Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
Published in 1999
“The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane.”
In keeping with the typical expectations of its genre, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson begins with a prologue in order to set up the scene for the epic journey to come. Showcasing a cast of characters that is as diverse as it is vast, the book follows the conquests of the Malazan Empire through pitched battles, political assassinations, and divine intervention. It is easy to get lost in such a dense and in-depth fantasy world, almost to the point of distraction, but Erikson keeps the narrative interesting despite the intense amount of background information to cover.
After the prologue, the story fast forwards to a massacre committed by the god Shadowthorne and his head assassin. The young Captain Ganoes Paran investigates the slaughter and unwittingly becomes part of Adjunct Lorn’s staff. The Adjunct is given authority by the Empress to kill mages and she was dispatched there to discern whether or not magic was to blame for the destruction.
Magic plays a huge part in the story and world of Gardens of the Moon. Sorcerers, mages and gods all make appearances and are often pulling the strings behind political and military schemes. Death is unleashed on a massive scale due to the amount of power brought to the fore by both sides. Collateral damage is incalculable and those who have the ability to harness and use magic are often found in positions of power.
You may have noticed that I haven’t written much about the characters in the book and there is a good reason for that; Gardens of the Moon uses an ensemble cast. Unlike many traditional stories, there is no singular protagonist for the reader to identify with. The characters are very well written and go through their own individual arcs, but there are so many of them that by the second half of the book I gave up making connections between them. Some of these characters have similar sounding names which only led to further confusion and disinterest on my part.
An unfortunate turn off for me was a character named Krupe. One of Erik’s major pet peeves as a reader (and human being in general) is hearing/seeing people refer to themselves in the third person. Erik understands that it makes the character stand out, but Erik can’t think of another reason for Krupe to have such an annoying habit. Well, Erik probably could, but Erik was just disinterested when Erik had to read the parts of the story with Krupe in the forefront, which was a bit of a chore since his character is central to some key points in the plot.
These (sometimes infuriating) characters inhabit a very well thought-out world; world building is an integral part of the fantasy genre and Erikson has truly done the legwork in creating intricate and believable settings, but the characters often make references to many things that haven’t been explained yet. Only about halfway through the book did I start to understand the relationships between the Malazan Empire and its enemies, as well as the difference between the Elder gods and those in action of the story.
Erikson must have been aware of this because Gardens of the Moon includes both a glossary and cast of characters; like many fantasy books, there are also maps included at the beginning of the book to give further context. These tools are absolutely necessary due to the amount of people and places referenced in the story, though I honestly didn’t look at the maps until about halfway through the book (apparently that’s when I really commit) when a place called Genabakis kept coming up and I finally decided to figure out where in the world it actually was.
The initial chapters skip forward in time by a matter of years, which I found to be effective in their ability to move the narrative along. After those first few, the timeline is fairly sequential for the remainder of the book, though each date is given in at least two versions (i.e. 11154th Year of Burn’s Sleep, 96th Year of the Malazan Empire, the Last Year of Emperor Kellanved’s reign…these are all talking about the same year). Though the different ways of telling time do eventually become explained, it is still confusing despite giving further texture to the world in the book.
Though this review may make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, I truly felt myself invested in the narrative and identifying with the characters enough to care about what happened to them. These are really just little critiques of elements I found troubling in the book; I am sure that if I were to continue reading the series, much of the background information would be far more beneficial. As a stand-alone book, however, Gardens of the Moon is a good read despite asking the reader to take its word at a lot of the history mentioned; lovers of epic fantasy will enjoy it, but the casual fan may lose interest.
Verdict: 3 intensely developed backgrounds out of 5
Recommended for: Those who aren’t easily (or difficultly) confused, lovers of epic fantasy, people who enjoy well thought out and developed fantasy worlds, and people who don’t mind a character that refers to himself in the third person.
Not recommended for: The easily (or even difficultly) confused, people with short attention spans and poor retention, or those who mind a character that refers to himself in the third person.