Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erickson, is the first in an epic fantasy series entitled The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was wondering about that title. I can see where “Malazan” comes in, as such the name of a nationality currently on the cusp of a complete continental conquest, but “Book of the Fallen?” Then we got further in, especially towards the end, and I suspect it refers to the people who die in the midst of these military campaigns and political intrigues. They are “the Fallen,” aka the deceased.
I could be wrong about that, but see above reference to Game of Thrones. There’s a reason for the reference.
So! We should really let ourselves get attached to all of these characters, right? There’s certainly enough of them! The first thing in the book is a long, long, loooooong list of names, like something out of those epic plays. The plots and subplots are certainly Shakespearean enough! Honestly, I lost all track of about half the background characters. It was difficult enough to keep straight all the characters who take a turn in the spotlight. Toss in the terminology for all these ancient peoples and sources of magic power and whatnot, and… well, it can get a bit confusing.
This is a heavy read for anyone, and not for the faint of heart.
Worth it, though, for the most part.
We follow several characters, and several groups of characters, in a very complex weaving of threads. One hardly knows where to begin with a proper summary. There’s Paran, a young captain and agent of the imperial throne, and an unlikely pawn chosen by the gods of luck, who forcefully takes his fate back into his own hands. There’s Krokus, a younger man, a thief, also a pawn of Luck, who falls for the maiden he robs. There’s Whiskeyjack, a sergeant who once held a much higher station, a faithful soldier and leader of men, whose squad has been marked for death by the very empress they have served, and act which, among others, drives them towards open insurrection. There’s Tattersail, a sorceresss of some considerable ability, who becomes a comrade of Whiskeyjack’s after she and her fellows are betrayed. There’s Kruppe, a delightful, fat, vainglorious mage, and a conniving puppeteer behind the scenes of his home city. (it was hilarious when he, of all people, “prayed for brevity,” while reading an account of ancient events) On and on the list goes, a massive, colorful cast, all of them unique and individual.
For all the diversity, though, they do often share similar concerns. Most often, it is a question of humanity. How “human” are they when they do such foul things as are demanded by war? What humanity can be left within an assassin? How much of a person is defined by the office they hold, the role they serve in? How much of you is left when you knowingly do something monstrous?
In some cases, the tragedy is that some people die having chosen to stifle their humanity.
In others, there is the blinding hope of humanity regained.
In that last, I particularly like the story of a girl from a fishing village. We never learn her real name. She is taken, possessed by a supernatural entity, which takes the name of Sorry (the choice of names can sometimes leave one wondering). “She” is a very dangerous person, but the girl she was before is gone. …that is, until she is rescued, a most unlikely event, nearly miraculous, in fact. Freed from the darkness, and given a new name of her own, she is joyful, though she has little left to be grateful for. Her hands have blood on them, but she is innocent. Hers is a physical, outward representation of what happens to others internally, trapped within darkness, but brought out to the light as nothing more or less than a human.
Additional themes, and fascinating brain fodder, abound, and while the magic system is terribly vague, the rest of the novel has a surprising degree of realism interwoven with the fantastic. Many characters are more than they appear, more dangerous than one might think. There’s the looming threat of powers near-divine in degree clashing with each other, yet it is the people who are more normal and mundane which tip the scales of these cosmic conflicts. The space between mortal and divine, it would seem, is smaller than one might think.
For how heavy the reading is, though, I couldn’t help but be a touch disappointed by some things at the climax. I was all ready for this bedlam resulting from the clash of multiple titanic powers, but that’s not quite how it happened. There was tragedy, yes, but the various crises were solved sort of one at a time in a nice, orderly fashion. And what titanic clashes there were, we didn’t actually see. We mostly just heard them in the distance. So, were they too difficult for Erickson to write, or something? Or did he decide they would distract from his chosen themes?
Also, for how many races are in this book, I never got a clear picture of what the non-humans really looked like.
That said, all in all, I enjoyed reading Gardens of the Moon. I will certainly look into the rest of the series at some point! 🙂
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.