An Old Guard Chat With Malazan Co-Creator Ian Cameron Esslemont

After a long and trying journey into the Azath I was finally able to track down one of the architects of the Malazan world that I find myself completely addicted to.

When I first read Ian Cameron Esslemont’s first book Night of Knives, I must admit my reaction was a bit lukewarm, not unwelcome but not a piece that impacted me. After I added more pieces to the puzzle and studied the ones I had with more scrutiny I tackled the book again and it was one of those books that made me review it and now I’m somewhat of an unabashed fan and while I don’t think it requires defending, I find myself doing so when the occasion presents itself. You can read my review of Night of Knives before going on if you want.

night of knives ian cameron esslemont

Today I talk to Ian Cameron Esslemont, who along with Steven Erikson is responsible for one of the latest additions of this affair, and we chat about his first book Night of Knives, his soon to be released Return of the Crimson Guard, all things Malazan, and more.

If you like you can read my thoughts upon completing Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. and my interview with Esslemont’s cohort, Steven Erikson.

When I first saw the pre-publicity info for your first novel Night of Knives, my first reaction before even reading beyond the title was we were going to see something really fundamental in the political landscape of the Malazan Empire as the title immediately invoked for me the purge by the Schutzstaffel of the SA that helped consolidate Hitler’s powers, dubbed The Night of Long Knives. Was this the origin of the title or is this coincidental?

Ian Esslemont — A number of people have picked up on the reference to Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” and I’m very gratified to have close readers! It was a little both deliberate and happy coincidence in that it meshed so very well. Like any reference, or echo, it is meant to broaden and deepen the reading experience: in this case to send the reader down other paths thinking about power, the exigencies of power, and the pursuit or turning away from power.

Night of Knives works in many ways that prequels usually don’t in that the books stature for me grows as Erikson’s series progresses — from the obvious allure of the Kellanved and Dancer storyline to reading something like House of Chains and seeing Ash among the ghosts in Raruku and so on — what — if any — pitfalls did you set out to avoid and did you perhaps look at another piece of literature as a model for success in such a task

Ian Esslemont — Steve and I hope that all the works will grow and deepen as the series progresses and that they mesh, interweaving, perhaps adding up to something greater than the sum of their parts.

As to modelling, no, I deliberately avoided looking at examples of other “prequels”. And in any case I do not see Night of Knives as a prequel at all. It is merely one more tale in a long history that stretches back far before its telling. There are many other earlier tales to tell, such as that of Kallor and his downfall.

 I want to touch on Kellanved and Dancer a bit. The process of Ascension is still a semi-ambiguous phenomena in the Malazan setting. A mystical, evolutionary leap — and what strikes me with this duo is that they don’t settle for that — they actually set out to be immortal. While humanity’s individual idiosyncrasies are boundless — as seen by your entire cast — what do you gives this duo their extra gumption? Is it simple love of knowledge?

Ian Esslemont — Yes, ascension remains an ‘ambiguous’ process — but what, I must ask, is straightforward in any aspect of religion? Murkiness pretty much characterizes religion. As to what sets K & D apart, or characterizes them in particular, I suppose I would have to point to boundless, utterly reckless, ambition. Frankly, they know no limits, and this is of course (as they say) a two-edged sword for everyone.

In my review of Night of Knives I point to an observation I have about the duo, masters of shadow, and in some sense plane walkers, and given what I have read of Steve and yours backgrounds — in a way seekers of knowledge, the world, and it’s people and I almost get the sense that these character while so steeped in your setting’s history almost represent humanity’s pinnacle just fucking around and seeing what they can find.

It was also your choice to tell their story first — is their a relationship to that duo that in some way acts as your own avatars trying to unlock the secrets of that world?

Ian Esslemont — The two and their story serve as one central meta-narrative for the series — I don’t think I’m giving away much there. Their journey is ours, so to speak (Steve’s and mine in the beginning, and the reader’s now). As to “just fucking around,” you know — that’s not too far from the discovery and trial-and-error of the creative process. You pretty much don’t know what’s out there until you go, and you pretty much don’t know what you can do until you try (is that last part too Dr. Phil?)

