Monday, March 14, 2011

Ian C. Esslemont - Stonewielder

Stonewielder is Ian C. Esslemont’s third novel in the Malazan series. His first novel, Night of Knives was an acceptable entry into the mythos, but far from extraordinary. His second effort, Return of the Crimson Guard, was more successful at creating the epic world of Malazan, but was plagued with crippling flaws. Stonewielder is perhaps the most epic Esslemont effort to date. Like Erison’s Midnight Tides, Stonewielder seeks to bring to light an entire continent (albeit a smaller one), and it’s a continent filled with different factions, a continent host to not one but two Malazan armies, one renegade. This is, without a doubt, Esslemont's best work – which isn't to say it's necessarily a successful book.

Despite bearing Greymane’s title on the cover, Stonewielder is not focused on the man. Greymane himself is only viewed from the periphery, and even Return of the Crimson Guard’s main character Kyle is now primarily seen from the eyes of others. This works well for Kyle; the man is far more interesting when seen from the side. Greymane, however, is off-screen for so much of the read that it’s hard to really feel his importance, and his key role in the climax comes as almost a surprise. Still, the Malazan versus Malazan aspect of the book is by far the strongest thread. The renegade’s position is believable and interesting, and Ussu – a mage for the renegade Malazans – was probably my favorite character of the book. On the Malazan side, Stonewielder’s salt of the earth point of view, Suth, is rather bland but not unpleasant. More exciting, Esslemont’s skill with large scale battles is undiminished here. The book’s highlight comes about halfway through in a massive naval confrontation. The stakes are high, the viewpoints scattered and busy trying to survive, and the overall picture we get of the scene is epic in every sense of the word.

The Korelri Stormwall is one of the book’s other key plot threads. A variety of viewpoint characters are gathered there, including several from the Crimson Guard, and the feel and desperation of the area is well established, even if the sections suffer from the importance of the characters involved; there’s never any doubt that Iron Bars, say, will be killed after so many pages have been devoted to his rescuers’ journey to him. Besides which, there’s the measure of the pile of plot holes that such a wall brings up, chief among them the burning question of why the riders don’t just go around the freakin' wall.

Some plotlines are far less successful. Bakune, an investigator trapped in a city of increasing religious fanaticism as the invaders draw near, seemed all set to have an interesting plotline. It was not to be. In Return of the Crimson Guards, one of my chief gripes was the lack of obvious character motivations. In their absence, it was almost impossible to tell where anything was going; we had important characters, but we did not have characters that drove the plot. Though a far better character than Kyle was, Bakune is far too passive to be interesting. He never does anything of his own volition; he is simply batted about by powers stronger than he is.

Ivanr, however, is the character with the dubious honor of most objectionable plotline. Basically, he’s a Toblakai who believes in pacifism. The character shares Bakune’s passivity, and the entire plotline around him is weaker than the rest of the novel, but what makes him truly infuriating is his hypocrisy. As I said, he claims he’s nonviolent. And yet he fights every chance he gets. He disassociates himself from the violence, takes no credit for it, and then wades into the bloodshed and endangers the life of everyone around him. Towards the beginning of the book, he beats an entire squad of mounted soldiers to a pulp with the back of his spear:

Dirt smeared the side of [the man’s] face from his fall. the eyes found their focus. “I thought you’d sworn some kind of vow,” he said, accusing.

“I swore that I’d never kill again – not that I wouldn’t fight. I think you’ll find that none of your men are dead. Though a few might die if you don’t them attention soon.” (p. 101)

Always nice to have a character who sticks to their principles, isn’t it? Suffice to say, I went through the whole book waiting for someone to realize how much of a pompous fraud the bastard was and stick a knife into him. It didn’t happen; I think that Esslemont was as enamored by his faux-Zen martial nature as the various sycophants that soon surround the character.

Still, even in the weaker plot threads, Stonewielder has one immeasurable advantage over its predecessors: Esslemont’s prose has evolved. I would not say that Esslemont is a master here, but his work is far ahead of the chunkiness exhibited in Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder’s strongest scenes, especially those with Ussu and the renegade Malazans, have a palpable atmosphere, one that’s dark, oppressive, and expansive:

Borun stopped at a great iron sarcophagus some three paces in length lying within a metal framework upon the bare stone. He set his torch in a brazier, then took hold of a tall iron wheel next to the frame. This he ratcheted, his breath harsh with effort. As the wheel turned long iron spikes slowly withdrew from holes set all down the sides of the sarcophagus, and in the rows across its front.

When the ends of these countless iron spikes emerged from within the stained openings a thick black fluid, blood of a king, dripped vicious and thick from their needle tips. A slow rumbling exhalation of breath sounded then. it stirred the dust surrounding the sarcophagus.

Ussu bent over the coffin. “Cherghem? You can hear me?”

A voice no more substantial than the breath sounded form within. I hear you. (p. 135)

Esslemont’s grasp of atmosphere also serves to illuminate the scenes set at the Stormwall and, most of all, the scenes of Kiska’s journey through the warrens. Characters bumbling about in places they don’t understand is almost the series’ chief mode of storytelling at this point, but here Esslemont manages to both humanize Kiska and invoke the same sense of wonder that one gets throughout the more bizarre sections of House of Chains or the other mainline novels in the series.

In the end, it is, bizarrely enough, the sense that the events of the book aren't particularly crucial to the overall world that gives the work its scope. For the entire book, the reader is focused on Korel and its struggles, convinced that the events here are the true deciding events. Then  it becomes clear that what was happening here is only a part of the picture, and perhaps a small part at that. It's the feeling that the Malazan world is not only big enough to house an epic fantasy story but to house a half dozen of them running at once that renders it so interesting and monolithic.

Stonewielder is Ian C. Esslemont's best book so far. It's not a perfect by any means, but this is a novel that manages to be epic and engrossing throughout. For the first time, I can recommend an Esslemont novel as a worthy read on its own merits, not just to fill out the blind spots of a greater work. If Esslemont continues to improve at this rate, his upcoming Darujhistan novel might just do the city justice. Maybe.


  1. You do seem to be cutting him a lot of slack. Not sure I would have bothered after two so-so books.

    I've got ALL the Erikson Malazan books waiting to read now this cycle is, in theory, finished. I'm not convinced I'll be reading the Esslemont books.

    Epic fantasy publishing time-scales can be kinda frustrating, but give him his due Erikson banged out the books at around one a year. I hope Rothmuss finishes his trilogy within a couple of years.

    Meanwhile I'm mining Glen Cook's back catalogue.

  2. Unfortunately, Esslemont is in charge of finishing several rather large plot threads from Erikson's series. The two are too intertwined to easily skip one. If Esslemont was an unrelated author, I wouldn't have kept on this long.