Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)

Metadata

  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author: Steven Erikson
    • Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen
    • Status: #read
    • Date: 2020-10-25
    • Tags: #fantasy #epic #fiction
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads

Summary

"The gods were descending to the mortal soil to do battle, shapings were being forged of flesh and bone, and the blood of sorcery now boiled with a madness born of inevitable momentum."

It's that D&D campaign with friends that you loved but really wasn't that good and the GM made wayyyyy too much backstory.

No but seriously.

The all-consuming Malazan empire is falling apart from the inside out. With the emperor's assassin on the throne and bent on cleaning out the old guard, the frontline battles have become pawns in a larger, political game.

Caught up in the mix is a fishergirl turned vessel for the patron of assassins bent on destroying the empress, a squad of veterans sent on a suicide mission, a young captain turned pawn for the gods, the remnants of an ancient people, and the last free city on the continent: Darujhistan. Together with an unlikely alliance of a fat mage, assassin, dandy, and a naive thief, the schemes of the Empress, gods, old soldiers, and factions within factions converge in a game with Darujhistan as a chessboard.

SPOILERS It is a game that could spell doom not only for the city, but the empire and peoples beyond when the Malazan empire plays their final card: taking out not just the veteran Bridgeburners but Darujhistan and their new ally, the ancient Lord of the Tiste Andii, in one fell swoop when they seek to awaken a sleeping tyrant.

But other forces are at play and a final twist sees the Bridgeburners working on behalf of a Malazan army turned rouge while Darujhistan stands to fight another day. For another fight is indeed coming. /END SPOILERS

Themes

  • The casualties of politics and war
  • Free will and responsibility

Review

"Ambition is not a dirty word. Piss on compromise. Go for the throat. Write with balls, write with eggs. Sure, it’s a harder journey but take it from me, it’s well worth it." - Steven Erikson in the preface

Gardens of the Moon, like most epic fantasy since Lord of the Rings, is a giant, bloated tale throwing in everything but an editor.

That is one of the reasons I don't normally read epic fantasy. However, unlike others of the genre I have attempted, Gardens of the Moon truly goes all in on the 'everything' and even adds original ideas to the mix. You're a kid in the fantasy candy store. There are giant armies, political intrigue, assassinations, plucky soldiers, devious gods, world-hoping mages, mythology of crazily-named species, a sprawling empire, plus a billion factions and they all get a relatively even share of the spotlight. For that, you have to applaud and it almost justifies the 700+ pages.

In return, I present a similarly overblown review.

Forget Black Company

I was not surprised to hear Malazan started off life as a tabletop setting. At times, the story reads like it with small bands going up against world-altering powers and threats or saviours conveniently appearing and disappearing like the game master went 'Oh, you beat that bad guy? Here's a bigger one' or 'Oops, that threat goes too far, let's quick and remove that'.

Overall, it struck me as a palatable Black Company by Glen Cook. You have an evil Empire with a lot of people caught in the crossfire doing what they have to to survive. It's a more human view of war while leaving room for the usual fantasy shenanigans before it becomes too much of a downer. But it never drifts into Black Company's glee at being and describing evil.

High stakes, but no personal stakes

The issue is Gardens of the Moon approach is something of a halfway house. It tries to be this sprawling epic dealing with prophecies, politics, war, and all the devastation that goes along with that while also starring plucky (albeit morally grey) heroes outwitting ancient murder gods. At the halfway point when your entire cast is still intact, you stop considering the gods or much of anything a threat and the stakes tumble when they should rise. By the time the big bad converged at the end of the novel, the only thing I was trying to guess was which of the main players would take him out, not if he could succeed.

Don't get me wrong, I love happy, Saturday-morning-cartoon adventures where the heroes always win. However, if your story is a giant, epic about war and the characters are constantly talking about the death and destruction, at some point that needs to hit home. It never does on anything but the geopolitical scale.

Likewise, lots of talk about gods descending to the mortal plane and taking champions and power drawing power and all that convergence stuff but I gotta admit, I had very little idea what any of them wanted out of this (even if that was just 'messing about with mortals'). Speaking of not understanding motivation...

So. Many. Characters.

I heard Gardens of the Moon described as 'A bunch of over-philosophizing soldiers' and that is not wholly inaccurate. There are a bunch of soldiers who spend pages reflecting and repeating the same issues of the terrible cost of war and their own role in perpetuating the horror. The impact of this is weakened somewhat, however, by the fact that so many of the main POVs share these reflections.

There are no goals. All the philosophizing characters began to blend together by virtue of sharing the same conflict and similar inner thoughts reflecting on it. They became focused on the conflict without a clear goal or motivation to overcome it. It took me ages to get invested in one of (if not the) central squad because I didn't know why they were doing what they did, outside of staying alive. Or for another example, by the end I had no more idea why Adjunct Lorn was doing what she was doing than I did at the beginning. But I did know she had inner turmoil about it and then quashed it.

