The story of how Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont came up with the world that their Malazan books inhabit is fascinating enough that I am going to repeat it here, perhaps with a little bit of jealousy. Erikson and Esslemont were pen-and-paper role game players, and they created the entire background of their novels—one of the most complex and deep worlds I have experienced in speculative fiction—as a locale for their games. My jealousy arises from either the desire to have played in that kind of world when I did play tabletop RPGs, from wanting a game master as brilliant as that when I played (although I did have some darned fine GMs), or perhaps from wanting to have taken the seeds of ideas for game locales and coming up with something as massive and brilliant as Malazan.
It must be daunting to write a new entry in a milieu that has been so well established. Esslemont has the advantage of having been a creator of that world and so has a better grasp on it than just any ol' writer. Yet the Malazan books have become a tremendous international success, thus increasing the weight of expectation for anything set in that world.
Fortunately, Esslemont's first book is successful on a number of levels. Like Erikson's books before, the characterization in Night of Knives is particularly strong. The plot is primarily carried by just two characters, a roguish young woman named Kiska and a veteran warrior named Temper, and the point of view shifts back and forth between the two of them with a very few exceptions. With their perspective, the reader witnesses the arrival of strangers to Malaz and hears the rumors of the mystical Shadow Moon, a night when the boundaries between the natural and supernatural are their thinnest. Both Kiska and Temper are compelled by a sense of something beyond themselves; Kiska wants to leave the backwater town she has grown up in and figures the best method is to show off her rogue skills: stealth and espionage. Temper, on the other hand, has long served in the military and his suspicions are raised when he recognizes some of the visitors to Malaz and, while investigating, promises to perform a service in order that friends are permitted to survive. Their paths cross once or twice through the night with some comic effect, but mostly their stories are their own. Kiska is continually pointed forward, trying to make a better future for herself no matter the cost, and she trips over events and other people continuously on this magical night. Temper is clearly more important than his appearance would indicate, and the plot provides flashbacks in order that we can know him and his life better. But neither of them have any idea what is going on around them as factions and magics collide in the dark.
As a result, the reader doesn't know either. If the reader is familiar with the earlier Malazan books, they may recognize this night as the foundation point upon all of the stories are based. If the reader doesn't know the earlier novels, there is no indication within the story itself how important this night is, and the motivations for what happens are not apparent at all (in fact, the only explanation comes from the blurbs on the book's covers and in the introduction by Erikson). This creates an implied dichotomy that reflects the two main characters in Night of Knives: some readers are like Kiska, intent on getting through the night but not understanding all of the struggle going on around them, and others are like Temper, with a history that helps explain what is happening while leaving some questions unanswered. In either case the storytelling is powerful, with powerful action scenes and thoughtful character development, and more than a hint of the supernatural.
The final product feels in many ways like an extrapolation of the great weird pulp tales of writers like C. L. Moore. Those pulp stories often make the reader feel minute in a titanic struggle which can only be partially grasped due to an implied ignorance and weakness. While the human point-of-view character struggles to survive the supernatural circumstances in which he or she finds herself in, the narration keeps the plot moving from conflict to conflict, with little time for thought on the part of protagonist. And the reader is carried along pell-mell as well, perhaps coming up for air long enough to ask themselves what the conflict is about or how these things can happen, but without the story ever delivering an answer. Ultimately, the protagonist survives, often through some sort of mystical intervention rather than any effort on their own part, or if their own effort saves them, the protagonist again rarely knows how their actions worked.
Night of Knives works in this same way, but instead of being restricted to a short story or novelette, Esslemont works in the space of a novel, giving him the room to develop Kiska and Temper beyond the often flat characters in the great weird pulp stories. Even the side characters have some development, further enriching the earthly activities in the novel. But even the reader most familiar with the Malazan books would have difficulty identifying all the factions in play across the island, and Esslemont compounds this difficulty by introducing entirely new characters and factions and by moving some of the action into worlds strictly composed of magic. For example, in one of the few scenes not involving Kiska and Temper, puissant magic-users (not magicians…sorcerers? Wizards? Practitioners of the magic arts? We're never really given a name for them) argue amongst themselves as they defend Malaz from some sort of invasion from sea-based wand-wielding cold creatures. Esslemont's writing conveys the danger and necessity of the scene, but we have no idea who these creatures are or their plan, just that they must be withstood. It's also not clear what their relationship to the rest of the events of the book are, only that they must be fought back—one of the most powerful scenes in the book is the failure of just such an attempt. So the scene is compelling, but we are given no indication of its effect on the rest of the story.
The result is a book that will infuriate some readers while delighting others. For myself, having some knowledge of the events in the Malazan stories until now, I found that it really didn't matter other than the occasional recognition of a name. When the story is over, we still never really see the specific events that make this night important to the series. But the story-telling is compelling and I enjoyed it, especially given my recent readings in the pulps. But I can imagine someone not familiar with the pulp tradition, or having no knowledge of Malazan, would be extremely frustrated by the book if they were not carried away by the story itself. Perhaps their ire would be saved until the action is finished when, upon reflection, they realize that they really don't know what happened beyond the survival of the protagonists. But, if the reader can set aside the bigger issue of knowing how it all fits together, Night of Knives is a powerful read, made up of elements of what makes for good story-telling.