I realize some of those are moot with the inclusion of the others...but I was a kid. :)
This world is filled with the knarliest people doing the craziest things and I love it. Everyone (main characters that is) is either the best at what they do or completely insane or both.
Even more impressive is Esslemont's ability to capture the feel, almost 100%, that Erikson has created in the main line of the series. I say almost because most notably the humor element is missing. Not to say that the typical cynically dark humor isn't present, it just didn't have me laughing out loud and quoting scenes to everyone in my direct vicinity.
Make sure to read up to The Bonehunters before embarking on Return - there will be spoilers of anything up to this point.
In Return of the Crimson Guard, the continent of Quon Tali is in political upheaval and the timing couldn't be worse. Empress Laseen's grip on the Malazan empire is crumbling (or is it?) and she's lost the majority of her Claw assassins, not to mention members of the "Old Guard" are doing all they can to upset the already tenuous grip she has on her rule while leading the "Talians"against her...
Oh, and the Crimson Guard, the elite band of mercenaries who've vowed to see the destruction of the Malazan empire, have decided to make this the time for their return.
Centering in Quon Tali, the majority of the action takes place in Li Heng, Unta, Cawl, and some plains areas. There are, however, plenty of other places visited (even some continents for the first time), these are just some of the focal points. We especially get some good history on Li Heng and it's relation to Ryllandaras. "Heng", as it's often referred to, is a city that's mentioned here and there, but never really a focus until now.
This book is filled with great information and incites on the world that Erikson and Esslemont co-created and that's one of the things that make Esslemont's series so worthwhile. As of this point we've only gotten a few glimpses of the capabilities of the Avowed, those who made the original vow against the Malazan empire,who play a critical role as leaders of the Crimson Guard.
Among the Crimson Guard, we follow a young and newly initiated Kyle (not of the Avowed), who doesn't really know his place in the Crimson Guard. As you can tell, he's the perfect character to let us in on some of the workings of this mercenary company, but he's got a few tricks up his sleeve as well.
Along with following members of the Crimson Guard, we're introduced to Traveller and Ereko - a couple of wanderers somewhat reminiscent of Mappo and Icarium. Their purpose is mysterious, they are awesomely powerful, and they have quite the history.
While I mentioned that Esslemont catches the feel of the Malazan world, he also has the tendency in this volume to match the meandering found most notably in later volumes of Erikson's series. It was by no means a deal breaker, but it does make the middle of the book a little slower to get through.
The ending, like all books in the Malazan universe, blew my mind and made everything well worth it, not that there really was any part you have to suffer through.
Minor spoiler alert although if you're still on the cusp of reading this and want a little more push you should read this: The Segulah, quite possibly my favorite part of Memories of Ice(among many favorite parts), make a few appearances and continue to be awesome.
I fully admit that I didn't even get close to covering all that happens in RotCG. This book is massive, epic, filled with action, and everything we've come to expect when we hear the name "Malazan".
When Should You Read Return of the Crimson Guard?
This question actually fits quite well with this book because I thought Return of the Crimson Guard would have worked a bit better being read just after The Bonehunters (Book 6 inMBotF). Events in The Bonehunters are referred to a number of times and I have to admit it's a bit rusty in my mind after having read the 1200 page Reaper's Gale.
Also, I've heard that's it's important to read Return of the Crimson Guard before Toll the Hounds so as not to spoil certain things found in Return. I'll let you know for sure once I finishToll.
And a warning - do not look at the Deck of Dragons listings (found after the glossary at the end of the book) until you've finished the book. I made this mistake and it spoiled some things for me.
4.5 out of 5 Stars
Also from Ian C. Esslemont in the Malazan Empire:
Forthcoming: Stoneweilder - Read the Prologue here