I’d never heard a word about the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson until quite recently, but after a recommendation from a friend, I stumbled onto a massive ten-book dark fantasy series with a devoted cult fanbase. The first book, Gardens of the Moon, is AMAZING, and definitely a good story on its own, but as I’m only just getting into the complete opus I thought it’d be most appropriate to record my first impressions rather than to do a full review of just the first book. I expect my understanding of these characters and themes to change quite a bit, so maybehaps I’ll post on the topic again in the future.
I can’t think of anything bad about Gardens of the Moon, so, no pun intended, here are the things that impressed me:
The magic system. This is high fantasy, with equal parts dark and military fantasy inside it, but it’s like nothing I’ve seen in fantasy. The closest comparison I can draw is to the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, in which gods and great beings of legend play parts, and they’re not gods from any religious system we know, yet somehow they make intrinsic sense and you believe in them. But that’s not all, or even the main thing. Sorcerers and magical beings have access to a magical system made up of Warrens, which I don’t fully understand yet, but which seem to be an intricate web of magical planes that can be accessed and directed in the physical world, but also traveled through. Some of them are familiar, with affinities for the earth or for chaos or for whatever, but others have no straightforward meaning. And magic, whether it be sorcery or magic objects or anything else, is simply another tool in addition to political power, skill with a sword, knowledge of history. You prepare as best you can, but the other person may have something that surprises you, which is why even the most dreadful characters are always careful.
The texture. Again, not just any old military fantasy. The complement of characters includes representatives of all the different factions, making for a breathtaking level of ambiguity and depth. There is no good versus evil, you root for the characters you like because of who they are, and sometimes you’re rooting for both sides at once — and neither at the same time. It’s not about your side triumphing, it’s about the history, the awareness and weight of history on a world like this. It’s about the immediate sensations of living in a world like this, from a lot of perspectives. But it’s also about awesome people doing awesome sword moves sometimes? Yet all the fights are written with the same level of detail, the same urgency, and you can tell a great fighter not by their attitude, but by the fact that they make it through all their fights. And there’s a vast quantity of characters, many of whom are already beings of legend in this world, but they’re are all easily distinguished from one another and no one ever seems overpowered or overly important compared to the rest.
The plotting. Everything comes together. Details matter. Your expectations may never come to pass, because the gods may intervene. That’s a central motif of the work, and it works on you, too. The gods become as worrisome to you as to the characters, but they’re not entirely unwelcome, because they’re also fascinating and you want them to help or to reveal something about themselves. There’s a randomness to the that makes it incredibly immediate and realistic. Everyone’s planning something, and those plans overlap and interact in unpredictable ways.
The diversity. High fantasy has a bad track record for female characters and I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting into, but there are no problems here. There are women everywhere, fully developed characters in every role possible, and it’s never a plot point that they’re women. There’s no rape, so my friends who avoid the genre because of that, you’re good with this one. AND the sorceress Tattersail (MY FAVORITE) refers to herself as “the fat lady with the spells” but her weight is never a thing! There are casual mention of various skin colors among humans and other beings, without any fantastic racism. See above regarding characters from all factions. I haven’t spotted any queer or disabled folks yet, but we’ll see.
Lastly, wait, I did think of something I didn’t like: What’s up with the covers? I read the hardcover with the “generic fantasy” art, and spent the whole time trying to figure out which character the Hot Fantasy Chick is supposed to be. (I still don’t know). The one showing Anomander Rake (Lord of Moon’s Spawn, Son of Darkness, Knight of Darkness, leader of the Tiste Andii, and MY OTHER FAVORITE) is the only one that seems to make any sense. Even then it’s ascribing a kind of centrality to him and a “sexy dark fantasy YA romance” quality to the book that doesn’t exist. He’s awesome, but he’s one of many equally important players.
Oh well. Take my word for it, the good stuff is inside. I’ve heard the Malazan series compared to Game of Thrones, but I’d much rather be reading this. And I was totally not looking for a massive fantasy series that would take this much investment to read, but turns out I’m down for this just being my life now. The second book is allegedly much darker in tone, and set on a different continent, but picking up immediately after the events of the first. I shall be reading it forthwith.