Stonewielder is the third novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that runs parallel to Steven Erikson's massive series Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. In his first novel, Night of Knives, Esslemont provided something of a prologue to the entire series, before embarking on a larger project in Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder is set after the events in Return of the Crimson Guard and takes us to the rarely seen continent of Korel, carrying over the storyline of Kyle and Greymane from the previous novel. At a little over 600 pages it is not quite as epic as Esslemont's previous attempt, something that has fixed a number of the problems Return of the Crimson Guard showed. This is definitely Esslemont's best yet.
Years ago the Malazan Empire attempted to conquer the Korel subcontinent. The Malazan 6th army was dispatched and failed to do the job, instead setting up a kingdom for themselves and dismissing their commander. Now, the newly risen emperor means to correct this and he enlists the old commander of the previous invasion, Greymane, to do it. Soon, preparations for a new invasion are in full swing. The emperor lends some of his best remaining commanders to the project, including the famous Admiral Nok and one of the last mages the Malazan Empire can still call upon. This time there will be no mistake.
In the mean time the Stormwatch, weakened by shortages of men and supplies prepares for another season defending Korel's Stormwall against their ancient enemy, the inhuman Stormriders. It does not appear that help is forthcoming. Most of the subcontinent is on edge because of the emergence of a new religious cult. For millennia the Goddess that has protected the land and the Stormwall has been the dominant cult, suppression all other religious movements and even access to warrens. Her control is about to be challenged by a popular movement beyond anything seen on in the long history of her rule.
It's difficult to fit this book in the time line of the entire series. Over the course of the series there are some apparent contradictions in Erikson's books, especially Toll of the Hounds. I'd say Stonewielder is set after events in The Bonehunters, Return of the Crimson Guard. It probably set after Reaper's Gale as well, although this novel is set on an entirely different continent so it is hard to tell. It may overlap with Toll of the Hounds, but as I mentioned above, I'm still not to clear on when events in that book actually take place. Before taking on this book it is probably best to have read Return of the Crimson Guard and Erikson's books up to Reapers Gale before tackling this one. I don't think reading Erikson beyond book seven will not spoil this novel for you however.
Set almost entirely on the relatively isolated Korel subcontinent, Stonewielder is definitely one of the more focussed Malazan novels. A lot of the earlier books in the series are spread out all over the Malazan world and its warrens. This book only has one minor story line that does not tie into events in Korel. It involves Kiska, whom you may remember as one of the main characters in Night of Knives. She sets out in search of the missing mage Tayschrenn. This thread felt like a bit of a loose end for me, no doubt Esslemont means to continue her story. Although it follows up on events in Return of the Crimson Guard, it would have been nice if this story line had been a bit more relevant to events in the rest of the novel. I guess it doesn't help that the whole affair ends on a bit of a cliffhanger either.
Despite the military campaign being the focus of the book, Esslemont takes quite a different approach than in the previous novel. Relying more on divine intervention and magic that on military skills, this book is in some was the opposite of Return of the Crimson Guard. In that book, the large scale military action that formed the climax of the novel was almost too much of a good thing. This time around, the story relies less on the military action, instead showing a society crumble from its very foundations. Throughout the novel you can feel the rigid control the Lady exerts on Korel begin to crack. A situation that appears to be as robust as the very foundations of the Stormwall, escalates with incredible speed. I found this process of collapse one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel.
Another aspect of the novel I enjoyed is the pacifist theme in the book. The main religious movement challenging the rule of the Blessed Lady, is lead by the pacifist Toblakai Invanr (it has to be said though, he is dragged in kicking and screaming). Makes you wonder what Karsa would make of that. For a series that features quite a lot of battles and other forms of physical violence, that is quite an unexpected turn of events. His convictions are put to the test when he is swept up in events that can only lead to bloodshed. I thought he was one of the more interesting characters in the book. As with many of the key players in the entire series, he obviously has a past which is only partially revealed in the novel. Would be nice to learn some more of him in later books.
All in all I was quite impressed with this novel. Esslemont opens up another part of the Malazan universe we had yet to explore and does so in a more tightly plotted novel than his previous books. He manages this without loosing any of the complexities of Malazan world or the shades of grey that makes the series rise above the mass of epic fantasy novels. Perhaps not quite as much fireworks as in Return of the Crimson Guard, some readers might be disappointed by that, but definitely a worthy entry into the series. Looking forward to more Malazan goodness when Erikson's final novel in the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God, appears next year.
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2010