This is Version 1.0 of this essay and I’m posting it here as something of a placeholder until I revisit it. I plan to add some more specific examples as well as shoot a video on this subject and hope to release both in the near future.
Contains spoilers for “Night of Knives” with some general observations drawn from the other books by Esslemont and Erikson.
Temper is, at least to me, one of the most enjoyable and frustrating characters in Night of Knives written by Ian Cameron Esslemont (hereafter referred to as ICE). To say that there are many characters across all the Malazan novels – in ICE’s books as well as those written by Steven Erikson – whose POV chapters are enjoyable is an understatement. And there are just as many, if not more, chapters that inspire such a level of frustration as to miraculously render books airborne. However, the chapters from the POV of Temper – perhaps true to his name – combine the best of both these POV experiences. Moreover, Temper and the way ICE conveys him to the reader provides an interesting counterpoint to similar characters in the Malazan world. In this essay1, I hope to share my experiences and observations that have led me to think this way, and, by the end, I hope that I have also caused you to at least doubt my perspective enough to draw your own conclusions.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and I’m beginning to wonder whether I know what I am talking about as I look at the preceding paragraph. So let me take a moment to examine some of the terms that I have used too casually above and set down what I mean by them and why I think they’re important. I have to apologize up front that while I am a longtime reader of many different kinds of books, I don’t know much of anything about the craft of writing fiction and really have no real formal education in the craft of reading fiction. As a result of this ignorance, I’m going to spend too much time trying to describe concepts that a more educated person could succinctly convey with established terms of art. To make it up to you, I promise to be careful about not throwing around too many words that I don’t feel confident using. To put it another way and by way of a different example, I guarantee that this sentence is the only time that I will say “post-modernism” and feel comfortable knowing that I have used the word appropriately.
I’ve thrown the acronym POV around a lot and have ascribed to it some weight – it’s after all in the title of this essay – but I think it’s better to switch to the word perspective and save discussions for whether the two are truly interchangeable for another day and hopefully a better-equipped essayist. For now, it’s enough that sometimes POV may be rephrased as being from someone’s perspective, and – to me, at least – perspective has two meanings – and likely many more, but let’s not get greedy. The first kind of perspective is the simpler of the two. It is to look through or see from a viewpoint, generally, of a character. To share someone’s perspective could just be a matter of crouching or standing on tiptoes until your eyes are in the same position as their own.
There’s more to perspective than just the physical senses. Going back to our abandoned Temper who is of course the actual subject of this essay, his chapters are not just descriptions of what he or someone similarly situated could have detected with similar sensory organs. They’re full of his emotions, thoughts, doubts, memories, and more. Some part of the person is included in this kind of perspective. One thing Erikson does well – and uses well for that matter – is to refrain from naming the POV character in the first few sentences so that we don’t know whose perspective we’re sharing. This is often frustrating but extremely rewarding when you figure it out on your own2.
I think I’m doing a poor job of it, but I hope I’ve managed to describe these two kinds of perspective with some degree of clarity. I’ve avoided fixing and sticking to labels for these perspectives but let’s do that now. To keep these simple, I’ll just use the literal meaning of introspection (Latin for – roughly – “to look inward”) to refer to that more personal and self-aware perspective and extrospection (roughy, “to look outward”) to refer to the more sensory one. Now how do they relate to one another? I have called them two kinds of perspectives but they are not mutually exclusive and could perhaps better be considered layers. Sometimes the extrospection is pushed back by introspection and vice versa. For example, when I am riding my bike on an empty trail, my thoughts and feelings begin to take over and I either daydream, wax nostalgic about 90’s fashion, or brood as I become less and less conscious of everything other than the path in front of me and my labored exertions. On the other hand, when a driver checking a text message pulls their SUV across my way and I have to brace and brake to survive, I probably couldn’t tell you my name if somehow asked at that moment in time. I observe the same (dare I say?) push and pull in all of the Malazan novels (and fiction, in general) and there is a certain ebb and flow as the sensory information wanes and the internal experience waxes.
There is one last aspect of perspective that should be mentioned – the events that are being viewed. This aspect needs the least explanation but is worth mentioning if only because of how it relates to the two types of perspectives. It’s the story, or maybe it’s better to say it’s the events and actions that move the plot forward. Generally, the sensory perspective observes the events as they happen, while the more personal perspective interprets, anticipates, or reflects upon the events. As I said above, a character can be described as both hearing the notes of music while also being reminded of the last time they heard the tune. And, of course, the environment and happenings around the POV character can cause one kind of perspective to supplant the other. In the real world, one need only recall daydreaming in the classroom or office to know this to be the case.
