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Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon - Steven Erikson A year or so ago someone PM'ed me on Goodreads out of the blue, practically demanding why I haven't read the Malazan series. I was simultaneously pleased and annoyed, the former because somebody seems to think I am some kind of SF/F guru who can be presumed to have read every worthwhile book in these genres, the latter because it's a bit rude init? Still, a backhanded compliment is better than no compliment, or an actual application of somebody’s backhand on my person.

Gardens of the Moon has a reputation for being a “tough read”, which is intriguing because fantasy has always seem easily accessible to me. I seldom select books which are generally viewed as challenging, usually I just like to kick back and read (my idea of leisure reading). Still, the Malazan series is often included in lists of all-time great fantasy novels*, and I do like to keep up with the genre Joneses. So two years after languishing in my TBR list Gardens of the Moon arrived at the top of the pile, I think it’s something to do with stars aligning.

This is indeed a tough read, not in the sense that [b:Ulysses|338798|Ulysses|James Joyce|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1428891345s/338798.jpg|2368224] or [b: Mrs. Dalloway|14942|Mrs. Dalloway|Virginia Woolf|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1319710256s/14942.jpg|841320] are tough. Those are post-modern novels with experimental narrative style. While it is quite well written there is nothing particularly experimental about the prose style of Gardens of the Moon. The difficulty lies in how the author, Steven Erikson, throws the reader in at the deep end of his complex world. I could not make heads or tails of the prologue. Who? Why? What? I suspect that if I had simply soldiered on through the next few chapters things would have gradually fallen into place. However, I am somewhat impatient, I wanted to understand the book right from the first page. I already knew there are online sources for this series so I went to Tor.com’s “Malazan Reread of the Fallen”, where they have done chapter by chapter summaries and analyses, which I found to be extremely useful. So I read their summary of the confusing prologue, and then went back to read Chapter 1 of the book, then read their summary of that chapter, the same back-and-forth process again for Chapter 2 and 3. By the time I was reading the fourth chapter the training wheels came off, I no longer felt the need to keep referring to Tor’s summaries any more.

Gardens of the Moon is set on an unnamed world mostly dominated by the expansionist Malazan Empire. The narrative is told from multiple characters’ points of view, some working for the Malazan Empire, some working to defend their homeland against it. Fortunately for me, the novel is not about armies clashing on battlefields, but about individuals doing their duties for their side, be they spies, assassins, mages, alchemists, or thieves. Beside warfare on the mortal level, there is also a concurrent warfare between gods and immortals. It is not clear who are the “good guys” because there are central “POV” characters from both sides of the conflict, and they all have understandable motivations.

A lot of modern epic fantasy series tend to be “low fantasy”, which simply means “not much magic", so little of it around that a lot of characters don't even believe it exists. Wizards and dragons seldom show up and when they do the mundane characters are generally flabbergasted. This current trend** seems to have started with [b: A Game of Thrones|13496|A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)|George R.R. Martin|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1436732693s/13496.jpg|1466917] and followed by the likes of [a: Joe Abercrombie|276660|Joe Abercrombie|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1421267339p2/276660.jpg]’s First Law series and [a: Scott Lynch|73149|Scott Lynch|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1332432746p2/73149.jpg]’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence. The world of the Malazan series bucks this particular trend. Magic is everywhere in Gardens of the Moon, most fights involve magic usage, and at least half the characters seem to wield magic of some kind. The way magic functions in this series is quite interesting, magic requires a power source called “warrens” which are both power conduits and hyperspace-like shortcut passages.

Gardens of the Moon features a huge cast of characters, so big that Erikson felt obliged to provide a “dramatis personæ” at the beginning of the book. Some detractors of the book say that the characters are flat or not well developed, this surprises me a little because some of the main characters are vivid, complex and believable. However, as there are so many significant characters that some are inevitably less successfully developed than others.

Though this book is a little hard to get into once I became familiar with the setting and the characters I find Gardens of the Moon to be quite fast paced without a dull moment. I imagine the next book in the series [b: Deadhouse Gates|55401|Deadhouse Gates (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, #2)|Steven Erikson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1385272744s/55401.jpg|3898716] will be much less challenging because I am already familiar with the setting and the author’s style now. I can’t say I feel committed to reading all ten books in the series, but I am looking forward to the next one. Gardens of the Moon is a lot of fun and I am tempted to rate it at five stars but in all good conscience I cannot because it may require more patience, effort and concentration than some readers are willing to allocate. I have to admire Erikson’s moxie though, for writing such an uncompromising first book in a series, I like that he credits the readers with quite a lot of intelligence (probably excessive credit in my case!). It is a gamble which seems to have paid off as the series is one of the most popular of the epic fantasy genre.

* Sample lists:

** I suppose I could be wrong about this trend as I read a lot more science fiction than fantasy and may have gauged the trend incorrectly.