Any attempt to encapsulate the plot of a book set in the joint Steven Erikson/Ian C. Esslemont world of Malaz is a venture inherently more detailed than can be delivered in a thousand work blog post. Stonewielder by Esslemont is no exception to this. A sprawling narrative that spans a continent, the novel neither lacks in scope nor quantity of characters.
The world building that has spanned Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, several novellas, the new Kharkanas trilogy and Esslemont’s own narrative strain stretching into his third book remains the strength of the book. Featuring the island of Fist and the Stormwall of Korel, Esslemont explores a portion of the universe largely untouched by previous novels. The legendary Stormwall gets special attention early in the novel and the author gives special care to the wall’s description. It’s a unique feature with an interesting back story. It features, as in other works, the unusual background in archeology that the author brings to his writing. It’s clearly a reason why the world building is so strong and the setting so vivid.
The novel has various story lines that intersect and diverge throughout the novel. The weakness of Stonewielder is mostly found in the weakness of two of the prominent story lines: the narrative that tracks Fist native Assessor Bakune and the narrative that tracks the book’s namesake Greymane.
The former is a remarkably dull story of a dutiful and honest city official. Tasked with “assessing” blame or lack thereof in various incidents within his jurisdiction, Bakune’s journey over the course of the novel shows little character growth and endless good luck. From bit-player to major local power, Bakune’s thread of the book does little to move the novel as a whole forward. Instead it acts as background information on the local demigod. In order to establish a more clearly evil character, which the various characters can battle, Bakune follows the doings of some of the priests and servants actions in the name of their demigod. They are uncharacteristically without nuance for a Malazan book.
The narrative thread featuring Greymane does not lack for action but is undone by a plotting too opaque for dissection. Greymane is little more than a brooding , harsh general throughout all but the climax of the book. His thread fails as a story of redemption, which is where a late twist seems to try and drive the character. In a frustrating waste of a character with tremendous back story, Greymane introduces the reader to a new character who quickly surpasses him in interest and charisma.
The dominant narrative of the book centers on bringing to heel a rogue element of the Malazan army. It works as a welcome respite from the troubled musings of the Stormwall section or the dull righteousness of Assessor Bakune. The conclusion of the battles fragment badly toward the end and makes for a less satisfying resolution through a more diffuse climax.
Perhaps on par with the world building, however, Stonewielder excels at the re-introduction of previously met characters. Esslemont picks up dangling story lines from portions of Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen that hadn’t been seen for seven or eight stories. It makes for a few excellent reveals (Jheval, Warran, L’oric) and a welcome return of a few big players (High Mage Tayschrenn, Admiral Nok). The return of familiar names makes for fun moments amid tense portions of the book. It also helps to secure Stonewielder both as part of the larger Malazan world and, specifically, the novels place in time relative to the other books.
Stonewielder feels like a book of transition. The resolution of the book is less of a conclusive end for all but a few characters and more of a pass through of familiar names on their way to bigger and better things. That’s a weak indictment of a Malazan novel known for plots that can arc through five books but Stonewielder is less compelling as a self-contained novel than other Malazan books that similarly acted as transitions for the larger plot arc. Whether justified, the choice to link the novel so directly to Greymane via the title proves to be a real weak spot for the novel when that particular thread ends so unsatisfactorily. The novel has some functionality as part of the larger series but it will not be remembered as a pillar.
Rating: 3 out of 5