Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is Ian Cameron Esslemont's third book in the Malazan epic fantasy setting that he created together with Malazan Book of the Fallen series author Steven Erikson. Like Esslemont's previous Return of the Crimson Guard, it's events are contemporaneous with those of Erikson's books but focused on other parts of their shared universe. Chronologically, it is set after Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard and seems to take place around the same time as Erikson's Reaper's Gale or Toll the Hounds.

The Korelri subcontinent  and it's numerous nearby islands are home to several nations, with a largely sea-based economy and culture. Stretching along its northern shore is the Stormwall, a vast fortification that holds back the yearly assaults of the Stormriders, a mysterious seaborne race wielding powerful magics who have assailed the wall for hundreds of years for reasons unknown. It is defended by the Stormguard, a military force assembled from professional soldiers, press-ganged conscripts, and religious warriors dedicated to the patron deity of the wall and of Korel, a goddess known only as the Lady whose worship is Korel's principle religion. Years ago, the Malazan empire's attempted conquest of the region ended ignominiously when their invasion force mutinied and its leaders set themselves up as the new rulers of the Korelri territory they had conquered, forming an uneasy peace with the other political powers of the region and the native Korelri now under their rule.
Greymane is a former officer of the Empire's army who left to fight for the Crimson Guard, a mercenary army dedicated to the Empire's overthrow, and is now trying to settle into a peaceful civilian life as a swordsmanship instructor. The Malazan Empire and its new Emperor have decided to send a new expedition to Korel to bring its traitorous former generals to heel- and for reasons unknown, he wants the wanted traitor Greymane to lead it.
Meanwhile, the Stormguard is struggling to continue fulfilling its ancient task, with its ranks growing thinner each year. The Stormwall itself is faltering, with the accumulated damage to the  Wall from the Stormriders' renewed assault each year accumulating faster than it can be repaired and threatening the ancient structure with collapse. No one knows who the Stormriders are or what they want, but if the Stormwall falls they have the power to lay all of Korel to waste. Like the rest of Korel, the leaders of the Stormguard place their faith in the Lady and Her protection... but what does She actually want?

Stonewielder is a fine addition to the Malazan universe and Esslemont's best book to date. The book is well-paced, and  Esslemont successfully juggles a large number of characters and plot threads and is able to keep things well-paced. The central plot is interesting and build to an excellent climax. As a Malazan fan, it was nice to get a closer look at locations that are only alluded to in Erikson's books, and Esslemont creates an interesting setting with Korel.

The action scenes are exciting and evocative, and there are some truly impressive sequences here. The battles tend to feel more “military” than those in Erikson's books, probably due to the comparatively lower level of power possessed by most of the characters here compared to some of the prominent figures in Erikson's books. The character's are a bit more life-sized, and there's less emphasis on the sort of awe-inspiring acts of individual skill and heroism common in Erikson's books and more on the clash of armies made of brave but relatively average men and women, standing side by side with their comrades. I like the sort of stuff Erikson does with the vast power of someone like Quick Ben or the larger-than-life prowess of characters like Kalam and Karsa Oorlong, but the contrast Esslemont provides is also quite interesting and effective.

Esslemont's abilities as a writer have developed noticeably. His writing style in Stonewielder
has grown smoother, and lacks the occasional awkwardness or clunkiness of description or dialogue seen in Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder seems, for lack of a better word, more confident than Esslemont's previous work. I enjoyed those books overall, but in them Esslemont's writing sometimes sometimes had an  awkward, stumbling, nervously restrained quality, like an intelligent but shy person giving a public speech. The awkwardness is gone, and Stonewielder feels much stronger as a result. 
Stylistically, Esslemont's writing is more straightforward and less given to digression and introspection than Erikson's. Which is preferable is subjective, but both writers do well with their respective styles and both have created a good fit between style and subject matter, with Esslemont's more austere writing working well for the more down-to-earth story he's telling.  (Down to earth by Malazan standards, I hasten to add, which is sort of like saying someone is “short compared to most other giants.”)
Stonewielder is a fine book and a worthy addition to the Malazan series. It's not something I'd recommend for people new to the series, who are likely to be quite lost without the context provided by earlier books, but it is very strongly recommended for anyone familiar with the previous Malazan books. (If you're not familiar with it, I strongly recommend the whole thing for fans of dark epic fantasy in the vein of things like Glen Cook''s Black Company series. Start with Erikson's Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.) If you're a Steven Erikson fan who didn't care for Esslemont's previous work, I'd still recommend giving Stonewielder a shot. Esslemont is really coming into his own here, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

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