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Milwaukee-based musings on books and sports
Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont is a solid addition to the Malazan world created by Esslemont and Steven Erikson. The inevitable thing to do with Esslemont’s Malazan novels is compare them to Erikson’s novels and find them lacking. After all, most (all?) of the readers of the Malazan novels were introduced to the shared world by Erikson, so Esslemont will always have the stigma of being the “other guy” writing in the same setting. Is it fair to compare one to the other, knowing that Esslemont and Erikson jointly created the world, characters, and stories of Malaz? Fair or not, for me, its inevitable, at least for the time being.
I started to write that Stonewielder is a solid addition to the Malazan world, but fails to live up Erikson’s novels. But that’s not quite right. If Stonewielder had Steven Erikson’s name on the cover, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more or less than I did, but I would have regarded it differently as it compares to the rest of Erikson’s Malaz books. Its not my favorite, its not the best written, but I’d be hard pressed to say its was the worst of the bunch. But with Esslemont’s name on the cover, my immediate reaction is to put it behind all of Erikson’s novels.
Why then my immediate reaction that Stonewielder is solid, but fails to live up to Erikson’s novels? Simply, Esslemont “sounds” too much like Erikson in his writing and can only pale in comparison, even when his writing is a good approximation of Erikson’s. Stonewielder reads like Erikson-lite, which is both good and bad. The good is the relative lack of introspective, philosophical interior monologues. (See Tolls the Hounds). The bad is that characters, even those not shared by the authors, don’t resonate with the depth that Erikson provides. Which is not to say the characterization is poor, just that it can’t match what Erikson does. Many of Esslemont’s characters fall short of three-dimensional… let’s call them two-and-a-half dimensional. I found myself having to check the Dramatis Personae when the view point shifted between characters… was Ivanr the guy with the army of reform or was he the assessor? A strength of all the Malzan novels is a refusal to spoon-feed back-story to the reader, but oftentimes, Esslemont is too stingy with the back-story and the characters never develop an individuality so that they can be remembered. Instead, I found myself remembering the setting and backtracking from there to recall the characters associated with that setting. Particularly disappointing for me was the return of a much-loved (by me, at least) character from Seven Cities. I wanted to recognize this character from his actions and words, but instead had to rely on his association with a particular ascendant and his choice of weapons to make the identification.
All that being said, Stonewielder is a good read that builds to an exciting conclusion. The reader is reintroduced to several characters including Greymane and Kyle and several members of the Crimson Guard following the events Return of the Crimson Guard and meets several new characters. Multiple seemingly disparate plot threads that are spread all over the previously unseen (to the reader) continent of Fist or Korel are all neatly woven into the action-packed and thought-provoking conclusion. For fans of “stuff happening” or “stuff being explained” with respect to the overall story of Malaz, they should be happy with details about the Korelri, the Stormwall, and our old friend, the Crippled God. But, as always with a fantasy series worth its salt, more questions are added or left unanswered than actually get answered.
3.5 stars (out of 5)
Hoping for a quick read before the Towers of Midnight arrives (on Monday if Amazon’s track shipment is to be believed), I picked up Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist. I just didn’t have the time or energy this week to pick up one of the K.J. Parker books sitting in my to-read pile, knowing that I was sure to get wrapped up in it and therefore either have to put off starting the Towers of Midnight or put the Parker book on hold.
The title, the 1982 copyright date, and the fact that it is “Volume 1 in the New York Times bestselling Riftwar Saga,” all led me to believe that Magician: Apprentice would be a quick moving, but slightly dated, tale of a young boy learning to be a magician. I was hoping (for better or worse) for something that would have appealed to me as a teenager, when I was first getting into fantasy: the Belgariad, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, something of that ilk.
I enjoy the old fantasy standby of the young boy who is destined for greatness but unaware of his special powers, ancestry, gift for leadership, etc. There’s a reason the coming of age story is a classic. Sure, we’ve all met this character time and again: Rand al’Thor, Luke Skywalker, Garion, Harry Potter, Kvothe, Arlen. He’s an old friend. We know where he’s going but its a good place to go. He’ll get into some childish scrape, use his head or heart to get out of the situation, and soon be thrust out into the wider world where he eventually takes his place as one of the most important people (if not the most important person) of his time.
Magician: Apprentice starts strong. We meet Pug, a kitchen boy in the castle Crydee. He gets caught in a storm and spends the night at the cottage of Kulgan, magician to Duke Borric. Pug is able to see a vision in Kulgan’s crystal ball, alerting Kulgan to Pug’s potential as a magician. On the day of Choosing, when the boys of Crydee are either selected as an apprentice to a tradesman or consigned to life as a farmer or fisherman, Pug is the last boy standing unselected. Afraid his dreams of being a soldier or woodsman are about to be swept away, Pug is shocked when Kulgan takes Pug as his apprentice. However, Pug can’t harness his magical abilities through his studies with Kulgan. It is only in a moment of extreme terror and stress that he is able use his magic to kill goblins attacking himself and Princess Carline.
Hokey-yes. Simple-yes, especially when compared to Martin or Erikson or even when compared to the Eye of the World. At this point, I thought Magician: Apprentice was going to be Pawn of Prophecy, but with more focus on the magic and less on the sword, and with much less tromping across the entire continent. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Instead, Magician: Apprentice takes off in a completely unexpected direction. A warlike alien people are appearing near Crydee through “rifts” to another universe. The Duke and a select band (which, of course, includes Pug) must set off to warn the Prince. And in setting off to warn the Prince, Magician: Apprentice leaves behind any focus on Pug being an apprentice magician. The focus is still on Pug, but he seems to be less of an apprentice magician and more of a young squire learning to be a soldier. Pug’s inability to use his magic at will seriously hampers his studies as a magician, but there is much more focus on his learning to use a sword and on the type of armor he wears than on anything that resembles magic.
Pug and company tromp across the western part of a continent, sail across a sea, and meet the Prince. Then, they must warn the King of the alien invaders. So, Pug and company tromp across the middle part of the continent, sail across a sea and meet the King. Then, they must return to the west to fight the alien invaders. Thankfully, Magician: Apprentice leaves out the return sail, tromp, sail, tromp and takes the reader directly to a war camp somewhere in the northwest. It was around this point where I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get the story I was expecting. I expected Pug’s story to be like Harry Potter’s or Kvothe’s but with a single master magician teaching him rather than an entire magic school faculty. I expected magicians. I expected a focus on the master-apprentice relationship. And I wasn’t getting these things. Which is a problem in a book titled Magician: Apprentice.
Now, I can’t tell you if this problem gets solved in the last 100 pages or so, because I haven’t finished the book yet. And I’m not sure if I’m going to finish Magician: Apprentice. The title and first 100 pages or so set up one story, a coming of age story of an apprentice magician, and what you get in the next 200 pages is a completely different story, a story of unexpected invaders. Maybe I’d feel differently about the story of a kingdom trying to fight off unknown alien invaders, if I had seen it coming. The change in the direction prevents the reader from having any expectations of where the story is going. I knew where the magician’s coming of age story was going. I picked this book up because I thought I knew where it would go. Instead, its going somewhere else. And I’m not sure its anywhere I’m interested in going.
1 star (out of 5)