Malazan is a book, primarily, about war and conflict.
That is how I describe the book that at times made me feel inadequate as a reader, and challenged me perhaps more than any other fantasy book I have ever read.
So, please, endure with me as I attempt to review “Gardens of the Moon”, Book One in “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”.
For those who have not heard of the Malazan series, it’s a ten-book epic saga written by author Steven Erikson. Frequently, when the best fantasy series EVER are mentioned, the name “Malazan” invariably comes up, alongside “A Song of Ice and Fire”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Wheel of Time”, and the like. Praised for its worldbuilding scope, mastery of characterization, and social commentary / themes, the Malazan fan base is extremely devoted, passionate, and widespread amongst fantasy readers.
After years of hearing friends rave about Malazan, I finally stepped up to the plate, preparing myself to be dazzled, but confused. Everyone warned me, that even for someone who considers themselves a reader and even writer of immersive fantasy, that I might feel at times that I was in over my head.
Boy, that was an understatement.
But was it worth all the befuddlement? Let’s find out as we dive into the review. Again, I crave your indulgence, if my limited understanding of the book affects the quality of what I write here, and does not adequately explain the important elements of the book, or even if if get plot facts incorrect.
Malazan is a book, primarily, about war and conflict.
A ruthless empire, led by the Emperor Kellanved, aspires to world domination. Kellanved invades most of the continent of Genabackis. At the beginning of the novel we get to see some key characters early in the book, as the reader is taken to a siege of Malaz City, one of the key cities in Genabackis. There we are introduced to a youth, and nobleman, named Paran.
Paran observes one of the most significant historical events at the heart of the book, which is, as the Emperor’s troops sack the city, the rise of the Emperor’s underling, Lassen. Laseen is the commander of the Emperor’s assassins, known as the Claw. Paran, who dreams of being a soldier, is chastised by a commander for his aspirations.
We meet a young soldier named Whiskeyjack here. The two soldiers in the scene with Paran are Bridgeburners, part of an elite troop of the Emperor’s army.
Nearly a decade later, the Emperor has been assassinated and replaced by Lassen, and Lassen is laying siege to Pale, one of the last holdout free cities in Genabakis. Pale would have long been conquered, save for an alliance with the mysterious and puissant Lord Anomander Rake, who rules a floating fortress called Moon’s Spawn.
Paran has achieved his dream, and is a lieutenant in the Emperor’s army, and finding military life is complicated, as he is caught up in investigating a mysterious troop massacre that seemed to have nothing to do with battle. The new Empress Lassen also dispatches her second-in-command, the Adjunct Lorn, to look into the incident.
Paran ends up working for Lorn, and getting a lot more than just a promotion out of the assignment – a lot more than he bargained for.
Meanwhile, a young woman near the incident is taken by powerful forces, while those around her are killed. Possessed by a god, she has turned into an unstoppable killing force, and has now become part of the Empire forces, and part of the Bridgeburners. This peculiar woman is appropriately given the new name – ironically- of Sorry, and the Bridgeburners may indeed live to rue the day she came into their company.
Whiskeyjack is now a sergeant and nominally in command of all the Bridgeburners, and participating in the siege of Pale. Despite the best efforts of High Fist Dujek, who is in charge of the siege, and Whiskeyjack, along with the talented Mage Tattersail, the empire sustains heavy casualties in the siege.
And they are also beset by internal enemies, including perhaps Dujek’s counterpart on the magical side, the High Mage Tayschrenn. It seems the famous and revered Bridgeburners may be targeted by the Empress herself, because the Empress believes the Bridgeburners were too loyal to the former Emperor.
Moreover, the crazed Mage Hairlock, seems to have his own mad designs, and to be also plotting against both the Bridgeburners, Dujek, and Tattersail. Supported by their comrades, subordinates, and allies, like the mage Ben, the sapper Fiddler, and the assassin Kalam, eventually, the Bridgeburners are assigned to try and undermine the last free city of Darujhistan.
There, the empire operatives play both sides: trying to accomplish their mission and stay alive, while also trying to stay one step ahead of the Empress and those determined to kill them. But they are drawn into a web of intrigue, involving the city’s assassins, a thief, double-dealing elites and local government leaders, informants, spies, con-artists, and other shady figures, in addition to numerous competing, and meddling gods and sinister magical beings.
All the while, a malevolent ancient power is awoken, that threatens the existence of the entire continent.
The prose is fabulous, and Erikson’s writing truly matches the epic range and breadth of the novel. Elaborate when called for to convey the sense of grandeur, especially for some of the backstory and philosophical moments. Spare and workmanlike when necessary, in the tension of some jaw-dropping action scenes. It was a great blend, and it really worked for me.
“Gardens of the Moon” has a sprawling cast of characters, often too many to truly keep track of. In addition, historical characters who span the previous epochs mentioned in the book, are noted too, at various intervals throughout the novel. That said, I found it helpful to cling to my favs, and their story arcs, like liferafts, as I drowned amidst the numerous players.
My overarching comment is that all of the characters are amazingly well-drawn. Paran, Tattersail, Ben, Rallick, Murillio, Kruppe (loved Kruppe), were my favourites. Crone was also awesome, and who could not be drawn to the enigmatic and menacing Rake as a character. To be clear, I was hard pressed to find any characters who were anything other than very nuanced shades of grey, and I was just fine with that. The characters were all very intriguing, and there were many times I had to ask myself if anyone was truly doing anything “good” or “bad”.
