Return of the Crimson Guard (Malazan Empire Series #2)

Return of the Crimson Guard (Malazan Empire Series #2)

by Ian C. Esslemont

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765363480
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Series: Malazan Empire Series , #2
Pages: 880
Sales rank: 112,274
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

IAN CAMERON ESSLEMONT grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has studied archaeology and creative writing, has traveled extensively in South-East Asia, and lived in Thailand and Japan for several years. He now lives in Alaska with his wife and children and is currently working on another novel set in the world of Malaz, a world he co-created with his friend Steven Erikson.

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Return of the Crimson Guard

A Novel of the Malazan Empire

By Ian C. Esslemont

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2008 Ian Cameron Esslemont
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1089-7


'The wise say that as vows are sworn, so are they reaped. I have found this to be true.'

Prince K'azz D'Avore Founder of the Crimson Guard

The Weeping Plains, Bael Subcontinent 1165th year of Burn's Sleep 11th year of Empress Laseen's reign 99th year of the Crimson Guard's Vow

On the edge of a tiled rooftop, a small tent heaved and swayed under the force of the battering wind. It was nothing more than an oilskin cape propped up by a stick, barely enough to keep off the worst of the pounding rain. Beneath it sat a youth squinting into the growing murk of storm and twilight. Occasionally he glimpsed the ruins of surrounding buildings wrecked by the siege and, if he looked hard enough, he could just make out high above the rearing silhouette of the Spur.

What, he wondered, was the point of having a watch if you couldn't see a damned thing?

The Spur towered alone, hundreds of feet above the plains. Local legend had it an ancient power raised it when the world was young – perhaps the warlock, Shen, occupying it now. Kyle knew nothing of that. He knew only that the Guard had besieged the rock more than a year ago and still wasn't anywhere near to taking it. What was more, he knew that from the fortress on its peak Shen could take on all the company's mage corps and leave them cross-eyed and panting. He was powerful enough for that. And when a situation like that comes around, Stoop had told him, it's time for us pike-pushers to stick our noses in.

Stoop – a saboteur, and old enough to know better. He was down in the cellar right now, wielding a pick in his one hand. And he wasn't alone – with him worked the rest of the Ninth Blade alongside a few other men tapped by Sergeant Trench. All of them bashing away at the stone floor with hammers and sledges and picks.

The wind gusted rain into Kyle's face and he shivered. To his mind the stupid thing was that they hadn't told anyone about it. Don't want anyone stealing our thunder, Stoop had said grinning like a fool. But then, they'd all grinned like fools when Stalker put the plan to Trench. They trusted his local knowledge being from this side of Seeker's Deep, like Kyle himself. Stalker had been recruited a few years back during the Guard's migration through this region. He knew the local dialects, and was familiar with local lore. That was to be expected from a scout, Kyle knew.

The Guard had bought him from a Nabrajan slave column to help guide them across the steppes. But he didn't know these southern tongues. His people raided the Nabrajans more often than they talked to them.

Kyle pulled the front fold of the cloak tighter about himself. He wished he understood the Guard's native tongue, Talian, better too. When Stoop, Trench and Stalker had sat with their heads together, he'd crept close enough to overhear their whispers. Their dialect was difficult to make out, though. He'd had to turn the words over and over before they began to make sense. It seemed Stalker had put together different legends: that of the ancient Ascendant who'd supposedly raised the Spur and started a golden age, and this current 'Reign of Night' with its ruins. Since then he and the others had been underground taking apart the walls and stone floor, Stoop no doubt muttering about his damned stolen thunder. Kyle whispered a short prayer to Father Wind, his people's guiding spirit. If this worked he figured they were in for more thunder than they'd like.

Then there was the matter of these 'Old Guard' rivalries and jealousies. He couldn't understand the first of it even though he'd been with the Guard for almost a year now. Guard lore had it his Ninth Blade was one of the storied, established a century before, and first commanded by a legendary figure named Skinner. Stoop put a lot of weight on such legends. He'd hopped from foot to foot in his eagerness to put one over the Guard's mage corps and its covert Veils.

