Gardens of the Moon
By Steven Erikson
(Special edition published by Bantam Books, 2007)
It's slightly embarrassing that while I consider epic fantasy to be my favourite sub-genre, I'm not terribly well-acquainted with what many readers claim to be the best epic series out there: Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. I actually read the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon, a few years ago. When I started to think about reading some more of the novels, I realised that I ought to re-read Gardens of the Moon because I couldn't remember much of what happens in the book.
So when I saw the special edition on sale for a paltry £3.99, I snapped it up (despite already owning a copy with the old cover). As it happens, I love the artwork for the new version even though it has sod-all to do with the story. The 'special edition' is not a revised version of the novel, but it does contain a preface by Erikson which is very interesting indeed. That's a story for another day however.
So, Gardens of the Moon. If there's a book that splits opinion more, I'd like to read it. Many readers have complained that this novel is just too damned confusing, that it just requires too much effort to read. I can see where they are coming from (and so can Erikson; he admits as much in his preface).
Make no mistake, there's a HELL of a lot going on in this novel. The premise is simple enough: The Malazan Empire is looking to conquer the ancient city of Darujhistan, the most powerful of the Free Cities of Genabackis and the only one not to have fallen to the Malazans. As the Empire and the movers and shakers of Darujhistan square up to each other, the remnants of an elite Malazan regiment - The Bridgeburners - do their best to avoid treachery on all sides and to come out of the whole conflict alive.
That doesn't sound too complicated does it? But then if you take the myriad of subplots - various gods meddling in human affairs, the awakening of an ancient power and the attempt by certain individuals to reinstate a fallen nobleman to his rightful place - suddenly you've got a bit of an epic on your hands. Make no mistake, this is a novel with the depth of the Atlantic Ocean. Admittedly at times there is almost too much happening. I did find myself having to pause now and again and think "Hang on, how do these guys know each other?" and other such things (despite the fact that I'd read the book once before). I'm not at all surprised that some readers are put off. Gardens of the Moon is not a lazy, easy read; it requires a lot of concentration. But the rewards are endless.
Take the Malazan world, for example. No half-arsed, European medieval world here. Instead, Gardens of the Moon reveals - bit by bit - a hugely detailed world, with a real sense of history. Remarkably Erikson manages to avoid large-scale exposition, yet the world still manages to come alive, gradually revealing the history, myth and legend that underpins it. It's all so epic and ambitious that you can't help but admire it. Of course, it helps that there is just so much cool stuff involved. There's a slew of races (all fabulously realised), a number of conniving gods, a well-devised magic system, ancient cities and an entire continent wracked by endless war. It's impossible not to get sucked in, not to enjoy seeing the glimpses of the world's past and realising the implications they have for the future. In short, it's a triumph.
World-building is not everything, of course (how many times have I said that before?). Fortunately, Erikson is just as skilled as characterisation and plotting as he is at worldbuilding. As mentioned above, the plot is rather convoluted but none the less engrossing for it, and there are some brilliant sequences that linger long in the memory. In fact, you almost wonder how on earth Erikson managed to cram so much action into one book. There are enough set-pieces to fill a trilogy, and their close proximity to each other means the pace of the book is relentless.
The characters are the other joy of Gardens of the Moon. Erikson is skilled at defining characters by their words and actions, rather than by use of exposition. His human characters are all wonderfully human, with their hopes and fears and flaws. Particularly impressively portrayed are Captain Paran, Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Adjunct Lorn. The horrors of war - the death, the suffering, the jaded acceptance, the steely determination, the secret hopelessness - are just reflected so well in this trio. There are a host of other memorable characters - Sorry, the recruit that hides a terrible secret; Kruppe, whose affable, bumbling manner hides significant power and Anomander Rake, probably the coolest anti-hero in epic fantasy. But the best character in the novel is Hairlock. What Erikson does with him is simply amazing, and the way his character changes is utterly engrossing to follow.
Another refreshing aspect is the prevalence of magic. Many epic fantasies make limited use of magic, but Erikson turns it up to 11. There is plenty of magic in Gardens of the Moon, and its effects are often horrific. It gives the world a dangerous edge and just raises the whole experience onto a whole different level. I mean come on, there's few things cooler than two hugely-powerful enemies engaging in an intense magic duel (unless you're one of the unfortunate soldiers to get caught in the crossfire).
I could go on about Gardens of the Moon all day. I could extol the masterly characterisation, ramble about the epic, war-torn world that is steeped in history, babble about how damn cool some of the events are in this novel, heck I could even blabber about how awesome Anomander Rake's sword is.
But I won't. Instead, I'll just make a suggestion: read Gardens of the Moon. It's not for everyone, but at least you'll know whether it's for you after a short while. And if it is, the epic fantasy genre will never be the same again.