Book Review: Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson
I read more than one book a month, I swear.
However, as I get back to … well, I don’t know if I’d call the current state of affairs ‘normal,’ it’s certainly different from the kind of quarantine pattern I was in for … most of the last year and a half.
Still! I find time to read when I can– and this time, I was in for a treat when I found out Tor.com’s ebook of the month was Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, which is the first of his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I’d heard about the series in passing before, but it took a free giveaway to get me into it– partially because I wasn’t even sure where to start with a series that’s got 10 volumes and counting.
And yeah. Gardens of the Moon is long, dense, and more than a little weird. I mean this as a compliment. The novel (along with the rest of the series, presumably) is an epic fantasy, complete with a map at the beginning of the book. Gardens of the Moon is a grand tale of warring empires and quarreling gods– but despite the high stakes, the book is centered on a whole cast of fascinating characters, each of whom could easily be the protagonist (or antagonist, for that matter) of their own novel. So while there may be great grand conflicts going on in the background, the motives and plans of the characters can be surprisingly personal.
Erikson steeps all of this in rich, descriptive prose, all the better to give the setting a strange and otherworldly feel. Instead of yet another Tolkien retread, Erikson draws inspiration from other fantasy authors. The weirdness of the setting reminded me of authors like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock– especially since one can draw something of a line from Elric of Melnibone to one of the major players in Gardens of the Moon. But I’d probably say that about any character swinging around a soul-eating sword made of darkness.
The funny thing is, while Gardens of the Moon certainly starts as a departure from the standard fantasy tropes, it kind of veers back into them as it goes on? There’s the aforementioned dark-sword-guy, as well as various hooded assassins, plucky thieves, eccentric wizards, hapless swordsmen, and even an obligatory Dark Lord Waiting to Return™. Erikson twists these tropes in new and unexpected ways, however, which makes the book entertainingly unpredictable.
My only criticism (and a fairly shallow one at that) of Gardens of the Moon is that it’s not going to be for everyone. There’s the dense prose and cavalcade of strange names and terms, for one. Most of it is far better thought out than the typical made-up fantasy vocabulary, given that Erikson is an anthropologist by trade, but at the same time there will probably be multiple points where the reader will have to reference a glossary and/or wiki in order to figure out just what the hell the characters are talking about. Furthermore, the book is more than a little grim, with several particularly gory sequences towards the start of the novel. Though at the same time, Erikson never delves into perverse exploitative glee and sadism as some authors might (lookin’ at you, George R.R. Martin), nor does he use sexual assault as a sleazy way to raise the stakes. And admittedly that last part is a pretty low bar to clear, but that’s another blog post entirely.
Overall, though, Gardens of the Moon is well worth the read, particularly for somebody who’s looking for something different after reading a bunch of more derivative stuff. Just, ah, make sure you’ve got plenty of time to read it, ‘cause honestly it might take you a little while.
Hopefully not as long as it took me, at least.