This improves hugely with the shift in setting about 40% through the book. I do not think it is a coincidence that the coolest characters ended up being those who did not reflect on those same themes and so had an actual kind of goal (Kruppe, Dujek, Baruk) or existed only as a legend (The Empress, Caladan Brood and the Crimson Guard). That's not to say exploring the themes of war, devastation and our personal and species-wide role in it but overall it felt like a missed opportunity and characters who could have brought an fresh lens to it (Sorry, Tattersail, Anomander Rake) felt underutilized, especially considering how much the other characters ramble about it.

However, what I did enjoy was the fact that we get POVs on all sides. The sameness of some the characters actually enhances this, as we see the world-weary cares of those fighting on every side of this war and can cheer for individuals even though they are technically on enemy sides. It humanizes a continent spanning war and that goes a long way to supporting the themes.

Short and simple? Haven't heard of it

"The Claw smiled. ‘You have begun to learn, Paran. Never be too easy with the knowledge you possess. Words are like coin – it pays to hoard.’ ‘Until you die on a bed of gold,’ Paran said."

I'll keep this section short and simple, a.k.a. the opposite of Gardens of the Moon (and this review):

  • Do you mind pages of characters internal debates and reflection?
  • Do you mind when said reflection drives some scenes, at the expense of descriptions?
  • Do you refuse to read anything that is not driven by deep, complex characters?
  • Do you mind occasionally overblown prose and verse prophecies?
  • Do you feed on exposition and hate floundering until you figure things out pages later?
  • Do you want to throw your book/reading device across the room when long-awaited exposition comes in the form of a dump of made up names and factions you will need to keep straight in your head to understand the impact of the power struggles?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, Gardens of the Moon may not be the book for you. The ideas and descriptions (when they appear) are evocative, you just have to be able to stomach spending a lot of times inside the heads of a very large cast and overblown prose in places.

What could have been

My main gripe with Gardens of the Moon is how amazing it could have been. Shave 250+ pages and more than a few pointless characters and this could have been a tight, fantasy page-turner and 5 stars from me.

The Kez Edit (Feat. Spoilers)

  • Cut Hairlock (seriously, what did he do or achieve?).
  • Chop the time spent in the Pale in half... or actually use it to establish some motivations.
  • Cut Tattersail + Parran (I can only assume they build up to something in future volumes).
  • Give Sorry an actual role, perhaps replacing Kalam's role with her for a fresh pair of eyes on the world-weary warrior scene.
  • Less ridiculous names of origin mythology. It made things unnecessarily difficult to follow and in some cases deadens the juicy political intrigue because you miss foreshadowing and clues in the waves of information and made up words.
  • Less out of nowhere saviours at the end (or contextualise with some more hints. It is entirely possible there were hints and I missed them. See point above).
  • MAKE THE STAKES COUNT - At the very very least, some of Whiskeyjack's squad need to die and the city ought to take damage. Not because I want that to happen, but precisely because I don't and need to feel like there are repercussions to all this political posturing. Every character talks about those consequences, but they never hit home.

TL;DR Perfect? No. Fun? Yes.

"‘Out of your depth, Captain? Don’t worry, every damn person here’s out of their depth. Some know it, some don’t. It’s the ones who don’t you got to worry about. Start with what’s right in front of you and forget the rest for now. It’ll show up in its own time."

If you are looking for a fantasy doorstep to chew on, Gardens of the Moon seems a good one. Is it perfect? Not by a longshot. But it's fun, manages to pack both action and political intrigue, and puts a fresh spin on the usual epic fantasy worldbuilding. I give it 3.5 or 4 stars. Despite all my quibbles, it is a sprawling yarn great for a long rainy weekend.

Plus there are 9 more where that came from, not counting spin-offs. Normally that's a big no for me but in this case, I probably will give the rest of the books a go. Expect a full review in 5-10 years.

