#CBR4 Maneuver #31 – Gardens of the Moon

Target: Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)

Profile: Epic Fantasy

Summary: From goodreads.com, “The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. 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 . . .
Conceived and written on a panoramic scale, Gardens of the Moon is epic fantasy of the highest order–an enthralling adventure by an outstanding new voice.”

 After Action Report:

Gardens of the Moon is a sprawling book, made more so by the in media res start and a veritable ton of unknown jargon/terminology.  The book features a cast of no fewer than nine ‘main’ protagonists, (and this is a conservative estimate) twelve (or fourteen) parallel storylines and significant asides to peek into the lives of several antagonists and minor characters.  The only shocking thing is that the book is STILL SHORTER THAN REAMDE!  Fuck you Neil Stephenson.

These are facts that you should know going into either the book, or this review.  Epic fantasy can be wonderful, but there is a small school of writers that take the ‘epic’ to expansive new places.  If you’re a fan of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind or even George R. R. Martin, you’ll probably enjoy the scope of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, even if you don’t like the story being told.  These… massive novels reject conventional reviews, partially due to their scope, and partly due to the nature of the series as a whole.  The sad fact is that, without their companion books, these bloated tales don’t really hold up on their own, sagging under the weight of too many characters, too many unfamiliar terms and too much set-up for the next book.  But once the architecture of the series is taken into account, the reader’s eye can be drawn to the shape of the epic, glossing over the ugly details and just absorbing the world and the major story arcs.

By many benchmarks, Gardens of the Moon is a bad book.  The dialogue is sub-par, the storylines are confusing for the first third of the book and it seems to take Erikson a really long time to get to the damn point.  Having said this, I’m already three quarters of the way through Deadhouse Gates, (Malazan #2) and some of the bigger themes have started to force me to reevaluate Gardens.  Still, it is hard to forgive Erikson this somewhat lackluster start.

While Gardens features enough protagonists that you can basically pick one you like, the core of the book is focused on the somewhat random misadventures of Ganoes Stabro Paran, a noble-born officer of the Malazan Empire who happens to witness the slaughter of a small fishing village at the hands of Hounds of the God of Shadows.  Well, really the King of High House Shadow, but we’ll leave some of the more obscure terminology at the door for this review.  Paran is swept up in an attempt to thwart the machinations of the House of Shadow and ends up two continents away, and the pawn of the Gods of Chance.

At the same time, a general of the Malazan Army is planning to defect to avoid being killed by his Empress, the residents of the city of Darujhistan are terrified that the Empire is about to invade, a race of supermen in a floating fortress are chased across a continent, a trio of war-mages wage a quiet civil war across the Warrens of Chaos, the Adjunct of Empress Laseen embarks on a journey to awaken a terrifying prehistoric monster to attack the Lord of Moon’s Spawn, a disenfranchised lord of Darujhistan is plotting murder to retake his title and lands, and a thief steals a bundle of finery from a rich girl.  I may have missed some of the finer details.

The various storylines twist and turn around each other, eventually all merging in a somewhat predictable climax.  Colliding might be a better word than merging, because after the climax, somewhat shuffled collections of protagonists split off again, setting the stage for Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice.

And there’s the rub.  While Gardens of the Moon was clearly supposed to be the readers’ introduction to the world of the Malazan Empire, the book does little to fill this role.  It neither eases us in to the world’s terminology and setting, nor stands on its own as a strong, independent story.  Many terms are left undefined or only partially explained and the overall shape of the world is unclear until the establishment of the Seven Cities continent in Deadhouse Gates.  The immediate story is hampered by Paran basically being out of play for a significant portion of the book.  While arguments can be made that Whiskyjack and Crokus also qualify as principle protagonists, neither possesses sufficient PoV time to really feel like principals.  Without a central story arc to follow, the rest of the plotlines start to rely on the world building for support, instead of the thread of dramatic action, creating a legion of underdeveloped characters and an expansive list of unanswered questions.

Of course, in the context of the greater series, most of these concerns disappear as the books march on.  Even as soon as the next book, Deadhouse, the characterization of the PoV protagonists has improved markedly.  So, if the question is, “should you read Gardens of the Moon?” the answer has to be a qualified ‘yes’ with the following caveat:  this series requires a minimum commitment to extract any value.  Two books should be enough, but if you make it that far, you may find it hard not to reach for the third.

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Posted on October 2, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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