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“Gardens of the Moon” by Steven Erikson

gardens of the moon

Gardens of the Moon is the first of ten (or 17 depending how you want to count them) books in the Malazan Empire series.

The world the Malazan series is set in has a slightly more advanced setting than the typical medieval setting of many fantasy novels. The main focus of the series is on the Malazan Empire, an aggressive and expansionist Empire which in the space of a few decades expanded from an obscure island city mainly famous as a base for pirates to conquer several continents under the influence of its powerful and ruthless Emperor Kellanved. At times in the series the Malazans seem like imperialist villains, at other times they seem like the good guys (especially in comparison to some of their rival powers). The Malazans are in many ways quite enlightened by the standards of the world with a relatively egalitarian culture usually hostile to the feudal aristocracies or fanatical religious cults that held sway in many of the lands they conquered. At the same time, they are undeniably aggressive, starting many wars and can be uncompromisingly brutal when they think it is necessary. This is a common theme of Erikson’s work, it is very rare for any civilisation or individual in his books to be regarded as being entirely good, and equally many (although not all) of his major villains have some redeeming qualities. Throughout the series it is often ambiguous as to whether the Malazans should be supported in what they are trying to do, or opposed.

Although the Malazans are one of the most powerful of the current-day powers in the world, past civilisations and powers also play an important role in the series. Erikson trained as an archaeologist and has constructed a long history of his world filled with many Gods and civilisations and dozens of races, some of which still exist, some of which are extinct and some of which aren’t as extinct as they appear to be. The history takes in important events that happened millennia or even hundreds of millennia ago and in some cases the participants in those events are still alive (or at least, still animate). The variety of races are one of the most fascinating elements of Erikson’s world-building since he eschews the typical clichéd fantasy races with such inventive creations such as the four so-called ‘Elder Races’ - K’Chain Che’Malle (reptilian creatures with hive minds and highly advanced technology), Jaghut (tusked, strong, powerful sorcerers with vast power but whose stubborn individualism prevented them from working together), Forkrul Assail (tall humanoids with a fanatical hatred of other races) and the T’lan Imass (undead Neanderthals whose hatred of their Jaghut oppressors caused them to enact a magical ritual which gave them eternal existence as undead warriors).

In the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, the Malazans tend towards being the bad guys of the story, even if many of the Malazan protagonists are more sympathetic characters than their Empire is. It is several years after the assassination of the Malazan Empire’s founder Kellanved by his protégé and rival, the assassin Laseen who has now crowned herself Empress. Laseen kept up the pace of the Malazans’ wars of conquest while at the same time manoeuvring against many of those who were once loyal to Kellanved. The novel is set on the continent of Genabackis, one of the more recently-invaded lands of the Empire, and it begins as the Malazan forces are about to attack the city of Pale, one of the last of the Free Cities that once controlled most of the continent. The Malazans assemble a large army to besiege the city, but the main battle takes place above them in the form of a sorcerous duel between the Malazan’s Mage Cadre and the Free Cities’ ally Anomander Rake, an ancient sorcerer and leader of the Tiste Andii (a race from another dimension, exiled from their home many millennia ago). Despite heavy casualties (including most of the mage cadre being killed in an apparent act of treachery by its High Mage, Tayschrenn) the Malazans are victorious, Rake is forced to flee and the Malazans eyes start to turn towards the last, and richest, of the Free Cities, Darujhstan.

The Malazan books tend not to have a single protagonist. Perhaps the closest to a main character is Sergeant Whiskeyjack, a veteran soldier in charge of a squad of the Bridgeburners – previously an elite unit in the time of Emperor Kellanved but now regarded with suspicion by the new Empress. After the capture of Pale the Bridgeburners are despatched as an advanced party to infiltrate Darujhstan and leave it open for invasion by sabotaging its infrastructure. They take on the role despite misgivings about the casualties they took in the battle of Pale and suspicion that they may have deliberately have been placed in danger as part of an attempt to kill of loyalists to the old Empreror. They also have misgivings about one of their own, a young woman name Sorry who was a recent recruit but has a great capacity for violence and who may be much more than she appears. The Bridgeburners also have a new Captain in the form of Ganoes Paran, a well-intentioned young officer regarded with suspicion by the other soldiers because of Paran’s noble birth and background in a family that was very powerful in Unta (the Malazan capital) before the old Emperor began his pogroms against the nobility. He faces the risk of a knife in the back from one of his own subordinates if he can’t persuade them he is a worthy leader. Another major Malazan character is Tattersail, one of the few survivors of the Malazan mages, who is bitter against the apparent attack on her colleagues by Tayschrenn (the Empire’s most senior mage) whilst also guilty about some of her past acts for the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile the Empress’ senior aide Adjunct Lorne also travels to Darujhstan on a secret mission to unleash an ancient evil which once ruled the city in a reign of terror, accompanied by Tool, a T’lan Imass warrior who is the only member of the undead army that once served Kellanved still working for the Empire.

