Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gardens of the Moon - Steven Erikson

The tenth and final book in Steven Erikson's Malazan series, The Crippled God is expected in early 2011. I have no hopes of rereading this massive series but there is some time left before the last volume, concluding an enormous tale begun in Dust of Dreams, is published, so I thought I'd make a beginning at least. I read Gardens of the Moon for the first time four years ago and it left me thoroughly confused. In fact, things didn't begin to make sense until the third book in the series, Memories of Ice. Four years, with eight other Malazan books and three novellas under my belt (not counting the ones by Ian C. Esslemont), the book makes a lot more sense. I might not make it though the whole series but I think some more rereading is in order before The Crippled God hits the shelves.

As many other reviewers have observed, Erikson likes to throw the reader right in the middle of the story. The book opens with the confrontation that ends the siege of Pale, the latest target of the expansion of the powerful and ever growing Malazan empire. The empire faces formidable forces arrayed against it but mere victory is not enough. The empress means to achieve more in this final assault of the city. In an explosion of magic an entire Malazan army is retired, several members of the old emperor's elite are removed and the sorcerous, floating fortress of Moon Spawn is sent packing. But all of this is achieved at a price.

Those who pay most are the Bridgeburners. An elite military formation under the old emperor, they've received every dangerous job available under the new empress in hopes of culling their numbers. The siege of Pale does just that, when the dust clears only thirty or forty are left alive. To correct this slight miscalculation, a squad of Bridgeburners is sent ahead to the next target of the Malazan expansion. Once twelve free cities could be found on the continent of Genebackis, now Darujhistan is the only one left. And not for long if the empress has anything to say about it. The Bridgeburners have their own ideas about what should be accomplished in Darujhistan. The politics, intrigue, assassination and betrayal that rule the Malazan Empire do not stop just because one happens to be outside its borders.

Writing a synopsis for this book is a pain. There are an awful lot of story lines that start in the first hundred or so pages of the book. I finally decided to skip the prologue and first chapter entirely. These hint at the events that resulted in the take-over by empress Laseen and the resentment caused by this action. Although Kellanved is referred to as dead, death is not always final in the world of Malaz. You have to be pretty sharp to catch the relationship between the events that took place some ten years prior to the main part of this novel and the conflict between Laseen and the god Shadowthorn. Over the course of the books the general history of the empire will become clear but mostly the rise to power and rule of Kellanved is the stuff of legends. Only Ian C. Esslemont's Night of Knives is set during the last days of the reign of Kellanved.

Erikson hints at a much larger history than the brief era of the Malazan Empire. We meet creatures who's lifespans are measured in tens of thousands of years. Laseen's undead army of T'lan Imass for instance, have a history that stretches back three hundred thousand years. Their technological development is frozen in the Palaeolithic, I guess this is where Erikson's background as an archaeologist shows. I wonder if Erikson used Neanderthal culture as an inspiration for this elder race. Despite their primitive technology they have a surprisingly complex magical and spiritual life. In later books it is hinted that (some of) the Imass chose not the develop their technology beyond the hunter-gatherer level. The Imass have an interesting history, something to keep en eye out for in later books. The only Imass character in this book, Onos T'oolan gives us some tantalizing hints but leaves even more unsaid.

Gardens of the Moon has a different feel than the rest of Erikson's Malazan novel. It has quite a complex history. The world of Malaz started out as a role-playing environment which then developed into a movie script. When that didn't sell, Erikson wrote the novel. Most of it was written in 1991 and 1992 but it wasn't actually published until 1999. After the publication of Gardens of the Moon, Erikson wrote nine novels and four novellas in the Malazan environment in eleven years time. The world of Malaz was obviously further developed in the mean time. There are also some inconsistencies between this book and the rest of the series. In Toll of the Hounds we will return to Darujhistan but not all characters seems to have aged the appropriate amount of time. One other detail I noticed is the question of exactly how many warrens Quick Ben can access. There are probably a few more minor thing that I missed in this reread.

