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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

This is a book that I've been wanting to review for ages.  In fact, in some ways, Erikson was the genesis of this here blog.  I've been writing about fantasy since I was in highschool.  My Junior Year Position Paper was on C.S. Lewis.  The next year, my paper was on the genre as a whole.  But after voraciously devouring this series and its genre busting all-out action, I knew things had changed in the genre as a whole.  I stopped reading fantasy in college.  I started dating, made friends, and basically didn't have the time.  Years later, bartending in New York, and living in Harlem I had a lot of time to myself again, and I started to reread some of the classics on my shelf.  I had no interest in new fantasy.  I figured the genre had gone to Forgotten Realms and DragonLance knock offs.  Erikson made me a believer again.

I've tried to turn people on to this book, and this series, to no avail.  And not to "Norms" (non-fantasy readers) to bonafide sword-swinging fantasy lovers.  This series is so good I had to take notes while reading it again so I'd remember all the ideas within that I'd wanted to explore.  So I'm going to abandon the usual format.  The format, afterall, is intended to provoke critical thought.

Kalam, Quick Ben, Whiskeyjack
First of all, Gardens of the Moon, though the first in the series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is an intermission.  I think this may be why so many people have trouble getting into it.  It starts after a massive battle, after an emperor was assasinated, after a city has fallen.  Much of the book is getting the characters from the remains of one city to the next on the new Empress hit list.  There are other reasons of course.  The scope of this world is enormous.  That's one of the fantasy five, and Erikson gets full marks.  His world is enormous and intricate.  This is not surprising.  He and a friend developed the world as a game a la Dungeons and Dragons.  It should also be noted that Erikson (his pen name) was an anthropologist.  As someone who is married (yes!  as of a months ago) to an anthropologist, I know just how much is crammed into their heads.  Each people of this world is intricate and fully developed straight out of the gate.  Another reason why this is an intermission is because Erikson wastes little time on explanation.  Single, dense phrases are used to describe entire peoples.  And there are literally over two hundred of them, from the plains dwellers on Genabackis, the Rhivi, to the denizens of the Seven Cities, to the Gral, to the fishing people of Quon Tali, the sophisticated Daru, and the imperially minded Malazans.  All those names are confusing, and that turns a lot of people off.  It is very easy to miss important details, things that occur, pivotal moments described in a single sentence, and moved on only to be referred to again and again with no explanation.  Still the important thing to remember when reading this epic, is that you don't always need to pay attention to these names.  This series is a series to re-read, to parse, to explore.  Get what you can, and have faith that Erikson will explain further in due time.  It might take to the seventh volume of the series, but he has never contradicted himself that I can see, so be patient and keep reading.  The really good stuff doesn't even occur until the third volume, Memories of Ice.

Anomander Rake - Son of Darkness
Before I get further into my notes, let's hit some of the basics.  Like in Jordan's works, there are literally hundreds of characters, so this is a plot driven story.  That said, given the sheer number of words in over ten volumes, many characters emerge extremely well developed.  The story starts with a character named Gannoes Paran, he's young, good looking, and you expect him to be the story's main hero.  Not so, because there is no main hero.  This is an ensemble cast, and there half a dozen main characters at least.  There is an evil empire, the Malazan Empire, which isn't really that evil, or much of an empire it turns out.  But none of the soldiers of that Empire are evil, they're just men, and this is, among other things, a soldier's novel, about companionship, and loyalty in the ranks.  But the Empire is the backdrop for something much much larger, which is really only hinted at in the first book, and in fact, is not even given a name to in the first of the series.

Another thing that's great about the series is the magic system.  One of the Fantasy Five, magic.  It's completely unexplained in the first book, but it's astonishing.  The book opens with a battle between a planet sized asteroid hovering hundreds of feet in the air, and five arch-mages sending corruscating waves of power into the sky.  The typical magic cliche for fantasy is -- the big stuff doesn't play until the end.  Until then, its all parlor tricks and smokescreens.  Another cliche ripped to pieces

Ok, so onto the nitty-gritty.  This is a discussion for Moon readers.  So stop now if you haven't read the book.  Adjunct Lorn.  Why did she have to die?  I rather liked the character of the stern, attractive, warrior woman, and thought she would have made a better partner to Gannoes.  The reason I ask is because Erikson indeed revives characters with impunity, having killed Gannoes in the first 50 pages, Tattersail and sending Toc the Younger off into a mysterious chaos warren.  Lorn was a fascinating character with a fascinating weapon, her Ottatoral sword.  But then again, Erikson refers to himself as a cliche breaker, and having Gannoes end up falling for the fat mage Tattersail, is a real change of pace for any genre, much less fantasy.

