Ian Cameron Esslemont
When starting a Malazan novel my most frequent initial mental state is confusion. This does not speak well for either myself or the novel concerned but has been almost universally true in the twelve or so novels I’ve read in this universe shared by Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont. While Erikson and, to a lesser extent Esslemont (I speak mostly of volume), have created a vibrant and colorful world it is a necessarily muddy one as well. When dealing with an empire composed various diverse (not to be confused with d’ivers) peoples the various gods, powers, continents, languages, etc. tend to have more than one name and, more frequently, a different flavor depending on who is talking or describing. Throw in the fact that the novel’s have become increasingly interconnected, true in both the main series by Erikson and with Esslemont’s Malaz-centric series, and even most hardcore fans have to become easily lost in the quagmire of people, places, and plots.
This is particularly true for Esslemont when it comes to Stonewielder. Esslemont’s third novel continues plots started in his previous two novels (Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard) and features characters from all three, while at the same time confirming hints from previous novels (in Erikson’s series) and tying in to some of the major threats there. Stonewielder opens up with a series of flashbacks introducing readers to the history of Korelri/Korel/Fist, including the genesis of the wall that protects the archipelago from the constant onslaught of the Stormriders. Early on readers also introduced to some other players in the story from former priest of Fener, Ipshank to the Assessor Bakune, the return of Kyle and Greymane, not to mention members of the Crimson Guard. One of the primary mysteries of the novel is the Lady, the patron Goddess and protector of Korel, and Esslemont dribbles out tidbits over the course of the novel but they come a bit slower than I’d like and the answer’s as to who and what the Lady where frustratingly elusive.
Indeed the bulk of Stonewielder deals with a second Malazan invasion into Korel this time to oust the original invasion force, who had since cut their ties with the empire. Elsewhere in the novel there is a sort of peasant’s rebellion championing the notion of pantheistic beliefs on Korel. The aforementioned Crimson Guard are still around in the form of several of the Avowed who are still looking for revenge against Skinner but are now trapped on the Wall in Korel, forced to repel the relentless Stormriders. If all of this sounds like a lot than your right. It seems my patience for sprawling epic fantasy has worn a bit thin and found myself wishing, over the course of the novel and after its completion, that Esslemont had focused his attentions on one rather several of these different aspects. Stonewielder is by no means a small novel but each of the various subplots featured in its pages has the potential to be a rich and interesting novel in its own right. Stonewielder is epic, but it is condensed with time often leaping ahead quite a bit and cramming what could probably be a pretty solid duology into one book.
While the cast of Stonewielder is smaller than many of the Erikson-penned main Malazan novels I still get the impression that events are more important than people. Perhaps it is my recent exposure to more character-specific adventure fantasy through the likes of Black Gate or through Riyria Revelations novels, but more so than in the past I noted the lack of a strong central character. Sure, many of the main narrative threads focus on an individual or a group I never quite feel attached to any of the characters in Stonewielder. Of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t to say that Esslemont doesn’t have any vibrant character work here, only that frequently the characters seem to reflect the need for events to happen. Suth, an Imperial heavy, perhaps comes closest and remains one of the few instances where we get a glimpse of the Malazan rank and file’s perspective. His observations on how the Malazan Army works together, versus how his native Dal Honese tribesman work together provide some fascinating insight into the how the Malazans have been successful, while his slow crawl from green soldier to wearied veteran provides an inside glimpse of the psyche of the average Malazan soldier. I was also extremely amused by the thief Manask. His bombastic nature and humorous exclamations were a welcome relief from the grim and gritty. His overtly baffoonish nature combined with Ipshank’s aggrieved attitude when dealing with him was comic gold.
Reading Stonewielder, especially my difficulty when first trying to figure who was doing what to who where and general state of confusion, leaves worried that I won’t know what the heck is going on when The Crippled God releases next month. I did eventually ease into the action in Stonewielder but it wasn’t necessarily a smooth entry into the world of Malaz. Initial barriers aside Stonewielder is again an improvement over Esslemont’s previous novels and a definite move in the right direction when it comes to pacing. I still find that Esslemont’s prose tends to be a bit more utilitarian and straight forward than Erikson’s a fact that is a sword that cuts in both directions. I don’t recommend readers unfamiliar with the world of the Malazan Empire start with Stonewielder I still find that fans of the series at large are the ones who benefit most from reading this novel. That fact is less true for both Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, but by and large holds true for Esslemont’s novels to date. While I’ll never willingly complain about more Malazan novels I do find it a curious decision from a publishing and marketing stand point as I think that Esslemont would do significantly well in penning something far less tied into Erikson’s current work. Regardless, I’ll continue looking forward to Esslemont’s novels as he continues to flesh out the world of Malazan while simultaneously improving his skills as a writier. I suggest all Malazan fans should do the same.