Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

November 19, 2010 at 1:27 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments
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Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God is coming out in February 2011, finally bringing his ten book series Malazan Book of the Fallen to a close. My usual policy with series is to wait until they are finished, read them all at once, and review them as a single work. However, a few years ago, after being told the early books stand on their own, I read the first few Malazan books to see what the fuss was about. That was during a period where I’d succumbed to laziness and stopped updating this site with what I was reading, so you’ll have to just take my word that I enjoyed the books. Having heard the series gets more tightly linked as it goes on, I stopped pretty early…to be honest I’m not completely sure where, but I think after the third book, Memories of Ice. With the series about to be completed, however, it’s finally time to read the whole thing. I’m starting a little early, but with nine books totaling almost three million words to read, I don’t think I’m likely to be done before February. Since the early books in this series, while linked, have distinct plots and often distinct sets of characters, I’m going to review them separately, at least for now.

Enough about that, let’s actually start talking about the first book, Gardens of the Moon. From the beginning this was described as the first of ten books. What kind of story needs that sort of space? As the novel opens, the 2nd Army of the Malazan Empire has been fighting for years against the Free Cities of the continent of Genabackis. Although only two cities remain outside Malazan control, the campaign is in danger of failing. Malazan morale is dropping rapidly, and the officers, if not the entire army, think they are being set up to fail by their Empress. To their opponents, resistance against Malazan tyranny is a patriotic struggle for freedom, but one they can’t hope to win in the long run. This is more than enough to sustain a novel, but as the book goes on, all this turns out to be just the tip of a vast iceberg. Perhaps the highest praise one can offer a book of this size is that after finishing it I was eager to keep reading more.

Like most fat fantasy novels, this is a very broad book. There’s a huge cast, many of whom serve at least briefly as viewpoint characters, and although the action of the book ultimately centers on the Free City of Darujhistan, it first ranges through other cities and even other continents. Insomuch as it can be boiled down, there are two main threads. In one, the few survivors of an elite 2nd Army regiment are given a new captain they don’t trust and a mission they believe impossible. In the other, a diverse group of friends in Darujhistan struggle to stay afloat amid the corruption and intrigue of a city in the shadow of an invading army.

When summarized so briefly, it takes on a realistic air, but this is very much of the swords and sorcery branch of the fantasy genre. Magic use is restricted to a small subset of the population, but that subset is large enough for it to be far more pervasive than in most fantasy novels. The range of power, meanwhile, is as wide as any novel I’ve read. The army has fairly weak “squad mages” mixed in with its soldiers, but there are High Mages capable of leveling armies by themselves. Beyond the human majority there are various types of immortals, from the elf-like Tisti Andii fighting for the Free Cities to the undead army of T’lan Imass commanded by the Malazan Empress. Complicating matters still further, gods and near-divinities called Ascendants are interfering in mortal affairs so much they make the gods of the Iliad look like the Swiss. There’s a ton of people groups, concepts, and powers to digest, and no doubt readers new to fantasy must find it all pretty dizzying, but for the experienced reader there’s nothing very unfamiliar. While it sounds harsh to call Erikson unoriginal, the fact is just about all the fantastic elements he uses have precedents from other prominent genre works. What distinguishes Erikson’s work, apart from its scale and ambition, is the mood he strikes.

You see, as with most sword and sorcery stories, and especially given its kitchen sink approach to fantasy tropes, there’s a danger that Gardens of the Moon won’t quite pass the giggle test, what with its floating mountain, assassins and thieves guilds, and hulking fantasy stereotype Anomander Rake. Erikson defuses this by starting off grim. By present standards, Gardens of the Moon is not a really dark book, but its darkest moments are at the beginning to set the tone. Before sitting down to reread this novel, I had forgotten almost everything from my original Malazan reading, but you can be sure that I still remembered the aftermath of the siege of Pale.

From this bleak beginning, Erikson moderates the tone and eventually introduces various elements that, considered in isolation, would seem pretty silly. But these are defused by the inertia of that serious beginning and the constantly down-to-earth attitude of the main characters. This is still high fantasy, but where most novels would feature a larger than life character like Anomander Rake prominently, Erikson is smart enough to leave him on the periphery, just as remote from the experience of the main characters as he is from our own (alas, whoever designed the cover pictured at the top of this review wasn’t so circumspect). Although some of the main characters are more powerful and influential than others, all are at the mercy of larger powers they cannot control, a surprisingly unusual theme for a genre that always seems to put the fate of the universe in the hands of the main character in the penultimate chapter.

