Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let me state right at the beginning that I am typically not a fan of fiction series. Too often, I have begun a series or made my way through the first two books in a series only to find that the writer ran out of steam (and new ideas) somewhere along the way. Being a writer, I understand this. Sustaining the intensity required to write one novel for any length of time is difficult. Being a reader, I've been bitten one too many times by this lack of staying power on the part of several authors. Needless to say, I picked up Gardens of the Moon only after carefully reading dozens of reviews here on Goodreads and elsewhere. Seeing the blurb by my friend Paula Guran under the front cover clinched it. Paula has discriminating tastes in fiction and won't pin her name on a book that doesn't deserve it. And so, I ventured forth.
For a book of 657 pages (of story), Erikson's novel read very quickly. This author has a good handle on how to keep the pages turning and how to move from character to character without seeming too choppy and without getting bogged down in one person's story. That isn't to say that Gardens was entirely glitch-free, particularly when it came to characters' actions or reactions. In fact, this is the first of my two criticisms of the novel: because so many sub-plots are being juggled here, and since we have such infrequent contact with all the players, there seem to be gaps between some characters motivations, reflections, and action. The most blatant example of this was manifested in Lorn, who takes a sudden swing from the disciplined, hardened Adjunct to a melancholy brooder on the self-destructive nature of human society on about page 427. I see where Erikson is trying to go with this - showing the struggle within Lorn's heart between loyalty to the Empress and feelings of responsibility for harm she has caused and the terror she is about to unleash. But it all seems so sudden, without precedent and without enough jarring of her experience to even cause her to consider questioning her past, present, or future actions. Whiskeyjack is also forcibly turned (by no other agent than the author's whim, it seems) toward a previously-absent sense of hope in humanity around page 500. This (newly-discovered?) sense of optimism just sort of pops out of nowhere. It's far too intense a feeling for the words and thoughts that preceded it; thus it feel disingenuous.
I suppose that Erikson felt he must show some kind of foil to the fatalism that permeates the work. There are no paladins in this book and very few heroes. Even those whose actions are informed by a sense of duty are often twisted by the service they give. And no one is quite what he or she seems. Masks abound, figurative and literal, and some of the characters are even masked from themselves, which creates a nice feeling of dramatic tension throughout the book.
The second flaw in the book is the muddled identity of the many non-human (more appropriately, "quasi-human") races that play key roles in the book, whether as individuals or as entire peoples. I had a very difficult time separating them out from each other. Maybe, after repeated readings, I'll get it all straight. But even the glossary was of little help and, in fact, added to my confusion regarding which races were which. Other than a few mentions here and there, racial characteristics were rarely mentioned. When they were, they were so far removed from other mentions of these characteristics that I found myself thumbing back through to try to find where that race had been mentioned before. I failed miserably. Frankly, the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel and the Glossary at the end were not enough. I even went to the Malazan website to try to get enough information about the races to be able to visualize them in my mind, but to no avail. This book needs an index.
Now, given those two flaws, I hasten to say that these are the main reason that I gave this book only four stars instead of five. This is one of the better fantasy books I've read in some time. Yes, the characters could have used some more fleshing out, but I'm expecting to see some of them in later volumes in the series. Overall, I quite liked them. I was particularly enamored of Kruppe, whom I really hated when he was first introduced, not because he's a despicable person, but because the syntax of his dialogue ran counter to everything that preceded it. As the story went on, I saw why Erikson had portrayed Kruppe in this way and, in fact, learned to appreciate it. I also liked the outright wickedness of Hairlock and the conflicted internal struggle that Tattersail went through (which seemed much more believable than Lorn's internal struggle, mentioned above). I have to say, though, that Circle Breaker, one of the more mundane of the minor characters, was my favorite. He filled the role of "everyman," a working-class character who is eventually rewarded for good, old-fashioned hard work . . . of a sort.
The world of Malazan is a fully-fleshed out world, and Erikson does a good job of presenting its richness to the reader by using the dialogue between characters who have obviously known each other for some time to open windows to past events and cultural history. Some characters are famous enough that it is assumed that anyone in this milieu will know of them and their exploits. Casual bits of information about these characters are thrown about in bars or in private conversations, almost as an afterthought. But since no one is quite what they seem, it is only through seeing the characters' actions that these larger-than-life heroes'/antiheroes' legends are verified. Anomander Rake is a prime example of this. He definitely lives up to all the hype.
And so does the novel.
I am a man of limited time. I don't enter into a series lightly, and I will bail out at the first sign of fundamental weakness I detect. I simply don't have the time to waste on bad books. For now, though, Erikson has me hooked. Time will tell if he stands the test of time: timelessness. So far, so good.
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