I can hardly believe I bought a book that’s part of a 10-book series, and yet I did – because of a Review at SF site that called the book an “astounding debut”. And it was pretty astounding, and I don’t regret buying it the least.
Gardens of the Moon is a book of fantasy in the truest sense of the world. Erikson (and his co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont) have put their fantasies to work and imagined a fantastical world.
The result is a complex, dense, sprawling, opaque book. There are lots of people and peoples, as well as gods, demi-gods, and other kinds of entities. There are varied, lively cities, hundreds of thousands of years of history, a system of magic not like anything else, and much more. It is clear that a great deal of work has gone into this world. (I found out afterwards that part of the explanation is that the world was created for an RPG and the books came later.)
The setting: The Malazan empire is at war, aiming to conquer a neighbouring continent. The war is not going well, but nevertheless the empire has conquered the next but last Free City on the continent, and is setting its sights on the last one. Meanwhile tension is growing within the empire and the army – the new empress doesn’t trust anyone from the old guard and tries to get rid of them all.
The plot is almost impossible to summarize. There are many threads, crossing and meeting and then separating again. Each one on its own is complex enough to be hard to describe in brief. There is the thread of a squad of elite soldiers sent out to sabotage Darujhistan, the last Free City, in preparation for conquest. There’s the thread of a young army captain trying to catch up with them to save them from the Empress’s plan to get them killed. There is an assassins’ war, there is a group of magicians chasing another, mad, magician, there are attempts to revive an ancient all-powerful monster, and attempts to hinder these attempts, and so on. Oh, and then there are the various gods, meddling in all these affairs: Greek style gods who take a close interest in the mortal world, and have a tendency to manifest physically and push events in their desired direction.
It’s intense, to say the least. And Erikson’s writing style underscores the intensity. The reader is thrown right in, in the middle of the story. It’s sink or swim. There are no info dumps: you either figure it out as the time and the pages pass, or you don’t. Refreshingly challenging.
After the first few chapters, just when I thought I wasn’t up to the challenge, the threads started coming together, and I felt I understood roughly what was going on. Then the story got more complex again, and then some things got their explanations again. The complexity stayed just this side of being unmanageable.
The complexity of the book is simultaneously its strength and its weakness. It makes for a thrilling read, an immersive world, a captivating story. But it also makes for work. This is a cult book rather than mass market fantasy.
This is not a book to be read in one sitting. I felt I had to put it down now and again so my brain could rest. But it was well worth it. I’d say that in order to get through the book without giving up in frustration, you have to go with the flow rather than trying to catch every last detail – but stay focused.
The book, its world and its plot are refreshingly non-tolkienesque. There are no clichés – no dwarves, no elves, no quests. Well, no clichés apart from a thieves’ guild and an assassins’ guild. Sigh.
It’s a dark book, of war, malice, manipulation, ambition and power. This is no war of heroes. There are no heroes, and barely any good guys. There isn’t even a good side and a bad side – it’s everyone against everyone else. In fact at times it’s hard to know who’s on whose side, or indeed how many sides there are. There are real people on each side of each conflict, and we see the conflict from all their points of view. Even though they aren’t good guys per se, they are all easy to sympathise with. And everybody has surprises in them.
While the characters have depth and, well, character, this is still a book driven mainly by plot rather than by character, by intellect rather than emotion. We never really get into the characters’ heads, and it is at times hard to know what moves them. They are instruments for moving the plot along. Erikson has no sentimentality for them: even important people are killed off when it suits him.
And – last but not least – while Gardens of the Moon is a part of a sequence, it is supposed to stand on its own, and I thought it succeeds at that. The story arc was completed, the various spying and assassinating factions mostly sorted out, and a phase of the war concluded. While I’m looking forward to reading more about this world, it’s not a necessity in order to enjoy this book.