Steven 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.