Hedge and Fiddler, Bridgeburners
One of the central mysteries of the first book is the assassination of the old Emperor.  Who did it?  Why?  Is the Emperor really dead, and what about his cronies, are they dead too, like Toc the Elder, or Daseem Ultor?  It's an interesting frame for the series.  Many of these questions don't even get answered in Moon, but are answered in the sequel Deadhouse Gates, and in many ways the entire series strives to answer these questions.  Along the same lines, is the idea that the Bridgeburners, the seminal unit of the Malazan Army that is known far and wide must also die.  I regret this, there are only about seven of them left to begin with, and they all seem to be great characters.  Still, the series is called the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and if Malazans didn't fall, well, what would be the point?

Next topic: The Deck of Dragons.  So Erikson takes the game of Tarot and makes it real.  It's an unbelievably clever mechanism for the story, it adds a ton of depth, and a ton of detail.  However, it does make the story denser and harder for the lite-fantasist to glom onto.  The Deck of Dragons is a playing deck of all the gods and demi-gods in the saga's pantheon.  They're organized into aligned houses, and unaligned houses.  And when characters like Tattersail give a reading, it often reveals what Gods are at play in the field.  All the houses, and the players in each deck are noted at the beginning of the first book.  This cheat is not repeated in later books.

Another very divergent aspect of Erikson's work is his quixotic narrators.  Calling them narrators is a bit misleading, they are characters, who often speak in riddles, or long nearly non-sensical rants that seldom make sense to the other players, but which are more often directed at the reader.  Each book has such a character, but the one in Gardens is none other than Kruppe.  Kruppe is a fat, balding little wizard who is a master thief, and we find out during the book, quite a powerful mage.  However, his persona is one of befuddlement and misdirection, and even his greatest friends seldom realize that their actions and thoughts are directed entirely by the mischievous Kruppe.  This fat wizard also provides the book with its greatest sense of comic relief.  These narrative voices are almost always comedic and poke fun at both the author, and his characters.  You get a sense of the author himself, or at least, who the author might like to be, as these characters, in addition to being funny, are almost always really good natured as well.

This is another aspect which deserves exploration:  Erikson is a master of good and evil.  It sounds trite, and I'm sure that he would prefer to think of himself as a trend breaker, but fantasy is about good and evil, Gods of Dark, Swords of Light.  In this Erikson doesn't break the trend, he masters it.  You may recall from a prior review of Naruto, that the character of the young Ninja is extremely good, happy, kind, and despite his idiocy, his heart is warm and caring for all.  The good--in the Erikson novels--is similar.  However, Gardens of the Moon, is less of an exploration of good and evil than his later novels.  Still you get flashes of it through characters like Kruppe and his companions, Gannoes love for Tattersail, Tattersail's heartwrenching guilt about previous monstrosities committed under imperial writ.

Ok, just a few last points:  There are many characters, including the "hero" Gannoes, and the anti-hero Lorn, who are forced continually to sublimate their will.  They act for the good of the empire, of which they are committed agents.  Sergeant Whiskeyjack of the Bridgeburners who is offered the chance to retire, flee certain death because of his love and loyalty of his comrades, and their own love for him.  This sublimation of the will, can be seen as character building, but it also exerts an exceedingly destructive force.  When Lorn finds out that Tattersail was the agent responsible for atrocities committed in Malaz City, the girl, shorn of her previous life, reemerges from her imperial shell, the illustrious general Dujek Onearm reminds her of her current responsibilities, and that she herself is the second in command to none other than the woman who commanded the purge.  Of course, these events are all historical, past events that are mere artifacts to the story, but the sheer depth is staggering.  And I'm in love with it.  I want to unearth the entire history of this continent that goes back over two-hundred thousand years.

Penultimate point:  Dragnipur.  How cool is that?  A massively powered sword, that itself harbors a magical realm of pain and imprisonment, where a massive cart is pulled by a single Atlas like godling.

Ultimate point:  Erikson stories as we'll discover are all about convergence.  This I think qualifies as a cliche, but Erikson is the first that I've read to be so open about it.  Jordan's books use the same cliche, the Wheel of Time books always end with a convergence.  So what does this mean?  A convergence is a meeting of fell powers, the climax of every story, where all the pivotal characters meet for their hour of greatest conflict.  What makes Erikson's convergences so remarkable?  The sheer scope of the powers involved.  Even now, I recall vividly the ending of the Sword of Shannara, and the half-elf Shea's meeting with the evil wizard.  Those powers were great and scary, buy Shea was a quiet, hobbit like character with no real power's of his own.  As a brief aside, Japanese horror movies, and anime is very similar, and in fact may be the progenitor for this sort of convergence.  The powers that meet are colossal, far greater than human, far greater than mere wizard or swordman.  The forces that converge in an Erikson novel are titanic in nature.  And astonishing.  As an aspiring author, it makes me weep with jealousy.  The depths of horror, the depths of love, the depths of friendship and loyalty, seem to be unsurpassable.

So.  If you can get through all the names, if you can get through all the lands and peoples and characters, if you can look beyond the things you don't yet know, and enjoy it for what it is, the rewards are entirely worth it.  Buy this book.

Note:  I intend to add photos to this soon, so check back!