Meanwhile, in Darujhstan the plot centres on a group of young friends plotting to restore one of their number to his rightful place as head of a noble house, after he was deposed by his ambitious ex-wife and a rival councillor. They are also aware of the coming Malazan threat and their plotline interacts with that of the city’s powerful Assassin’s Guild as it contends with the Malazan’s elite assassins and the machination of a mysterious spymaster who uses the pseudonym of The Eel who is trying to rally the city’s defences.

It is common throughout the Malazan series for the plot to take place on more than one level. The most obvious plotlines involve the soldiers, battles, intrigues and ordinary people of the story. There are also more subtle plotlines as Gods and ancient powers manipulate events to further their own plans. One of the main plotlines throughout the series involves two of the newest Gods to gain power, the beings known as Shadowthrone and Cotillion, who have recently taken control of the long-abandoned realm of Shadow and who have far greater ambitions than just being two ordinary members of the Malazan world’s pantheon. In this case their plans are focused on Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and particularly on their young recruit, Sorry.

The plot of the series is undeniably complex and Erikson took a deliberate decision to start his first book in what was, in many ways, the middle of the story. It is initially quite confusing as within a few chapters the reader is launched into the battle of Pale and introduced to a dizzying array of characters and races, many with long and complex histories which will not be fully explained for several books to come. Erikson’s often inventive world-building can also add to the confusion, his magic system is based on the control of the powers of alternate dimensions known as Warrens (different Warrens having different properties such as being associated with darkness, illusions, fire, water etc.) and it takes a long time for even the most rudimentary explanation of how the Warrens work (and even after ten books it is still not entirely clear). As the book goes on it does gradually make more sense but some persistence is required to get through the initial confusion. Although it can make the series sometimes difficult to understand, the complexity and imaginativeness of the setting and plot are one of the Malazan series strengths and overall it is probably more Epic than just about any other Epic fantasy series.

Gardens of the Moon was Erikson’s first full-length fantasy novel and it does have some flaws that debut novels often have. The quality of the writing, prose and dialogue can be a bit variable, at times Erikson has some very good writing but at other times the prose can end up seeming a bit clunky and awkward and the dialogue stilted and unconvincing. The quality of the characterisation is also variable, Erikson does have some memorable and interesting characters but the cast of characters is so large than some of them have fairly shallow characterisation. The characterisation can also sometimes be unconvincing and sometimes character’s motivations for their actions do not seem satisfactorily explained. To take one example, at one point in the book Captain Paran takes immense risks that could imperil not just his life but also his immortal soul in an attempt to save from captivity two creatures which shortly beforehand were trying to kill him and it does not really seem believable that he would take such a huge risk.

It is far from the being the best book in the series, Erikson’s writing would improve in later volumes and although there are plenty of interesting moments in the plot the overall storyline often fails to be really compelling – one of the main problems being that it is hard to really be invested in caring about whether the Malazans succeed or fail in their war against Darujhstan. When considered alongside the rest of the series there are also quite a few things that contradict later books, Erikson would revise quite a few elements of the setting in later novels.

Overall, this is an entertaining fantasy novel with plenty of interesting ideas and concepts which large make up for the sometimes variable quality of the writing.

Rating : 7 / 10

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  1. Amazing and very extensive review! I read Gardens of the Moon a few months ago and I was really blown away by the epicness of the story! I liked it so much that I gave it 4.5 out of 5 in my goodreads review (see link above). I intended to read book 2 right away but life got in the way and unfortunately I haven’t done it yet. To be honest, I have kind of forgotten the whos and wheres… However, your review was an excellent recap for the main plot points and I will hopefully jump in the second book in the next few weeks.

    • I wouldn’t worry too much about remembering the details before going into book 2 in the series, since it mostly involves a new cast and a different part of the world – although there are a few returning characters. If you liked Gardens of the Moon then I think you’ll really enjoy Deadhouse Gates, it and the third book Memories of Ice are the best in the series.

    • I just read your Goodreads review, I agree with your comment about one character’s love story not really working, writing romance doesn’t really seem to be Erikson’s strong point.

      • Ah well, there’s a ton of books out there with love stories among protagonists…. I won’t miss it here! :p I suppose if bad romance doesn’t get in the way of the story too much, I don’t have a problem with it. Though I have to admit, a good love story with some drama or tragedy in it can push the epicness of a book a notch (Tolkien really knew how to do that right!)

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