Gardens of the Moon: A daunting feat of world building

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

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.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  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. 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. 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.

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