Ian C. Esslemont – Stonewielder

The first two epic fantasy books Ian C. Esslemont wrote about the Malazan Empire had little relationship with each other except certain characters that appeared in both novels. His third, Stonewielder (2010), can be seen as a sequel to the second book, Return To The Crimson Guard, although like Steven Erikson Esslemont tried to cover a separate episode or tale in each book. Each book contains continuations of certain story threads and leaves some open at the end. Stories never really end, especially when so many characters are involved. Some die and some live, and those that live can still have a lot more going on. In Stonewielder a number of characters of Return Of The Crimson Guard return and the novel thus provides a continuation of their story.

One of the strong assets of Esslemonts contributions to the Malazan universe is that the locations he picks have gotten limited attention by Erikson so the reader finally gets to explore those parts and learn a bit more about them. The background that they provide however is still limited. They pick out certain events and look at events on a greater (anthropological) scale. That still allows for mysteries to remain and even then they are not that important for the story so it is only in retrospect that I notice these things.

For Stonewielder Esslemont covers a wide range of locations on the same subcontinent. Everybody plays a role, be it minor or greater. With this we get a greater picture of the situation. Most plotthreads are closely related, but there are a few that stay apart. As it seems that Esslemont is not writing not entirely standalone novels these threads are probably related to the greater whole although their purpose isn’t always clear.

A thing I have to mention is that Esslemont fully adds the military squad element in this book. It was also there in the previous books, but far less and in a variation that provided a different take. The military squad element is frequently used by Steven Erikson and is, for those that know, originating from their love of Glen Cook’s Black Company series. The element provides some comedy and down-to-earth interaction in the story. Even though the squads change the members, even though presented as different, resort to interactions that start to resemble each other too much after reading so many novels. I find it depends on my mood if I am enjoying these parts of the story or not. In the previous novels Esslemont managed to provide some variations to avoid the usual patterns so that I didn’t really notice it. So I can only say that he should watch out for it becoming too formulaic.

That aside Stonewielder is a great novel with an engaging story that is more focused and less grand than Return Of The Crimson Guard. On that part it is an improvement. Still there are some minor flaws, hardly noticeable, caused by some small events that I had trouble to understand the how or why of. Of course this is a universe where plenty of strange and mysterious things happen, so it doesn’t have to be that odd, but a bit more explanation could have helped. The reader has too little access to the actions and inner feelings of the characters. He has to judge them by their behavior and interactions. That isn’t too bad as it avoids possible slowness. Some resting points do have their advantages in a story. It is something I sometimes miss in Esslemont’s writing compared to that of Erikson. Esslemont focuses more on action than reflection for his characterization. A mix may work better. It is still one of the reasons why I like Erikson’s novels better than Esslemont’s, although Esslemont also writes high quality epic fantasy. So in the end I will give a high recommendation for this installment as I can’t wait for the next one.

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