Highlights

  • "I’m writing a history and fictional or not, history has no real beginning point; even the rise and fall of civilizations are far more muddled on the front and back ends than many people might think."
  • "Being alive, Tattersail concluded as she approached her tent, isn’t the same as feeling good about it."
  • "...damage, when it occurs, does so on all levels."
  • "Mages by nature never commanded loyalty. Fear, yes, and the respect born of fear, but the one thing a mage found difficult to understand or cope with was loyalty."
  • "Power ever draws other power."
  • "He’s loyal to an idea, and that’s the hardest kind to turn."
  • "In the exactness of the methods of assassination, his final victim would be himself."
  • "But, damn, when you take away everybody else’s humanity, you take away your own. And that’ll drive you mad as sure as anything."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • The Eel, a rumoured master-spy #characters
  • Another Bridgeburner, this one with a broken, scorched fiddle strapped to his back, came up to the commander. #characters #factions
  • the wax-witch who trapped souls in candles and burned them. Souls devoured in flame #characters #creatures #magic
  • Thronemaster #characters
  • prohibition of sorcery --> ! Imagine a magic speakeasy / sorcery prohibition town #locations #worlds
  • Moon’s Spawn
  • ‘Sorry. My name is Sorry.’ #characters
  • The dark bloom of sorcery was a stain few cared to examine too closely. It had a way of spreading.
  • The blood of a Tiste Andii races in my veins, seeking escape, no doubt, from its more common human stream. --> Bloodline which is always trying to escape host #creatures
  • Portal tunnels used for quick travel but have to walk the magical paths. Those paths actually have to be tunneled in the magical environment #locations #magic
  • ‘I take it, then,’ Paran said, ‘that no god claims this Warren. By this, you cheat the tolls, the gatekeepers, the guardians on unseen bridges, and all the others said to dwell in the Warrens in service to their immortal masters.’ --> magic toll gatekeeper #creatures
  • "In one such place they found a dark encrusted stain and the scatter of chain links like coins in the dust."
  • the Year of the Shattered Moon
  • ‘There’s always the risk of knowing too much. Be glad I spared you.’ He smiled, unveiling red-stained teeth. ‘Think nice thoughts. The flesh fades.’
  • the enormous mountain hanging suspended a quarter-mile above the city of Pale. --> Magical fortress. Mysterious lord temporarily allied with city below under siege #locations
  • Lord of the Tiste Andii, who are the souls of Starless Night.
  • Magical mine disarming unit #characters #magic #factions
  • Cloud Forest #locations
  • insurrection possibly headed by the Empire’s finest military commander, against a High Mage #factions
  • A man whose black hair was braided into a pony-tail and knotted with charms and fetishes sat with his back to the room, dealing out the cards with infinite patience. #characters
  • Oponn, the Twins of Chance. --> Twin gods under single name. Faces change depending on which sibling has prominence #characters #creatures
  • The builder of barrows
  • learned the stone-cutting trade breaking into barrows up on the plain behind Mock’s Hold.’ --> gangs robbing barrows outside city
  • ‘Kruppe has always considered you mere aspects of himself, a half-dozen Hungers among many, as it were. Yet, for all your needs, you would urge what of your master? --> The 6 hungers of a man, embodied as beggars. Talks with them #creatures
  • City built on gas caverns, channeled by massive valves to light streets but also risk of sending whole city sky high #locations
  • ‘I seek sensation once again,’ it said, ‘but my hands feel nothing. To be worshipped is to share the supplicant’s pain. I fear my followers are no more.’ #creatures #characters
  • Fort By a Half, Dead Man’s Story and Exile; #locations
  • the Scented Wood #locations
  • On either side of the carriage walked middle-aged women. Bronze cups sat on their shaved heads from which unfurled wavering streams of scented smoke.
  • ‘The Wolf Goddess of Winter dies her seasonal death,
  • Worrytown: the thief’s destination. #locations
  • ‘Some nights,’ Rallick said as he brushed dead leaves from one of the benches, ‘wraiths crowd the entrance – you can walk right up to them, listen to their pleas and threats. They all want out.’ --> Assassins afraid of haunted tower above their tunnel catacomb base #locations
  • Murillio snorted. ‘Kruppe’s memory is revised hourly. All that holds him together is fear of being discovered.’
  • Bone Casters #creatures #magic
  • the Silent Host #creatures
  • There was a tinge of sour brimstone and a mustiness that reminded her of unearthed tombs.
  • One man stood alone, leaning over it, his back to the doorway. An enormous iron hammer was slung across his broad back; #characters
  • When the time came, there would be chaos at every major intersection of streets in the city. ‘Planting mines ain’t gonna be easy,’ Fiddler had pointed out, ‘so we do it right in front of everyone’s nose. Road repair.’
  • the Hound called Blind #characters
  • In the exactness of the methods of assassination, his final victim would be himself.
  • The slatted sideboards of withered, bone-grey wood showed spaces a finger’s width between. Paran flinched back on seeing skeletal fingers crowding the cracks, wriggling helplessly.
  • the dweller within the Moon’s caverns
  • He walked through a silent city, as if he were the last of the living yet to flee the past year’s turmoil, and now shared the world with ghosts tolled among the year’s dead.
  • The Five Tusks
  • I saw the ages in their eyes
  • Their sorcery bled from them
  • Dragons with multi-faceted eyes #creatures
  • The Deadhouse
  • D’rek, the Worm of Autumn (sometimes the Queen of Disease)

Inspired

  • Murder mystery in siegeworks around city under siege for 5 years and on the verge of biggest assault in years.