I have become bogged down in terminology and am likely reinventing the wheel here so let’s move on. In the United States, there is an expression that goes something like “to be a fly on the wall in that room.” We don’t actually want to be a fly. If Kafka and Jeff Goldblum have taught us anything, it’s that such transformations can just about ruin your whole day. We just want the flies’ vantage point and to escape the notice of those being so sensed, but of course this is impossible. We can no more experience an absolutely accurate and truly detached perspective outside of ourselves (or at all) than we can turn into an insect. There is no pure extrospection without introspective distortion and, even if there were, we would nonetheless be limited by sensory faculties of those whose perspective we briefly share. The vision of the fly above would be quite different from what we would see in its place and its attention would more likely be drawn food crumbs than gossip fuel.3 I bring this up to say that there are limitations to and even consequences of reading from someone else’s perspectives.
The majority of Night of Knives is told from the perspectives of Kiska, a streetwise yet naive Malaz youth looking to prove herself, and Temper (hey, remember Temper?), a battered and weary veteran with a mysterious past. These two points of view serve as foils to one another not only in terms of their characterization but also in how ICE uses their perspectives.
Kiska4 falls into the tried and true role of the naive and young perspective character who introduces us to the time and setting, their confidence in and ignorance of their limited experience feeding us just enough background in the setting that we don’t become overwhelmed while also giving the author excuses for exposition. While most writers – and especially good ones – find ways to make a character’s origins inform their actions in the present and hint at future successes or failures, we as hungry, hungry readers are only interested in learning more of the character’s present and, to a more limited extent, significant past experiences. Ultimately, we as readers don’t care overly much about the naive’s beginnings. At the end of the day, we care about where Paul Atreides, Rand al’Thor, and Bilbo Baggins are going and not so much the specifics of who they were and where they’re coming from. I wager that no one truly wants to be trapped in The Shire. Instead, these characters do a good job of minimally obstructing our view of the narrative while providing just enough familiarity with the setting that we don’t feel completely lost and too much time spent on their origin only distracts and burdens the readers. In general, Kiska is a better character for the purposes of relaying events to us with less analysis and editorializing. She is our eyes looking out into Malaz City and, when she remembers events, they are often recent events with readily apparent connections to the present. She is in a figurative sense wide-eyed in that her eyes are open to the sights around her. While Kiska does not always understand what she’s witnessing, her chapters do a good job of conveying what she sees and leaves it to us to recognize patterns and ascribe importance to her observations.
On the other hand, Temper is presented to the reader as a completely unknown character with an unknown but palpable backstory and, to the extent that he provides us with background information, is our glimpse into what the Empire was and how we’ve gotten to the events of that night. While the historic significance of the events of the titular Night of Knives, does not center around Temper, he nonetheless plays a critical role in the novel; and, whereas Kiska is sometimes more of a witness of great deeds, I’d argue that Temper is more responsible for driving the narrative forward through his actions. Nonetheless, Temper is the introspection to Kiska’s extrospection and as I mentioned above there are consequences to seeing events from particular perspectives.
A consequence of Temper’s introspection is that we often miss out on details that he… well… missed. He’s a very self-absorbed character, and I mean this in a very literal sense. You might say – well, it’s my essay so, in fact, I am saying – that people are like sponges and we soak up experiences when we’re immersed in them. Just like a sponge, we’re never quite the same after drying out because of the stains of past absorptions. (Sidebar – sponges are disgusting.) In Temper’s case, he’s almost saturated with experiences that keep him from absorbing more experiences and, to keep with sponge analogy, his past taints his present. I don’t mean so much that he is set in his ways or that proverbial old dog incapable of learning new tricks, but instead that he spends so much time lapsing into long recollections of past events, considering whether or not he should become involved in the night’s events, and just plain moralizing that one wonders how aware of his surroundings he possibly could be. Several times in Night of Knives, he falls into a particular memory or way of thinking from which he’s distracted by the actual events taking place around him. Sure, he’s a tempered veteran (sorry for that) and seems to detect danger and intrigue around him just fine, but we as readers generally don’t know what’s happening around him while he’s – for lack of a better phrase – stewing in his own juices.5 Being tied and mostly limited to his perspective, we don’t know what he doesn’t notice and, while this is the case for all POV characters, I hope I have given you some reason to begin to question his observations.
Erikson has mentioned several times in interviews that there are some characters who are too powerful or alien to be good candidates for a POV character. He often mentions the millenia-old and all-but-a-god Anomander Rake in this context. So instead of giving us Rake’s perspectives, Erikson gives us Rake through the perspective of someone else. We see him through Ganoes’s increasingly jaded yet overwhelmed eyes, through those of the worldly and learned Baruk, and the wide-eyed stare of Crokus. Through these differing perspectives, we see a portrait of the same subject from different angles and painted in different styles. While we are able to witness Rake, he remains for us always larger than life and fundamentally unknowable. In his essay “Anomander Rake and Point of View,” Erikson explains how he approached the character and how his first introduction as the unnamed Lord of Moonspawn communicates to you everything you need to know about the character: he is removed from everyone and everything else and terrifyingly powerful.6 Another consequence of this narrative technique is that we also never quite understand the true scale of Rake’s power because of this technique. It’s a subject for another day, but the characters who witness him “in action” – like Tattersail, Ganoes, Whiskeyjack, Baruk, etc. are never perfect gauges of his potency for a variety of reasons related to their circumstances. In the case of Rake, we only know his powers to be immense and are otherwise left in the dark (really, I am sorry!) as to how he stacks up to others. And we are better off for it. If we saw a fight from his own point of view, we would share his boredom as he steamrolled the opposition or we would see him diminished as he struggled. As a reader and perhaps as in life, there are few things as disappointing as actually getting everything you want.
