Gardens of the Moon
by Steven Erikson
(Malazan Book of the Fallen, Vol. 1)
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Just for the record, I was way ahead of the curve on this one.
I long ago came across positive Internet reviews of Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, and the title became a perennial on the “books to buy” list I keep stashed in my wallet—perennial, because every time I updated the list, Gardens of the Moon remained, unfound, unbought and, I feared, unbuyable. The first volume in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Gardens of the Moon was released in the UK several years ago. And every review of it (and subsequent books in the series) reads like a mash note. But when I tried to order the mass market paperback from my local bookseller, I was informed that it was only available through a Canadian distributor that they didn’t deal with. So Gardens of the Moon became the elusive gem I sought whenever embarking on my periodic forays through remainder bins and used book stacks.
That is, until Tor saw fit to start releasing American editions of Erikson’s Malazan series. I was absolutely thrilled to not only finally get my hands on Gardens of the Moon, but to have it in a handsome hardcover first (American) edition. So, was it worth the wait?
Okay, this isn’t strictly a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Gardens of the Moon has a lot to recommend it and I can tell you with absolutely no compunctions to put it on your short list. But if you’re thinking in terms of traditional Fantasy, it probably won’t be what you’re expecting.
The plot wends around a cast of soldiers and mages being ground down in an endless war of conquest waged by Laseen, the Empress of the Malazan Empire. Captain Ganoes Paran is freshly arrived in the formerly free city of Pale, which has lately fallen to troops led by High Fist Dujek Onearm and a cadre of mages, but not without horrific casualties on both sides. Now the Empress has set her sights on the last and finest of the free cities, Darujhistan.
The first strike has been assigned to the Bridgeburners, an almost legendary unit of the Malazan First Army, which Ganoes has been sent to command. But he soon finds himself enmeshed in a complex web of political intrigue in which it becomes apparent that not only is the Empress trying to capture Darujhistan, but destroy the Bridgeburners in the process, as they are a remnant of the reign of the first Emperor, whom Laseen murdered to gain power.
The Malaz occupation is further threatened by rebel forces amassing in the north, led by Caladan Brood, an ascendant god who had forged an alliance with Amandor Rake, lord of the Tiste Andii, an ancient race that lives in Moon’s Spawn, a city enclosed within a floating peak of black basalt that has been seen hovering near Darujhistan of late.
Adding to these complications, Ganoes has found himself the unwitting tool of Oponn, the twin gods of Chance, who are using him in their showdown with Hood, the Lord of Shadow. Meanwhile, the rogue Malaz sorcerer Hairlock has also staged a gambit against the gods, with goals that remain uncertain.
Is your head spinning yet? And I haven’t even told you about the many denizens of Darujhistan and what they’re up to. Gardens of the Moon brings with it a complexity uncommon to most works of Fantasy and is certainly a cut above the many trite offerings that are out there.
But is it a good read? For the most part, yes. But it can also be a maddening one. Erikson does not indulge in convenient expository passages to help the reader better understand the forces at work within his world and the rules by which they operate. You must glean this information from the subtext and follow along as best as possible. It does start to gel after awhile, and the appendices at the end of the book help. But be prepared for a couple hundred pages of careful reading before the bigger picture starts to emerge. From a standpoint of craft, I applaud Erikson’s ability to let salient details fill in the blanks. But this somewhat demanding approach may turn off lazier readers expecting another heapin’ helpin’ of McFantasy.
Perhaps most notably absent from the work are the buoyant heroic overtones common in the genre. For all its medieval and magical tropes, this is, at heart, a novel about war and its consequences. Gone are gallant (and even not-so-gallant) knights, replaced by a band of weary foot soldiers, ill-used by their experiences. If you’re looking for the standard quest formula of shepherd-boy-turned-king, forget it.
That being said, there’s still magic and battle aplenty, and many genuinely likable and unlikable characters to move things along. Some of these characters are drawn with a bit more nuance than others, but none are wasted. In this aspect, Gardens of the Moon is most readily comparable to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Every player is distinct in thought and motive, and does their bit to advance the plot in meaningful ways; it’s not the cast of generic thousands you find in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, where every woman thinks men are wool-headed fools and every man finds female motivations a baffling mystery (Jordan’s characters tend to be generally stupid in this regard). And while the non-human and supernatural creatures aren’t as bizarre or eclectic as you’ll find in, say, the works of China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer, neither are they cookie cutter variations on orcs, dwarves and elves.
In fact, the only true weakness I found in the book was an instance of deus ex machina that occurs toward the end. And while it may be nitpicking to single out one act of divine intervention in a universe where gods regularly interfere in mortal lives in pursuit of their own ends, I found this one just a bit too far a field and convenient to the resolution of the plot.
This notwithstanding, Gardens of the Moon is probably one of the most compelling books to come down the pike in a long while. Erikson’s unique vision and writing chops force readers to redefine their expectations of traditional Fantasy, and do much to reinvigorate a genre plagued by mediocrity and more-of-the-same.