When you first pick up Gardens of the Moon you a liable to feel overwhelmed after the first few pages. You’re thrown into the ocean that is the Malazan world, headfirst with no instructions on how to swim or even float. You flail and grasp at anything familiar that comes your way; anything that might keep your head above water as you drift further into this intense and intricate world.
I confess I felt a similar sensation before writing this review. How do you sum up the first book of a ten book epic, without giving anything away, and at the same time impress on people the experience of reading it?
With difficulty is the answer, and hopefully, with patience and perseverance from the reader.
In my mind that is partly how Steven Erikson felt when he sat down to write out the novelisation of his table top games with the co-creator of the Malazan world, Ian Esslemont.
That is what you need to start Gardens of the Moon. It doesn’t hold you in one hand and there is no light in the other, illuminating a path forward. It’s a fitful tug and glimpses of recognisable elements in fantasy fiction. These flashes of familiar landmarks can be enough, if you’re a seasoned ready of the genre. You’ll fall more easily into the depths that contain mages, soldiers, assassins. Terms that are capitlised without context and city names that seem designed to twist your tongue.
If you don’t know to recognise these, I can only imagine that Gardens of the Moon will be a challenge for you. You will be blind going in and you will be given only what Erikson very carefully chooses to give you as a guide.
And on the surface that doesn’t appear to be very much.
A few poems, accounts of historical events, and a prologue that raises questions and answers none. That’s the start of this book and if you give up then, I can’t blame you.
Really, not going on past even the prologue wouldn’t shock me, nor would it cause me to cast you out as a failing fantasy reader. If something doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t matter to someone else if that’s the case.
The novel introduces you to a world of high-fantasy. Mages, soldiers, wars, and politics. It’s hard to go into any specific, suffice to say that this world is different. It is more thought out, built from the ground up, literally. Erikson is an archeologist/anthropologist and the care and detail he puts into the history of not only the races and characters that inhabit the world, but the world itself, is breathtaking.
Gardens of the Moon is a hard first book to a series. It’s clunky in places and some of the characters, not all but some, are thin veneers covering classic archetypes. The plotting is sometimes confusing and you can get lost in the weeds if you’re not careful. And as I have mentioned, Erikson doesn’t spoon feed the reader exposition for the sake of explaining the world. If it’s not pertinent to the story, or spoken about, or thought about by a character, it’s not in there.
There are no omniscient word-dumps that describe the magic system or political players. All of that information is doled out through characters.
And that is one a double edged blade, both one of the hardest parts about starting Gardens of the Moon and the Malazan series as a whole, and one of the absolute best parts.
You aren’t spoon-fed! You are forced to think and figure things out on your own, to me it was a liberating experience. I felt like I had agency in a fantasy world. It felt as if I was every character and that I was simultaneously separate from them, in the background, peering through eyes as the twisted web that is Gardens of the Moon was revealed.
As well as patience, to reach the point in the book where you are invested, to finally see the top of the hill you’ve climbed, you need perseverance. As I said, some people will take to this book quicker than others, but I highly doubt it’s a simple task for anyone. To get to the end and reap the rewards you have to persevere and hey, if that’s not what you’re after in a book, sweet, no worries, but it is what Gardens of the Moon asks of you.
But what are the rewards, you might be wondering. Why do so many people rave about this book and series like they are holy objects that deserve worship?
Because, when you finish Gardens of the Moon you’re in. That’s it. You’re done. Your life will become Malazan from that point until you finish the other nine books in The Book of the Fallen. It’s an inexorable pull that grows stronger the closer you are to finishing the first book and when you turn that final page I am confident at least 90% of you will be reaching for a way to buy the second.
The Book of the Fallen won’t be reviewed in this post. But I will say this; it is the best, most rewarding, complex, and challenging series that I have ever read. It will make you think differently, it will challenge your beliefs and values, it might even change who you are as a person and how you see yourself.
And Gardens of the Moon is the start of that. It’s the first step. It’s a long, arduous first step, but in my opinion, it’s worth it.
Give Gardens of the Moon a go. For me, it was worth every second, and it might be the same for you.