Humans have been making up stories about heroes and gods since before we even had a written language. They not only served as the means to explain the world around us; the adventures described were used by each society as benchmarks against which people could judge their own behaviour. Heroes gave us characteristics we could aspire to emulate while the foibles of the gods served as object lessons with regards to having to deal with the consequences of our actions. In a kind of inverted social structure the mortal heroes of most epic tales were usually paragons of moral virtue while the gods and goddesses were subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us.
The most drastic change that has occurred in story telling down through the years has been the devolution of their protagonists from figures of noble birth, who either suffered from some moral weakness causing their downfall and were defined as tragic or were examples to be emulated, to being men and women much the same as those reading about them. There is nothing cut and dried about the anti-hero of modern fiction. Neither completely good nor evil, he and she muddle their way through life doing the best they can. While in some ways this makes for more interesting reading, as audiences identify with these figures more readily than any paragons of virtue or nobly flawed individuals, how do these “regular folk” hold up when placed in epic situations? Is it indeed possible to have proper epic fiction without the epic heroes to go with them?
While there have been any number of science fiction and fantasy works written which have attempted to fill the void of the great heroic tales of the past, there have been precious few which have been able to give answer to that question while retaining the qualities that made the originals so riveting. By no means have I read every epic fantasy series published in the last century, but to my mind there has only been one fictional world created which matches up favourably without an epic hero to carry the load. Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have combined forces over the last decade or so to bring to life the world populated by the Malazan Empire and a multitude of other civilizations, gods, ancient beings, demons, and assorted other types. While the gods and goddesses continue the tradition of their Greek and Roman predecessors with their all too human behaviour, those mortals populating the tales aren’t liable to be confused with either Ulysses or Rama anytime soon.
While Erikson’s tenth and final instalment in the series will be published in February, the recently published Stonewielder, from Random House Canada, represents only Esslemont’s third entry. (Won’t be released in the US until May 2011.) Like all massive empires, the Malazans have been fighting wars on many fronts; at home and abroad and on the human plane of existence and alternate realities as well. So while Erikson has been concentrating on reporting from one half of the battle, Esslemont has been going back over the history of the Empire to help show how it arrived at the point it’s at now and reporting back on action that have only been vague rumours before.
Such is the case with this title as he picks up the story of the characters he was following in his previous title, The Return Of The Crimson Guard. At times throughout the telling of the story of the Malazan Empire we’ve heard of the continent of Korel; the mysterious Storm Riders who assail it and the Stormwall that guards against them and the failed efforts of the Malazan Empire to subdue them completely. Stonewielder is the name given the disgraced ex-Malazan military commander, Greymane, who led the first invasion and was introduced in Return of the Crimson Guard, by the indigenous people of Korel because of a gift he received from the Storm Riders. The gift, a great stone sword, as well as the fact he met and talked with the Storm Riders, are the reasons Greymane is considered a traitor by both the Korelians and the Malazan Empire. The former is because he treated with their ancient enemies, and the latter because after the meeting Greymane inexplicably resigned his commission and deserted. Now Greymane is given the chance to redeem himself and is named to head the new invasion force being put together by the Empire.
However, this is no mere recounting of an invasion, nor is it the story of one person’s quest. For while Greymane and his young companion Kyle, who also is the owner of a sword blessed with the powers of an unusual being, have their roles to play in the events that unfold, Esslemont is working with a much broader canvas. Not only does he offer us multiple perspectives of the Malazan invasion by letting us see it through the eyes of characters as diverse as a new recruit in the army, the High Mage for the invasion and one of Greymane’s senior officers, but does the same for the forces arrayed against them. Korel is an archipelago comprised of various island nations who are united by two things; their need for the protection provided by the Stormwall and their worship of a single deity know as The Lady.
The two we learn are directly intertwined as it was The Lady who gifted settlers with the power to build the wall. All she asked in exchange was that they worship no one but her and eradicate any and all other existing beliefs they found in the region. While this seemed like a good deal at the time to those few attempting to fend off the Storm Riders, and who cared about the beliefs of the savages who lived there already, in the present not everybody is as convinced of its benefits. For The Chosen, those who lead the defence of the Stonewall, there are no doubts. Every winter they force thousands of prisoners to stand chained to the wall and face both the elements and the Riders. The Lady has given them the power to protect their people, and they see nothing wrong with doing whatever is necessary to carry their mission out in her name.
However, the further inland one travels things aren’t so cut and dried. While the ruling class have no trouble maintaining the status quo, dissatisfaction has grown among the peasant farmers and the poor in the cities to the point where an army of rebellion has been raised. In the past attempts at rebellion have been quashed with ease, but this time looks to be different as they are not only better organized militarily, they have allied themselves with the powers of the indigenous people who predate The Lady. For while The Lady has been able to quash most conventional wielders of magic, they seem to be able to operate under her radar and provide some magical assistance to the rebellion.
Things aren’t any better away from the battle fronts for the establishment, as a magistrate’s investigation into decades of mysterious deaths among the young people of his city offers proof of something vile at the heart of the belief in The Lady. With fissures starting to appear in their power base, the church begins to crack down even harder on any dissent. Playing on people’s fears of the Malazan invasion they incite mob violence against anyone who might bring The Lady’s “disfavour” down on Korel. Without The Lady we are doomed, so in these times of trouble we must crack down even harder on those who would preach anything but absolute devotion to Her.
Esslemont deftly guides us through multiple settings, plot lines and characters as he carefully fills in the details of his immense canvas. Whether we’re standing the Wall with The Chosen, riding the waves with the Malazans, marching with the rebel army or skulking in the back streets of the cities, we learn both a little bit more about our location and have the plot advanced a little further. What’s more, the characters he has chosen to be our guides at each stop along the way become more and more real to us and in the process help give a deeper understanding of the world they move in.
What’s most amazing about Stonewielder is the way in which Esslemont takes the epic sweep of history and is able to reduce it down to a human level. The manipulations of gods and goddesses are like ripples whose effects touch both the humblest of foot soldiers and the leaders of countries equally. We not only read about the great events that are the result of a deity’s actions, but live through them with each of the characters in this book. Where epic tales in the past would recount the heroic deeds of those involved, here people slog through mud, scavenge for food and water, fight to survive and express their doubts about their so-called destinies.
Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, this makes them all the more heroic and all the less savoury depending on how they react to their circumstances. It’s just as easy for a man or woman to choose to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. In creating his characters Esslemont has been very careful to make sure its those choices that define them. Few of the people we spend any real time with are so one dimensional that you’ll be able to say he is evil or she is good; instead it’s only through what they do that we truly know them.
Stonewielder is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an immensely satisfying one. For not only is it as exciting an adventure story filled with great battle scenes and descriptions of combat unlike any you’ll read elsewhere, the sea battles alone make it worth reading. There’s also an intimacy you’ll not often find in a story of this type. It is epic fiction at its finest, yet proof positive that you don’t need the heroes of yore for a story of this scope to hold a reader’s attention. In fact I’d say it is just the opposite. For once you start reading you aren’t going to want to stop — and you might just find yourself staying up half the night finishing what you’ve started.