The rain fell hard now, laced by hail. Above, the clouds in the darkening sky tumbled and roiled, but something caught Kyle's eye – movement. Dim shapes ducked through the ceiling of clouds. Winged fiends summoned by Shen on the Spur above. Lightning twisted actinic-bright about them, but they circled in a lazy descent. Kyle peered up as they glided overhead, wings extended and eyes blazing. He prayed to Wind for them to pass on.

Then, as if some invisible blade had eviscerated it, the leading creature burst open from chin to groin. It dissolved into a cloud of inky smoke and its companions shrieked their alarm. As one they bent their wings and turned towards the source of the attack. Kyle muttered another prayer, this one of thanks. Cowl must be on the roster tonight – only the company's premier mage could have launched so strong an assault.

Despite the battle overhead, Kyle yawned and stretched. His wet clothes stuck to his skin and made him shiver. A year ago such a demonstration would have sent him scrambling for cover. It was the worst of his people's stories come to life: fiends in the night, men wielding the powers of a shaman but turned to evil, warlocks. Then, he had cringed beneath broken roofs. Now, after so many months of sorcerous duelling the horror of these exchanges had completely worn away. For half a bell the fireworks kept up – fireworks – something else Kyle hadn't encountered until his conscription into the Guard. Now, as though it was there for his entertainment, he watched a green and pink nimbus wavering atop a building in the merchants' district. The fiends swooped over it, their calls harsh, almost taunting, as they attacked. One by one they disappeared – destroyed, banished or returned of their own accord to the dark sky. Then there was nothing but the hissing rain and the constant low grumble of thunder that made Kyle drowsy.

Footsteps from the tower at the corner of the roof brought him around. Stalker had come up the stairs. His conical helmet made him look taller, elegant even, with the braided silk cord that wrapped it. No cloak this night – instead he wore the Guard's surcoat of dark crimson over a boiled and studded leather hauberk, and his usual knee-high leather moccasins. The man squinted then sniffed at the rain. Beneath his blond moustache his mouth twisted into a lazy half-smile. Stalker's smiles always made Kyle uneasy. Perhaps it was because the man's mouth seemed unaccustomed to them, and his bright hazel eyes never shared them.

'All right,' he announced from the shelter of the stairwell. 'We're set. Everyone's downstairs.'

Kyle let the tented cape fall off his head and clambered over the roof's broken tiles and dark gaps. Stalker had already started down the circular stairway, so Kyle followed. They were halfway down before it occurred to him that when Stalker had smiled, he'd been squinting up at the Spur.

The cellar beneath was no more than a vault-roofed grotto. Armed and armoured men stood shoulder to shoulder. They numbered about thirty. Kyle recognized fewer than half. Steam rose from some, mixing with the sooty smoke of torches and lanterns. The haze made Kyle's eyes water. He rubbed them with the back of his hand and gave a deep cough.

A hole had been smashed through the smoothly set blocks of the floor and through it Kyle saw steps leading down. A drop ran coldly from his hair down his neck and he shivered. Everyone seemed to be waiting. He shifted his wet feet and coughed into his hand. Close by a massive broad-shouldered man was speaking in low tones with Sergeant Trench. Now he turned Kyle's way. With a catch of breath, Kyle recognized the flattened nose, the heavy mouth, the deeply set grey-blue eyes. Lieutenant Greymane. Not one of the true elite of the Guard himself, but the nearest thing to it. The man waved a gauntleted hand to the pit and a spidery fellow in coarse brown robes with wild, kinky black hair led the way down. Smoky, that was his name, Kyle remembered. A mage, an original Avowed – one of the surviving twenty or so men and women in this company who had sworn the Vow of eternal loyalty to the founder of this mercenary company, K'azz D'Avore.