In some cases, some were just “doing their job” or “their duty”, or more often simply trying to exist. But was that duty righteous, or evil? Some of these duties, included assassination, murder, deception, manipulation, and more. After all, even the “good” characters (the ones that seem to have a very overt sense of some morality) like Whiskeyjack are part of an oppressive, colonial, expansionist empire, bent on nothing else save conquering (while at the same time, in an usual dichotomy, being uniquely “fair”, harmonious, and even potentially magnanimous). It’s only after they become aware they’re being double-crossed that the Bridegburners truly stand up to the Empire. Prior to that, and along the way, they loyally help kill a LOT of innocent people.
The Empire has been at war for untold years, trying to vanquish an entire continent. But as the commander says in the first few pages of the book, “Such is war”, and our characters go through the book having to often choose between the best of horrible options. But these obstacles allow the reader to truly see the characters in their darkest moments, and provide the opportunity for many of them to shine, despite the tarnish.
I did like the way that characters like Paran (to me the main protagonist of the book, if there was such a thing) evolved, matured, and seemingly became better for what he endured, and what he was willing to face.
Let’s address some of the themes, and the tone of the book. As I have noted in many reviews, interfering gods are always a concept I love, and there is plenty of this in “Gardens of the Moon”. All the deities and sub-deities seem to have competing agendas. Some gods just appear to be in it for the pranks, and the fun. Others are puppet-masters, influencing events for their own purposes. None of the gods seem particularly sympathetic or have many redeeming qualities. There are a lot of volatile gods to contend with, and it makes for some fascinating developments.
This is a dark book, with lots of battlefield gore, violence, torture, trauma, death (though dead is not always really dead, and it can also be undead), lost love, and despair. Still, there are some definite glimmers of hope in the book, and Erikson seems to imply that beings are essentially good, despite their many flaws.
There are a lot of touching moments of self-sacrifice, camaraderie, and courage that pull at the heartstrings in this book. I want to pull on that last thread, being personal courage, as something I found central to the novel. Courage not only to stand for ideals, but also to face overwhelming odds with bravery, certain of defeat, but standing up anyway.
I loved the heroism in the book where mortals dare face the gods, or superior magical forces. Things tend not to go well for the mortals, but they do their best, and their moxy seems to at times be able to – surprisingly – change the anticipated outcome.
But perhaps the most crucial theme I found in the book was the valuing of diverse cultures, races, and genders. The Malazan military machine is the greatest armed forces the world has ever seen, peerless in terms of their capabilities. Those capabilities appeared to have been forged due to the diversity of their ranks. As they conquer and acquire more humans and non-humans, they seem to be effectively integrated into the military, and all their talents put to good use.
Moreover, the various races that form the armed forces seem to get along seamlessly, and there does not appear to be racial or gender impediments to rising in rank. I am unsure yet if this will be a constant throughout the series, but so far, it seems the empire is more inclined to preserve cultural identity as opposed to wiping it out – not for altruistic purposes, of course, but rather for pragmatic ones.
I will be watching this theme closely as I progress through the series, to see if this aspect holds true in future books.
Which brings me to the worldbuilding of the book. I must admit, it is stupendous. It appears Erikson has fashioned an enormous and immersive universe, replete with military orders, sociology, anthropology, magic systems, mythology, history, languages, races, everything to make it seem completely real. It is an incredible achievement that is rivalled in few fantasy books. Hell hounds, demons, giant crows, shapeshifters, floating fortresses, and so much more (including DRAGONS)! Wow!
I am a huge fan of absorbing worldbuilding, but for perhaps the first time reading a fantasy book, I was overwhelmed with it. But ultimately, I can only lay the blame on my own deficiencies, rather than at the feet of Erikson, for the fact that at times I was deluged by the book’s worldbuilding, in addition to its labyrinthine plot.
This leads me to a piece of advice I have for those new to reading Erikson’s work: just read, and don’t think too much. I am not easily frustrated, but I found myself irked at times, trying to comprehend all that I was reading. Then I just relaxed, tried to enjoy the story and the writing, without UNDERSTANDING everything all at once, because frankly for a person of average intellect like me, that was impossible.
I found things worked far better in terms of my reading experience after that: I really started to get into the story. It took a change in my reading habits – I did not go back and re-read anything I did not get. I merely kept forging ahead, grasping the parts I did get, and savouring them.
This is a book that will DEFINITELY require a re-read for me at some point, to digest many of the finer points, and even some of the more major ones.
My final part of the review is about the completely astounding battle sequences. They are varied, and all of them are fantastic. From assassins dueling on rooftops, to larger scale magical clashes, to a climactic show-down between one of my favourite characters who wields a huge sword, and takes on a demon, Erikson knows how to compose a pulse-pounding scene.
So, what is the sum of the parts of this book?
“Gardens of the Moon” is incredibly ambitious, a jaw-dropping feat of imagination, depth, and is definitely genre-changing. I can see why so many consider it to be such a ground-breaking fantasy book.
That said, it is an intimidating read, where one will lose track of all the varying plot lines, names, places, and motivations of the characters. It’s a spider web of complexity that almost feels absurd in its intricacy.
Nonetheless, I can look back after reading the book, and say that complexity made it all seem that much more real, and beautiful. And I know I am merely beginning to scratch the surface of a ten-book series that promises to be like nothing else I’ve ever read.
I can’t promise I will stick the whole series out, because it does make my head spin, but I’m game for the attempt. Because I think anything this great, this intelligently and inventively written, MUST be worth my time and effort. Kudos to Erikson: this book is truly a game-changer in the overall genre of fantasy.
I did not always enjoy reading because of my moments of lack of comprehension, but overall it was assuredly a GREAT book.