I first came upon Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series on the old wotmania (RIP) Other Fantasy forums and quickly ordered a paperback copy of Gardens of the Moon from amazon.co.uk. I blew through the novel in a matter of days and was absolutely floored by what I read. Sure it dragged in some sections, and focused on a surprising number of characters for an opening novel in a series but there was something special about Erikson’s world. A world where gods, and beings of great power visit mortal realms and where men and women dip into godly realms with a seeming ease. Where power comes at a great personal cost. It was a world filled more with the strange and terrifying than the wondrous and the amazing and for some reason, for me at least, that made it feel all the more real.
Gardens of the Moon is many ways a difficult book. It isn’t ridiculously long but it is fairly dense, with multiple points of view and very little explanation or back story to place everything in context. That lack of back story is one of the things that makes this series rather difficult at times, yet at the same time something I find admirable. Context is never present from the start and the full implications and the weight of what is occurring is not always readily apparent. Take for example the sword Draginpur. First glimpsed here in Gardens of the Moon (something of homage to Stormbringer) we learn that it is a realm unto itself and that its victims do not die but are chained to a sorcerous realm housed inside. It appears again various times in the series and its importance, and its tragic nature, constantly hinted at. It isn’t until Memories of Ice (book 3) that we begin to explore the sword further and it isn’t until Toll the Hounds (book 8) that its ultimate purpose and destiny is revealed. Or even Quick Ben who late in Gardens of the Moon says cryptically “Awaken the seven within” somehow boosting his magical powers but the detail and full explanation of Quick Ben’s power is not explored until much later in the series. That long payoff is indicative of the series at large and the fact that much of the world remains such a mystery is one of the reasons I love the series so much.
Conversely it is also the reason I often have difficulty in getting others to get into the series as well. As an individual novel Gardens of the Moon is something of a sprawling mess hopping amongst various characters from multiple factions and lacking a central narrative to hook new readers. At first glimpse it’s easy to finger Captain Paran, particularly in the early chapters, later you might think it’s Tattersail, even later it might be Crokus or even Kruppe but the truth is no single character emerges as a definitive protagonist. Furthermore, while the narrative leans to several groups filling in for the role of protagonist those groups (for the majority of the novel) often have wildly divergent goals. The shifting factions and murky motivations would be difficult enough if we knew these characters or world before we started the novel but we don’t and so it turns the novel into a quagmire of multiple perspectives that obscures the truth and paints of everything in shades of gray. Moral ambiguity doesn’t make for particularly easy reading but it captures the tone of the series quite nicely.
While it doesn’t merge into a cohesive narrative whole what I love about Gardens of the Moon is Erikson’s phenomenal ability to capture epic moments. The massacre in Itko Kan, the slaughter of the mage cadre at Pale, Quick Ben’s confrontation with Shadowthorne, Raest’s battle with Silanah and the black dragons, and Paran’s journey into Draginpur remain fixed in my head long after the novel is over. Erikson gets better at pulling these types of epic moments into a greater narrative whole as the series goes on and what is on display here is only a bare glimpse of what is seen later in the series, or even in Deadhouse Gates (book 2).
By and large Gardens of the Moon feels like a much different beast than the later books in the series. It isn’t something I can quite put my finger on but the Malazan world feels a bit in flux. As if Erikson hadn’t decided precisely how things would work. Gardens of the Moon really feels like a lot of ground was laid for future installments. Offhand comments, cryptic hints, and foreshadowing in this novel ripple throughout the entire series. I feel like Erikson really stuck to the groundwork he put in here over the course of the series and there is really very little seen here that isn’t touched upon later in the series. However, one of those things, the thing that gave the novel its title, has gone curiously unexplored as far as I can remember. The scene occurs in the last quarter of the novel as Aspalar talks to Crokus about the moon:
It’s [the moon’s] oceans. Grallin’s Sea. That’s the big one. The Lord of the Deep Waters living there is named Grallin. He tends vast, beautiful underwater gardens. Grallin will come down to us, one day, to our world. And he’ll gather his chosen and take them to his world. And we’ll live in those gardens, warmed by the deep fires, and our children will swim like dolphins, and we’ll be happy since there won’t be anymore wars, and no empires, and no swords and shields…
While the hopeful nature of that passage is obviously at odds with the overall tone of the series it is notable in that it is one of the few instance where a local custom/belief doesn’t at least tie in some way into the overall arch of the series. On its own, absent of having read the rest of the series, that quote is easily ignored. As it is, knowing that local custom in Erikson’s stories are frequently interpretations of the same thing (Fener/Tener/Tennerock being an excellent example since the boar god of war is referred to Tennerock quite a bit in GotM and as Fener in the next book). Grallin is never mentioned again as far as I can remember. Hell, it could mean nothing. It’s just that later experience has proved that local beliefs and legends, by and large, prove to be rather important.
I did come across a thread on the Malazan Empire forums that quotes some comments from Steven Erikson regarding the re-readability, and some of his process, going into Gardens of the Moon. You can read those over here and it’s well worth a look if you’re heading back to the beginning of this series. I’m still daunted by the volume of materials that lays ahead, but also excited to see how my knowledge of future events impacts my experience.