The book’s relentless narrative momentum contributes to this feeling of being tossed by the winds of history. It might seem hard to believe given the length and complexity of the book that this is actually a very fast paced story, but with so many characters doing so many different things, Erikson is actually pressed for time. In traditional fantasy, diverse groups of characters band together to achieve some sort of goal. In Gardens of the Moon, everyone has their own thing going on, resulting in not just one plot, but over a dozen. Only strong unities of place and time keep the novel from feeling more like a short story collection.

However, it must be said that in the end it gets pretty messy. There is a point where it seems everything will come together explosively at a Darujhistan socialite’s party, but there are so many storylines to resolve and so many characters who need to take a bow that the ending is denied much of its punch. The result isn’t bad, per se, but it’s certainly not as effective as it would have been with a little more focus. With barely enough space to resolve the many stories, it almost goes without saying that there isn’t a lot of depth to the characters. Some are more effective than others (I really enjoyed Kruppe’s third person monologues, though I can see how some might find them annoying), but the timespan of the book is short enough that they don’t have very much time to change. As a standalone book, then, the characterization seems fairly shallow and very much beholden to the plot, but hopefully in the context of the longer series there will be better development.

Since I think the plot is messy and the characters are nothing special, you might be forgiven for wondering why I enjoyed it so much, and why this novel was successful enough to launch a ten book series. I think there are two factors. The first and probably most important is the world Erikson creates. The second, less important but more interesting to discuss, is the novel’s worldview.

Let’s start with the world. While some settings are more interesting than others, I sometimes make the mistake of treating them like a commodity, assuming that since every published fantasy book will have its own world, the mark of a strong book is its plot and characters. Reading Gardens of the Moon was a reminder that no, not everyone does this equally well. In fact, Erikson’s setting is the most effective of any I’ve encountered besides Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Given the by now well-known story of how the Malazan series came to be, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. If you don’t know, Erikson and a friend, Ian Esselmont, created the Malazan setting for a pen and paper roleplaying game back in the early eighties. Later, they tried and failed to sell a screenplay based on it to Hollywood. Finally, Erikson wrote Gardens of the Moon. By the time it was published in 1999, there was well over a decade of thought put into the setting. Middle Earth had the depth it did because Tolkien spent literally his entire adult life working on it. Erikson perhaps hasn’t spent quite so long, but he had the advantage of a partner in Esselmont.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the depth of setting is obvious. Unlike Tolkien, who eased readers into his world one step at a time, Erikson dives into the deep waters almost immediately. Some people report bouncing off the book because of this, and I don’t blame them. It’s a lot to process. But for those who manage to integrate it, the result is powerful. Again turning to Lord of the Rings as a useful model, the timespan of that story caught almost every important event. Aragorn had been alive for over a hundred years when he meets Frodo, but little of what he was doing had much impact on the outcome of the story. The same is true for most of the other characters. Ask a character after the events of Lord of the Rings when the important time of their lives was and all would point to the War of the Ring. Gardens of the Moon is completely different. The older characters (and even some of the younger ones) have been active for years and this is just the latest situation they’ve had to confront. It’s serious, but they’ve seen worse, and they’re worried they may someday see worse still.

But the setting’s history goes back a lot farther than just a few decades. Tolkien probably felt our world was about 6,000 years old and so was his Middle Earth. Erikson no doubt sees our world as much older, and this is likewise reflected in his fiction. The Malazan Empire is just the latest of a thousand civilizations, a tiny sliver of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of history. And this being a fantasy, there are immortal characters who have seen a sizable fraction of that history. Unlike Tolkien, who maintained a generational distance from the events of myth (Elrond was present only for the events at the very end of the Silmarillion), the influential immortals of Erikson’s present were just as influential in past millennia. This results in a unique effect where the past can feel extremely distant in one scene and very immediate in the next, depending on who is present.

Now, having made such an extended comparison to Tolkien, I have to make clear that although Erikson’s world has a depth similar to Tolkien’s, he is a very different writer. He doesn’t share Tolkien’s gift for languages, nor does he lavish nearly so much attention on the landscapes. Erikson was a professional anthropologist, so the details he emphasizes are those of culture. When Tolkien described a hill topped with ruins, he spent most of his time on the hill, whereas Erikson lingers on the ruins. The result is that Erikson’s landscapes are not beautifully evoked, but they come off as being genuinely inhabited (whether now or in the past) in a way that Tolkien’s empty countryside does not.

