Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gardens of the Moon




This is the first time I have written a review for a book that I couldn’t actually finish and didn’t fully understand.

Gardens of the Moon is the first in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which seems to be catching up with the Wheel of Time. In other words, it’s a VLFN* with a cast of characters that has defeated my ability to reel off all the houses, lords and ladies of Westeros from memory. I had to read up about it on both Amazon and Wikipedia just to figure out what was happening in the book.

So why would this be a book worth reading?

I think that if someone can actually get into the story and make sense of all the players, powers, places and politics, Gardens of the Moon would be an enjoyable or at least adequate read. It’s evident that Steven Erikson has put a great deal of thought into the fantasy aspect of the story, and I like the imagination in this book. There are the Moranth – who ride giant flying insects – and the Warrens, which are great winding tunnels of different types of magic. The Hounds of Shadow are cool as well.

By the way, you can probably tell from the last two sentences that there are lots and lots of Capitalized Terms in the story, so if you’re not fond of sentences like “The Deck of Dragons has revealed the Virgin of High House Death” you might want to steer clear.

The plot of the novel is complex, to say the least, but I’ll try to sum it up here. Empress Laseen takes control of the Malazan Empire through assassination and sets out to cement her grip on it by killing nobles and the old guard of soldiers. On the outskirts, the Empire is also battling the last of the free cities, Pale and Darujhistan**, and Pale has engaged a powerful sorcerer called Anomander Rake to stop the army.

Rake commands a floating castle called Moon’s Spawn and a flock of magical Great Ravens, but on the Malazan side are the sorcerers Hairlock (who does things with the Warrens) and Tattersail (who reads the Deck of Dragons). However, the gods have also gotten involved. Oponn, the Twins of Chance, magically heals a young officer called Ganoes Paran while Cotillion the Rope, the Assassin of High House Shadow, possesses a girl called Sorry who joins the Bridgeburners. And if you feel lost… well, join the club.

The difference between this and George R. R. Martin’s novels (which also feature a dramatis personae ultramagnus), is that the first book in Martin’s series started out by planting me securely on the side of the Stark children and Daenerys, who’s hardly more than a child herself when she’s married off to a man who doesn’t even speak her language.

With Gardens of the Moon, I never felt as though I was cheering for anyone. The characters just weren’t fleshed out enough. Even their conversations were so complicated – dealing with politics and magic and other characters whom I didn’t know – that I wasn't drawn in by any simple needs or feelings or personality traits that I could recognize in them.

At the start of A Game of Thrones, the Stark children find a dead direwolf and adopt its pups. It’s impossible not to go awww over that scene, even though the symbolism of a direwolf killed by a stag’s antler has a deeper and darker meaning. The story then follows the children and their growing direwolves. While Gardens of the Moon does begin with a sympathetic character – a young fishergirl forcibly possessed by the patron god of assassins while her entire village is murdered – the story then shifts away from her and on to some other characters. We don’t get another glimpse into her thoughts and feelings until the end (by which time I was skimming mightily).

The style is both detached and scholarly, which meant I didn’t feel as though I was deep in the story. So it was easy for me to get carried away imagining the Warrens and the Deck of Dragons and Shadowthrone’s land. That was fine for the purposes of coming up with my own ideas. I dreamed of at least half a dozen new concepts or creatures while reading this book, so I’m glad about that part of the experience.

But it also means I probably won’t be picking up another book in the series. The mental energy it takes to dissect the plot and to follow all the characters without constantly flipping to the back and start of the book (or consulting the Malazan Wiki) is beyond me. I think this series is a great work of imagination – but it requires an equally great effort in reading.

*Very long fantasy novel.
**No relation to Iraqistan.

7 comments:

GunnerJ said...

Was thinking of reading these. The complexity of the plot doesn't scare me (I love that stuff), but Capitalized Terms of Great Import is annoying. Also, the magic and setting details sounds kinda generic from the description here... How do the three sorcerers you mentioned work magic?

Marian said...

Well, different Warrens have different kinds of magic. For instance, I think there's a Warren of Chaos, a Warren of Light, a Warren of Darkness and so on. So depending on which Warren you draw on, you use different types of magic.

One problem with the Warrens (I believe) is that they lead to the lands of different gods. And there's also danger in using the Warren of Chaos, plus you need to be strong enough to open whichever Warren you use and control the magic.

The Deck of Dragons is like a Tarot pack except that the cards correspond to the gods, so they can predict what the gods are doing.

I think Anomander Rake uses the Warrens, because he's referred to as the Knight of Darkness and one of the Warrens is Dark, and there's a High House Dark. I can't be sure, though. Sorry for being vague, but I just can't go back to the wiki pages.

gypsyscarlett said...

Marian,

Thanks for the review. There's an English language sci-fi/fantasy bookstore near me. Next time I go, I'll see if they have this book. Not sure if the writing style is to my taste (from what you've described), but it would be interesting to take a look at it.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Let me know what you think of the book when you find a copy. You too, Jordan. I honestly believe that if you can get into it, there's a vivid world to be explored.

