Gardens of the Moonis Steven Erikson’s debut fantasy novel and the first of a projected ten — yep, ten — book saga from saga-happy publishing titan Tor. Because of its scope, it’s also a hard book to review. The word “epic” has been thrown around to describe it, and perhaps it’s an appropriate one: the book displays both the strengths and weaknesses of a fantasy tale that spans centuries and planes of existence.
The strengths: Erikson displays a prodigious imagination and broadly constructed world; GOTM is indeed a good example of world-building. Some aspects of his magic system and assortment of enchanted objects feel fresh, as does the creation of a city illuminated by natural gas.
The weaknesses: As might be expected with a new novelist, Erikson’s storytelling ability lags behind his imagination. The most glaring problem is that he can’t seem to decide whether to tell the story from multiple, limited points of view (as George Martin does so well in A Game of Thrones) or from an omniscient perspective. More often than not, he seems to settle for the latter — which has the consequence of distancing the reader from the characters. With so many characters in play, this proves to be a nearly fatal flaw. I found it incredibly difficult to relate to any of the characters; the soldiers and assassins blurred together, and few motivations and biographies came to light. Often, simple clarity — where are they now? is this before or after that? — was lacking and jerked me right out of the story.
Speaking of, there’s much less actual story than the book’s density would lead you to believe. An empire is trying to conquer a wealthy city on another continent, and a broad array of warriors, assassins, sorcerers, politicians, and — most intrusively — gods factor into the conflict, plotting and scheming away. Yet, for all the surface action, the shallow characterization mentioned above never quite pulled me in and inspired me to care about the story. I often felt as if I were reading an incredibly detailed, turn-by-turn account of an intense and long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign — something intimidating and inaccessible to outsiders, with minimal emotional payoff. Some will praise Gardens of the Moon for ‘allowing’ the reader to figure out some things for him or herself, and that can certainly be a valid praise for a book (e.g. for The Briar King by Greg Keyes or anything by Patricia McKillip). In this case, though, the lack of explanation and clarity seemed less than intentional on the author’s part. (And a final, minor irritation: though Stephen Youll’s cover is eye catching, I have no idea how it relates to the story or who the two warriors are supposed to be. The title is tangential, as well. Such is marketing, I guess, in this age of ten-plus book trilogies …)
In a nutshell, Gardens of the Moon was tolerable. And to be fair to Mr. Erikson, it was first published in England in 1999, and the standards for the genre may have changed since then. However, this note from Terry Brooks in The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference may have proved instructive: “The temptation to free-fall through a story chock full of incredible images and wondrous beings can be irresistible — but, when not resisted, almost invariably disastrous.”
GOTM isn’t disastrous, but I can’t recommend buying it or committing to another nine servings. Recommended as a used-purchase for fans of military fantasy or a library loan for general fantasy readers. Two-and-a-half blood-red stars.