This post is part of an ongoing series about Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen. In each post I discuss and review one of the books in the series. These posts will contain spoilers for the book discussed as well as the entire series, so consider yourself warned.
Gardens of the Moon was my introduction to the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and Steven Erikson. At the time, I believe I had just finished The Wheel of Time, and I was looking for a more mature and progressive fantasy series. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed WoT, but there was a lot of one dimensional characters and misogyny in those books. I wanted something that challenged me a little more. I did some research online, and it seemed that the Malazan Book of the Fallen had a small but passionate following. All the reviews I found were calling it one of the top three fantasy series of all time, so I took the plunge.
This book was originally envisioned as a screenplay. In the 80’s, Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont worked together as archaeologists. They ran a series of dungeons and dragons campaigns with some of their friends, but instead of focusing on the “gamey” aspects of D&D, they opted to focus on storytelling and characterization. These campaigns became the basis for the fantasy novels that Erikson and Esslemont would write later on.
They wrote Gardens of the Moon as a screenplay in the early 90’s, but it never got picked up. After a few years they decided to change focus and write separate fantasy novels set in the world of Malaz instead. They split the world in two based on the geographical continents, and Erikson wrote about one half and Esslemont the other. They do share characters and locations from time to time. This ranges from a brief cameo to a main character POV. There is a big difference in writing style and quality between the two writers, but it’s always very exciting to see a character pop up in one of the other author’s works. It kind of reminds me of the Marvel movies and how the heroes keep popping up in each others movies.
Gardens of the Moon came out in 1999 after Erikson reworked his screenplay into a novel. The book is 666 pages long, and it primarily follows the Bridgeburners, a legendary army that’s part of the Malazan military. This book picks up directly after they have been decimated by a battle at the city Pale on Genebackis.
It took me two attempts to get through this book. The first time I picked up Gardens of the Moon I stopped about a quarter of the way through and didn’t try again for about a year. There were a few reasons for this.
First off, the over arching story of these books follows the Malazan empire. Technically speaking, this book drops you into the middle of the plot with very little explanation. The real story begins roughly a hundred years before this book with the formation of the empire, and concludes with the resolution of the tenth book The Crippled God. There is very little in the way of exposition, the reader is literally dropped into the middle of the story and expected to keep up.
Secondly, the writing is a little rough at times. It’s clear this is a first attempt at a novel. Erikson has great world building and settings in this book, but too many of the characters don’t feel the same as they do in later books. Most of them feel more distant and cold, there’s not as much depth or warmth to his characterization in this book. I chalk this up to the screenplay adaptation, and to Erikson’s relative inexperience as a writer. His characterization is much more consistent hereafter.
Thirdly, the writing itself is extremely dense. All his books are dense in this same way, but later books have the advantage of building on the characters and story lines that have come in previous books. As a reader, you appreciate the denseness because you’re already sold on the story, and you want as much detail and information as you can get. This book does not have that advantage, as a reader you don’t have a lot of investment in those things yet. This can be very off putting for a first time reader.
However, if you can push past these issues you will find a book that sets up one of the most amazing series of books I’ve ever read. I wrote about how much I love Steven Erikson in the introduction post of this series, but I truly can’t say enough about how much I love these books. And Gardens of the Moon starts the whole thing off. Once you get used to Erikson’s style, reading the series becomes like a puzzle, or a mystery. The fact that you don’t have all the exposition means that your understanding of the way the world works is always in question.
From the very beginning, Erikson gives little hints at how this world is put together, and how the different factions and characters play off of each other. Just when you think you’ve put all the clues together and figured out how something works, the magic system for example, Erikson drops a contradictory clue to challenge your solution. Or he comes right out and says it doesn’t work the way you think it does. However, if you pay close enough attention, you might solve a mystery correctly. This is about as rewarding an experience as I’ve ever had reading a book. The challenge of getting through the writing, trying to understand the world and the characters, and finally putting all the pieces together yourself is incredibly gratifying. It is for this reason that the whole series truly rewards a re-read unlike anything else I’ve ever read. When you complete the series, you immediately want to start the whole series over again to pick up on all the foreshadowing and clues, some of which doesn’t pay off for 8 or 9 books. It’s really a remarkable achievement in foreshadowing that Erikson was able to plot out these intricate details a decade ahead of time and have them pay off all the way at the end of the series.
On top of this, the Gardens of the Moon is an enjoyable book. It introduces the T’lan Imass, Jaghut, Tiste Andii, Darujhistan, Genebackis, Pale, Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Kalam, Quick Ben, Apsalar, Ganoes Paran, Tattersail, Kruppe, Ralick Nom, Cutter, and more important races/names/places that have great impact on the entire series. There is no main character in this book or the series at large, the POV’s jump around constantly. The characters are shades of gray, and the first impression the reader is given of a specific character is almost always incorrect. The Malazan army and the Bridgeburners are the primary focus of the book, but they don’t always do the right thing. Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii are initially shown as terrifying sky mages, but he by the end of the series his character basically becomes a Jesus Christ analogue. Even the “Big Bad” of the series isn’t given much screen time in this book, and when he finally does show up the reader’s understanding of him and his motivations changes many times before the end of the series.
The flaws in this first book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen are more present and glaring than any other book in the series. It is a book written by an inexperienced writer, adapted from a screenplay, and intentionally left vague and hard to read. It takes a determined reader to get through it, and it’s understandable why so few people have followed through with the rest of the series. However, the determined reader will be rewarded many times over as that initial hurdle leads to some of the most well plotted and characterized books I’ve ever read in my life. Erikson’s writing improves immensely from this book to the next, and the series starts with it’s worst book. This is still a good book, it’s just not near the level of writing that Erikson gets to in the rest of the series. It’s all uphill from here. The second book, Deadhouse Gates is next. It’s my favorite book in the whole series. I’ll probably get a lot more into plot and characters in the next post, so that will be coming soon.