I’m back with my first review of the year, and with my first read of 2021 – Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. The Malazan books are something I have heard mentioned over and over again, with very mixed opinions, to the point where it felt like an almost mythical series. I had already planned on doing a series challenge this year to clear some of my TBR, and I decided that now was the time to dive into some bigger ones as well – both Malazan and Wheel of Time. I decided to start with the one that I was least sure of, and well… I loved it.
The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations with the formidable Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, ancient and implacable sorcerers. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.
For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.
However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand…
(At the moment I am rating this as Going on the Shelf, but I think this series as a whole as the potential to be a Favourite because I did love it – and while I had to highlight the world building, another factor that I really enjoyed was the writing style.)
So, as I said in the intro, I loved this book. It also confused the hell out of me on more than one occasion, and I still have questions that probably won’t have answers until later in the series, but the reward for that confusion is a sweeping epic fantasy on an EPIC scale.
Erikson doesn’t nudge you into the flow of his story, he drops you right in the deep end of it, and I can see why there are such conflicting views of Malazan for this reason because it is very much sink or swim. I have to admit, I nearly sank for a bit right at the very start – there was a lot of names, and things happening – and I had nothing to grab hold of (I also picked up late at night and I was tired, and the letters were hopping around – which in a series that you need to try and unravel was not helpful). I then got the audiobook – a bit of a gamble as I am finickity with narrators, to say the least, but I discovered that Ralph Lister is one on the small list of ones that I could listen to all day and I did, bouncing between book and audiobook, and sometimes listening and reading simultaneously. That helped me get over that initial hurdle, and then the writing and the worldbuilding did the rest and I was hooked, speeding through this chunky book in the space of a couple of days because I couldn’t put it down.
I also have to say that I loved the foreword in this book, and I think reading about Erikson’s motivation with the complexity of the series, how it is written and just the ambition behind it, helped as it gave me even more of an appreciation for how Malazan just steps out boldly and does its own thing.
As much as I loved the writing in Gardens of the Moon, it was the worldbuilding that really sold me on this book (and hopefully the rest of the series), because this is such a rich, multi-faceted world with layers within layers. Some of it, I’m still unravelling even by the end of the book, more of it I realise won’t make complete sense (or any perhaps) until further books, and I think when you’re reading this book, it is important to realise that this is one piece of a much bigger tapestry and you have to have patience. Which was easy enough for me, because there was so much else to keep my attention, the magic and religious systems, the battles, the moments in between, and the intricacy of all the details that Erikson weaves into the book trusting the reader to either spot them and make sense of them, or not.
The characters I found a little more mixed, with some a little less developed than others – to be expected perhaps with such a large cast, and again looking at this as the first book, there is a chance (if they survive) to see that develop in future books. That said, for most of the characters, I found myself pulled into their stories fairly easily, and Erikson did an excellent job of creating memorable (if not always likeable) characters.
Another strong point for this book is that the way it is written makes it so that we are learning about events and the world alongside the characters themselves. Erikson has created a realistic situation in that in this world without the trappings of mass media/education/propaganda, knowledge and experience is limited, the characters are only able to make decisions and act on what they know and on often limited information. There is an imbalance of knowledge about the magic system. There are people with no knowledge of anything beyond their simple life thrust into something bigger and left to sink or swim, and we as the reader are right along with them because we’re not shown more, we don’t know information than they do. Again, this is something that not everyone will appreciate, but it added an extra nuance to the book that I really enjoyed.
Gardens of the Moon was nothing like what I had expected, and way more than I could have imagined and I am very glad that I fell on the side of loving this book and I can’t wait to continue with the series and see what else Erikson has in store. I feel very strongly that this will become a favourite series, but I am waiting to declare as much because there are a lot of books to go and things can change.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.