As with "Night of Knives", "Return of the Crimson Guard" can be read separately from Erikson's sequence. But to fully enjoy it, you need to read at least books till "The Bonehunters", Erikson's sixth book. From then, Erikson focuses on Letherii and Genebaris, while Esslement took charge of the events in Malazan Empire. Here, we are introduced to quite a host of characters. Many characters (like the Crimson Guard) has been already announced or even present in Erikson's books, but new characters Esslemont brings in are very good. Actually, I think that Erikson and Esslemont have quite similar character, both exquisite.
As I said, story continues events started in Erikson books from one side, but on the other, in introduces new momentum, presented by the Crimson Guard from the title. Due to internal problems and rapidly decreasing belief in government (mainly in the Empress), also helped by scheming, both divine and mundane, great Malazan Empire is on brink of breaking. Parts of it, led by member of the Old Guard (legendary leaders from pre-Empress time), try to separate from it. Everything is in confusion: military takes sides, some stay loyal to Empress and some chose older loyalties. To increase the tension, countries that make the Empire have long and bloody history of mutual warring. This cauldron of potential violence will get even more pressured when the Crimson Guard, oldest and forgotten enemy of the Empire (that most of people consider just a myth), decides to come back to conquer it while it is weaken. Other entities will also take hand in future events, some by their own will and some accidentally.
This is a very long book. Not just in number of pages, but in events that takes place in it. Erikson, especially in later books, tends to prolong things, adding many internal monologue, lengthy descriptions and detailed histories. He also inserts sequences that have no sway in longer run. I not complaining; on the contrary, it is what gives MBoF its unique feel. Esslemont doesn't have approach. His writing is simpler (not simple, mind, just simpler compared to Erikson's) and more focused. Because of that, book gives a feeling of even larger one.
This is definitely a good book, for fans, but also for others. I strongly suggest you to read first Erikson's books; if you like them, you will need no more encouraging picking this book then. But also, if you tried Erikson and found it not to your taste, give this book a try. I think Esslemont's approach will work for some people quite well. His focused writing, orientation to action, but keeping things complex will definitely found audience. I think that especially George R. R. Martin's fans will like this book. So, "Return of the Crimson Guard" is definitely a recommendation.
First part of blog was for reader with no or slight experience with MBoF books. For fans and those more experience, continue reading.
As I said, I got very excited when I saw who exactly is in this book: Toc the Elder, Urko, Traveller, Osserc... Not to mention the Crimson Guard! Esslemont neatly used characters Erikson foreshadowed or even used. He doesn't clash with Erikson: there are no POVs from some characters in both writers' work (at least for now). More so, Esslemont doesn't force recycling. E.g. Shadowtrone and Cottilion, Mael are characters that had great coverage in Erikson's books; Esslemont gives them few dialogs and descriptions but doesn't risk getting in conflict with Erikson characterization. He focuses mostly on his own, new characters. Except Traveller, who doesn't have a POV in this book, but is one of main characters. He did it greatly, I didn't notice any difference between Erikson's and Esslemont's Traveller.
New characters are quite good. I especially liked Nait, who showed surprising depth in later stages of book (I thought of him more of a comedy relief at beginning). Most characters are soldiers, so it reminded me on "The Bonehunters", "Reaper's Gale" and "Dust of Dreams" parts that features Bonehunter's squad members. I am just wondering will there be continuation in later books or this is a standalone book. Few new characters from "Night of Knieves" are mostly non-existing here. On Amazon, it states that next book features some characters from this book, but I hope there will be more than just a few.
There is much humor in the book, but it still not on Erikson's level. It is great improvement from NoK, but there is much space for improvements. I don't know is that is because Esslemont does it this way (maybe he has weaker sense of humor - then is better to avoid it that to fail at it) or maybe he is still feeling uncomfortable with Erikson style. He could have much benefit from reading that explanation of Malazan humor in "Dust of Dreams". On the other hand, there are lots of characters that are funny by themselves.
Regarding plot, it is quite long! Really quite. And it is done I quite a different way than Erikson. Usually, when you start reading Erikson's book, you know the goals. E.g. battles of Capustan or Raraku were evident. I'm not saying that it's predictable, on the contrary. But you can know the general course of Erikson's book. While reading RotCG, I was quite surprised where the events led to several times during the book. This is also good, just different.
What I didn't like about the book... There are not many things that I actively didn't like. As I said, some things are done different what in Erikson's books and focus is more on action, and that is OK. I didn't like how in few instances, characters are doing something that seems completely random (e.g. Kyle's sailing to Jacuruku) and then it turns out that they are actually doing it on purpose. I'm not talking about someone acting according to some hidden plan; no, they are just traveling somewhere, with no apparent reason, then suddenly, they are talking about their goal like it was evident from the start of the journey. It is done slightly clumsy.
What is worrying me much more is that this book lacks history and future. What I'm talking about is when you are reading Erikson's book, every place has few thousand years of history. Every hero has history. Every unimportant character has a bit of a personal info that differentiates him from the mass. When you finish Erikson's book, you are left with ten new questions for every one answered; this is what is urging you to get the next one. Also, the future... Erikson is great at foreshadowing and plots that span several books. This book lacks lot of it. Esslemont masterly used their common world and bits that Erikson's already revealed, but he failed to invent new ones (except character, but most of them are not so important in the long run on world scale). Malazan world itself is reason enough for me to read a book, but since he intends to keep writing books in it, he should bring more things into it.
To stress it again: this is a great book, one of the best I have read in some time. This is an obligatory read for every Malazan fan. I only wish that Esslemont start bringing more his stuff in Malazan world, not just use elements Erikson already prepared for him.