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REVIEW: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont


Title: Stonewielder: A Novel of the Malazan Empire
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 10th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Not as dense as Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, but fast-paced and character driven.

I’ve mentioned my appreciation of Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s gritty Malazan world before, and over the past several years I have eagerly been following Esslemont’s contributions. With Stonewielder, Esslemont’s third book in the Malazan universe, he artfully balances characterization, forward momentum, and complex plotting mechanics to deliver an accessible and enjoyable read.

From his debut with Night of Knives, Esslemont has faced a difficult challenge. By the time his first book was published in mass-market form (2007), Erikson had already released his seventh (Reaper’s Gale). This meant that Esslemont had a ready audience who would likely snap up his book, but that audience (myself included) had certain expectations.

The first fact that must be stated when describing Esslemont’s work is perhaps the most obvious: Esslemont is not Steven Erikson. The writing styles are different, the plot structures are different, and perhaps most significantly, the pacing is different. However, these differences are not a weakness: in many ways, they make Esslemont’s work more accessible than Erikson’s dense opus. In Night of Knives, Esslemont visibly struggled to get his sea legs. While it was competently executed, there was a tentativeness to his storytelling that had been noticeably absent from Erikson’s work. However, with his second novel – Return of the Crimson Guard, which takes place after the events of Erikson’s The Bonehunters – Esslemont clearly grows more comfortable with his plot structures and the intricate flow of multiple storylines. By the time we read Stonewielder, Esslemont has clearly hit his stride.

Esslemont’s books tell the story of events on the continent of Quon Tali, literally on the other side of the world from the events of Erikson’s ten book series. Despite the distances involved, the authors share a significant number of characters. Esslemont’s books focus on characters who notably left or vanished from Erikson’s books. This was my first area of concern: how often have we seen new hands mess up a beloved franchise by screwing up the characters? Thankfully, Esslemont neatly avoids this trap, perhaps helped by the fact that his books delve deeply into characters who received less focus in Erikson’s books. As a result, he creates characters that become firmly his own, shaped by and for his own plots and writing style.

The integration between Erikson and Esslemont’s plots – particularly Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder is excellent. The events of Esslemont’s books have significant repercussions on Erikson’s, and vice versa. However, Esslemont shows us events which Erikson did not, or a different side of those historic events. Reading both Erikson and Esslemont lets us see their world’s history unfold from multiple perspectives. I like to think of it as reading two books on WWII history: one Russian, and one British. They will describe related events, but the different perspectives, cultural backgrounds, styles, and focus will fundamentally change how the same events are presented. Reading one side of the story can be enjoyable, but reading both provides a richer understanding of the events.

I suspect that read on a standalone basis, the Esslemont books may be easier to follow than Erikson’s. Like Erikson, Esslemont relies on chapter-based POV shifts, but with fewer characters and fewer plot lines it is easier to keep track of what is going on in the story. Stonewielder in particular unfolds in a more linear fashion than Erikson’s typical modus operandi. This focus also helps Esslemont’s pacing, giving the books a certain sense of implacability that draws the reader in. As the stakes rise in Stonewielder, the pacing likewise accelerates which makes the latter half of the book move very quickly.

Avoiding complex metaphysics helps Esslemont accomplish this feat. While he employs – and elucidates – much of the complex magic of the Malazan universe, he steers clear of the more esoteric metaphysical considerations that bogged down some of Erikson’s later books. The focus on characters in action (or avoiding action, at times) keeps Stonewielder close to its gritty, epic adventure roots.

However, readers unfamiliar with Erikson’s books may find it hard to get become grounded in Esslemont’s novels. My preexisting familiarity with the world’s bewildering factions, history, politics, and characters let me hit the ground running with Night of Knives, and smoothly follow Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. How daunting a fresh reader would find these titles and the unique world they present is difficult for me to judge.

On the whole, Ian C. Esslemont’s Stonewielder is a great addition to the Malazan canon. The plotting, characterization, and pacing are strong, and he continues to apply the excellent world-building characteristic of the Malazan universe. At its heart, Esslemont’s story strikes me as less complicated than Erikson’s. As such, I found it a welcome breath of fresh air coming off of the satisfyingly dense conclusion to Erikson’s series. Those who started reading Esslemont with Night of Knives will be pleased to see that his craft has significantly improved over the last several years.

If you’re a fan of gritty, complex, ambitious epic fantasy then Stonewielder will likely appeal to you. It combines the gritty boots-in-the-mud feel of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, with morally ambiguous eldritch magic like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga, and the evocative world-building of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Ian C. Esslemont co-created the Malazan world with Erikson).

To flatten the steep learning curve and get some of the characters’ backstory, I strongly recommend starting with Return of the Crimson Guard, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. If anyone reading this has instead started with the Esslemont books, I’d be curious to know how you found them. Were you able to get drawn into the world, fill in the blanks of backstory and factions, and generally follow along?

In the meantime, I’m going to be eagerly awaiting the next installment in Esslemont’s series. If his work continues to improve as it has so far, then his series might gain in heft to become more than a side story in the Malazan universe. The seeds are certainly there, and I’m rooting for the series’ continued upward trajectory.

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Genre-inclined


If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t started your holiday shopping yet. If that’s the case, then let me borrow from Douglas Adams and offer some advice: DON’T PANIC! (I hope those letters are friendly on your display). Regardless of what holiday you’re celebrating, buying stuff for loved ones into science fiction, fantasy, and horror can often be difficult. So this week, I want to offer a little holiday gift guide to help you shop for those folks in your life who love genre:

For the Zombie-lover


American Zombie
We’ve seen what happens when the re-animated dead hunger. We’ve seen blood, and guts, and above all braaaaaiiins. But have we ever considered the zombies’ perspective? Have we ever wondered what it’s like to be part of that maligned, feared underclass in American society? American Zombie is a fun and creative documentary that follows the lives and dreams of several zombies living (un-living?) in Los Angeles. Fun, intelligent satire on our fascination with the walking dead.

