Posted by: markfender | December 30, 2014

Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon is the first book in Malazan Book of the Fallen. It also isn’t very good.

gardens of the moonSteven Erickson shopped this book around a lot before finally finding a buyer. So, it was many years between when this book was written and when it was published. Likewise, his writing got much stronger in subsequent books. Unfortunately, you can’t really skip it because it serves as an introduction to many characters that will become more important later. It sucks that this novel is the first one to introduce the series. I don’t buy “just skip the first season” as good advice when recommending television shows and I don’t accept “you have to struggle through the first book before it gets better” as great advice for books. And yet, that’s the state of the matter.

Hilariously, the new printing of Gardens includes an introduction from Erickson in which he basically says “Yep, this book isn’t very good. Sorry.” Given the chance to revise it, he opted not to. I don’t necessarily blame him. After having written nine other doorstoppers of novels, I think the temptation to just redo the whole thing would be too strong and then you’re not really revising – you’re writing a new novel. And I think that would look really weird on a writer’s resume.

Book 1

Book 1 definitely exemplifies why this book isn’t very good. You’re dropped into the middle of a war with very little explanation. Lots of characters are introduced who all have elaborate back stories that aren’t explained. Worst of all, it involves a lot of prophecy (There’s three readings from the Deck of Dragons), which is just confusing at this time in the novel. Hundreds of terms are mentioned without definition. Add to that the fact that every character is playing their cards extremely close to the chest and you don’t get any reprieve when characters start to talk to each other.

One thing that has always followed Erickson is that he doesn’t do exposition well, and, in a world with 300,000 years of background, you need to do some exposition. I get it. Exposition isn’t fun to write. Even the best of it comes across stilted. I bet even the best of writers cringe when they read their own exposition. One reason I think Erickson doesn’t do it well is that, when he does do it, it comes across as lecturing to a graduate-level archeology class. You need to know ten other terms, epochs of history, and various other geographical knowledge to even begin to place what he’s talking about. So, even when he tries to explain stuff, it doesn’t come across as being all that helpful. He gets better at this, but you can almost see him backing away from explaining stuff because he knows it’ll read very badly.

Perhaps this is hindsight talking, but, despite the flaws, I didn’t have a horrific time with this section. It’s not scintillating stuff and really just is setting up other events rather than telling its own story, but it’s serviceable. One helpful thing is that almost all the mysteries introduced are immediately explained. When Tattersail does a reading of the Deck of Dragons and comes across the Virgin of High House Death, the section immediately following this includes someone saying “Sorry is the Virgin of High House Death.” This happens with all the mysteries in this section, making it fairly easy to follow. Granted, if I was a fresh reader, I might be looking for deeper clues that will play out over the course of the novel and not make the connections. But, trust me, any mystery in this section will immediately be answered. Of course, that doesn’t really put anything into context, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.

But that doesn’t excuse three readings from the Deck of Dragons. I have to say that I have never enjoyed this aspect of the novels. It’s the Tarot, but ever-shifting who is included in its cards. And the readings don’t ever matter. All they do is make you wonder who certain cards are supposed to represent in forthcoming events. That’s not interesting. I learned more from reading the book jacket copy than I ever did from a Deck of Dragons reading in these novels. It’s like really bad fantasy prophecies, except without some of the wordplay/twists that can happen with prophecy. It’s just a list of people who are soon to be involved in events (Oh, and you may not know who those people are). So, Erickson is just foreshadowing his dramatis personae. Whee.

Book 2

Book 2 moves the action to Darujhstan and it’s way better already. Erickson, even in his fumbling first novel, was good at action and this one starts out with an assassin war on the rooftops. This is followed by some low-key interactions with a new cast of characters, but with characters who haven’t been involved in events “off page.” They don’t exist in a vacuum, but they also aren’t tied into the history of the Malazan Empire like the previous section’s characters were. This really should have been the first section of the novel, as it reads much more like the beginning of an epic fantasy series. I already feel like I know these characters better than the previous characters (And I’d argue that, by the series ends, I understand Krokus way more than I ever understood Quick Ben).

This section also introduces Kruppe. Oh God, Kruppe. Kruppe is one of Erickson’s “funny characters.” Erickson is actually really good at humor (Tehol is one of my favorite characters from the whole series), but I think Kruppe is the least-funny of those characters. Kruppe’s funny sthick is being loquacious. It’s not one of his more successful characters but you can certainly understand the intent. My issue revolves around having a character who uses too many words in a novel where the reader is already super confused. Starting out with Kruppe in a dream sequence isn’t helping either. Seriously, just rearranging some of this stuff in these early chapters would have made a huge difference.