The men filed down. Greymane stepped in followed by Sergeant Trench, Stoop, Meek, Harman, Grere, Pilgrim, Whitey, Ambrose and others Kyle didn't know. He was about to join the line when Stalker touched his arm.

'You and I – we're the rear guard.'


Of course, Kyle reflected, as the Ninth's scouts, the rear was where they ought to be given what lay ahead. They'd been watching the fireworks for too long now and seen the full mage corps of the company scrambling on the defensive. Kyle was happy to leave that confrontation to the heavies up front.

The stairs ended at a long corridor flooded with a foot of stagnant water. Rivulets squirmed down the worked-stone walls. Rats squealed and panicked in the water, and the men cursed and kicked at them. From what Kyle could tell in the gloom, the corridor appeared to be leading them straight to the Spur. He imagined the file of dark figures an assembly of ghosts – phantoms sloshing wearily to a rendezvous with fate.

His thoughts turned to his own youthful night raids. Brothers, sisters and friends banding together against the neighbouring clan's young warriors. Prize-stealing mostly, a test of adulthood, and, he could admit now, there had been little else to do. The Nabrajans had always been encroaching upon his people's lands. Settlements no more than collections of homesteads, but growing. His last raid ended when he and his brothers and sisters encountered something they had no words for: a garrison.

The column stopped abruptly and Kyle ran into the compact, bald-headed man at his front. This man turned and flashed a quick smile. His teeth were uneven but bright in the dark. 'Ogilvy's the name.' His voice was so hoarse as to be almost inaudible. 'The Thirty-Second.'

'Kyle. The Ninth.'

Ogilvy nodded, glanced to Stalker, nodded again. 'We'll have the spook this time. Ol' Grey's gonna get Cowl's goat.'

Cowl. Besides being the company's most feared mage, the Avowed was also second in command under Shimmer and the leader of the Veils, killers of a hardened kind Kyle couldn't have imagined a year before. He had seen those two commanders only from a distance and hoped to keep it that way.

Stalker frowned his scepticism. 'This Greymane better be as good as everyone says.'

Ogilvy chuckled and his eyes lit with a hidden joke. 'A price on his head offered by the Korelans and the Malazans too. Renegade to both, he is. They call him Stonewielder. I hear he's worth a barrelful of black pearls.'

'Why?' Kyle asked.

Ogilvy shrugged his beefy shoulders. 'Betrayed 'em both, didn't he? Hope to find out exactly how one of these days, hey?' He winked to Kyle. 'You two are locals, ain't ya?'

Kyle nodded. Stalker didn't. He didn't move at all.

Ogilvy rubbed a hand over the scars marbling his bald scalp. 'Well, I've been with the Guard some ten years now. Signed on in Genabackis.'

Kyle had heard much of that contract. It was the company's last major one, ending years ago when the Malazan offensive fell to pieces. All the old hands grumbled that the Malazan Empire just wasn't what it used to be. And while the veterans were close- mouthed about their and the Guard's past, Kyle gathered they often opposed these Malazans.

'This contract's been a damned strange one,' Ogilvy continued. 'We're just keeping our heads down, hey? While the mage corps practise blowing smoke outta their arses. Not the Guard's style.' He glanced significantly at them. 'Been recruiting to bust a gut, too.'

The column started moving again and Ogilvy sloshed noisily away.

'What was that about?' Kyle asked Stalker as they walked.

'I don't know. This Ogilvy has been with the Guard for a decade and even he's in the dark. I've been doing a lot of listening. This company seems divided against itself – the old against the new.'

The tall lean scout clasped Kyle's arm in a grip sharp as the bite of a hound. They stopped, and the silence seemed to ring in Kyle's ears. 'But I'll tell you this,' he said, leaning close, the shadows swallowing his face, 'there are those in this Crimson Guard who have wandered the land a very long time indeed. They have amassed power and knowledge. And I don't believe they intend to let it go. It's an old story – one I had hoped to have left behind.'

