I've always been fascinated by the stories that define a culture and its people. I'm not talking about the books that they use for worship either, but the stories that have been told from one generation to the next for longer then anyone can remember. Each story tells you a little bit about who a people really are and what they believe in as they are a reflection of how they live their lives on a daily basis. It's probably why I love epic fiction so much, because not only does it tell a whole series of stories, but if its done properly the stories will create a whole new world for you to wander through.
Think of all the great epics throughout history; The Ramayana, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf, not only do they recount the adventures of a hero, or collection of heroes, they allow you to see the world through their eyes. It doesn't matter whether you follow Aeneas on his quest to find a new home for the defeated Trojans or Rama as he attempts to wrest his darling wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana, along the way you meet the gods who rule them, you learn about their social order, and you are introduced to the philosophies and moral codes that they adhere to.
For the authors of these works, even good old anonymous, accomplishing all this wasn't very difficult as they were merely writing down accounts of what they knew to be true, or at least what was accepted wisdom. However, that's not the case for the modern writer who sets out to create an epic from scratch. That author not only has to create a series of plots and stories, he or she has to build the world and belief systems that supply the frame of references for the events that are being depicted. So while there are many novels out there these days that have had the appellant epic tied to their titles, the reality is that very few of them really qualify to be included in that genre.
One of the best of the modern era's epics has been The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence by Steven Erikson. Meticulous in their detail, not only have the eight books all ready published in the series been remarkably entertaining, they have created a whole new world for the reader to explore and experience. Then two years ago Erikson brought out his secret weapon, a second author who was also writing stories set in the same world to fill in any gaps in the narrative that he may have missed. Ian C. Esslemont's first book, Night Of Knives took us back in time to an incident that had happened before Erikson's recounting had begun.
His second instalment, The Return Of The Crimson Guard, first published by PS Publishing of England, and now available through Random House Canada, jumps forward in time to the present day in the heart of the Malzan Empire. Chronologically it picks up the action about a year after the events that were recounted in Erikson's sixth book, The Bonehunters, and the Empire is facing its worst crises since its formation. Lands that were first conquered in the early days of the Empire have risen in revolt against the rule of the current Empress, Laseen, and to make matters worse it appears that most of the dissent is being fermented by people who were once loyal to the Empire.
Unfortunately for Laseen, these men and women were more loyal to her predecessor, the man she assassinated to become Empress. In spite of having successfully rid herself of many of them, she hadn't been chief of the assassins for nothing, enough of "The Old Guard" remain alive that the threat they pose as leaders of the rebel factions is very real.
Just to make things even more exciting a company of mercenaries who took an oath to eradicate the Mazalan Empire, The Crimson Guard of the title, have decided the time is ripe for an assault on their enemy. What distinguishes the Guard from other mercenary companies is the fact that 600 of their membership have somehow taken a vow which has made them immortal and almost invincible in battle. After years of individual troops wandering the world on their own, the word has been spread that they are to reform to begin the final assault that will see the destruction of their hated foe.
However Laseen is not without allies or troops still loyal to the empire and in the heart of the territories under revolt one group is determined to do anything they can to save not only the empire but their own lives as well. Deep within the caverns that run underneath the city of Heng, a city that the rebels must sack if they hope of advancing on the Empire itself, lurks an ancient evil that if released will wreck ruin upon any that it comes in contact with. Releasing it will destroy the rebel forces, but it will also set loose an evil that will continue to attack humans long after the war is over. What lengths would you go to in order to preserve your own life?
What makes Esslemont's story work so well is that he takes these huge sweeping events and has them seen through the eyes of individuals in the field. Some of them are leaders, but others are like Kyle, a lowly conscript in The Crimson Guard, who circumstances thrust into the centre of events whether they want it or not. Kyle stumbles onto the fact that there is a rot within the guard, and he is forced to flee for his life. We spend a good portion of the book with Kyle on his travels to find the founder of the Guard in the hopes that he will be able to stop whatever plans have been fermented by those who are intent on corrupting its original purpose.
It's through characters like Kyle, the people he meets up with, and others in various camps with the different armies, that Esslemont is able to paint a picture of what life in the heart of Malazan Empire is like. While Erikson's books have mainly dealt with events occurring in the furthest reaches of the conquered territories, Esslemont takes us into the corridors of power and behind the scenes to expose some of the secrets in its heart and even more of the corruption that has been festering in its veins.
Yet just as we are wondering why anybody would want to defend such corruption, we are back among the soldiers fighting for the empire, and find that they are no different from the ones they are defending their cities from. In fact, if anything, the Malazan soldiers are far easier to like than the ones they are defending against as they don't have any motives beyond survival and defending their homes.
Epic fiction is probably some of the hardest to write as you not only have to write a story that will hold your reader's attention but you have to create the world that the story takes place in. It's like creating an extra character who doesn't do or say anything, but without whom the story is pointless. Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson have done what I would have previously considered impossible, they have created a fictional epic that is on a par with those epics that were created to honour real people and real civilizations. After reading The Return Of The Crimson Guard it's hard to believe that you're reading about events that never actually happened or a society that didn't exist.
(Originally posted October 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.