliable narration, and extremely gritty violence and humor. However, the book does seem to lack a little more polish and substance than its sibling books.

The thing about Port of Shadows is it was a very enjoyable book for me as a Black Company fanboy but definitely left a lot to be desired as a reviewer. The book essentially exists to answer a number of lingering questions from the series (which I will not list as they are inherently spoilery). These are definitely questions I wanted to be answered, and I loved the deep context and detail that Cook goes into while answering them. However, the book kinda had abysmal pacing, and barely anything happens in its entirety. Most of the book is spent sitting around a table playing cards. While this feels authentic to The Black Company lifestyle, it does make the book feel a bit overlong and slow. Port of Shadows definitely evokes the same feelings of despair and brilliance in its writing that the other books in the series do, but it lacks urgency in its plot and I think that only someone heavily invested in the story as a whole will have the patience to see it through to the end.

In the end, I find it very difficult to give Port of Shadows a “fair” review. I personally loved it, but I only know a single other person who I think will agree with me (and he’s a writer for the site). The book continues to demonstrate Cook’s incredibly flexible, deep, and rich author voice – but also feels a bit like fan fiction written just for the superfans. Port of Shadows is a strange and flawed book, but I am very happy that it exists.

Rating: Port of Shadows – 7.0/10
-Andrew

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Deadhouse Landing – The Beginning Of The Start

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*Sorry for the typos in the original article regaurding the book name. Clearly I was editing with too little sleep.

Now this is more like it. I am taking this week and the next to review various parts of the Malazan series. This week I am talking about the two most recent prequel books, Dancer’s Lament (reviewed here) and its sequel Deadhouse Landing (both by Ian Esslemont). Next week I will be doing a giant five part post about the original core series. In my review of Dancer’s Lament, I talked about how it was a great book but it didn’t really live up to my expectations of “a start to the Malazan Empire”. It left me desiring a book that gave the story of how Dancer, Kellanved, and all the old guard got together on the isle of Malaz and started a country that would change the world. Enter Deadhouse Landing.

When we last left our intrepid Dancer and Wu (Kellanved), they had messed up and failed spectacularly to establish themselves in the city of Itko Kan and were forced to flee on a raft to the city of Malaz. However, Kellanved has started to show signs of accessing the warren of Meanas and kicked off a race for power to find its throne. Deadhouse Landing picked up pretty much exactly where the first prequel book left off and tells the story of the actual founding of Malazan. The book follows POV’s from Dancer, Tattersail, Tayschrenn, and Dassem – many of the most famous old guard. On top of learning their origin stories you will also get the background on a number of favorite characters such as: Utko, Crust, Surley, WiskeyJack, Dujek, Howler, Opal and more. When Dancer and Kellanved land on Malaz it is a city infested with pirates, hell bent on proving itself a world power, and considered a desolate backwater. The old guard spends the book slowly banding together, cleaning up the city, and slowly building the foundation of what will become the Malazan Empire.

This was the book I was hoping for when I picked up Dancer’s Lament. If you have read the core series you would be doing yourself a grave disservice by not checking out Deadhouse Landing. Watching the foundation of Malazan was extremely satisfying and Esslemont has done an incredible job preserving the personalities that Erikson put to paper in the core series in the prequels. I never was too big a fan of Tattersail in the original core, but Esslemont managed to breath a lot of life into her while feeling true to everything I have already read. In addition, Tayschrenn’s story in Deadhouse Landing feels a little disjointed from the other POV’s, but it still was a lot of fun to hear about his time as a priest of D’rek.

The combat in Deadhouse Landing is still not the best, and I think it is an area Esslemont could use a lot of work. Landing puts to paper on of the most famous fights in Malazan history, Dassum holding a bridge by himself, and I found its writing rather dry. However, the combat is my only real complaint about the book and I otherwise found it a delight. Of all the sidestory/prequel books of Esslemont I have read, Deadhouse Landing was easily my favorite.