He released Kyle's arm and walked on leaving him alone in the dark and silence of the tunnel. Kyle stood there wondering what to make of all that until the rats became bold and tried to climb his legs.

He found Stalker at a twisted iron gate that must have once spanned the corridor. He was bent low, inspecting it, a tiny nub of candle cupped in one hand.

'What is it?' Kyle whispered.

'A wreck. But more important than what is when. This is recent. The iron is still warm from its mangling. Did you hear anything?'

'I thought maybe something ... earlier.'

'Yes. As did I.' He squinted ahead to a dim golden lantern's glow where the column's rear was slowly disappearing. He squeezed a small leather pouch at his neck and rubbed it. A habit Kyle had noticed before. 'I have heard talk of this Greymane. They say he's much more than he seems ...'

Kyle studied the wrenched and bowed frame. The bars were fully half as thick around as his wrist. Was the northerner suggesting that somehow Greymane had thrust it aside? He snorted. Ridiculous!

Stalker's eyes, glowing hazel in the flame, shifted to him. 'Don't be so quick to judge. I've fought many things and seen a lot I still do not believe.'

Kyle wanted to ask about all these other battles but the man appeared troubled. He glanced to Kyle twice, his eyes touched by worry as if he regretted speaking his mind.

In the light of Stalker's candle Kyle could make out a short set of steps rising beyond the gate. It glittered darkly – black basalt, the rock of the Spur. The steps had been worn almost to bowls at their centre. He straightened; his hand seemed to find the grip of his tulwar on its own. Stalker shook out the candle and after a moment Kyle could discern the glow of lantern light ahead.

They met up with Ogilvy who gestured up and gave a whistle of awe. The tunnel opened to a circular chamber cut from the same rock as the steps. More black basalt, the very root-rock of the Spur. The dimensions of the chamber bothered Kyle until he realized it was the base of a hollow circular stairway. Torches flickered where the stairs began, rising to spiral tightly around the inside of the chamber's wall. Squinting up, he saw the column slowly ascending, two men abreast, Smoky and Greymane leading. He stepped out into the centre and looked straight up. Beyond the men, from high above, dark-blue light cascaded down along with a fine mist of rain. The moisture kissed his upturned face. A flash of lightning illuminated a tiny coin-sized disc at the very top of the hollowed-out column of rock. Dizzy and sickened, Kyle leant against one slick, cold wall. Far away the wind howled like a chained dog, punctuated by the occasional drum-roll of thunder.

Without a word, Stalker stepped to the stairs, a hand on the grip of his longsword. His leather moccasins were soundless against the rounded stone ledges. Ogilvy slapped Kyle on his back. 'C'mon, lad. Just a short hike before the night's done, hey?' and he chuckled.

After the twentieth full revolution of the stairs, Kyle studied curving symbols gouged unevenly into the wall at shoulder height. They were part of a running panel that climbed with the stairs. Portions of it showed through where the moss and cobwebs had been brushed aside. It seemed to tell a story but Kyle had never been taught his symbols. He recognized one only: the curling spiral of Wind. His people's totem.

After a time his legs became numb, his breath short. What would be there waiting for them? And more importantly, what did Smoky and Greymane plan to do about it? Just ahead, Ogilvy grunted and exhaled noisily through his flattened nose. The veteran maintained an even pace despite a full mail coif, shirt and skirting that hung rustling and hissing with each step. Kyle's armour, what cast-offs the guard could spare, chafed his neck raw and tore the flesh of his shoulders. His outfit consisted of an oversized hauberk of layered and lacquered horn and bone stripping over quilted undershirts, sleeves of soft leather sewn with steel rings – many of these missing – studded skirting over leather leggings, gloves backed with mail, and a naked iron helmet with a nose guard that was so oversized it nearly rested on his shoulders. Kyle had adjusted its fit by wrapping a rag underneath. The combined weight made the climb torture. Yet one morning a year ago when Stoop had dumped the pieces in his lap he had felt like the richest man in all Bael lands. Not even their tribe's war-leader could have boasted such a collection. Now he felt like the company's beggar fool.