We also get the introduction to Anomander Rake in this section. He’s the Lord of Moon’s Spawn and a dark elf (Well, Tiste Andii, because fantasy names). Here’s the first opportunity we see of Erickson describing a fantasy species and it doesn’t work all that well. He dwells a long time on describing his eyes and then almost offhandedly mentions that his skin is black as pitch. Terse description is an Erickson staple but seriously, could we get a little more here? This is especially odd because the description of Dragnipur, Rake’s greatsword, is super eloquent and quite beautiful. (Although it amused me that Erickson spends a paragraph describing this six-and-a-half foot broadsword strapped to Rake’s back and then has Rake say “Shall we sit?” Uh…how exactly?)

This section continues the previous section’s unveiling of mysteries. However, I felt like I had a much better handle on these events. Now that we’re dealing with a town council, things seem to make much more sense. The continuous name-dropping feels more like background detail rather than plot points you’re missing. The mysteries aren’t explained quite yet, but speaking as a re-reader I can tell you that Erickson continues the same trick as the last part: If Lady Simtal mentions her drunken, deadbeat husband in one section, you can be sure that the very next section will make the connection to who her deadbeat husband is. I’d even say that Erickson is somewhat clever here as mentions of the Eel, the secretive underground broker, are matched with the (still secret) Eel making jokes about being “slippery.” That sort of detail rewards a re-read, but doesn’t impact a first-time readers “enjoyment” (I put this in quotes because, yeah, are you sure you’re enjoying it?)

Book 3

Book 3 returns to describing all the events happening around the city, taking us even farther afield than the previous sections did. The first bit introduces Kallor and Caladan Brood, which seems like a good enough time to get into Erickson’s names. With a huge gamut of characters, continents, and history, it only makes sense that people would have different naming conventions. Most of them come across as typical fantasy names – Tehol, Kellenved, or Bellurdan. Others involve too many apostrophes – T’lan Imass, Onos T’oolan, and the worst offender of all, K’azz D’Avore. But there are two groups with naming conventions I enjoy. The soldiers of the Malazan Empire are given nicknames that usually describe their major personality traits: Sorry, Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Picker, or Antsy. It’s kind of refreshing to see a wide array of characters with simple names like Hedge. The other one is among the various Tiste races. They combine a ridiculous fantasy name with a normal English word. So, Anomander Rake, Caladan Brood, or, my favorite, Silchas Ruin. It does a good job of conveying other worldliness while still getting across some dominant personality traits.

I also haven’t talked about the poetry yet, so this seems like a good enough time to do so. Oh God there’s so much poetry. Every book begins with some and every chapter has some. Lots of it acts as foreshadowing, but all of it is not very good. I’m pretty sure I never once enjoyed any of it. Considering Erickson’s terse, clipped writing style, I think the poetry was a chance to stretch the literary muscles some and get florid. It never worked for me. But, you know, at least he’s not interrupting the narrative to sing some songs (shakes fist at Tolkien).

This book also introduces another major Erickson theme – traveling across vast deserts. I guess fantasy novels have to involve travel at some point but, man, people travel a LOT in these novels. We also get some Erickson infodump with Tool reciting a whole slew of various T’lan Imass tribes. These events are rare, but kind of important. Again, it’s just more information that doesn’t really affect the current story but it will be important in, say, two more books. It can come across as a shock sometimes. I’m reading fairly closely to extract as much as possible from Erickson’s prose, and then you slam into a wall of proper names and it slows you down even more (Kind of like my bad tense shift in the middle of that sentence.)

We also get Tattersail’s death in this book (with her rebirth happening at the start of Book 4), which is another major Erickson theme – people just don’t stay dead. I mean, unless they’re nameless soldiers. The novel started off with 400 Malazan troops getting slaughtered by the Hounds of Shadow, but so far Paran has been pulled back from the gates of hell and now Tattersail will be reborn into a new form. To Erickson’s credit, he mixes up how people return from the dead (I mean, it’s usually just “magic” but the types of magic differ), but it does mean that true and lasting deaths are few and far between. Is that just too much NPC love? I’m not sure. Too bad none of this Tattersail stuff matters for two more books (and, her plotline doesn’t wrap up until the fifteenth book of the series, in the very last Esselmont book, which is some ridiculous long-term planning and annoying because I now have to read a different author’s book to know what happened).