So in conclusion, the second Malazan prequel book gave me everything I wanted about the history of its founders. Deadhouse Landing breathed life into familiar faces and helped me learn the origins of heroes. The writing was fun, the dialogue was punchy, and the plot was involving. The book ends with the isle of Malaz secured, but the world ignorant of its change in power. I assume the third and final Path to Ascendency book, Kellanved’s Reach, will cover Malazan entering the world stage, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Rating: Deadhouse Landing: 9.5/10
-Andrew

Dancer’s Lament – The Origins Of Greatness

25480364So first off let me apologize to the wonderful people over at Tor. About a billion years ago they send me an advanced copy of Deadhouse Landing, by Ian Esslemont. It is the second book in a three part prequel to The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was planning on writing a huge mega review on the original Malazan series, which is my #1 favorite book series, but turns out writing an easy to read review on possibly the most complicated fantasy series ever is a larger undertaking than I anticipated. While the Malazan mega review is still coming, I decided to stop putting off this prequel because I was itching to get back into the world. So again, sorry that this took so long Tor, thank you for sending me the books, and let’s talk about the first book in Esslemont’s prequel trilogy: Dancer’s Lament.

For starters, you should only really be reading this if you have already read the core Malazan series. There aren’t spoilers in the review, per se, but a lot of it is not going to resonate with you and despite being a prequel this book is definitely meant to be read after you finish the core series. If you haven’t read Malazan… well, it’s a hard series to recommend simply due to its size and length, but it is worth the time you put into it.

So, Dancer’s Lament. This series tells the story of how Kellanved and Dancer meet, from the “old guard”, and found the Malazan empire. The book puts to paper a lot of old stories that you catch snippets about in the original series, as well as giving an origin story to some of the series’ most iconic characters. The plot of Dancer’s Lament is that a young, out-of-work, Dancer is looking for a new place of employment after finishing his assassin training. He sets up in the city of Li Heng, or tries to, much to the annoyance of the local populace. At the same time, the city goes to war with Itko Kan and is put under siege. While Dancer tries to find a steady income killing people so he doesn’t starve, he keeps running into this annoying (and weird) mage named Wu (Kellanved) who seems to think the two of them are bound for something big – despite being complete strangers.

So right off the bat, I have a bit of an issue with Dancer’s Lament. Despite ostensibly being the origin story of Dancer and Kellanved, we still don’t really get a lot about their true origins other than their nationality. I still don’t really get where either of them came from and Dancer’s Lament doesn’t actually talk about the formation of Malazan at all. Instead it’s a lot of Dancer and Wu faffing about while trying to survive the siege. A lot of what I expected to read in Dancer’s Lament is actually in the second book, Deadhouse Landing, which I will review later this week. This doesn’t mean that Dancer’s Lament was bad in any way, but what I found was not what I expected at all.

Moving past my expectations, Dancer’s Lament is a fun, if somewhat shallow, Malazan side story that I think both holds up as an independent fantasy book and will delight fans of the greater series. There is a lot of star power in this book, with big name Malazan celebrities showing up left and right. The book is also refreshing as it shows a lot of the most powerful and brilliant characters of the core series at a time before they were gods and kings. It does a great job humanizing them and making you feel more connected to people who will become titans in the later series. To me, this is the main appeal of the book and why I would not recommend it before you finish the core series. On the negative side, while there are heaps of grade-A banter, the book is a little light on the series’ signature emotional impact. I had a ton of quality fanboy moments and laughs, but not a lot of heartfelt of profound moments where I put the book down and spent some time reflecting about what I just read (which happened often with the core series).

Dancer’s Lament is good, probably even great. It has a solid plot, decent action, amazing politics, iconic characters, fun dialogue, and a plethora of fanboy moments. However, I can’t help but feel it falls a little bit short of the core series due to its lack of heavy hearted scenes. Still, it is a fantastic book and probably my favorite side novel (excluding Deadhouse Landing, which I will talk about next time) and if you have completed and loved the original Malazan series you should absolutely pick it up.

Rating: Dancer’s Lament – 8.5/10
-Andrew