Stonewielder: Esslemont’s best book so far

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Ian C. Esslemont StonewielderStonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is Ian C. Esslemont’s third book in the Malazan series co-created with Steven Erikson, and which Erikson has been exploring for years with his own series. If you look over my reviews for Esslemont’s first two Malazan books, Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, you’ll see I’ve given them mixed reviews, though I thought Return of the Crimson Guard was an improvement on Night of Knives and boded well for the next book in the series. That prediction turned out to be mostly accurate, as Stonewielder is, in my mind, clearly the best Esslemont has turned out so far, though it’s still not without its flaws.

As one might expect for a world and storyline that have so far served over a dozen books as well as a few novellas, the background plot is a bit dense. Stonewielder is set on the island continent of Korel, which the Malazan Empire invaded decades ago under the leadership of Greymane (the eponymous Stonewielder). The Malazans are the third major force on Korel, along with the mysterious Stormriders, creatures who rise out of the sea and who have been attacking the island for generations; and the Blessed Lady, a goddess that has protected the island from both the Stormriders and the Malazans. Disgraced and labeled a traitor after trying to treat with the Stormriders, Greymane is now hiding out with Kyle (from RotCG). Meanwhile, the Stormwall (a bulwark against the Stormriders) has been steadily weakening, as has the force (the Stormguard) that mans it.

Now, under Mallick Rell, the Empire is again invading Korel and has called back Greymane to lead the invasion once more. He’ll have to deal with the previous army – the 6th – which has set itself up as an independent entity on Korel, led by the overlord (their highest officer) who is supported by his cadre mage and a contingent of Black Moranth (the Blues are with the Malazans). Parallel to the invasion, Lord Protector Hiam, Stormguard commander, tries to stave off what may be the most dangerous attack ever by the Stormriders (making cruel use of the Crimson Guard’s Bars, the newest Stormwall Champion forced into service). Meanwhile, civil/religious war is breaking out on the continent between followers of the Blessed Lady and a ragtag army, which includes a pacifist Toblakai. In two smaller plot lines, in one of Korel’s major cities a local assessor tries to solve a series of abductions/murders and a group of Crimson Guard make their way to Korel to rescue their comrades. And finally, way off to the side, Kiska (from NoK) is partnered with Leoman (yes, that one) as she tries to find Tayschrenn, which involves a march through Shadow to the edge of chaos, where they’ll meet some strange fellow travelers.

That’s a lot to handle, but one of the improvements in Stonewielder over the other books is in pacing and structure. While still not wholly perfect, for the most part Esslemont juggles the multiple plot strands well, moving among them relatively smoothly and with good balance. Kiska’s story is really the outlier of the novel, sticking out a bit in its lack of connection to the rest of the plot lines, but it’s clearly setting us up for other events to come. And while it’s a pretty weak storyline at its start, a bit slow to get going, by the end of the book in many ways it’s the most interesting and compelling, not least for the introduction of another character picked up along the way.

The plot strand involving Hiam and the Storm Guard goes the other way for me, starting out quite strong as we sense the urgency and the staving off of despair as this man watches his world literally crumble around him. His earned dignity is made much more complex by the inherent cruelty of the way they press people into service; you’re both attracted and repelled by this whole structure. But this storyline felt a bit stretched by the end of the novel. As did the assessor’s plot line. As a storyline, it’s a basic mystery whose solution is obvious to the reader relatively early and it feels a bit repetitive. It succeeds more as a character study, as we watch the assessor open his eyes slowly to what’s around him, though a bit too slowly. It felt like much more could have been done with this strand. A much smaller plot strand involving a group of mages being killed off also suffers a bit from some head-scratching obviousness of the “wouldn’t they just… “ sort.

One’s views on the pacing of the religious war and the invasion itself will probably be determined by one’s love of battle scenes, of which there are plenty. There’s no doubt these scenes are quite well-written, and exciting on their own, especially the naval battle which has a lot of freshness to it as we rarely see those in fantasy. But strong as they are individually (and they are) I’ll confess I could have done with fewer of them when taken together. Your mileage on that score will vary.

Despite those hedges, and despite the entire book lagging a bit toward the end in some of the strands, and standing to lose 50-80 pages or so, for the most part Stonewielder is an intriguing and enjoyable read in terms of plot, with some relatively subtle allusions to current events, as when a character muses on the effect of occupation on the occupiers. And the big events at the very end pay off quite nicely. In usual Malazan fashion, we get some questions answered and some new ones born (including a bit of a trite dying moment almost-reveal: “But Batman, you’re, you’re,” choke, die).

The characterizations are mostly strong. Some will be familiar — the grunts and sappers who give a real-person feel as well as some humor. Despite their familiarity as character types, they’re fully engaging. As mentioned, Hiam is another strong character, and a bit more original than some of the others. The same is true for Ussu, the 6th’s cadre mage, though I thought his conflicts could have been explored more fully. The introduction of Manask throws another person into the mix for funniest-character-in-the-series debates. Warran, met by Kiska and Leoman in the quest for Tayschrenn, is simply a delight as a character, for several reasons. Somewhat surprisingly, the “big name” characters such as Greymane, Kyle, the Crimson Guard folks, and “main” characters such as Bakune are less fully fleshed out and/or less interesting than many of the side characters or newer characters. But as there are more than enough of those strong characters, that doesn’t hurt the book at all.

To be honest, were this series the first one out there set in Malaz, I’m not sure I would have stayed with it based on my very mixed experiences with the first two. It was wanting to learn more about Malaz that kept me going past Night of Knives and then again past Return of the Crimson Guard — that, and the incremental growth from book one to book two. I had some quibbles with Stonewielder. Some of the storylines lag a bit here and there, some parts feel a bit stretched or repetitive, but there’s no doubt Stonewielder is not simply an improvement but a big jump up in class and the first of Esslemont’s Malazan books I can fully recommend. If the small improvement from NoK to RotCG boded moderately well for Stonewielder, I have to say I’m quite excited for Esslemont’s next work. Well-recommended.

Stonewielder— (2010) Publisher: Greymane believed he’d outrun his past. With his school for swordsmanship in Falar, he was looking forward to a quiet life, although his colleague Kyle wasn’t as enamoured with things outside the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. However, it seems it is not so easy for an ex-Fist of the Malazan Empire to disappear, especially one under sentence of death from that same Empire. For there is a new Emperor on the throne of Malaz, and he is dwelling on the ignominy that is the Empire’s failed invasion of the Korel subcontinent. In the vaults beneath Unta, the Imperial capital, lie the answers to that disaster. And out of this buried history surfaces the name Stonewielder. In Korel, Lord Protector Hiam, commander of the Stormguard, faces the potential annihilation of all that he holds dear. With fewremaining men and a crumbling stone wall that has seen better days, he confronts an ancient enemy: the sea-borne Stormriders have returned. Religious war also threatens these lands. The cult of the Blessed Lady, which had stood firm against the Riders for millennia, now seeks to eradicate its rivals. And as chaos looms, a local magistrate investigating a series of murders suddenly finds himself at the heart of a far more ancient and terrifying crime — one that has tainted an entire land…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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