Book Review: Gardens of the Moon – Malazan Book of the Fallen – by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson is said to have written his Malazan series based on a D&D setting he and a friend created. If so, they must have had some wild game sessions. That’s assuming they ever had time to play the game, since they obviously put a tremendous amount of work into creating the world. This depth of setting is along the lines of what I would expect if J.R.R. Tolkien were a dungeon master.

Erikson’s fantasy world is very deep and rich. Everything is detailed, down to knowing where common household items are imported from. They have a full pantheon, a full magic system, and a viable explanation of how the two intersect. They created history over dozens of millenia. And Erikson obviously has a very deep, complex plot arc in mind for the series.

I should have loved this book. There are certainly aspects of it that I love, but there were a few problems that kept me from embracing it enthusiastically. First of all, it’s a very dark, gritty, depressing setting. It’s been nothing but eternal warfare for all of known history. The characters are locked in an ongoing and indefinite war with no real purpose. Though it’s a war of subjugation, one gets the impression that there will never be an end of lands to conquer.

Out of this dark setting comes dark characters. I was a quarter of the way into the book before I was introduced to characters I could even like. There were characters to be impressed with, but they weren’t likable. I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. With such a depressing setting, too, dying early in the book didn’t seem such a bad thing. They’d be out of their misery.

Add to that a steep learning curve. While Erikson is big on detail, he’s not big on exposition. You spend large portions of the book wondering when he’s going to explain something he dropped into the story on page two. Every new chapter just adds to the  mass of unexplained details. Slowly you start to figure it all out, but it’s work. It’s work to keep all the details in your mind until you finally get the information you need. It’s not a book I could read quickly. It was effort.

The scope of the story was also a problem. Within one book we are presented with dozens of characters, ranging from simple humans to gods, and everywhere in between. There are ancient races where just one member of that race can lay waste to miles of land. You have powerful mages, lethal assassins, unstoppable mage-assassins–it seems as though two-thirds of the characters are magical in some way, and most of them are gods or near-gods. And even the normal humans can somehow end up with swords capable of killing gods. It’s a giant game of rock-scissors-paper.

Caught in the middle of it all are a bunch of human characters just trying to survive it all. Some get killed and brought back from the dead. Some get killed and find their souls transferred to other objects or hosts. Some have gods fighting over, around, and through them. The final chapters are a veritable Ragnarok of powerful characters pasting each other while the humans duck for cover.

In the end I found it very hard to care. I didn’t fear for anyone’s life–death was irrelevant time and again. I didn’t fear for the outcome, as it was impossible to be sure it would be a good idea for any of them to win. All I knew was that everything was coming to a head, and it would be messy. With all that power flying around there was no room for surprise. You knew anything could–and would–happen. There didn’t seem to be anywhere Erikson wouldn’t go.

And so I stopped caring. Anything was possible, so there was no way to guess the outcome because literally nothing was off the table, and nothing would be permanent anyway. A startlingly few human characters died, at least permanently. Some characters died multiple times, only to be brought back by the gods every time. When the plot finally wrapped up it was over quickly, with very little denouement.

And so it was that when I finished the book I felt no urge to read the next right away. It would be simply too much work to read another one, and for too little payoff in the end. Yes, there are more plot lines to pursue, and more world to discover, but I’m not ready. How is Erikson going to turn up the tension when the first book in the series wraps up with god-battles and conflagrations of magical energy? There’s no place to go–at least no place I’m sure I’d want to go. The first book was hard enough work.

It’s also hard to generate tension over the circumstances and characters when they seem to have so little self-determination. We know that any time a god, demi-god, or demon could show up and obliterate them. We also know that no matter how dire their circumstances some powerful being can show up to save them at the last minute–or even after they’ve been slaughtered. It’s hard to build suspense in a world where there are no rules.

The book was well-written, certainly. While he overindulges in gore in places, he kept the sex surprisingly “off-camera”. He describes things well even if he doesn’t explain it. And I certainly must admit to some jealousy over the depth of the setting. Had my novel been half so well planned out I’d have a much, much stronger book today. I certainly learned some things there that I plan to apply.

But unless you’re into dark, hero-less settings I can’t recommend this book. I don’t mind books that make you think, but this one required far too much attention to keep it all straight. The setting and establishing the scope seemed more important than the plot. There wasn’t much of a plot until a quarter of the way into the book–at least not one I could be interested in. If you really enjoy vivid settings, this is a book for you. If you enjoy dark characters of ambiguous morality, this is a book for you.

For me it was an excellent case study on writing, but beyond that there just wasn’t enough there to pull me in. It was a story I didn’t care for, but it was told incredibly well.