Orb Sceptre Throne is the fourth novel by Canadian archaeologist and writer Ian C. Esslemont. It is set in the world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a setting co-created by Esslemont and fellow Canadian Steven Erikson as a backdrop for role-playing games. Orb Sceptre Throne takes place in the city of Darujhistan after the events of The Malazan Book of the Fallen have concluded.
The world that keeps on giving
Say what you will about other fantasy epics; Erikson and Esslemont have done more with their world than any other series I can name. Esslemont is doing a marvelous job filling in the gaps in and around the events of Erikson’s 10-book epic. With each new volume, we learn more and more about this huge world (larger than Earth, in fact, if the various cartographers are to be trusted) and the incredible depth of its characters, societies, and peoples.
While several of Esslemont’s previous forays into the world of Malaz served as back story and “meanwhile over here” narrative, Orb Sceptre Throne takes events forward, and we see a return of some of the series’ most engaging and fascinating characters: The Warlord Caladan Brood, High Mage Tayschrenn, and everybody’s favorite Malazan marines, the Bridgeburners—or, at least, what is left of them. As usual, the characters find themselves embroiled in events of both small and world-sweeping import. Esslemont has no problems at all keeping up with the high bar Erikson set for phenomenal characterization and dialogue, which continue to set this world apart from so many others.
Many irons in the fire
One thing in Orb Sceptre Throne that might be taken as either a strength or a weakness, depending on your personal preference, is just how many different narratives are going on. I can count at least seven different story lines I’d consider distinct from one another in this book, which is only 600 pages in trade paperback. This can give the book a bit of a disjointed feel, like you’re skipping all over and never really settling into one story long enough to get invested. For people who have trouble keeping a lot of small details clear when they are being thrown at you quickly, that could really put you off this book and potentially the series as a whole.
Conversely, I, personally, really appreciate this writing technique because I feel it enables Esslemont to build to cliffhangers and climaxes way more often than is typical in a book. This gives it more of a serial feel that actually kept me reading more and longer, because I kept wondering what was going to happen next. Add in the way he tends to subtly interweave the stories as they approach their conclusion, and it reads more like a Guy Ritchie movie than anything else.
My new favorite fantasy culture
Orb Sceptre Throne also spends a lot more time focusing on a people that are comparatively minor characters in the rest of the series: The Seguleh, a warrior people with an incredibly rigid societal structure. All members of Seguleh society that go armed have “taken up the sword” and are part of a ranking system that imposes a strict hierarchy upon them. Each Seguleh warrior will submit to the orders of any higher ranked, unless they wish to challenge that person for their rank. Battles of rank are almost never lethal, as their skill is so high that it is obvious almost immediately who is the superior warrior. The Seguleh warriors also wear masks displaying their rank, which become more simple and unmarked as they rise in authority. They are referred to by rank rather than name, so the fifth ranked Seguleh is named “The Fifth” or “Fifth.”
This kind of culture fascinates me, as does their portrayal as being almost legendarily skilled. Several characters who know very well what they are doing in a fight consider the possibility of an army of Seguleh to be absolutely terrifying. Fearless veterans come across the Third of the Seguleh and basically crap their pants. Readers of The Malazan Book of the Fallen may recall that Anomander Rake, the Son of Darkness, who is one of the most legendary and skilled warriors in the world, found himself ranked as only Seventh among these people.
It was so great to finally see a book that featured them more heavily, and this contributed quite a lot to my enjoyment and the accompanying high rating I’ve assigned this book. If, by some magical confluence of events, Steven Erikson or Ian Esslemont ever see this review: give us a whole book about the Seguleh!
Why should you read this book?
There really isn’t much NOT to like in this book. The characters are fantastic, the story is fantastic, the world is beyond fantastic. You might find it a little confusing if this is your first book in the world of Malaz, though. It could be read as a stand-alone but would contain some pretty heavy spoilers for the parts of The Malazan Book of the Fallen that take place in the same part of the world.
For a continuation to a truly epic fantasy series, it lives up absolutely to the others, and is worth a read for anybody who wants to fall into a world and not ever want to come back.