Over the past five years, Canadian writer Ian Cameron Esslemont has changed from being known as “the other guy” involved in the creation of the Malazan setting that friend and co-creator Steven Erikson has established to becoming a respected writer of heroic fantasy in his own right. In his third novel, Stonewielder, Esslemont’s writing not only complements narrative elements that Erikson had established in his own series, but he expands upon central mysteries surrounding the setting and some of its cast of characters. One of those characters, Greymane, becomes a hero not because of what he has accomplished but rather for what he refused to do, despite the deep personal toll that this decision has taken on him over the past decade. Esslemont’s development of this character is handled well and the concluding narrative resembles strongly some of the more poignant moments in the Malazan novels. Stonewielder is Esslemont’s best novel to date and it is one of the strongest multi-volume heroic fantasies published in 2010.
Yet opinions can change over the course of two years and a re-read. Sometimes, appreciation can lessen, but other times, even a largely-enjoyed work can reveal new layers to the reader. During my recent re-read of Stonewielder, what I discovered was that Esslemont here provides a greater depth to the overarching story and to his characters than I had first noticed.
My earlier short commentary barely touches the surface of what I liked about Greymane's character. Although his scenes in Return of the Crimson Guard hinted at the potential of having a conflicted, mysterious character confront his past, here in Stonewielder this internal conflict is shown in a way that is subtler than what I typically expect from an epic fantasy, as there is no extended angst on display. Yet there are some interesting parallels to Greymane here. Esslemont devotes a lot of time developing characters introduced in his earlier novels, including the ex-Claw Kiska (first seen in Night of Knives), the former Crimson Guard recruit Kyle, and the ex-champion Ivanr. Each of these characters' conflicts were more interesting the second time around, perhaps due to knowing that in at least one case, there would be more in the subsequent Esslemont volume, Orb Sceptre Throne. Their arcs felt more important than any of Return of the Crimson Guard's subplots, perhaps due to a clear, more focused narrative here in Stonewielder.
The thematic treatment of contentious issues such as religious fervor and military occupation is deeper than what I've come to see as the norm for epic fantasy novels. The cult of the Blessed Lady, here revealed to be the main reason why the Malazan invasion of 30 years ago stalled, contains enough parallels to various forms of real-world religious fundamentalism for readers from divers cultures to draw their own conclusions. Yet there are few cartoonish adherents. Faith, even if it may be in a questionable form, is not denigrated but instead is shown to be a complex system of interactions between believers and the objects of veneration. Furthermore, this issue can be seen as a complement to similar questions of faith that appear in previous Malazan novels and may also be seen as a foreshadowing of what occurs near the end of The Crippled God.
Although not developed to quite the same depth, the effects of occupation on both the occupier and the occupied is shown here, through the "gone native" Malazan Sixth Army as much as the actions of the Lady's followers (and perhaps the Lady "herself"). Despite glimpses of something truly promising, there were some times where it felt that the scenes on the island of Fist could have been developed even further. This is not to say that it was poorly-developed but rather that I wish that even more space had been devoted to this subplot, as it would seem to dovetail nicely with the theme present in the overall series regarding the horrors and inglorious nature of warfare and violence.
Yet despite the missed opportunities to elaborate further upon issues that seem to be integral to both Erikson and Esslemont's novels, Stonewielder is the strongest novel to date written by Esslemont. Memorable scenes abound here and those who want to know more about the Malazan world, particularly Korel, will find a lot of new information (and new mysteries) to digest. For those like myself who need more than just "cool revelations" in order to enjoy a story, there is enough here that rewards those who choose to revisit the novel (and the other books in the overall series) after a year or two. Re-reading after having read the subsequent Malazan novels (The Crippled God, Orb Sceptre Throne, Forge of Darkness) led to a greater comprehension of what had transpired and it also provided a bit of light to that "fog of war" element that both Erikson and Esslemont utilize to keep readers guessing as to what the import might be to a particular statement of passage. Even when some of those mysteries are resolved elsewhere, there is still enough to generate an even greater appreciation for what the authors have created in their works.