Excerpted from Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont. Copyright © 2008 Ian Cameron Esslemont. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Book I: Diaspora's End,
Book II: The Eternal Return,
Book III: Fates and Chances,

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Return of the Crimson Guard (Malazan Empire Series #2) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, and I am a big fan of his style of writing. I've also read Night of Knives by Esslemont, and in that book, his style seemed not nearly as rich in environment or description. Return of the Crimson Guard is much closer to the Book of the Fallen style. The differences are subtle enough that if you didn't know who the author was, you might not realize they were different. An outstanding book and I eagerly await the next one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If your a fan on the series be sure to add this one to your reading list. I read Night of knives and was not too impressed, but the author has really developed his writing in this second book. Wonderful.
Kansas_KAG More than 1 year ago
I like the quicker style even thought the battle scenes lack the scope in depth richness that Erickson has but it makes up for it as the story keeps moving. The books are improving and I enjoyed it. I plan to continue buying the series he is adding to.
RyderN More than 1 year ago
If you are a fan of Steven Erikson the adventure continues with this second book from Ian Esslemont. I admit to being skeptical that two authors could co-exist within the same framework of the Malazan Empire. Happily they not only do, but complement each other! I've also read the Night of Knives from Esslemont and that was a good read and also come highly recommended. Can't wait for his third book!
WDBooks on LibraryThing 7 months ago
As many of you no doubt know, ICE and Steven Erikson "co-created" the Malazan world which SE has written several books set in.Now Erikson has a certain flair with his dialog and characters. ICE on the other hand hasn't come as far as an author. His people seem to be a bit cookie cutter and his dialog at times seems either nonsensical or forced.That being said, its still a read that anybody who enjoys SEs work really should read. It ties up some loose ends and helps increase the view of what all is going on in the world. For whatever it lacks in quality ICE sure makes up in quantity, its a fairly thick read, chock full of action and characters new and old and not only that, but it "feels" right.The last 1/4 of the story was (imo) the best part. ICE seemed to pull things together well, the action was, though not the best, solidly in the top levels.I very much feel this book is worthy of being the the Malazan world and is a solid addition to the series.
lewispike on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book feels a bit off. The nearest way I can think of to describe it is that it's like meeting the nearly similar sister of a lover. Your lover is gorgeous (of course), and this person is clearly closely related and similar, but the sum of those parts just doesn't work, and this sister is plain.Steven Erikson writes the "gorgeous sister/lover" books that mess with your head, twist your expectations and yet deliver wonderful stories in an incredibly attractive fashion. Ian Esslemont's first, short book, was a great addition to the mix. This book, however, is the plain sister...Structurally this book has lots of threads that eventually mesh together to give a final, massive climax. But there are so many threads that it is, at times, an effort to turn the page and wait to see where we're jumping off to next. The climax, rather than coming together like a beautifully crafted tapestry, comes together like a knot in long hair.This gets three stars because despite these faults there are some excellent parts, without those parts it could be a 2 or even 1 star read.And, really, there should be two massive conclusions to round this book off. One passes with barely a mention. No, that's not true, it is mentioned over several pages, but it has the impact of a balloon popping in a howling gale - next to none. The other climax doesn't really come, but dribbles off in bits, some here, some there.A totally unexpected climax arrives and is dealt with. Sadly, because of the fact it comes out of nowhere, it feels like an extra, it helps tangle the knot in the hair rather than smoothing the threads into a tapestry and it steals the impact from the conclusion that was there.I will doubtless read the next one too, but with much lower expectations than I approached this one.
