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Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erickson
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Published: 2004
Review Posted: 11/22/2004
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erickson

Book Review by David Hart

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When the head of assassins in the Malazan Empire killed the Emperor and replaced him, she continued his policy of expansion. Though the Empire is troubled by internal rebellion, its troops are trying to subjugate the continent of Genabackis. They are opposed in the north by an army of mercenaries and Tiste Andii. In the south the city of Pale, which the Empire has been besieging for 2 years, is defended by the floating mountain Moon's Spawn and its non-human mage. The army's situation is made worse by inadequate reinforcements and betrayal from home. And various opposing gods seem to be getting involved....

Accurate though it is, for several reasons that outline fails to convey a sense of either the complexity of the plot or the 'feel' of this book. Though the story starts in the Empire and seems to be on its side, under attack from magical followers of a recently-manifested god, it soon shifts to other viewpoints, other sympathies. It becomes clear that this is not one of those standard, Good versus Evil confrontations. All the parties are less than good but none, not even House Dark, is inherently evil. At least, not so far; this world has several races, human and otherwise, living and otherwise, and some haven't yet been properly described. The same applies to the gods, who are sometimes called Ascendants; there are a lot of these, either belonging to one of the Houses or independent. I get the impression that while some are 'real' gods, others are especially talented magicians who have managed to get promoted to assistant god, or perhaps have created or taken over a Warren.

Which brings me to the book's magical system. There are a lot of differently-named magic-users: wizards, mages, witches, seers, sorcerers and more. It hasn't yet been explained, but I think these are all supposed to represent different approaches to the same goal: to open a Warren and channel the power it contains. Warrens also haven't been fully explained, but seem to be both other-dimensional locations and sources of power. Some are empty, others hold gods and their followers. Each has a different flavour of magic. Most of the main characters in the book are magic-users of one sort or another (and the ones that aren't tend to have magic thrust upon them). This leads to one of the few things that I found less than good about the book: some of the magic-users are too powerful for the storyline (why not just flatten the city walls?); and sometimes in the middle of a confrontation there is the unnecessary production a demon 'out of a hat'. I like stories with lots of magic; but here there's a bit too much, and it's not properly constrained.

I still haven't talked about the tone of the book. While it does change with the different viewpoints, it mostly takes its cue from the military characters who, with good reason, are cynical, jaded, tragic figures. Think of Glen Cook's Black Company books, then throw in a touch of Moorcock's Elric. However this book is much better than either of these. It's much more complex, less one-dimensional. The writing is better, and the characterisation excellent, some of the best I've come across. For example, one character is a short, fat, pompous, conceited bore who refers to himself in the third person; yet Erikson manages to make him interesting, his appearances actually enjoyable.

I've twice mentioned the complexity of the story, and this has its downside. It took me a long time to read the book's 450 or so pages, because I was constantly referring to the glossary or back to previous chapters, trying to keep up with which race is which, who is allied to whom. Despite this, and the large amount of background 'hints', there is still a lot about the world that is not yet explained. I'm sure that I'll get even more out of the story when I re-read it, which I'll certainly do before I read the rest of the series. Yes, though it's adequately standalone, this is the first of a projected 10 books making up the Malazan Book of the Fallen; previous bad experiences with series that never complete or where the quality falls away, is the other reason why I've only given this book 4 stars. However the good news is that numbers 2 to 5 have already been published in the UK. I suspect that when I've read them, I'll want to add that other half-star. Highly recommended.
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