The biggest difference is in some of the characters though. What struck me most is how Anomander Rake was portrayed as something of a villain early on in the book. Erikson adds a touch of grey to his character later on but when we first meet him he comes across as cold, brutal and violent. A far cry from the character we see carrying an immense burden on behalf of his people in Toll of the Hounds. The role of the Malazan High Mage Tayschrenn seems to reverse as well. From the evil, scheming wizard, attempting to do the dirty work of the empress and suspected of aiming for the throne himself, he transforms into a misunderstood servant of the empire we see in Memories of Ice.They were not things that really bothered me but it does show that even Steven Erikson has limits when it comes to keeping all the details of his creation straight.

The tone of the later books will also change a bit. Although Erikson is no afraid to make fun of the genre in general, mostly though the characters of Kruppe and Crokus, Gardens of the Moon does not have as much satire in it as later books (I'm thinking about the story of Karsa Olong in House of Chains and the rabidly capitalist culture of Lether in Midnight Tides here). Given the differences with later books and the highly complex and far from complete story offerd in the fist book, Erikson doesn't make it easy on the reader to decide whether or not pursuing this series is worth their time. To make matters even more complicated the next book in the series, Deadhouse Gates, is set on a different continent with an almost entirely new set of characters. Not until the third book do we pick up the story line of Gardens of the Moon again and are some of the questions we're left with after Gardens of the Moon answered.

Gardens of the Moon is the first book in a series that took epic fantasy to a new level. It's a story painted on a canvas so large it defies belief. It is also a story that requires a patient reader who does not expect to be spoon-fed the facts the Malazan world. Gardens of the Moon is a pretty challenging read and as the series progresses it will be come only more challenging. Some of the story lines are more or less completed in this book but Erikson throws in heaps of names, places and references to events that can't possibly make sense to a reader who hasn't read at least some of the subsequent novels. Even the poetry at the beginning of the chapters is full of them. Given the fact that Erikson couldn't have known if there would be a sequel when writing it, or even if he would sell it in the first place, he set out on a very ambitious project. Gardens of the Moon is by no means a perfect book, Erikson has grown considerably as a writer throughout the series, but the outlines of what he would achieve in later volumes are already there. It's the beginning of a series that is a landmark in epic fantasy, a book that leaves the reader with so much more questions than answers, but also a book that covers the first steps of a fascinating journey. I liked it the first time around but this second read was a lot more rewarding. So if you're a new reader, hang in there, it's worth it.

Book Details
Title: Gardens of the Moon
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 729
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81217-3
First published: 1999


  1. Warning: This may be a dumb question!

    I love the Song of Ice and Fire series by GRRM and am about to get started with the Malazan series as it seems to have some similarities i.e military fantasy, dark magic etc. My question is that since the series seems to be not in chronological order, is it a must to read it in sequence? This question also arises from need, coz i am currently in possession of book 3 (Memories of Ice) and unable to get my hands on the first two.. Please suggest! :)

    Great reviews btw.

  2. Some people read them out of publication order. Personally I wouldn't recommend it but it is not impossible. Memories of Ice is the direct sequel to Gardens of the Moon however. You need to have read Gardens of the Moon before Memories of Ice or a lot of the events in book 3 won't make sense.

  3. This isn't the discworld series, you actually really should read the books in order of publication (although the placement of the Esslemont books can be debated). I suppose you could argue DG and MOI could be switched, but Erikson meant for you to read them in the order he published. For example, I'm pretty sure there's a reference at the end of MOI regarding Coltaine which would be a spoiler for DG.

  4. I'm just half way into this, and I don't really agree with your assessment of the Anomander character being inconsistent. When he first shows, meeting with Baruk, it clearly shows that he cares a lot for his own (helpless) people in the city on Moon's Spawn. Just a minor remark of course, your review is helpful in clearing the fog!

  5. Keep an eye on that character in later books. He turns out to be one of the more interesting players.