The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
The zombie lover in your life probably thinks about the coming apocalypse pretty frequently. They might have escape routes, fortification schematics, weapons caches, the whole nine yards. If that’s the case, or even if not, this book makes a very practical addition to your loved one’s library. With easy to follow guidance, it is sure to keep your loved ones safe. After all, at 10″ by 7.4″ and 160 pages, it could do some damage in a pinch.

The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead
This self-help book is a perfect distillation of the zombie ethos. With a practical twelve-step guide to zombiefication, and lessons to learn about adaptability and being your own boss, this book can make your loved ones more satisfied with their life and happier in the work.

Gerber 22-41576 Gator Machete with Sheath
Movies and books aside, the gift that keeps on giving might be a good idea. Your zombie-phile loved ones will definitely appreciate a sturdy, 15″ double-edged (straight on one edge, and saw-toothed on the other) machete perfect for slicing and dicing anything out to eat some brains. Also makes a great companion gift to The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

For the Epic Fantasy Fan


Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen)
If they haven’t read Steven Erikson, this is a gift guaranteed to blow the mind of any epic fantasy fan: a 10-book, doorstopper-sized epic fantasy series that actually finishes! Unlike most epic fantasy series that go beyond three (let alone six) books, Erikson and his publishers have consistently delivered books more-or-less on-time. The last book in the series (number 10) is currently set to be released on March 1, 2011 and Amazon is already taking pre-orders for it. With great writing, well-textured world-building, and fun characters Erikson’s Malazan books of the fallen are probably the best epic fantasy written in the last twenty years.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Alright, I admit it: I myself am not that big a fan of WoW. However, I know that lots of people (and lots of epic fantasy fans especially) are. So if the epic fantasy fan in your life enjoys WoW, or MMORPGs, or RPGs then they’re likely to enjoy the new world-changing experience of Cataclysm.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel
The essential guide book for anyone setting out on a fantasy adventure. Written by Dianna Wynne-Jones, who has taken many an intrepid tourist on a fantasy vacation, this book offers practical advice for navigating the wilds of fantasyland, the etiquette of interacting with the locals, and helpful guidance on what to bring, what to wear, and how to get about. Be sure to get an edition that is Dark Lord Approved!

For Vampire Fans who Hate Glitter


I Am Legend
Okay, I know I talk about this book a lot on this blog. But it really is one of the best vampire novels ever written. Dark, frightening, and leaves you faint and reeling at the end. Isn’t that what a good vampire should do?

American Vampire Vol. 1
With stories written by Stephen King and Scott Snyder and illustration by Rafael Albuquereque, American Vampire offers some grisly blood-sucking fun set in the Wild West and 1920’s Hollywood. An entertaining read, with restrained illustration capable of exploding into bloody viscera where and when needed, this graphic novel will be appreciated by those of us who enjoy evolving vampire myths.

Shadow of the Vampire
John Malkovich and Willem Defoe star as F.W. Murnau and Max Schrek (of silent movie fame) respectively in this fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu. Of course, in this version, Max Schrek in fact is a monstrous vampire, who preys on the cast and crew of the movie.

For the Steampunk Aficionado


Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
A second steampunk anthology edited by the inestimable Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, this book collects twenty three short stories, two essays, and one roundtable interview that delves into the vagaries of steampunk literature. The fiction makes this anthology worth it, with some really great stories from authors like Jeffrey Ford and Tanith Lee.

Test Tube Spice Rack
Credit where credit is due, I actually found this concept on the STEAMED! blog. This is a great gift for any mad scientist who likes to experiment in the kitchen. The only advice I would have is to make sure your test tubes are properly labeled. It is – alas – all too easy to mistake strychnine for salt, after all.

Airship Aerodynamics: Technical Manual
While this military manual dates from 1941, your loved ones are sure to appreciate the detailed specs on flying and maintaining airships found in this treatise. Sure it’s dry and full of engineering and pilot jargon, but if your loved ones want to pilot an airship, shouldn’t they do it right?

For the Robot or Alien Lover


How to Build a Robot Army: Tips on Defending Planet Earth Against Alien Invaders, Ninjas, and Zombies
A very practical guide to building and utilizing a robot army for dealing with the myriad dangers lurking just around the corner, including (but not limited to) ninjas, aliens, Godzilla, and great white sharks. Written by Daniel Wilson, who holds a doctorate in robotics (no fooling!), the book is firmly grounded in science. With its sections on using robots against the zombie hordes, this might make a great cross-over gift for the zombie-lover in your life as well!

Mars Attacks!
This wonderfully sweet, heart-warming family movie directed by Tim Burton and starring the always even-keeled Jack Nicholson will reach out and touch the heart of any alien aficionado. Also, the sweet dulcet tones of Slim Whitman are sure to appeal to any science fiction music lovers!

Bottled Water
It should go without saying that you want to keep your loved ones safe from aliens. And if the cat on a hot skillet yowling of Slim Whitman is too much for you, thankfully M. Night Shyamalan shows us an alternative alien-bashing weapon: good old-fashioned H2O. A couple drops of this stuff, and those aliens will go the way of the Wicked Witch of the West! Of course, why hydrophobic aliens capable of interstellar travel would come to a planet 70% covered with the stuff, only Shyamalan could possibly tell us (I can picture the aliens’ reasoning now: what a world, what a world…).

What are some other gifts out there for those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and horror? I’m certain there are tons of other ideas out there, and I’d love to hear some of them (whether serious or not).

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