I picked Gardens of the Moon up because I originally browsed through one of the sequels, Deadhouse Gates and one protagonist was a teenaged nobleborn girl who's a victim of Laseen's purge. She's not killed, though, just sent to a mining camp where she's forced to prostitute herself for food and good treatment.

She later escapes and becomes the avatar for a vengeful desert goddess (I think). And that sounded really interesting, except that I couldn't connect with her on a personal level. She's as detached as everyone else. Still, at least it showed the author was fully prepared to put his characters through hell for the story.

I just felt like I wasn't exactly in heaven while reading.

Barbara Martin said...

I can see immediately what put you off, and it would do the same to me.

Anonymous said...

"With Gardens of the Moon, I never felt as though I was cheering for anyone"

Things like this are why i like modern fantasy so much more than the classical style. I can only read so many books where every passage serves to remind me that "these" guys are "good" and "those" guys are "bad."

Granted, the Malazan series is absurdly complicated, but all those various scales of grey do happen to have some quite light and quite dark shades amongst them- it may seem like a cop out, but in a lot of ways its up to the reader to decide which characters and motivations they identify with.
The heavy complexity of the series has purpose, it allows for people to change alleigances or shift goals without it needing to involve some earth shattering treachery. Maybe the de facto antagonist needs money to bail out a rakish nephew? Perhaps the harvest wasnt good and a kingdom cant allow its neighbor free acess anymore?

I love the series for its ability to balance believable -reasons- for motivation with the actual motivations and consequences being insanely world altering.

In a nutshell, people arent doing things just to act out a role in a story. Sometimes the skewering of archetypes can push into the realm of satire, but for the most part, the people just act like people. Even if some of the people happen to have the ability to encase continents in ice or grant an entire ancient race's pleading wish to simply be turned to dust.

Its a tough nut to crack, but once you get into it with the 'right' frame of mind it ends up being infinitely more satisfying than novels with sparkling clean story arcs and pouting princesses raising an eyebrow in a castle*

* In this story, that princess might get raped if the 'hero' is horny, sold to slavery if he's broke, or just knocked out until she stops her whining. Its a brutal world- always struck me as strange that so many writers want to set stories in realms constantly beset by wars and political assasination, yet that backdrop doesnt seem to reflect on the world view of the non-combatants whatsoever. War is ugly, societies beset by eternal war are breeding grounds for the kind of atrocities that many writers wont touch with a 10 foot pole. The kind of archetypical characters populating many fantasy novels would not even make it to the street for sugar in the kind of world they're supposedly living in.

Huge props to Erickson for managing to add several veils of realism to his sprawling world. Races evolve, cities are built on top of ruins (as opposed to there just being ancient cities lying around everywhere to be explored- why waste the infrastructure?)

Ok this post jumped around like crazy and i dont even know if this blog is still functional. I'll sign up so i can post :P

Nicholas said...

"With Gardens of the Moon, I never felt as though I was cheering for anyone"

Things like this are why i like modern fantasy so much more than the classical style. I can only read so many books where every passage serves to remind me that "these" guys are "good" and "those" guys are "bad."

Granted, the Malazan series is absurdly complicated, but all those various scales of grey do happen to have some quite light and quite dark shades amongst them- it may seem like a cop out, but in a lot of ways its up to the reader to decide which characters and motivations they identify with.
The heavy complexity of the series has purpose, it allows for people to change alleigances or shift goals without it needing to involve some earth shattering treachery. Maybe the de facto antagonist needs money to bail out a rakish nephew? Perhaps the harvest wasnt good and a kingdom cant allow its neighbor free acess anymore?

I love the series for its ability to balance believable -reasons- for motivation with the actual motivations and consequences being insanely world altering.

In a nutshell, people arent doing things just to act out a role in a story. Sometimes the skewering of archetypes can push into the realm of satire, but for the most part, the people just act like people. Even if some of the people happen to have the ability to encase continents in ice or grant an entire ancient race's pleading wish to simply be turned to dust.

Its a tough nut to crack, but once you get into it with the 'right' frame of mind it ends up being infinitely more satisfying than novels with sparkling clean story arcs and pouting princesses raising an eyebrow in a castle*

* In this story, that princess might get raped if the 'hero' is horny, sold to slavery if he's broke, or just knocked out until she stops her whining. Its a brutal world- always struck me as strange that so many writers want to set stories in realms constantly beset by wars and political assasination, yet that backdrop doesnt seem to reflect on the world view of the non-combatants whatsoever. War is ugly, societies beset by eternal war are breeding grounds for the kind of atrocities that many writers wont touch with a 10 foot pole. The kind of archetypical characters populating many fantasy novels would not even make it to the street for sugar in the kind of world they're supposedly living in.

Huge props to Erickson for managing to add several veils of realism to his sprawling world. Races evolve, cities are built on top of ruins (as opposed to there just being ancient cities lying around everywhere to be explored- why waste the infrastructure?)

Ok this post jumped around like crazy and i dont even know if this blog is still functional. I'll sign up so i can post :P