Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book review: "Stonewielder" by Ian C. Esslemont

"Stonewielder" is a fairly new book by Ian C. Esslemont (November 2010) and third book in his "Malazan Empire" series. His first book "Night of Knives" was short and, in my opinion, only testing work, which depicted events and characters most fans of MBoF knew very good already from Steven Erikson's books. In his second book, "Return of the Crimson Guard", Esslemont used concepts, themes and settings Erikson already presented (Esslemont had full right to do so, since he is a co-creator of them), introduced some new (or "new") characters and then worked on them in completely new plot-line (but parallel to Erikson's). Result was very action-packed and intense book that I enjoyed very much. His third book, "Stonewielder", is again completely different book, but I'll say it immediately: I loved it!

In this book Esslemont does for the first time something Erikson has been doing in his every book: introduces new stuff. Particularly, sub-continent of Korel and its unique peoples and nations. It also clarifies some history between Malazan Empire and this place. There are several plots we follow in the book. Main one is Malazan second invasion of Korel. Here we have some "old" Esslemont's characters (Greymane, Kyle, Rillish), but no Erikson's; and whole new and unique cast. Exception are some gods that appear in both Erikson's and Esslemont's book. I hope this will become a trend; each of them developing his own cast and plots in common world, with occasional mixing!

(Again, what's with the boats??)

Back to the book... As I said, main plot is Malazan second invasion. We follow it from several viewpoints: Fist Rillish (character from RotCG), Cadre mage Devaleth (I think this name is a blunder; it sounds too Tiste Andii) and Suth, the common soldier. All three levels are done very good, but Suth's especially. I usually like the look from view of "ordinary" Malazan soldier (Fiddler, Hellian and bunch of squad's from "Dust of Dreams"...). Suth did some real growing up in this book; from self-centered youth searching fights to prove himself, to experienced Malazan veteran looking after his comrades. Then we had Ussü, one of leaders of Malazan first invasion, who are not very happy for the arrival of their successors. We also have Bakune, a judge from city of Banith. He is really honest man, although somewhat blind to reality of the world. His stubborn investigation of suspicious deaths will put him in position opposed to Church of the Blessed Lady, which is a very dangerous position on Korel. Fact that his city will be overrun by Malazan's will not be helpful, also. Next is Hiam, Lord Protector of the Stormwall and leader of all Korelri. He is uncommonly wise and thoughtful man, but share's a flaw of Korelri: belief in their total supremacy in both martial and moral aspects; also a belief that no one would be crazy enough to attack them, when they and the Wall are the only thing that stands in the way of dreaded Stormriders. They are in for few surprises... In Empire of Jourilan we have Ivanr, who is half-Thelomen ex-champion now sworn to pacifism; he is being pushed to position of a leader of religious uprising against the Lady and he doesn't really like it, but he doesn't have much choice. At last we have Corlo and Shell, both members of the Crimson Guard; Corlo is prisoner on the Wall, while Shell and her squad are coming to Wall to free him and his co-prisoners. Not, these were only the POVs; we have a bunch of crazy Malazan (world, not the empire) characters that give these books their flavor. Overall, plot is good; there were two or three big surprises and multitude of smaller ones.

There is also one more sub-plot, following Kiska (from NoK) and Jheval (new/old character) on their quest in Shadow Realm. I must say I am a bit confused about the meaning of this course of events, both in itself and in greater scheme of things. So, even though there are some interesting and funny scenes here (I was surprised when it was revealed who the priest is!!!), I will ignore this for now (for now being until the next book that explains it).

As I said, characters in this book are all Esslemont's, and most of them new. Only flaw is that there are actually not much of them. Dramatis Personae is only two and half pages long, and I got used to five or more. But on the other hand, book itself is not long: only 640 pages. What matters is quality, not quantity. And there are no flaws is this section. There are bizarre, there are serious, there are funny and there are sneaky characters. And not one of them is single-faceted.

Writing is better than in "Return of the Crimson Guard"; it is light-years away from "Night of Knives" writing. I am glad Esslemont more often uses inner-monologues and philosophical musings; it is one of key characteristics of "Malazan brand". Although, I must say that he still lacks Erikson's edge. Erikson drives his characters much more to extremes. On the other hand, Esslemont's writing is much more focused and followable. In the immediate start of the book, there were few blunders that made me wonder of quality of it, but they don't repeat later. Example of this was Greymane/Kyle sequence with school of martial arts, which was very un-Malazan, in my opinion. Also, there is a name of Beneth, which made me wonder for a time.

I must point out one thing: the Wall. Even though it was mentioned long ago in Erikson's books (not so long in time, but long in number of books; I can't say exactly where), I never expected it to be so similar to George R.R. Martin's Wall from ASoIaF. Korelry Stormguard and Night's Watch are also very similar; especially in the beginning. I am curious who invented which first. Erikson and Esslemont invented their world quite a long time ago, but are only now revealing the details; on the other hand, "A Game of Thrones" is out since 1996.

For conclusion: "Stonewielder" is a great book and a recommendation to all Malazan fans. Esslemont's books are steady getting better and better. For those who never heard about Malazan, go start one of best fantasy series with "Gardens of the Moon".

Future is bright for this series. Next month will see the publication of "The Crippled God". But then it's not over; Erikson will write a bunch of novels and novellas (according to Wikipedia). Esslemont will write at least three more, "Orb, Scepter, Throne" being the first.

Also, a note. From now on I am going on self-proclaimed ban on reading. I have two important PhD projects to finish in next few weeks, so I will not start reading until they are done (Because I know they wouldn't get done then). And after they are done, I plan to do a reread of whole "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series, so I can be ready when last book gets out.

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