This is the third contribution by Ian C. Esslemont to the Malazan universe that he created alongside Steven Erickson. Erickson made this world hugely popular with his (now completed) sprawling and epic and sometimes infuriatingly meandering 10-volume series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen (I’ve still to read the last one, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be mind-blowingly awesome). Esslemont jumped on board the book-writing train about half-way through this series. His books have so far been much looser than Erickson’s, and each is billed simply as “a novel of the Malaz”.
If you’re a fan of epic fantasy and you haven’t yet read the first Erickson novel (Gardens of the Moon), then I would strongly recommend that you rectify that as soon as possible. The mythos is ludicrously deep; the characters are as gritty and realistic as the action; and everything, from the size of the world to the power level of the mages, is dialled all the way up to eleven on the epic scale.
I enjoyed Esslemont’s first – Night of Knives – which took place over a single night of intrigue, danger, and general excitement, but recognised that the writing wasn’t quite up to scratch. It was his freshman effort, though, so I was happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. The second focussed on the Crimson Guard — a powerful mercenary group sworn to undo the Malazan Empire. I don’t recall what I thought of the writing in that one, but I know it wasn’t anything more than workmanlike. Unfortunately, that same adjective can also be applied to Stonewielder. Workmanlike. Solid. Uninspiring. A bit…flat.
Which is a shame, because Esslemont has a very interesting story on his hands. In a highly out-of-the-way spot (the continent of Fist/Korel), the last Malazan expedition that managed to land has gone rogue and set itself up as an independent conquering power. This continent is under the sway of a fairly evil god-type person (the Lady) who quashes the influence of other god-types (basically killing anyone who tries to do magic). She’s managed to convince the Korelri to build a bloody massive wall (and guard it to boot) in order to stop a race of sea people making their way to the centre of the continent. The Malazan emperor sends an army to find out what’s going on and to bring the renegade Malazan to heel. Things do not exactly go to plan.
I liked what Esslemont did with Night of Knives. There’s no out-epic-ing Erickson, so it made sense for Esslemont to approach story telling along a different axis. Accordingly, Night of Knives was almost vignette-like, detailing the events of just 24 hours (events that had extremely important consequences for the Erickson books) and including many fewer points of view. I think it’s unfortunate, though, that he seems to have moved away from this. Maybe he feels that readers expect a book set in the Malazan universe to cleave to the same style that Erickson uses, but, frankly, I’m not sure he has the chops to juggle all of the narrative strands and points of view that Erickson does.
Many of the characters are flat, motivations are bamboozling, and plot lines are full of holes or left dangling like [something dangly]. And that prose! It’s just so unrelentingly…prosaic. I was left unmoved when one of the main characters sacrificed himself, I was left unexcited during the thickest fighting, and I was left unawed by what should have been awesome (a ‘natural’ disaster of unsurpassed scale).
The book is not without merits, though. We get to meet characters and races and concepts that we know and like and the scope of events is pleasingly broad, Importantly, these events seem to be fairly significant for the overall story arc (including Erickson’s work) — that is, they don’t just seem like side-quest filler.
Can I recommend it? Certainly not for those who aren’t already hooked on Erickson, and not even whole-heartedly for those that are. I’m glad I read it, but I think that speaks more of my completist tendencies than the quality of the book.