I mentioned a counterpoint at the beginning and here it is at (hopefully) the end. If we return to Temper, we have a very different character who is written very differently. As old as he may feel, Temper has not endured the thousands of years that Rake has, nor do demons and other great powers fear him. However, I want to stress that Temper is no slouch and his presence and intervention has shaped events around him that go on to have enormous repercussions for the Malazan Empire. Of course, we’re never led to believe that he is incapable of great deeds – far from it – but it is only at the end of Night of Knives that we really come to comprehend his prowess. Sure we’re given clues. After all, his memories are of his past life as part of a famous, elite fighting group, but we see those events through his layers of apathy, self-disparagement, and bitterness. Temper believes himself to be a small has-been player in a complex game who at first only wants to escape notice and so we end up believing it. This is reinforced as he’s told several times that events are greater than he can comprehend and that he should just keep out of it all. Of course, after this happens a few times and as we learn more about him, one wonders whether he is being warned or asked to remain uninvolved.
In the case of Temper, we get the intimate perspective and familiarity that we never have with Rake and yet we only realize he’s some legendary warrior because he doesn’t believe in his own legend. As I said above we have cause to doubt his extrospection and I add now that we can also doubt what he’s relayed to us via his introspection. He’s unreliable as a point of view and this unreliability is what creates mystery. It also, I think, creates fear for the character. ICE writes horror scenes very well through his imagery7, but he also makes the POV character feel vulnerable and he achieves this by giving the reader a very intimate glimpse into Temper’s fears. Temper is all too aware that an errant magic blast or some Claw’s dagger could end his Night of Knives early and as a result we understand his vulnerability as well as fear for his life as he approaches each dark corner.
Now, there’s one notable deviation in how Temper is portrayed to us and that is when we see Temper from Kiska’s perspective. She’s in her wide-eyed mode so she’s not understanding what she sees when Temper confronts Dancer; she’s only telling us what’s in front of her based on what she can see and she sees Temper as some kind of inhuman armored monstrosity. Here Esslemont is using the Rake trick to take a character that we have become perhaps too close to and effectively removes him from us, both by creating physical distance between us and by transmuting Temper from a living character to a vision of a dead and dreadful legend We’re still treated to his POV later in the books and some excellent combat scenes, too, but we’ve seen behind the veil and there’s no going back to the Temper we’re introduced to earlier in the novel. Indeed, while Temper does appear in future Malazan novels, we are never again spend nearly as much time sharing his perspective and, to the extent that we recognize him, he seems closer to the armored revenant Kiska witnesses and far removed from the man keeping his head down in the Hanged Man Inn.
1. I have been interested in writing essays for fun for some time. As the Malaztube community only continues to grow more numerous and encouraging, I have found myself craving the opportunity to discuss these books and generate my own content. Erikson’s own essays have inspired me to enjoy writing for writing’s sake and to feel comfortable exploring and sharing my thoughts in a voice that comes more naturally. This is my first attempt to write this kind of paper in about seven years and it shows. I can only hope that Erikson posts a follow up lesson on writing that focuses on essay writing.
2. I’ll leave it for another day whether Erikson doesn’t also write chapters. With no clues whatsoever just for the hell of it.
3. I must also wonder whether, in fiction, the viewer does not also affect the viewed in an almost quantum physical sense, but, alas, I have no answers or even thoughts to share on this subject at this time.
4. I have to apologize that I’m going to come across as disparaging Kiska as a character. However, after so many years of reading fantasy books, I have become thoroughly tired of the naive trope and this leads to an impatience with her chapters in Night of Knives. I thoroughly enjoy her chapters in the subsequent ICE novels. She also performs many noteworthy deeds on Night of Knives; due to her background and skills as an unaligned thief and her movements across the city throughout the night, she is often the right person at the right time and not some mere bumbler who happens to bump the plot along. I must also acknowledge that her extrospection is as easily explained as being an ability she has learned as a thief as it is a tool thrust upon her by the author.
5. Pardon my anecdotal evidence, but the older I get the less I can multitask. In fact, I have begun to wonder if I was ever able to multitask; perhaps I’ve simply done many things very poorly while enjoying some music.
6. As an aside, I encourage you to read or reread this essay because I think it will be particularly relevant in the conclusion to the Kharkanas Trilogy and The God is Not Willing as we will likely witness (witness!) former POV characters become increasingly remote and unrelatable as their potential to break their worlds increases.
7. This is one of his strengths and he isn’t given enough credit for it, in my opinion.