I don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.
That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.
So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.
I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.
Gardens Of The Moon is the first of a 10 book series – The Malazan Book Of The Fallen – set in a universe Steven Erikson co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, originally in a role-playing game context. So far, Esslemont has written 7 novels too, and they do tie into Erikson’s work. Here’s a chart of how all their books relate to each other, with a suggested reading order. That chart hints at complexity, and Gardens Of The Moon is in itself complex too. Nothing is spoon-fed to the reader, nothing explained. Erikson puts it like this himself:
These are not lazy books. You can’t float through, you just can’t. Even more problematic, the first novel begins halfway through a seeming marathon – you either hit the ground running and stay on your feet or you’re toast.
There are countless points of view, and a plethora of characters. Even in the final 100 pages I still had a hard time keeping certain characters apart. That’s not because Erikson is a bad writer – on the contrary, it’s because he’s a good one: he doesn’t feel the need to endow each and every character with an easily recognizable trait. Spies and assassins do look alike, as they need to blend in, in real life too.
This is outrageous, epic high fantasy. There’s an insane mage that’s a small wooden puppet. There are hounds a thousand years old, and as big as horses. There’s witches, dragons, shape-shifters, thieves, demons, dead emperors. There’s a sword that has a prison inside it. There’s elder gods that feel lost in the mortal world. There’s an immortal 300,000 thousand year old skeleton with remnants of leathery skin and ropey muscles and a flint sword. There’s spells, potions, other dimensions. There are characters named Whiskeyjack and Sorry and Anomander Rake. Erikson takes all the ingredients of the genre, all the tropes, all the worn out moulds, adds something indefinable, and sculpts something spectacular – something singular that feels fully fleshed out, natural, confident, something with tremendous depth and a vast history behind it. I know of nothing like it, not even Lord Of The Rings.
And despite its epic outrageousness, it does feel like it’s about regular characters we can relate to. The scale is grand, but the storytelling in this book is about a limited piece on the map. That said, if Erikson could have improved one thing, it would be character development. Not that there’s none of it, or that characters are mere cardboard, but it doesn’t seem to have been his main focus. But that’s just a small complaint – not even a complaint really, as it didn’t bother me at all while I was reading, it’s just something that popped in my head in retrospect, writing this review. Moreover, most of the book’s action takes place in a couple of weeks: in such a short period most people do not ‘develop’ in real life either.
The pacing is quite remarkable: especially in the final chapters, the constant shifting of viewpoints is a treat. The book’s finale is a constant flow of cliffhangers: Erikson changes character a lot, often even after a page or even half a page. It works really well, and it conveys a sense of urgency. It’s the ultimate showcase of why certain stories work better with a vast, complex setting of characters. Erikson is fully in command of his writing, not a lot of people could have pulled that off. On the sentence level: the prose is good, but nothing remarkable, Erikson is no poet. He doesn’t need to be, there’s more than enough to feast upon.
The only drawback: do I really want 9 more books added to my TBR-pile? The next book, Deadhouse Gates, even is nearly a 1000 pages. Luckily, this particular story more or less ties up neatly. The story does continue – the one of Gardens Of The Moon mainly in the third book, Memories Of Ice – but from what I gather from other reviews, The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is not one big novel spread out over 10 parts. Phew.
So yes indeed – if you still need to be explicitly prompted after that insane small wooden puppet – Gardens Of The Moon is rightfully counted among the defining books of the genre. It is a must read for any serious fantasy fan.