One damn thing after another
In my reviews, I don’t mention characters’ names or any other names because I cannot remember them when I’m writing, or if I remember them, I would definitely spell them wrong. I tend to focus on emotions, surprises, themes, and character development (as in growth, so names are not so important). Needless to say, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has a huge cast of characters. And this huge cast is very noticeable even starting with the first book, Gardens of the Moon. All of them are in one way or another characters we follow in their converging journeys. Conclusion: I will not mention any names except one: Anomander Rake, a certain non-human lord that strangely doesn’t have a point of view scene in this book, and yet, his name as well his attitude put a lasting impression on me.
Steven Erikson managed to create character development in just a few lines of text spread over chapters devoted to other characters. A remarkable feat in itself. Alas, while the other characters are all distinct, we don’t have enough time to spend with them I couldn’t relate to many events in the world. And when I don’t relate to the characters, I don’t feel engaged in their struggles. Potential result: boredom.
The only thing that helped is that we are dropped not only in the middle of the action but apparently in the middle of the series too. Reading Gardens of the Moon feels like reading a middle book in a larger series. Events and characters are mentioned like we should already know about them. At times it feels like deus ex machina, but because of the way the story unfolds, you would have this nagging feeling that maybe you should have started with the first volume of the series. The problem: This is the first volume of the series.
As we don’t spend enough time with the characters to get to know them, my main interest while reading was in figuring connections and trying to understand what happened in “previous books” (so to speak – to understand the backstory which was missing in this volume). As I usually enjoy learning in context, and some of my favorite books are those that don’t over-explain things, I actually enjoyed that. On rereading probably my enjoyment will be diminished. I am one of those people who prefer to be thrown in the middle of events and figure out what each thing means. I also enjoy character-focused works. At least I got one extreme here in Gardens of the Moon.
Another aspect that held my interest during the lecture was the minimalist approach to word count. Does it mean it’s a short book? No, ten times no. At 700 pages, it’s a huge book, and every word counts. There are almost no descriptions here, except the occasional minimal one to set the scene or mood. The dialogues are also stilted and short, enough to convey the desired information or emotion. There is actual humor in this book, even if it’s seen through the lens of bleak grimdark fantasy.
A lot happens
Think about it this way. A lot more things happen in one chapter of Gardens of the Moons than in an entire book of the Wheel of Time series (at least The Eye of the World). It may be an exaggeration but it’s also a good approximation.
So, you cannot skim this book, every word means something if you want to understand the strange world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.
It is said (not by me) that this series is probably the most difficult and inaccessible fantasy series. I don’t agree with this. If you enjoy discovering new things and pay attention to every word, then it should prove to be a treat. My main criticism is that some things are to be explained in future books, so almost nothing is resolved in a satisfying way (accent on satisfying because everything is actually resolved) at the end of the first book. This, together with the feeling that there should be some volumes before the events of the book make this volume a not very satisfying read. It’s almost pointless if you don’t continue reading the next volumes.
If you’re used to the first book in the series picking up your interest and making you want to buy the next book, Gardens of the Moon reverses that and makes a great theme of futility both in the way the book reads but also in what the book covers.
While using many fantasy tropes, different races, dragons, powerful gods, vast armies, strange magics, epic scale, and even dice rolls, it perverts all of them, not in what they are, but in what they express.
A truly epic scale
On a personal note, I only got the first volume to see if it’s a series to my liking or not, but I discovered that this first book cannot give me the answer. It feels more like a chapter of a larger book than a standalone volume. So if you’re not committed to reading the whole series, probably it’s best not to start. For almost all other fantasy series, after reading the first book the general feeling is “more things will happen; wanna know more?” In this case, though, the general feeling is “congratulations, you’ve just read a chapter in the middle of the book; how do you feel?”.
It’s a complex book, akin to a chapter in world history. “Do we know the exact causes? No. But do we know exactly who is responsible? Not really. Do we see a pattern here? Maybe, but we’re not sure.” These are some of the questions you will have after reading this first book.
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, then go ahead and read it. If you’re just curious, I’d say sure, go ahead and read it. If you want a relaxing read and a straightforward story, I’d say this is not the right book for you. The frustration I felt after reading it, the ambivalence between love and hate, those were real. And I’m sure they were intended. In the prologue written in my edition, Steven Erikson mentioned the vast ambition he had about this series and asked if he plan to make it easy for the readers, his response was (in my words) “Hell, no! The real world is a frustrating experience, why should fantasy be different?”
There are even reading guides for this series of books, like this one, made by fans for fans and newcomers alike.
*All artwork belongs to Transworld Pub (1999) and their respective authors unless otherwise stated.