It’s worth continuing this contrast with Tolkien when we turn to the novel’s worldview. Tolkien’s setting was a conscious evocation of the high medieval period, however idealized. Most of his lesser successors have followed him in this, although they both loved and understood it less than Tolkien did. Erikson goes back much farther, and while his Malazan Empire is not an exact replica of any previous society, the closest analogue is probably the early Roman Empire. Whereas Tolkien’s world was fundamentally Christian, Erikson’s is thoroughly pagan. His gods are capricious and quick to interfere in the affairs of mortals. There’s no sense that humanity has dominion over the earth…the opposite, in fact. The distance between gods and men is small. Dangerously small, since the difference in power is vast. That disparity in power is perhaps the most old-fashioned element here. It’s easy to forget that for all the inequalities of wealth in our era, most people deny there is much difference between the average person and, for example, the American president. But to the ancients, there was an enormous gulf between the lowly peasant and Pharaoh, son of Ra.

However, mixed into this authentically ancient outlook is a very modern flavor. Unlike traditional Tolkien-influenced fantasy, the past is not considered better, nor is the present a slide down into a faded future. Oh, there were still powerful races and empires in previous eras who forged mighty artifacts and fought incredible battles, but while they are certainly due some respect, ultimately there is an assumption that modern magic is just as good as the old stuff, if not better. Even the Jaghut Tyrant, an ancient evil feared by all and the closest thing in the novel to a Dark Lord, is implied to be somewhat obsolete and rather out of his depth.

As for the gods, they may be active in the world, but ordinary people seem to mostly ignore them and hope to be ignored. Although there are cults and priests, we don’t see sacrifices being made or rituals undertaken to maintain the balance of the world. The only thing that resembles the consultation of omens or oracles is the Deck of Dragons, the ingenious tarot-like game that allows certain talented people to visualize divine affairs. The gods are of the ancient conception, then, but religious practice is about as pervasive as it is in the modern developed world (that is to say, not very). The pagan deities in, say, Rome could be capricious, but ultimately their favor could be bought through sacrifices and their protection assured through the proper administration of rituals. Erikson’s deities are complete free agents, depriving the masses of any hope of influencing the world around them.

This lack of influence extends to the characters, although Erikson does something rather tricky there. Again and again, he shows us that his characters are other than what they appear. Kruppe is a bumbling fool, Crokus is an insignificant thief, and Paran is a neophyte officer. Or are they? The named Bridgeburner characters all act like war-weary soldiers from gritty military fantasy like that of Glen Cook: despite cynicism about high command, they push forward and follow orders. Right? Actually, it turns out that Sergeant Whiskeyjack is no mere Sergeant, that Quick Ben isn’t a lowly squad mage, and so forth. The Bridgeburner characters are slumming. They are far more powerful than they appear, but that just makes them a target of the world’s great powers. For the moderately powerful in such a dangerous universe, false humility is the only alternative to destruction.

Since they are both long fantasy series, it’s inevitable that Malazan Book of the Fallen is often compared to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s interesting that they end up being exact opposites in the way their characters interact with the world. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of ordinary humans who act just like we would expect historical nobles to act, bickering and self-centered, but they are caught amidst the events of high fantasy. Erikson’s characters, meanwhile, are surrounded by what are really quite mundane events. The Empress takes the throne through assassination, slowly purges those who were personally loyal to the previous Emperor and replaces them with her own partisans, and finally bleeds the armies dry trying to win military glory. But for the fact the person in charge is female, this could easily refer to any number of Roman Emperors. But in fact no one’s motivations, from high officials like the Empress and High Fist Dujek to seemingly ordinary grunts like Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Quick Ben, are even remotely like what they appear. They have the motivations of high fantasy characters, but these play out in a way that resembles the mundane games of empire.

Perhaps the most modern element of the novel is the depiction of the military. Although I said that the Malazan Empire feels similar to Rome at times, it has armies, not legions, and they are broken down into squads the way modern armies are. The participation of women and the use of winged animals for airlifts also has a modern ring. But by far the most modern aspect of Erikson’s warfare is its carnage. It’s caused by magic or supernatural powers rather than technology, but nevertheless the capacity for mass destruction is unmistakeably modern in nature. The empires of our past were capable of inflicting horrifying atrocities, but they did so slowly and deliberately. In Gardens of the Moon thousands of people can be killed by a single errant magical attack.

This modern and therefore very high destructive potential is combined with ancient and therefore low valuations of human life. Since World War II, the ever-escalating cost of war between two developed nations has become so frightening to contemplate that asymmetric war is the only kind anyone is willing to fight. In Gardens of the Moon, leaders are not so squeamish. To his credit, Erikson makes sure the terrible cost of the resulting warfare is put front and center. It’s no accident that the novel opens with not just one but two horrific battlefields where the soldiers who died never had a chance to fight back. Despite the huge number of characters who are soldiers, assassins, mercenaries, generals, etc., fighting is never glorified. Even the Bridgeburners, who are indeed glorified as a legendary military unit and present some of the most interesting and sympathetic characters, turn out to be ambiguous at best, given they attempt to orchestrate murders and then prepare a terror attack on a civilian population. They are well-intentioned, but so are their enemies who live in Darujhistan. When they meet in the right circumstances, people from the two different sides even become fast friends. Yet the intentions of ordinary people cannot change their world, so the conflict continues, grinding up human lives in the vast gears of ambition and intrigue.

