Chris King Elfland's 2nd Cousin's Reviews > Orb Sceptre Throne
by Ian C. Esslemont
NOTE: This review first appeared on May 22, 2012 over at The King of Elfland's 2nd Cousin. If you enjoy it, please stop by!
As I've written about before (here, and here) I'm a big fan of the Malazan universe created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. Yes, the books are complex, the plots byzantine, and the cast of characters massive. But the universe is compelling, not to mention just plain fun. And after swimming through over eight thousand pages of text in this universe, I'm always eager to dive back into it. Which is why I was excited to read Ian C. Esslemont latest addition to the universe: Orb Sceptre Throne.
As I discussed when reviewing Stonewielder last year, Esslemont has faced an uphill battle writing in his and Erikson's shared universe. His first attempts were a little tentative and with some weaknesses, but I thought that he really hit his stride in Stonewielder. What particularly struck me - as compared to Erikson's far denser works - was the (relative) accessibility of Esslemont's stories. Though on the whole Orb Sceptre Throne continues Esslemont's trajectory of improvement, it unfortunately stumbles on both accessibility and initial characterization.
"Accessible" is not an adjective often applied to the Malazan novels. With hundreds of characters, multiple perspectives, numerous side-plots (some spanning several novels), swirling allegiances, and piles of complex magic, they take a significant and sustained mental investment to enjoy. Despite sharing many of these features with Erikson's dense tomes, Esslemont's works tend to have a narrower scope and benefit from this greater focus. One need not be intimately familiar with the background established in Erikson's ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen to understand Esslemont's Night of Knives or Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Orb Sceptre Throne.
The book focuses on Darujhistan, roughly parallel in time to the events of Stonewielder and Erikson's The Crippled God (book ten in Erikson's series). The book features three core plot lines told from six primary perspectives. The central plot deals with a powerful and ancient tyrant trying to take control of the quasi-democratic city state of Darujhistan. The other plot lines, which ultimately tie back into the central story, deal with events on the wreckage of Moon's Spawn, and in the warren of Chaos last seen in Return of the Crimson Guard.
Even in that brief, thirty-thousand foot overview, the weakness of Orb Sceptre Throne is clear: to understand two out of the three central plot lines, the reader needs to be familiar with both the events of Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard, and Erikson's Memories of Ice (book three, though in reality, the entirety of Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is useful for adequate background). Because of the amount and complexity of backstory necessary to even begin navigating Esslemont's story, the book's audience is by default limited to those readers already significantly invested in the Malazan universe. In essence, Orb Sceptre Throne suffers from a very complicated case of middle-novel-syndrome.
Even if we accept that its audience is limited to those of us already familiar with the Malazan universe, the book still suffers from a structural weakness: the first one hundred fifty pages are a slow, somewhat meandering collection of unconnected narratives. Fans of the Malazan universe are prepared for gradual builds, in that the books' characteristic interlocking plot lines need a fair degree of set up. But successful execution of such slow builds requires consistently engaging characterization. And this is where the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne falls short.
In these early pages, Esslemont keeps many of his characters at arms' length, and as a result we fail to develop a rapport with them. The scholar Ebbin, who Esslemont opens his story with, is particularly problematic: though his motivation is intellectually understandable, I found that I was uninterested in his fate. With no redeeming features, and nothing to supplement his singular focus, the character was unable to engage me on an emotional level. This is a significant departure from the quality of characterization in Stonewielder, which was tighter, more focused, and significantly more engaging. Thankfully, after the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Esslemont returns to fine form.
Once the dominoes are all set up, the narrative focuses on several core perspectives (notably not Ebbin's) and we gain a greater engagement with our perspective characters. Esslemont's solid characterization and vivid depictions of action really shine once he gets going. The sections that particularly appealed to me were those set on Moon's Spawn, in the warren of Chaos, and those told from the perspective of the Seguleh. It is these narratives and their characters that pull us along in the story, and once their foundations are established the story's flow smooths into an enjoyable ride. The ending is - for the most part - satisfying, and those elements that remain unresolved are obviously teasers for subsequent stories that we can expect Esslemont to address in the future.
On the whole, Esslemont's Orb Sceptre Throne is one of the weaker Malazan novels, but for those of us invested in the universe, a reasonably enjoyable one. If you haven't yet gotten into the Malazan universe, then don't start with this one: you'll be lost within the first couple of pages. If, on the other hand, you are current with the Malazan universe, then by all means pick up the book. Its events are significant, and will no doubt be built upon in future volumes. Its weak opening may take some effort to get through, but once the story gets going, Malazan fans will enjoy it for the elements it shares with all books in the universe: its ambition, action, characters, and its moral and thematic complexity.