Among your POVS in Night of Knives is Temper and you use him to give us a look at the former First Sword of the Empire, Dassem. I was wondering if you can tell me the origins in creation of the element I feel is of strong interest to all Malazan fans — “the old guard”. Beyond the romantic idea of crooks plotting to and succeeding in Empire what do you think creates this almost mythic aura and appeal of them?

Ian Esslemont — Speaking for myself, I think that so far much of the interest stems from their being ‘off-stage’ so much (in the beginning at least). Any absence creates a void that invites the reader to fill and flesh-out using their own imagination. This is all ‘old-hand’ story-telling slight-of-hand from way back.

Things happening just off stage interest everyone. The audience’s imagination is engaged so much more there in the dark than in what’s going on right in front of them — too often these days in gory technicolour splatter that leaves nothing to the imagination. What to put in and what to leave out have always been difficult artistic choices, and this might sound contradictory, but often it’s what to leave out that is the more important.

Another point of view — as an offset to the Veteran in Temper — you offer is one of a girl who just wants to get out of her hometown and experience the world. Perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when you detail Kellanved’s arrival — his presence, much as we have seen Rake’s presence (or that of his warren) — being a physical sensation — Tay’s nose bleeds — and then you suddenly gives us Kiska’s vision of seeing the cripple rendered helpless as Dancer strives to defend them both. Why was it important to have young eyes to show us an event that has ramifications on the very pantheon?

Ian Esslemont — As with the previous question, again, it’s the choice of what to place plainly before the reader and what to have ‘off stage’. My opinion is that the reader’s imagination is engaged much more forcefully when they are asked to actually work it. (This draws the reader even further into the work as well).

That’s the goal for me, reader engagement — I’m not saying I’m there yet, but that’s were I’m trying to go. Also, remember, as in everything happening in Malaz, this is just point of view. The example given is what Kiska imagines occurred, not necessarily how it happened.

While I understand in previous statement you discuss a separation among your epic brethren, but where there is a similarity is the immersion that fans have in your worlds like they do with a Jordan, Martin, etc. When you succeed in epic styled fantasy, you succeed big. While this is obviously a fruitful outcome for creators has taken a life of it’s own or has it seemed to be a match to the creator’s enthusiasm? Is it a bit mind-blowing or is it more of a matching of expectations? Is any of it weird?

Ian Esslemont — For Steve and I the world we created was, and is, as fully rounded and deep as this. It always was more than a mere setting or backdrop there for us to write adventures or create characters. We did not set out deliberately to invent a place just to write stories, we discovered the place valley by valley, city by city, character by character.

The place itself is a character. Together we uncovered it as if it existed already fully realized there before us, and this, I think, is what sets successful fantasy ‘worlds’ apart from those which feel as if the author just needed a new or different setting to move their characters across. Our enthusiasm is — of course — boundless for it and it’s a real lift to see others sharing that enthusiasm.

I’m a fan of PS publishing’s track record with projects they take on — how did that relationship come about and how was working with Peter Crowther?

Ian Esslemont — Working with Peter at PS is great. It is very possible that Night of Knives may never have seen print had he not dared to take the chance. And there remain obvious reasons why Bantam, for example, was reluctant to take that chance.

Its brevity for one thing, and — to be fair — it remains the work of a craftsperson coming to grips with his medium. Few publishing houses these days are willing to take on new untried names to watch them feel their way into the industry. That’s the older model where publishing houses used to nurish and develop authors rather than searching for that instant hit or ‘blockbuster’.

What separates great epic fantasy concepts from great epic fantasy series I feel is often a writer’s desire and ability to mine other works. Michael Moorcock says “If you want to write fantasy then read everything but fantasy” — I have seen you quote the likes of Borges and see a reader — what influenced this series that isn’t related to Fantasy directly?

Ian Esslemont — Here I am in complete agreement with Moorcock. Not that I’m advocating avoiding reading fantasy. Rather, what I think is that anyone who wants to write in the genre should know it inside and out and that must come from exhaustive reading of the material. So, yes, read voraciously within the genre. However, once you’ve done that — read almost all there is out there worth reading — then, after that or during that, you should also be reading outside the genre. And slowly, as the years pass, usually you will find yourself reading more and more outside the genre (there’s just so damn much out there just to begin with).

