Ian C. Esslemont’s fourth novel in the Malazan world is titled Orb Sceptre Throne referencing the three central artifacts of power in the plot of the book. This novel finds itself on better footing than its predecessor, Stonewielder, almost from the first page. The book is helped by the geographic density of the plot. Where Stonewielder sprawled a continent, Orb Sceptre Throne finds itself largely located within the confines of the city of Darujhistan.
The addition of the Malazan deserters including Blend, Picker, Antsy and Spindle makes for a familiar set of faces and relationships. Esslemont handles the characters deftly and, as former Bridgeburners, they provide equal parts comic relief and brutal efficacy throughout the novel. It was fortuitous or prescient that Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon centered on the Bridgeburners as they have been the most consistent performers throughout the series. Nuanced and varied, even when they diverge, they consistently become the most interesting characters in the novel.
The setting of Darujhistan also re-introduces the local personalities ranging from the powerful magic users Baruk and Vorcan to the hilariously absurd, Kruppe. This is the novels biggest weakness as Esslemont badly mishandles these characters. They are immediately co-opted or neutralized by the encroaching evil that provides the main back drop for the book. Formerly strong characters, they serve only as vehicles of intent. It’s a waste of characters that required no introduction or background information from Esslemont.
Ironically, Esslemont does well with the introduction of Orchid, a part Titse Andii child. The presence of latent magic users riddled throughout the landscape of Malazan never fails to offer a surprise. Despite this, Orchid’s journey from tentative young woman to assertive and powerful mage is no surprise and yet compelling nonetheless. What makes her narrative thread interesting is the shifting power structure within her group as she grows to her fullest. Esslemont can be heavy handed in his explanation of this — more than once, one character feels compelled to offer expository about her nascent power — but the shifting relationships offer a constantly changing dynamic to that portion of the novel.
While the Andii make a late appearance in the novel, the Moranth and the Seguleh encompass a large focus point for the book. It’s also one of the most uneven narratives of the book. The Moranth exit the novel almost exactly as opaque as they enter. Their motives and the nature of the culture only partly revealed and mostly in unsatisfying ways. Meanwhile, the Seguleh get significant expository time with an in depth dive to their hierarchy and societal structure. It makes for a fascinating look into what had only previously been hinted at in Erikson novels.
The Seguleh as actors have little agency, however. They suffer the same trappings of the Darujhistan natives and are caught within a mode of operation that they themselves question while blindly following it. This is one of the few novels with what feels like an unwavering evil opponent. There’s little curiosity beyond domination and nothing in the way of a gray area for motives. This wouldn’t be notable but for the fact that Malazan novels rarely feature such transparent characters. On a while, the resident bad guy feels remarkably bungled and simplistic.
There’s a host of subplots throughout the book — again, this is a Malazan novel — and portions of it are frustratingly difficult to parse. Orb Sceptre Throne is a clear step up from the rather lackluster effort of Stonewielder but not as strong as Esslemont’s first novel Return of the Crimson Guard.
After finishing the novel, I was struck by what seems to be such a unique application of magic throughout the Malazan books that both Erikson and Esslemont have written. The presence of magic and magic users is pretty mundane. They range from parlor tricks to some of the most powerful individuals in the entirety of the book. What feels so unique to the presence of magic is the constant personification of magic. The warrens are part of the god K’rul. Each warren has it’s own nature which is often reflected through the nature of it’s titular ruler.
And yet, it is used rather sparingly. Rarely is there a pitched battle of magic users certainly none so apparent as in Gardens of the Moon. Magic is always there — always present — but it remains a complement to the deep character profiles that Erikson and Esslemont craft in contrast to other writers where the magic system is an end unto itself for the book. It’s another example of Malazan being a narrative craft that remains a step above other novels.
Rating: 4 out of 5