It’s this theme that motivates the book’s odd title, whose meaning escaped me in my original reading. After finding the corpse of a man killed in the political infighting surrounding Darujhistan’s panicked politics, the naive but supernaturally attuned Apsalar tells her friend Crokus about the oceans on the moon:

Its oceans. Grallin’s Sea. That’s the big one. The Lord of the Dead Waters living there is named Grallin. He tends vast, beautiful underwater gardens. Grallin will come down to us, one day, to our world. And he’ll gather his chosen and take them to his world. And we’ll live in the gardens, warmed by the deep fires, and our children will swim like dolphins, and we’ll be happy since there won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields. Oh, Crokus, it’ll be wonderful won’t it?

Crokus’ initial reaction is to consider this absurd. It’s Erikson’s achievement (and this is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement) that not only do we as readers immediately have the same reaction as Crokus but we have it for the same reason. Immersed in the Malazan world with its manifold deities and deep magic, there’s nothing implausible about the idea of beautiful gardens under an ocean on the moon tended by an elder god. No, the only thing that seems unbelievable about Apsalar’s description is its last image: “There won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields.” An end to suffering and war? That’s just fantasy.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

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  1. A small correction, “almost three million word” it’s actually 3 million plus 200-300k πŸ˜‰ Obviously without the added material and without counting appendixes or Dramatis Personae.

    If you go for a complete readthrough you should also toss in there Esslemont books. While Night of Knives is entirely forgettable, I think that in later books there are some fundamental events and they also improve considering the readers’ reactions. Then I’d also heartily recommend the four Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. They don’t fit directly in the events but they are some of the best stuff Erikson wrote. Pure excellence.

    Ideally I’ve put the first three novellas between Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice (because the novellas characters then show up in this latter book), and the fourth after MoI because it works great to defuse some of that book’s intensity and gets one ready to follow with the following. Then Night of Knives after House of Chains. Return of the Crimson Guard should go after Reaper’s Gale and Esslemont suggested to put Stonewielder either before or after Toll the Hounds.

    I absolutely agree with your point that the attitude of characters (and approach to writing in general) can defuse the silliness of the setting. Erikson takes some huge risks by presenting a so over the top world and he walks along that risky edge of falling into the complete ridiculous. He can make real and meaningful stuff that you wouldn’t ever consider possible to take seriously. He actually embodies most polemics and prejudices that have always followed the fantasy genre at large.

    “This results in a unique effect where the past can feel extremely distant in one scene and very immediate in the next, depending on who is present.” It also gives a Lovecraftian vibe that I love. Things stay alive and can wait for a very long time. The past is not a background or a remote line on the horizon, but something that can subvert the present. Or better, the past holds often a truth on the present that the present has completely warped and lost πŸ˜‰

    The point is that in many fantasy books the background is “flavor” added to the story. An illusion of depth. While in this series it takes an active role and everything that is exposed plays some important role. There’s always something deliberate and that has a deeper meaning. Things written and driven by motivation.

    I also suggest to read this article written by Erikson where he explains a bit his “worldview” without the conceit of the fantasy setting. Quite enlightening:
    http://www.stevenerikson.com/index.php/commentary-endgame-vol-1-and-2-by-derrick-jensen/

    Very good review, probably the best I’ve read of the book πŸ™‚

  2. Abalieno:

    Re: word count, I was only counting the the first 9 books I’ll have to read to get to Crippled God…they are just under 3 million. I was going to link to the post I got the numbers from to prove this to you but then noticed…it’s your post! I found it on Google months ago and never made the connection. Well, for anyone else interested: http://www.cesspit.net/drupal/node/1869

    I read one or two of the novellas the first time around, I think, and wasn’t really that impressed, but maybe I’ll give them another shot when I hit that point in the sequence. I had sort of written off Esselmont after the muted reaction his first book got, but I guess it would be interesting to see his take on the world given how rare co-creation is in written fiction.

    Thanks for the link to Erikson’s article…sounds very interesting, though I think I’ll wait to read it until I’ve read at least a few more of the Malazan books.

  3. […] seem to have something of an odd/even pattern with this series.Β  I loved the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and really enjoyed the third, the fifth, and now this, the […]


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