But more to the point, what I think Michael was getting at was that any artist who strives to improve his or her craft must study the masters, and the masters of the written word (for the most part) stand outside the genre in literary fiction. So, read Dick, yes, but also read Cormac McCarthy, know fantasy inside and out but read Ondaatje and Annie Proulx as well. Read Bakker and Gemmell, but know Graham Swift, Ian McEwan and Toni Morrison as well.

What I think you did best — in a world that is cutthroat, that is about betrayal — from the Chain of Dogs to the assassinations, to Silchas Ruin’s fate — you cement another extreme.

Is it safe to say Kellanved and Dancer are friends? Such a simple element is actually something we see little of without some sense of trepidation — but you see Dancer essentially saving Kellanved at the doorstep of immortality himself already safe. Was your intention to establish the roots of this relationship and how deep do you think it is?

Ian Esslemont — This question appears to be directed more to Steve, but I’ll give it a shot. Friendship is all over the works! Look at Mappo and Icarium, the look at Bugg and Tehol. As to K & D, well, maybe friendships isn’t word. Maybe more a wary mutual respect for one another’s capabilities. Other than these two, the question of friendship and costs brings us to the world of the common soldier in Malaz.

The bonding (band of brothers) of those under fire and harrowing conditions is by now a cliché, certainly. Yet it remains an enduring truth — and not just for those thrown into the furnace of combat. Isolation, such as that of a crew in deep bush, can also create it. Any shared intense experience can engender such bonds. As to the costs of being human, these are very real as well — as I think Steve excels at portraying.

Both Steve and yourself highlight the common soldier by making that very fact uncommon. I referred to Ash earlier, I understand that the strength of this setting is based in ambiguity, but as the writer, to you is Ash representative of faith and loyalty or foolishness if they are at all exclusive qualities.

You highlight him — being singled out by Surly herself when he could have easily just been written out. Was their a reason — aside from dramatic purposes — and what experience or ideal draws you in my mind successfully the soldier. Almost every instance we see they are at war   yet they seem emblematic of the best of humanity.

Ian Esslemont — I hope that it would all be there: faith, loyalty, foolishness, drive, obsession. In other words, a fully rounded human being. That’s the goal (met in some cases, fallen short in others) for all our characters. No cardboard cut-outs. It’s hard to keep to — and I imagine I slip up now and then — but one can only try to reach for all the characters being ones that the reader would like to know more about. That’s the final best compliment.

return of the crimson guard ian cameron esslemont malazan

Your next book Return of the Crimson Guard, is due to be released in August — when does this occur on the Malazan timeline?

Ian Esslemont — The events occur just before Steve’s Toll the Hounds and relatively soon after The Bonehunters. Unfortunately, due to timing, Steve’s Toll comes out just before Return — rather than the reverse. It would be better had Return preceeded Toll, but that’s just how things turned out given my coming into all this later than we both had wanted originally.

We have heard of the Crimson Guard in Erikson’s installments, usually very briefly and referenced for their prowess and that they are lead by a military genius — what more can you tell us and why are they the choice for the subject of your second Malazan novel?

Ian Esslemont — Like Night of Knives, I’m returning to characters, or entities, whose histories reach back to the beginnings of the empire. Return was actually drafted out very long ago and I have had to completely revise it given changes in things since (nothing stands still, the world evolves even now in our shared imaginations). As to why this novel now, it was always second in line of my proposed novels for the milieu.

Would you consider Return of the Crimson Guard a novel that can be read as a stand-alone?

Ian Esslemont — Hmmm … I’d have to say that while Return is very large, it’s less a stand alone work than Knives. I do not mean that the plot elements are incomplete — it comes to a definite end — rather, it’s that I didn’t have room to give full attention to providing all the information and background I suspect readers would want. The already fat work would have just been too ungainly had I taken the time aside to give little potted histories, etc, in long expositional passages (and I hate that habit in fantasy writing anyway.

 It would seem Laseen would be at the center of attention in Return of the Crimson Guard. In various times we see Laseen speak we get glimpses into a very solitary figure, one that (in Erikson’s novels) seem increasingly isolated. Without giving any of the games up — I was wondering if you would mind giving us a bit of creator’s commentary on the character, in the form of what comes to mind when you write the character?