saltmanz on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Gotta say I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would. Another solid entry in the history of the Malazan world, and (in my opinion) loads better than Night of Knives. I didn't have the issues with characterizations that a lot of other people apparently did, and found most of the plot threads quite enjoyable. Still, the book has its issues: Individual plots (or entire prologues) that didn't seem to relate to the rest of the book, and sections (like in NoK) that were far too vague, even if intentionally so. It appears that some of these threads will continue through subsequent books, which, though acceptable, is slightly disappointing, as I was hoping these entries would be mostly "one-shots" like NoK. Still, I'm continually amazed at the creativity and coordination between Erikson and Esslemont in fashioning and presenting this completely made-up world.
trinibaby9 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Rarely have I been so disappointed with a book. This was a complete let down of the Malazan series on a whole. Esselmont's level of writing is nowhere near that of his co-creator of the Malazan word. This was very poorly written. It was a jumble of characters, very little plot development, and lacked direction. At times is was a struggle to continue reading it. Many of the old guard characters, who've been built up and alluded to by Erickson made brief appearances not really worthy of the fame they have inspired. Unfortunately many of them were killed off as well, making it seem like a complete mis-use of the characters themselves. I felt this was horribly mishandled, not sure if this is a product of bad editing or just the author himself. It could have had half the characters and half the storylines but been a much better book. Esselmont has managed to cram a ton of storylines and characters into one book, yet taken it nowhere, and leaves the reader confused. Tons of questions after reading this book and not in a positive way. If this had been the first Malazan book I'd read, it would easily have out me off of reading any others. Hoping for more from his next release.
Emily1 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The tone and writing style of this book is very different from Night of Knives, much closer to Erikson's style. It is as if some extensive overwriting took place. The way in which it was structured also closely resembled Toll the Hounds, with the point of view (POV) jumping between characters on average every three pages. So much for continuity. . .There is alot about this book that bothered me. It is very difficult to explain exactly what without giving spoilers, but I'll try my best.First, it lacked authenticity. Although I know that Esslemont is the co-creator of the Malazan concept, he (obviously) did not write the other Malazan books. Erikson did. So while they might have shared the same concept, Erikson's portrayal and understanding of the world is different from that of Esslemont. The result is that Esslemont feels like an intruder into Erikson's realm, and one who did not do sufficient research at that. One example is that Esslement seems to have a much more elemental take on the magic system than Erikson (Mother Earth?! What happened to Burn?)Which lead me to my second issue: Discrepancies. Esslemont made no attempt to reconcile his book with events that took place in Erikson's books. It is as if he did not even bother to read them except for a cursory glance. This despite the fact that he high-jacked Erikson's characters left, right and centre. K'azz and members of the Sixth Blade are prime examples of this. What we know of them from Gardens of the Moon and what Esslemont says in this book, is not the same. Discrepancies also occur with Kallor and Traveller, the nature of the Crimson Guard, Assail, Osserc, ... the list goes on, I won't bore you with the full extend thereof. It is also unclear from the book whether it predates events from Toll the Hounds or comes after. There are problems with either interpretation.Thirdly, the characters seemed flat, without any distinctive personality. A lot of veterans seemed like exactly the same personality, just with different names. Only Nait seemed to develop a personality in the second half of the book. The fact that the POV jumped around so much also destroyed any possibility of one caring what happened to the characters much, as you are to busy struggling to keep track of who is who. The book is no page-turner. Halfway through, I was wondering why I bothered to read it. It does pick up somewhat towards the end, though.Fourth, there was a lot of build-up of certain story lines, making them feel central to the main story, only to see them unravel into insignificance before the end of the book.In summary, I don't mind that Esslemont writes about the Malazan Empire. I had no problem with Night of Knives, for example. As long as events predate or postdate events in Erikson's books. Or happens somewhere else between Esslemont's own characters. But Esslemont should stay off Erikson's turf and not try to write concurrent with Erikson and try and tie in with his stories and characters. Leave that to Erikson. He does a better job of it.
macha on LibraryThing 8 months ago
in his second contribution to the Malazan Empire series, Esslemont writes with a much surer hand. this one is set in the same period as Erikson's Book of the Fallen.
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