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Gardens of the Moon:
A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen

Steven Erikson
Bantam UK, 523 pages

Gardens of the Moon
Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson (not to be confused with American author Steve Erickson, author of Tours of the Black Clock and The Sea Came in at Midnight) is an anthropologist and archaeologist by training, as well as being a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Canadian by birth, Steve now lives with his wife and son in Surrey, in the countryside south of London. Gardens of the Moon is his first fantasy novel.

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A review by Neil Walsh

Gardens of the Moon is currently available from Bantam in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Steve Erikson has also recently signed on with a German publisher. North Americans, however, will have to content themselves with ordering from abroad -- until some cunning publisher over that way gets a whiff of Erikson's talent.

According to the promotional material that arrived with the review copy of the book, the author has spent 6 years on this project. And it shows. He's created a fantasy world as rich and detailed as any you're likely to encounter. It's a world you'll be glad you weren't born into, but one that is so engrossing you'll be hard pressed to set it aside.

There's so much going on in this novel it's difficult to even attempt a plot synopsis. In a nutshell (and this won't do it justice): the Malazan Empire, in the course of its vast inter-continental expansion, has come up against resistance in the form of Moon's Spawn, a kind of floating fortress inhabited by an ancient race of warrior-mages allied with the free cities against the Empire. Meanwhile, the Empire is having internal difficulties, as some of the imperial troops are more loyal to their commanders than to the Empress. And somehow the gods are involved, although what their divine motivations might be is not at all clear at the outset...

This is the kind of story where it's difficult to say who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. You might think that shades of grey would be preferable, but it all seems to be rather dark grey. I'm not even sure there really are any good guys, although many of the villains are rather sympathetic, and all the characters are interesting to follow.

It is quite apparent that Erikson has devised an overwhelming amount of history for this world, and that what he shows us is only the tip of the iceberg. And, more than just world history, there is character history. From the beginning, the reader has no doubt that this is not the beginning.

The early sections of the book are oppressive, dark and bloody. In the first few pages, the reader is thrown into the ugliest, messiest aftermath of sorcerous battle. Pain, suffering, blood, gore, flies. And stacks of corpses. Yuck. Battles involving sorcery have a potential to get very gruesome, and Erikson serves up a healthy dose of horrific scenes of mass destruction.

But not all is blood and guts grim. There's also a mystery of sorts, in that we're thrown into the middle of the story and we're not quite sure what the heck is going on for a while. There's also plenty of cloak and dagger stuff, with so many spies spying on spies that sometimes they don't even know which side they're on any more! (The latter parts, in the city of Darujhistan, remind me of some of Feist's work -- particularly the colourful characters.)

This is an astounding debut fantasy novel. The world is fully realized and the characters are people you want to spend time with. The world history is tremendously complex, spanning hundreds of thousands of years. The character histories and interactions are equally complex and interesting. Of course, this complexity could also be considered the book's greatest flaw. Sometimes it almost seems too much.

Unsurprisingly, it's only the first of The Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. There are 10 books planned -- wait, don't go yet. Hear me out. There are 10 books planned in the "sequence," but each is intended to be a stand-alone story, unified by their chronicling of the lives of 3 members of the noble house of Paran, each of whom plays a key role in the history of the Malazan Empire. (In this one, Captain Ganoes Paran plays a key role by being knifed in an alley the same day he is assigned to his new command. Well, there's actually a lot more to his involvement than that, but... read it and see.)

So, I imagine you're wondering, "Is it true? Is this a stand-alone novel?"

Well, let's call a spade a spade. This isn't the first in a 10-book "sequence;" it's the first of a lengthy, complex and intriguing series. But a series which -- based on this first installment -- has the potential to become known as a defining work in a market already overwhelmed with fantasy series.

Gardens of the Moon is certainly a book worth reading, as the first in the series, or simply for itself. The story is more or less self-contained in that many of the questions are answered, the spies more or less sort out who's spying on whom and for what cause, and one chapter in the history of the Malazan Empire is more or less summed up. There is, however, some rather obvious setting up for sequels (expect to see the next book around June 2000). And there is still so much material to work with in this world that I have no doubt that Erikson has, with this book, established a secure career for himself as a fantasy writer.

Copyright © 1999 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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