Gardens of the Moon – and other fantasy books

Today we’re going to talk about books again. Although I’m an English student, I’m not a smart enough English student to not start a 700 page fantasy novel in the last week of summer. I decided to give Steven Erikson’s series a stab with his first novel: Gardens of the Moon.

I’ve been on a quest for an epic fantasy series that I can actually invest in and stay invested in. Because of that, I’ve read the first book in several different fantasy and fantasy-ish series. In case you’re in even remotely the same boat, I will be offering little comparisons to the competition at the end of this review. Until then though, let’s get into this monster of a book.

Gardens of the Moon is the first book in the “Malazan Book of the Fallen”, which is supposed to be 10 books long, with only one book left to come out. Now, both the book title and the series title might be enough to put off some people, but they were unlikely to read it anyway.

This book is so big in scope, this review might need to be DOUBLE SIZE. Oh yes, that’s right… I made up for missing monday’s post. All of the things I’m about to say are both pros and cons. If they appeal to you, you’ll probably like this book, if they don’t… run away and save yourself the time.

So what’s it about? Well it’s about war and treachery. There is a big war between the Malazan Empire and the various cities and civilizations on the defending continent of Genabackis. The story begins with a huge ass siege, and then spends the rest of the novel building up to another huge confrontation in a city called Darujhistan, which is the biggest and most economically powerful city on the continent.

There are good guys and bad guys on either side. In fact, this book REALLY blurs that traditional fantasy line of heroes of light and minions of darkness. It doesn’t play up this aspect and push the murky morals of it into the open, it just has many characters that you can choose whether you like or not, and then wonder as to what their true motives are, since everyone has hidden motives.

Okay, so I just said many characters. There are MANY characters. I don’t think you understand. For a single 700 page novel, there are an insane amount of characters in this book. Many of them get their own point of view sections as well (not unlike the Song of Ice and Fire series, but we’ll get to that later). That being said, all the characters that are important do get equal attention, and the plots are woven together expertly. I never found myself wondering for 50 pages where someone was, since Erikson jumps around so much. Of course, this means that some characters end up really well developed and others end up as “so-and-so, the badass assassin dude”.

Everyone is badass too. All of the assassins are just a few notches from the best assassin ever. There are wizards that are so powerful they give other wizards headaches if they stand in the same room. There are even “ascendants”, who are the God like forces in the novel. They’re kind of like Greek Gods, in that they have personalities and they secretly manipulate people from behind the scenes. They can be killed as well, which of course means there are characters so badass the Gods fear them. Divine intervention is completely probable in this book. Some people will think it’s a lazy way out of certain situations, but I’ve found that Erikson hasn’t used it just to get himself out of a tight spot yet.

This is a fantasy novel that involves tons of magic. The sorcery in this book is not only overtly explained, it’s absolutely devastating. One of the first memorable moments in the book involves a mage that has been split in half during the opening battle, desperately trying to mend his wounds with spells.

Oh yeah that leads me in to my next thing: it’s really bloody. The action sequences are excellent too. Erikson really knows how to write about a sword fight and make it seem interesting on both a visceral level and a tactical level.

All of these things you can kind of take either way, so let’s talk a bit more about what I personally thought of this book. I found myself really rooting for some of the characters, but finding them all interesting in their own way. I though the action was really well done throughout. The only thing about the writing I didn’t like was that some characters warranted way more physical description than others, and for no real reason. Some human characters get huge and repeated amounts of description, whereas stranger and non human characters do not. Maybe I’m just used to my pal China Mieville, who will launch into the most awesome creature descriptions whenever you give him the chance.

The other thing I found myself struggling with was the ending. I guess it’s just a symptom of having such a gigantic book, with this book as just the first in a series of ten, but there were many threads that were hinted at early in the book that didn’t tie up at the end. Obviously, they will be continued in the later ones, but they were ones that I expected to close. Some characters also got no concluding sections, with just their last moment being whatever they did in the last confrontation. Like… they lived, but I don’t know where they’re going from here or what they’re planning.

Also, some really strange magical shit happened at the end of the book that irked, unlike the magic in the rest of the story. At one point, a dragon is released into the city (and Erikson was doing such a good job of avoiding fantasy cliches up until then), and one character turns into a dragon to fight it. Then when they fight, they both turn into their humanoid forms and duke it out with swords… okay? Also a weird magical force that was never even mentioned until that point showed up and did some pretty important things. I assume it will be explained in future stories… but graaah.

Despite my quibbles, I will read the next book at some point. Not right away, since I have a pile of other books to read, but eventually. I’ll look forward to it as well I’m sure.

Now, for some cheap shots!

– The Song of Ice and Fire. Listen to me George R. R. Martin fans. This series will not end. The author has no interest in finishing it in a timely or professional manner. It was a pretty good series, but George has simply fallen out of love with it. Erikson, on the other hand, put out his books at a good clip, and has only one left (fingers crossed).

– The Black Company. Erikson’s books owe a little debt to Glen Cook’s Black Company books. I really wanted to like them, but I found the writing style and general pacing to be irritating. There was no sense of scope or feel for the overall flow of the story. It just felt like small skirmishes that were interchangeable.

– The Wheel of Time. I wanted to point and laugh… but that would be just cruel.


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September 2009
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