Sunday, 9 June 2013

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen's rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.

However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand . . .

I’ve been planning a review of this one for a long time.

Everything you’ve already heard about Gardens of the Moon and the wider series it belongs to, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is pretty much true. It’s complex (oh my, is it complex), it’s vast in scope (a cast of thousands, a history that scales millennia and magic systems that make your brain hurt) and this first book really is a difficult beast. Steven Erikson drops you head first into a plot which has been ongoing for centuries. Unlike so many of his epic fantasy contemporaries, we don’t begin the series with a farmboy who sets off on a quest to save the world or one great evil that needs to be vanquished. Instead, Erikson decides to throw the reader into the middle of a vast plot that has spanned centuries on either side, with a whole host of characters on every side of the conflict, a series of magic systems which are never explained in great detail, and he even throws in some Gods for good measure. Oh, and some of the characters might actually be Gods, or the Gods may become characters, or Gods are linked to magic, and warrens, and, and…

All very confusing.

The first 200 pages of Gardens of the Moon feel a lot like attempting to read an epic fantasy series from the middle. It’s a bit like picking up A Storm of Swords first, or The Fires of Heaven – and having no prior knowledge of the series up to that point. Erikson’s choice of throwing you into the midst is what typically alienates the majority of readers to this series. It nearly did to me. But I persevered through all the point-of-view changes, endlessly confusing magic systems, different factions, floating mountains, Gods and Ascendants, and bizarre goings-on to which I had no real clue. I persevered because so many people rate this series so highly. It’s so often mentioned in the same breath as A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time as one of the premiere epic fantasy behemoths, and even further than that – many rate it even higher.

But, the big question is: why? [Edit: Yes, I mentioned floating mountains above – what of it?]

Why, if it’s so obviously confusing and awkward to get a grasp of, would you keep reading? Well, after that 200 pages point, something happens. Not something that jumps into the story to explain everything that’s preceded it, but rather it all starts to just click. The magic system isn’t so much explained as put into very practical and very game-changing use; the floating mountain becomes involved; and most importantly, the characters suddenly become worth investing in.

Whether it’s Ganoes Paran, the de-facto “hero” of the story (to start with), Tattersail the kick-ass mage and her grand schemes, Anomander Rake and his ridiculously cool…well, everything or Whiskeyjack and his band of Bridgeburners – these characters take on the whole confusing (up to this point) jumble of Gardens of the Moon and run with it. Their storylines start to converge and the plot becomes much clearer. Around a third of the way through the book I was completely invested in every character’s story and constantly trying to piece together every piece of information I could.

Erikson’s style of “events and characters first, information second” becomes something which begins to delight, in the way that LOST used to do on TV. Piecing together all the parts of this vast puzzle becomes part of the fun – clearly a deliberate, if arguably dangerous (going on that befuddling first 200 pages) ploy on the part of the author. It’s clear by the end of Gardens of the Moon that The Malazan Book of The Fallen is an epic fantasy with layers and layers to strip away; mystery upon mystery, but Erikson keeps the reader entertained with a thrilling plot and a stunning climax, bringing together all of his individual threads to make a novel which is unputdownable, where once it was a genuine question of whether or not I would keep reading.

In Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson throws the reader in the deep-end with little to no time to learn how to swim in his epic cocktail of magic, war and a cast of thousands. It’s an awkward start and not everyone will wish to plough through the first couple of hundred pages to get to the good stuff.  Maybe it was a mistake for Erikson to structure his first Malazan novel in such a way, but with a world and story as complex as this, it would have been difficult to begin the story differently. Besides, this is a tale which takes place across 10 books (plus 3 prequels, 5 novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont, several novellas and possibly more) – if you’re going to invest the time in a story this big, be prepared for moments of confusion as you get to grips with the sheer vastness of the Malazan story. But this sort of thing isn’t for everyone.

Those readers are missing out. 


Lisa said...

Oooo, an interesting one. I've got this book on my Kindle at the moment but haven't managed to crack it open yet. Sounds like I'll need a totally empty slate first... However, I suspect this is a challenge accepted, as it were. :D

Doug Smith said...

It does kinda have a bit of closure to the main plot elements in this novel; I suppose in similar ways to how A Game of Thrones has quite a firm ending, despite being only the 1st volume in a huge saga. Worth giving it a go though, Lisa! :-)