Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

The old stones of this road
have rung with iron
black-shod hoofs and drums

where I saw him walking
up from the sea between hills soaked red
in sunset he came, a boy among the echoes
sons and brothers all in ranks
of warrior ghosts he came to pass

where I sat on the worn final

league-stone at day's end--

his stride spoke loud all I needed

know of him on this road of stone--

the boy walks
another solder, another one

bright heart not yet cooled

to hard iron

Mother's Lament


I should preface this review by saying I'm not much of a fantasy reader. Aside from Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the only other fantasy series I've ever followed is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. That said, I like to think I can recognize good fantasy when I see it. The Malazan series is not like anything else I've ever read. Erikson uses metafiction, like the poem I've used to open this review, as well as a number of citations from fabricated histories to create a living, breathing world for his characters to inhabit. A world that geniuinely feels old.

Gardens of the Moon begins what is planned to be the ten part epic, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, chronicling the events of a brewing civil unrest threatening to tear the Malazan Empire asunder. As much as I wholeheartedly recommend this book, it's far from easily accessible. Erikson employs a third person narration that jumps back and forth among dozens of characters across any number of parallel timelines. This is not a book that holds your hand. Erikson throws the reader into a maelstrom of political intrigue and sorcery. I had to read Gardens much more intently than I'm used to in order to fully grasp all the events of the narrative. Understanding those events' repercussions and the motives of those that carry them out is even more befuddling. In the end, the density of the book only makes its finale more rewarding. I think anyone who completes this undeniably arduous journey will find themselves extremely eager to get started on part two, Deadhouse Gates.

I'll only touch on the plot, as it is too intricate to give an accurate summary. Gardens starts the series on the continent of Genabackis, across the ocean from the Malazan Empire's capital. It tells the tale of the Empire's seige of the last two Free Cities of Genabackis, Pale and Darujhistan. By the end of the novel, however, events much grander than simple imperialism have been set into motion, with the world itself hanging in the balance. I highly recommend Gardens of the Moon to anyone who loves good storytelling and being swept up in an epic. I plan to start Deadhouse Gates soon, and a review is forthcoming

In terms of writing style, it's hard for me to compare Erikson to anyone else, as I'm not well read in the fantasy genre. I can say that Erikson's ruthlessness with his own central characters fates' is similar to George R.R. Martin's. You really never know how is going to be killed or when. No one is safe, no matter how important you perceive them to the story. In the Erikson's universe, though, death is not always final. Gardens' narration of epic battles and single combat are excellently done, and Erikson's narration of violence reminds me a lot of Clive Barker. One particular scene describing a demon ripping a sorceress limb from limb in the opening chapter was reminiscent of Barker's occasionally grisly Weave World.

I'd like to make a note here about the supernatural aspect of this series. Part of the reason I'm not a big fan of fantasy (also largely why I enjoy Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire) is that I'm not crazy about magic and the supernatural. I'd much prefer to see a character taken down by a clever plot than a "focused wave of blue flame") That said, Gardens of the Moon is loaded with ageless warlocks, dragons, zombies, and hocus pocus... And I loved every page of it. I think why Gardens is so successful, and so appealing to me personally, is that all of the potentially-cringe-inducing, magicians-in-a-magical-world stuff comes across less like something out of Harry Potter and more like something out of Homer. With his clever use of faux-history and incredibly rich character development, Erikson mananges to create his own Malazan mythology. I suppose the comparisons to Homer are strengthened when you start to see Malazan's Gods (or Ascendants) becoming involved in human affairs to suit their own mysterious desires.

Highlights: The intense character development, the mythology of the series
Lowlights: The names are hilariously dorky (Sergeant Whiskeyjack? Honestly?), The way that Erikson assumes you to figure out some (ridiculously complex) things on your own. Also it inspired me to write a review where I use the word "asunder."

*I should note that Gardens of the Moon, while the first book of the series chronologically, is only one of three recommended entry points into the Malazan series. Deadhouse Gates runs on an effectively parallel timeline to Gardens and can also be used for an entry point. The fifth novel, Midnight Tides is another. Each of these novels introduces one of Erikson's three main storylines, which are expected to converge by the series' finale.


Nihil Novum said...

I started this in the bookstore. It really pulled me in. I'll probably read it at some point.

And welcome, Jim.

Nathan said...

I think you'd really like "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke. She's a big fan of filling her book with fictional history, down to footnotes on nearly every page referring to some invented event or reference book.

Nihil Novum said...

I don't know if you're to me or Jim, but Jonathan Strange is on my "to read" list as well.

Christopher said...

Fantasy names are always terrible. Also, tell me more about the zombies.

Jim said...

The late Emperor of Malazan employed the use of the army of the T'man Imass, which are these like super strong, dessicated corpse-like warriors. It's all a little confusing, as Erikson hasn't explained it all yet (if he's going to at all). But here's what I've gathered. The T'lan Imass were kinda like the precursor to humans 300,000 years ago. Then one day they became immortal. Thats about it.