This is my first review using my newly-established review methodology. I’ve finally finished Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. So let’s dive right in to the first category…
Pacing & Structure
I found the pace of this book to be odd…I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a result of so many different characters and plotlines all vying for attention. Usually a book slows in pace due to too much detail. In this case, there’s not a lot of intricate and unnecessary detail (like you might find in a Wheel of Time book), but rather a lot of people, places, and plot to introduce. Therefore we jump around from person to person, place to place, and though we are moving through the story, at the same time it takes awhile to get from one place to another, which makes the pace seem slow despite the fact that it isn’t. One thing that is helpful are the breaks within chapters – there are lots of good places to stop and process all the information that has been presented. You’d better believe there is a lot of that information that requires processing. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, without a single protagonist, though Paran is probably the most prominent. Within chapters we switch between multiple viewpoints; I found this occasionally irritating from a coherence standpoint. I would have liked to see more chapters devoted to one point of view.
My main criticism of this book is a lack of characterization. With so many multiple viewpoints, it’s hard to get a handle on some of these people. I felt strangely detached from the characters, and found myself not really caring what happened to them. Erikson does a good job of detailing how his characters change throughout the story, but many of them have the same “voice”. Since you are dropped in the middle of the story, you get very little backstory on the characters, so while we know what they want to do, we don’t necessarily know why. The scope of the book doesn’t allow for detailed characterization – I imagine that had this book been split into two, with more detail on Whiskeyjack, Paran, Tattersail, and Anomander Rake, I think both books would have been outstanding. Kruppe is the lone exception to this lack of characterization. It is clear that Erikson put a lot of thought into this character, which had the result of making him the most intriguing, according to most other reviews I’ve read.
There are a lot of names of places thrown around, but again a lack of detail hampers the setting. Some of the early descriptions of the battlefields are spot on, although it can be difficult sometimes to see where characters are in relation to the environment or even to each other. There is a ton of history, which is presented in an informative manner, but again detail is often lacking. At times I felt like I was once again wading through The Simarillion, which is not a good thing. Descriptions of the terrain vary between adequate and inadequate. Weather and sound play a very small role in the environment. Magic comes from Warrens, but it’s not really clear how much power people can draw and what makes them able to do so. Travel is a mystery, as it’s not clear how far distances are between places for people on foot.
There is no unifying opposition until the end of the book. Up to that point we have characters pitted against each other. Here Erikson does a great job of making the conflict realistic. The main opposition at the end, however, is not so clear. Why should I be really worry about this guy that’s being awakened? What exactly is he capable of? Why is he so powerful? After walking away from the book, I thought that the answers were there, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember these details. As far as why the big bad guy was suddenly present, Erikson handled this very well. Someone woke him from his slumber on purpose. Well, that makes sense why he’s now in the story, but the reason seems strange. Aren’t there better ways of taking out your opposition than to get a third party involved that you have no control over? It seems more like a plot device than something that would naturally happen.
Plot and Overall Impressions
This is not your typically fantasy, and it is appreciated. The sheer scope of what Erikson is trying to accomplish is to be commended. There are some Deus Ex Machina moments in overcoming the opposition, mostly related to the use of ultra-powerful magic. There were some twists I didn’t see coming, but I wouldn’t describe anything as shocking or jaw-dropping.
In conclusion I have to say I struggled with this book. Proponents like to rip critical readers by saying that you have to use your head to enjoy this book. Let’s be perfectly clear: using your head to figure out the plot has nothing to do with pacing or characterization. If you really enjoy this book and rate it highly, you must prefer shallow characterization and tons of detail. Personally I like strong characterization – I want to feel for the characters, identify with them, enjoy their successes and sympathize with their problems. There’s very little of that here. The best judge of a book, at least for me, is how fast I turn the pages and how the book captures my attention. I will blaze through an outstanding book, startled as I look at the clock to see hours have flown by, but unable to put the book down. It took me three weeks to slog through this book. I picked it up because I was becoming bored with the ending of Confessor, but often I would leave Gardens of the Moon and return to Confessor because of disinterest or because I needed a break from all the data flying at me.
I’m hesitant to dive into the next book, because I don’t want more of the same. However, I feel I must try, because this is Erikson’s first book and he’s bound to get better. I understand that his plot will expand over the course of several books, and in retrospect maybe I won’t be quite as critical. Plus, he’s set the stage now, so he should be able to focus more on the characters. Given the amount of books in my queue, however, it will be some time before I take that leap.
And what exactly does the title have to do with any of the major plotlines in the book? I’m still scratching my head on that one…