Gardens of the Moon: Erikson displays a prodigious imagination

book review Steven Erikson Gardens of the Moonbook review Steven Erikson Gardens of the MoonGardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

It’s always a question for fantasy fans: do I really want to read a first book in yet another long series? Remember when we moaned about when everything was a trilogy — now I’ll be happy to take a simple three-book series. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell ahead of time if the trip will be worth it? Well, thanks to the quirks of international publication, you can with the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Gardens of the Moon, the first book, may be the only book out in the States, but there are four others already released in Canada and I’m happy to report that while there are some hit and miss points, and certainly some flaws, overall the series (a projected ten-book one) is well worth jumping into with Gardens of the Moon.

This is gritty world and war fantasy; you won’t find slender glowing elves or small sheltered folk. In tone and character, this one is pretty much a direct descendant of Glen Cook’s Black Company series (minor digression — if you haven’t read that, you should. By the time you’re done there should be a few more Malazan books out there — in paperback no less). To recognize the familiarity is not to do any injustice to Steven Erikson, however, whose world is rich in characters, race, and magic and highly original.

There’s no point in recapping plot since a) there’s too much of it b) it’s way too complex c) it starts in the middle really and you’d have to also explain what precedes it and d) it turns out it isn’t the plot you thought it was anyway. Suffice to say that the plot is generally one of the book’s and series’ strengths and involves among other things sundry wars of empire and rebellion, political infighting, and competition among various Ascendants (god-like beings), Gods, and Ascendant Wannabees At times Erikson seems to layer complexity for complexity’s sake and sometimes seems to pull a twist out of his, ummm, out of nowhere just because he can, but it’s multi-layered and intriguing throughout. And it isn’t handed to you. Expect to have to figure some things out, expect to get some things wrong. And don’t expect everything to have answers or resolutions or even explanations. Something to look forward to is that explanations/background are almost always forthcoming, if not here than in future books. I kind of like not having every first reference to something (a race, a form of magic, a place) be introduced with a paragraph or page of clumsy exposition —”Why look, it’s a Faruvian Waldorf. How strange to see it in this place when we all thought they were wiped out in the third age when Astor the Mighty corrupted all four-legged creatures and waged a war of attrition with…” The lack of explanation can be frustrating at times, but it’s a stimulating frustration.

Characterization is a bit shallow in the first book, partially because there are so many and the plot so layered that it’s tough to commit the time to them to give them the depth they need. And Erikson relies a bit too much on telling us what a character is rather than having the trait reveal itself or develop (the undying loyalty some characters inspire, for instance). But many of the characters deepen as the books add up. Those that survive that is. Another welcome touch is that Erikson isn’t shy about killing off characters we’ve spent some time with. The luxury of ten books and hundreds of characters. He also does a much better job with camaraderie than with romance. Luckily, there’s much more of the former than the latter so he plays to his strength.

The world creation is original, detailed, and varied. The geography is spacious, covering events on several continents throughout the series. The time period is literally millennia-based which adds to the richness of events. Since some of the characters are immortal (while others strive to be), past is seldom simply prologue here. These are people with long memories, long grudges, and long-lying plans. The basis of the magical system is revealed bit by bit in its interesting and as far as I know highly unique fashion. Alchemy and rough munitions work side by side with the magic as well.

Flaws can be found, as mentioned, in some of the weak characterization and overly complex plotting. And as the books go on Erikson seems to fall prey to a “create the baddest toughest creature in a fight” who then somehow is taken down by someone even tougher despite his being the “toughest” pattern. A equals B and B equals C but somehow A kicks C’s butt. That happens a bit too often.

But in the long view (the very long view — these are not slim books and there are a lot of them), the series is a welcome addition to the fantasy genre and Gardens a strong start. Strong enough that when I finished it I went ahead and ordered all the rest from Amazon Canada rather than wait for them to come out in the States. In fact, I had them shipped courier so I could get them before taking off on vacation. The extra money is testament enough to their enjoyment. The books aren’t all equal in quality, but the trend is toward improvement, with the noticeable addition of more and better-written humor in the last two. A strong recommendation for this book and the series as a whole.

~Bill Capossere

book review Steven Erikson Malazan Gardens of the MoonGardens of the Moon is 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; Gardens of the Moon 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.”

Gardens of the Moon 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.

~Rob Rhodes

book review Steven Erikson Malazan Gardens of the MoonSteven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is the first novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The world that Erikson has created here is remarkably complex, and its history spans millennia. Gardens of the Moon follows the Malazan Empire’s campaign on the continent Genabeckis — for how much longer will the city of Darujhistan resist the overwhelming power of the Malazan Empire?