Aside: So, we’ve got more stuff involving Bellurdan and Nightchill’s dead body that gets kind of complicated. But let’s talk about Nightchill for a second. Did you know that she’s actually an Elder God? I didn’t either. Why was she chumped by Tayschrenn so badly? What is she doing hiding out in the Malazan Mage Cadres? Why did she take Bellurdan as a lover? I don’t recall any explanation of this and the wiki doesn’t reveal any details either. As a re-reader, I can see all the bricks being laid in this book for forthcoming events, but this one just passed right over my head again. Like, it’s not even important enough for Erickson to mention…and yet here she is. Weird.

Book 4

We’re moving fairly quickly now with more high-stakes action on the rooftops of Darujustan. But, before all that, we get more exposition. This time, about the Crippled God. As the mostly antagonist of the rest of the series, he’s kind of important. I admit to some confusion to his motivations, especially in the book bearing his name, but overall I think he’s an interesting bad guy.

So, I mentioned some high-stakes action and it kicks off with a three-way assassin fight which is pretty cool. I think it’s interesting that we get some lines from a demon here, where Erickson does his best to “humanize” even the most foreign creatures. But the whole exchange highlights another confusion I’ve always had: what the hell are demons? In the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective, demons make sense, but this is a fantasy world with lots of different gods and no real mentions of an afterlife or hell. So, what the hell are they? There’s even a warren dedicated to demonic summoning, which also seems weird. If they’re just the inhabitants of that particular warren, then why don’t the other warrens have things to summon? (Even more confusingly, some of the warrens do have things to summon, but others don’t). Topper earlier warned Paran about wandering off the paths in the Imperial Warren earlier, citing strange creatures. What makes these particular warren inhabitants “demonic?”

You might have noticed I’ve been throwing in more questions about things that I just don’t get here and that highlights why these books can be particularly frustrating. I’ve read the series and I still don’t know what’s what at times. With hindsight, lots of the world-building fits into how I understand how things work. And, as previously mentioned, explanations are eventually forthcoming for lots of stuff. But even in these minor areas, Erickson still manages to fail at explaining his epic creation. Which is why I’m not sure I can recommend him.

Book 5-7

One way that Erickson is bad at explaining things starts in this book and then continues on through the rest of the book – not telling you who characters are. A lone Tiste Andii assassin keeps trying to assassinate people, but is stopped by an invisible lurker. This happens over and over again, until you finally learn the identity of the stalker – a name we haven’t heard yet. And then mysterious person says “The Prince sends his regards” and that whole subplot is wrapped up. What? If you go on the internet, you’ll discover that this is a reference to Prince K’azz D’avore of the Crimson Guard. Yet, they’re hardly mentioned and K’azz is referred to as Prince like once. And motivations or other, you know, literary devices are never connected to these scenes. C’mon, Erickson. That’s not even fair. You can’t introduce mysterious stuff and then not even give the simplest clue about it. This happens a lot in future books. Someone brand new will show up, never be properly introduced, and then walk off page, never to be seen again. Or, they’ll do something mysterious, which is never explained.

Thankfully, the rest of this book goes fairly quickly. All the pieces have finally been sent into motion and you’re just along to watch the pins fall down. Erickson writes action well so, even if you’re not quite sure what Paran is doing in a parallel dimension inside a sword, you can at least see some great sweeping fantasy fights. There’s shapeshifting dragons, godlike powers, and even demon lords. Plus, a fair bit of murder. If you’ve hung on long enough to get here, you’re probably gonna be fine for the rest of the book. Yeah, some stuff may not make entire sense, but the various plot threads do come together and resolve fairly spectacularly.

The Jaghut Tyrant Raest, who has been made quite a big deal out of so far, shows up in town. He kicks a lot of ass until he’s finally put down. And then, a demon shows up. A demon who is apparently just as dangerous as Raest is because Anomander Rake ‘saves his strength’ in order to fight the demon. And yet, this demon hasn’t been mentioned previously. Even though he has a name (which Rake uses). Uh…did Erickson forget to provide some back story for one of his major villains? Why spend all that time building up one threat, only to spring another threat at the end that has never previously been mentioned? Not even a “demons come from here and people who summon them are bad and they are bad and things are bad” anywhere. I thought the Jaghut Tyrant was a unique and interesting threat which plays into so much back story of the world that those parts were interesting. And then there’s just some generic big demon from the Monster Manual at the end. Letdown.

The good news is that future books get way better. Yeah, you’re gonna complain about never getting the full picture of what’s going on, but pretty much every other aspect of the story gets better. So, if you managed to make it this far, the next fourteen 600+ page books should be a snap!

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Responses

  1. Having read the series I can safely say I still don’t really know what happened. It was good but I just didn’t get half of what happened.


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