Ian Esslemont — Laseen, or Surly, was originally one of Steve’s. He’s done the most with her to date basing his portrayal on what we talked through in our discussions of the various story arcs. In Return I am following the same portrayal, attempting to continue through with her development, themes, and arc. She remains distant — as is appropriate, I think — we do not ‘get into her head’. We continue to see her only as those around her see her. Thus our vision of her (the reader’s) remains highly filtered.

 In Night of Knives you utilized 3 or 4 central POV’s can you discuss if the same will be used in Return of the Crimson Guard and give any of them up for the fans?

Ian Esslemont — The same technique of multiple POVs is used in Return. Many more this time though! We’ll see a number of familiar faces and meet a number of new characters as well. Fans of the world will be happy to hear that we’ll be seeing much more of Traveller, of Greymane, and even of the Wickan twins Nil and Nether. We will see many of the Crimson Guard of course, including K’azz, and even Iron Bars. We will also be seeing the return of a character who seems to have evoked a very strong reaction, Mallick Rel.

 Can you pinpoint a character or two that has grown in a manner in Steve’s work that you find particular enjoyment in terms of where the character’s gone or become?

Ian Esslemont — This question is a real delight. I love the way Steve allows characters the room to grow. So many have surprised me with where they’ve been taken and how they’ve grown. Look at Iskaral: I love that guy though he’d drive me crazy if I ever met him. I suppose Icarium comes to mind as an example — I was very impressed by what Steve did with him.

While the Malazan world has been allowed to grow through Steve, this is your second novel. What would you say have you taken in since having a book with your presentation of the Malazan world out on the shelf?

Ian Esslemont — What have I taken in from Steve’s ongoing series? More I suspect than even the most rabid fan the world! It’s a delight to see so much realized, developing, and broadening. It’s quite the challenge to keep up, I tell you. I’m doing my best to smooth out any inconsistencies, and to mention things that should be mentioned, but we’ll both mess up now and then — I hope the fans will keep in mind the sheer volume of what we’re dealing with here.

What would you say has been the biggest or most comical misstep that either you or fans have caught?

Ian Esslemont — Hmm, this is a tough one in that ‘comical’ is not what first comes to mind regarding our missteps to date. No huge gaffs have gotten through yet (fingers crossed). The biggest headache has been the subsequent geographic distance between Steve and I and the lack of opportunity to sit down together to hammer things out whenever we want.

So far, given that handicap, I think we’ve done a pretty good job in keeping things in order. There are the usual small mix-ups that plague all long projects. One persistent ‘misalignment,’ if you will, is that Steve and I somehow see Dassem differently in our mind’s eye — odd that one.

What will your third Malazan novel center around, and where are you at in terms of progress?

Ian Esslemont — The third novel deals with the over-reach of the Malazan occupation of Korel lands to the south of Quon. After internal reordering the empire turns its attention, and resources, to this drain on its treasure and blood. Currently I’m just getting into it — the writing is slow in that I’m trying to learn from my experiences with both prior novels and adjust accordingly (fan feedback helps here!).

What do you view as the most important lessons — via feedback or experience — that you take into book II and now Book II once that Night of Knives was released and bantered about!

Ian Esslemont — I’ve been pretty lucky in that feedback and response from online and elsewhere has for the most part been helpful and constructive. I took away a lot from the response to Knives and I think Return will show that. It’s part of the overall process in anyone’s growth as a craftsperson and that evolution continues; my next work will, I hope, continue that development.

Has any progress been made on The Encyclopedia of Malaz?

Ian Esslemont — Steve and I took a throw at it some years ago, so various incomplete versions exist. Happily for me writing the actual fiction took over — good thing too; I think attempting to assemble a comprehensive guide to all we’ve pulled together would’ve driven me crazy.

Do you have any non-Malaz writing goals?

Ian Esslemont — Writing the Malaz material is very close to my heart but I do have a great deal of other writing goals. I’m looking at science fiction short stories and eventually I hope to return to various science fiction novels I have waiting for my attention, as is a fantasy series for juvenile readers involving a kind of time-travel.

Who do you admire in short fiction?

Ian Esslemont — I have to admit that I’m not reading much short fiction these days. Of the limited number of authors I have read recently I guess I’d mention Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, and Steven King. In science fiction I’d like to make a plug for fellow Alaskan resident, David Marusek, whose short fiction I really enjoy.

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