Empress Laseen was once a “claw,” an elite assassin of the empire. Fiendishly, she removed the previous Emperor and now seeks to conquer the Free Cities of Genabeckis, In addition to expanding the empire’s borders, Laseen meticulously plots to eliminate any and all threats to her power. Although the might of the empire rests on its military, it is for precisely this reason that popular, capable generals have the potential to threaten Laseen’s rule.

Fighting on a distant continent, we might expect the Malazan army to have rallied together into one cohesive group. However, since Laseen’s coup, plots within plots have developed — and readers would do well to take notes in order to keep up. Unfortunately, for characters to survive this campaign, taking notes will not be enough. All actions must be strategic, especially because trust is a high risk to take when fighting for the Malazan Empire. Betrayal from above seems like a particularly likely explanation for what has been happening to Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his Bridgeburners.

When we meet Whiskeyjack, he is a weathered veteran fighting a losing battle to keep his troops alive. His Bridgeburners were once among the most glorious soldiers in the empire, but they have since been repeatedly assigned the most difficult tasks the army faces in order to minimize their ability to threaten Laseen. Whiskeyjack’s primary assignment in Gardens of the Moon is to prepare Darujhistan, the last of the Free Cities, for conquest. Though Whiskeyjack has a highly skilled assassin in Corporal Kalam and perhaps the finest mage in the empire in Quick Ben, surviving Darujhistan may be too much even for his elite veterans. Worse, the gods have taken an interest in his unit…

Meanwhile, Darujhistan is not without its own political unrest and its own divine allies. Here, Erikson’s “players” are not part of an army, nor are they bound together in an official organization. Among others, Erikson has here gathered a young thief, an assassin, and a mysteriously well-connected seer named Kruppe. These daring rogues meet over beers at the Phoenix Inn rather than around a conqueror’s map.

Erikson brings together some of the most popular elements of fantasy, and readers who love to explore new worlds have a remarkably complex creation in Gardens of the Moon. In addition to a variety of political moves and countermoves, there is a history of fantasy monsters and races that reaches back ages in geological time. Erikson also has an enthusiasm for creating competing magic systems. However, there is a great deal going on in Genabeckis, and some readers may find that that Erikson’s gains in history and culture come at the cost of character development.

Then again, Erikson is writing a military fantasy series, one even more hard-boiled than Glen Cook’s Black Company novels. So it is somewhat naïve to look for a romantic resolution here. Instead, Erikson’s focus is on the nuts and bolts of the empire’s intrigues. It should not come as a surprise that Erikson’s writing is unusually rough, and his details are often focused on weapons and armor, magic theory, and vengeance.

Gardens of the Moon is the first in what has become a popular fantasy series, but some fantasy fans may choose not to sign up for this gritty campaign. At times, Erikson’s plot is as difficult to follow as Empress Laseen’s schemes, and the manipulations of this world may be too complex for casual readers to survive.

~Ryan Skardal

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere


  1. Ryan- Your review matches my own feelings about this series. I actually did like the grittiness, but for me, as the further the story goes, the more it seemed so over-the-top that I had a hard to believeing it.
    Too be honest, I really wanted to like these books. In many ways, its got exactly the kind of characters I like and I really do understand its appeal to many readers.
    But personally, I just couldn’t get past feeling like I really didn’t understand what was going on or I was overthinking the story to the point that I was lost.

  2. Ryan, I agree almost 100% with your review. I’m a big fan of the series, but Erikson just wasn’t a great writer yet at this stage. The world-building is stunning, which is why I gave it 3 stars, but as a novel it’s a bit of a mess. The second book in the series, which was written about a decade later, is a vast improvement, and the third one is even better. I’ve found it hard to get readers into this series because the first book is so challenging, and it’s hard to say “just stick with it” when every book is in the 700-1000 page range.

  3. @Greg. I had a similar experience. I was in the mood for hard-boiled fiction, but…

    @Stefan. Actually, the first two books were given to me as a gift, so I may yet read the sequel. I’d read that some people actually recommend starting the series with Deadhouse Gates. For now I am going to go through a couple new releases, Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, and probably a couple mainstream fiction titles. And the new Wheel of Time is coming out in November.

  4. Ryan, Yep, you can start the series with book 2, which happens more or less concurrently with book 1 but on a different continent. Book 3 goes back to Genabackis, continuing the story of book 1, and book 4 continues the story of Deadhouse Gates. And to make things even more confusing, book 5 is another possible entry point, set in an entirely different part of the world. I definitely understand your reaction to Gardens of the Moon – when I reread it (for the reread I was supposed to work on but had to drop out of), I realized that I really had no idea what was going on during my first reading. In that sense, I still think it’s a stunning feat of worldbuilding but just not successful as a novel.
    Enjoy City of Saints and Madmen – it’s excellent.

  5. Rob, Worth giving Deadhouse Gates a try before you write him off – it’s a massive step up and gives you a much better idea of the rest of the series.

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