When I wrote my review for The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, I confessed I was super late to the game, as that book was released in 2010. Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, the subject of this book review, is ancient in comparison. Written in 1993 and finally released in 1999 (when I was but a lad of ten) Gardens of the Moon is the first of ten massive novels in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. And this is only the main series; there are the Novels of the Malazan Empire by Ian C. Esslemont, multiple novellas and prequels and stories written by each author. In case you were planning on jumping into this series any time soon, this diagram shows the interaction between the varying books and gives multiple suggested reading orders depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
I’m going to be completely honest and up front by saying that I have read a fair amount of Epic Fantasy in my life, but I don’t know if I would have gotten through Gardens of the Moon if it weren’t for the Malazan Reread of the Fallen on Tor.com. For me, the book was incredibly intimidating from the beginning. The Dramatis Personae alone took up six pages on my e-reader, and some of the names were full of apostrophes (Onos T’oolan, a clanless warrior of the T’lan Imass for example). The prologue starts out in a way that reminds me of the Dark Souls or Bloodborne games because Erikson doesn’t hold your hand or waste time worldbuilding. The reader is dropped into a fully fleshed-out world with a rich history, smack-dab in the middle of everything. In fact, much of the time I felt as if I were a fly on the wall watching something I wasn’t supposed to see. But upon reading through the first few perplexing chapters, reading Amanda Rutter’s and Bill Capossere’s Reread commentary was invaluable. Amanda, as a first time reader like myself, had many of the same questions throughout the book as I did, and Bill added his own perspective enough for me to figure the rest out on my own.
Gardens of the Moon is a challenging read, but never boring. Starting out was like walking into a dark basement and waiting for your eyes to adjust—the magic system was confusing, the characters were gray and hard to read, and I never knew who to root for—but maybe a third of the way through, however, everything “clicked” and the book became an intense page-turner for me. Seriously, I couldn’t stop reading. Erikson does this thing where he switches perspective multiple times in one chapter and retells events from different perspectives, and it totally screws with how you view the characters. Not only that, but it also serves to ramp up the tension when a scene ends with a cliffhanger multiple times in one chapter.
While this review seems like all praise and no criticism, I will say there were a few things that got under my skin. The dialogue was inconsistent, borderline cringe-inducing, especially during scenes involving anything even slightly romantic. Some character’s names often took me out of the world because of how strange they were (Tattersail, Whiskeyjack, Shadowthrone, Sorry). The action scenes overall were some of my favorite parts of the novel, but there were multiple occasions where the tension builds and builds to a head and is resolved in a way that feels much too rushed.
In short, I highly recommend for anyone who loves the Fantasy Genre, especially the darker, more grim side of it, to read Gardens of the Moon. It is a story of gods meddling in the world of mortals, a story rife with conflict, a story of assassinations, of duels, of politics, of war, of friendship and betrayal. Steven Erikson (and Ian Cameron Esslemont) have created an incredibly detailed and miraculous world that I can’t wait to continue exploring. I myself am about to start book two: Deadhouse Gates.