Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is Ian C. Esslemont’s third novel set in the Malazan world he co-created with Steven Erikson. It is sequentially set after Return of the Crimson Guard (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and roughly at the same time as Dust of Dreams (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), likely overlapping somewhat with The Crippled God (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). Esslemont continues to show improvement in his writing and Stonewielder is his best effort yet.

Warning, I’m a big fan of the Malazan books – more so Erikson than Esslemont, but that matters little. This is a sprawling epic story and world with many overlapping plots, a pantheon of species, races, characters and gods, empires, parallel worlds, magic and much more. This review is written from my perspective, a fan who has read all that has come so far from both Erikson and Esslemont, and this is written for those fans who have done likewise.

Stonewielder takes place on the mysterious sub-continent of Korel – in fact, details about this region of the Malazan world have been so lacking that until this book it wasn’t known if Koreli was truly a continent, subcontinent, archipelago or some combination of the all. The lack of details about Korel to date is explained here with a mysterious guardian entity/god that protects and isolates Korel as well as prevents traditional warren sorcery from working. In Stonewielder the Malazan Empire and its new emperor decide to re-invade Korel as a follow-up to the earlier failed invasion and they tap the disgraced, enigmatic former commander Greymane to lead.

This being the third book by Esslemont in the Malazan world and a book that time wise falls between the 9th and 10th books by Erikson in the same world, it’s not recommended for someone not familiar with other books to take this one on. Yes, there is a complete and relatively independent story arc at the heart of the book, but the details of the world, significance of some of the characters that may only be hinted at will confound a new reader.

Esslemont shares many similarities with Erikson but generally sticks to the plot without getting as philosophical as Erikson is prone to. Whether you consider this a positive or negative varies quite a bit across the spectrum of Malazan fans (for example I tend to enjoy Erikson’s philosophical wanderings). Esslemont’s books are shorter (though at 600+ pages far from short), more to the point and a bit longer in the action. This is great when we get scenes of a Moranth navy battling an undefeatable Mare navy, running battles through caverns, Crimson Guard Avowed fighting Stormriders, etc.

Esslemont also shows improvement in his characters – Kyle from Return of the Crimson Guard has grown significantly, as has Kiska of Night of Knives (though she’s still a fair bit annoying), and he populates Stonewielder with a few new, green recruits. All in all, I felt that his writing was simply far more interesting this time around and I was very pleased to find a lack of the last-minute, dues ex machina super mage from nowhere who saves the day.

Stonewielder follows a few plot arcs – the invasion, a local magistrate, the Stormwall, a few Crimson Guard, a peasant rebellion, a journey into Shadow, and a couple of cross-overs. Not all offer nice, neat conclusions and some are more interesting than others. And some seem a bit pointless. In this respect, Stonewielder could have benefited significantly from a tighter bond and more overlap between these subplots. As it is now, some seem to be wasted space, though they were interesting enough stories on their own.

One of the over-arching aspects of Stonewielder is the annual invasion of the Stormriders and the soldiers of the Stormwall that repel them. What are the Stormriders? What do they want? These two simple questions seem to be at the heart of mystery that is Korel and these two questions remain largely unanswered in the book. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of all. Either Esslemont is being too subtle or too evasive – either way, it’s a big letdown in an otherwise decent volume in the Malazan saga.

Stonewielder shows a big improvement in Esslemont’s writing and offers up a healthy dose of just what the doctor ordered for Malazan fans. I generally still favor Erikson’s writing style and there are a few things I would have liked to see Esslemont do better, but in general, this is pretty solid offering in the Malazan saga. 7.5/10

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