The debut book of 'Steven Erikson' and first book in his series The Malazan Book of the Fallen
. As a debut book it strikes a new and staggeringly complex mark in the fantasy scene. Inscribed is a fantasy
world not too far removed from others in its immediate nature, there are new names for a bunch of different fantasy races and a few old names. There are wizards
and alchemists, dragons
and armies of swords and sorcery
. But the innovations that Erikson offers in this and the later books grant the series great depth of plot and the fine crafting of words make the work enjoyable on many levels. Furthermore the depth of story and character development are at times breathtaking. So I hope that with this review I can bring this series to the hands of more people.
On the continent of Genabackis the army of the Malazan Empire, under the command of High Fist Dujek Onearm, continue their campaign of conquest. Two free cities face the onslaught of the Malazans: Pale, with its armies and support from the floating mountain fortress Moon's Spawn, falls quickly. The second, Darujhistan, simultaneously rich and corrupt is unprepared for war and its council is unable to come to terms with the danger facing it. In the wake of a devastating victory, survivors of the veteran Bridgeburners company, commanded by Sergeant Whiskeyjack, are sent to Darujhistan to covertly undermine its defenses for the coming Malazan assault. At the same time, a young Nobleborn officer, under orders of the Empress's Adjunct, is sent to command them and investigate an enigmatic young soldier involved in the massacre of a company of recruits and several villages in the heart of the Empire. As ancient demons, petty gods and enemy soldiers converge on Darujhistan, its citizens ready themselves for a festival of spring and a party like no other.
The world that Erikson paints in Gardens of the Moon is vast and old. Built into each story is a legacy of not a few thousand years but hundreds of thousands. Armies clash again and again across continents and millennia. Ethnicities are many and tribes either cross the plains as nomads or remember the construction of their cities. Wizards work magic from 'warrens' which are themselves entire worlds that are traveled and explored throughout the series (for fun and profit). Magic is simultaneously abstract and physical. A warren is a space which can in some cases have portals open onto the mundane realm, temporarily or permanently or it can be entirely associated with an object like a tombstone on a barrow or a sword. Each person in the series has an ethnicity/species with its own history and gods and beliefs, unsurprising considering Erikson's daytime profession as an anthropologist and archaeologist. But in this setting all of those gods and beliefs are real or at least based somewhat on reality; indeed there is a good chance that their gods are involved in their lives to some degree. The twin-gods of luck, Oponn, will take note if you have the temerity to name your sword 'Chance.'
In this story we catch a glimpse of the continent of Genabackis, diverse and thus constantly in a state of war with itself. Enmities which existed between nomadic and agrarian tribes for millennia manifest as civil and inter-city conflicts or at least they did until the Malazans landed and cut through the Gordian knot of politics, conquering, subjugating and reorganizing a rats nest of politics. And in the heart of the continent lies Darujhistan; a city nestled in a great deal of history, some older than human presence on Genabackis itself. The layers of civilization bound within the bedrock of the continent are pealed back through this story and the confrontation of ancient powers and new ones is described in exquisite detail.
Gardens of the Moon offers a new vision of fantasy, which in many ways goes deeper than Tolkien and those deriving from him(or in a round-about way deriving from Beowulf). In Erikson's stories we look at a world wherein magic exists and is older than anything that can be called civilization. This comes with a realization, that magicians won't be limited to Medieval robed sages but fur bedecked shaman, tribal elders and savage warlocks. That every empire or kingdom begins, armored in furs, wielding flint spears and is not born in well made chain-mail. It is easy to find ways in which Erikson has written a recognizable work of Fantasy, however the masterful storytelling makes the novelty of his world clear without becoming tiresome or heavy-handed. One example of his separation from typical fantasy is the gender integration of the Malazan army and others. Where some writers might do this to make some half-hearted point about equality and then proceed to ignore the fact that some characters are male or female, Erikson explores the character of the women who have decided to go forth to war. He lets the removal of gender segregation act as another layer of complexity within the story.
The prose in this work has been finely tuned. Characters maintain their voice and those voices are distinguishable. Descriptive language is at times rife with subtext. An example, admittedly from a later book in the series, does double duty to explore the topic of gender that I allude to above:
Her gauntlets thudded down on the tabletop, raising a cloud of dust. Armor rustling, sweat soaking the underpadding between her breasts, she unstrapped her helmet and - as the wench arrived with the tankard of ale - dragged out the rickety chair and sat down.
Here we are introduced to a female soldier, tired and sweating buckets in the heat of summer into her already sweltering armor, sitting down in a tavern. And when she sees a woman serving her, that woman is a wench and nothing more. This lays bare much about the character of the soldier and at the same time is merely description of an event. This is an example of Erikson's ability to compact vast amounts of meaning in his writing. The work crafted here combines this descriptive ability with a continuous and ever accelerating plot.
Finally, I must point out that this book, while long, moves very fast. It pulls the reader into the world it fabricates very quickly and sets plate after plate spinning in the air before all comes crashing down. It manages to surprise the reader with revelation after revelation before pulling the rug out from underfoot. Gods will die, a coin will fall and bricks will fly.