Friday, April 19, 2013

[Review] Gardens of the Moon

The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, book 1

by Steven Erikson

Verdict: So-so - I didn't enjoy the book, but there were parts or ideas that I liked.

Because the scope of the work is far beyond this initial volume, it is difficult to digest.

Nota bene: I have only read the first volume in this 10-book epic, so I cannot speak for the series as a whole.

Gardens of the Moon was hard to follow, so here is my understanding of its story. The Malazan Empire is ruled by Empress Laseen. To secure her hold on the throne, she wants to be rid of the old guard who supported or represent the previous incumbent. She also desires power, and sends her mighty armies out to conquer other lands and expand the Empire at all costs, making many enemies along the way.

Whiskeyjack and the "Bridgeburners" serve the Empire, but they are part of this old guard. An elite squad whose members have survived several dozen assignments that would normally kill others, they've now outlived their usefulness to the Empress, or perhaps they are considered too dangerous to be allowed to live. The majority of the army hails the Bridgeburners as heroes, and so, if potentially the Bridgeburners were to turn against the Empress, the army loyal to them would go into rebellion and a civil war would begin. And so the Empress assigns Captain Ganoes Paran to take control of the Bridgeburners.

However, it turns out that the gods have other plans for Paran -- literally.

The gods use the mortal world as their playground and battlefield. Any mortal's actions may not be his or her own. A god could be acting through them. And anyone touched by a god is left battered and bruised by their presence, and, in some cases, they end up seeking vengeance.

This book is also the story of Tattersail the cadre sorceress, who has the talent of a High Mage but refuses the title. After the expensive victory over the city of Pale, she is assigned to the Bridgeburners, but she must be wary of Hairlock, her insane mentor who escaped death at Pale by having his soul infused into a puppet.

It's also the story of Sorry, a young female assassin whom the other Bridgeburners consider a "recruit" even though she's been with them for over two years because to accept her as one of their own is to sanction her ruthless, arguably evil actions as their own.

It's also the story of Dujek Onearm, the army's High Fist. Beloved by the army, even though he serves the Empire, he is perhaps as dangerous to the Empress's rule as the Bridgeburners are. He is ordered to start a war campaign that can't end well for his men.

It's also the story of Lorn, the Empress's Adjunct, her right-hand-woman, who hunts illegal magic users with her magic-immune Otataral sword, and the story of her ancient guide, a powerful T'lan Imass, whom she refers to as "Tool" for short.

It's also the story of Gear, the massive Hound of Shadow, and his packmates who serve the will of the god on the Shadowthrone.

It's also the story of Kruppe, the portly wizard who talks about himself in the third person in Darujistan, the Empire's next target for attack, and his cohorts.

And there are several other stories, too, that twine together in this expansive tale.

The world is expansive and the gods are many and varied. I liked the idea of the Twin Jesters of Luck -- a brother and sister team in which one "pulls" and the other "pushes," and the spinning coin is their symbol. However, the author often fails to take the time to fill the reader in on the world's backstory, and so there's nothing to tell us what to expect. How the magic works, how powerful the gods are, who the gods are -- since the same god might have several names and can possess mortals -- which gods are allies and enemies and which ones are even in the field of play -- and there are several dozen god-figures in the book's glossary. These questions and many more are left for the reader to deduce as the story moves forward without sparing a word in explanation, and without giving us a moment to catch our figurative breaths. There is plenty of action and excitement, even if one isn't sure where it's going or where it came from.

The traditional dichotomy of "good" and "evil" is turned on its head as the characters deal with betrayal and trust and have conflicting loyalties. Sorry, for example, is perceived as "evil" by the other Bridgeburners, but she is someone to be sympathetic towards for once her mystery is revealed. The "cold-hearted" Adjunct Lorn is also one for whom the reader may have mixed feelings; a man she has some feelings for ends up wanting to hunt her down and kill her.

Magic seems to use "Warrens" that can be "opened" and also traveled into or through, as in something like parallel worlds or alternate planes of existence, and there are several different types of Warrens. Some are more powerful than others, and some are the realm of the Elder gods alone. Mages must tap into their associated Warrens to perform magic, an act that can leave them exhausted. If they enter or open a Warren, they also leave magic traces of their passing, like a scent, which enemies can use to find them.

I must say the world is very intricate, and I can see it becoming very involved once one understands how it works. It is perhaps like a table-top role-playing game, and after a bit of delving I've discovered that, indeed, the author was big into Dungeons & Dragons.

The book's main feature (and drawback) aside from the well-built world is its multi-faceted storytelling. Unfortunately, I like linearity, and this book meanders. You start with a character, and I get to know them and become attached to them. And then you put them through some exciting event -- for example, the sorceress Tattersail defending herself from one of the Hounds of Shadow -- and then you suddenly cut to some brand new character -- well, I don't care about this new character, I want to know what's going to happen to Tattersail! That's how I felt when reading this book. Every other chapter or section deals with a different set of characters, and when I favor one particular set of characters, I found it very hard to pay attention what the others are doing since it doesn't seem to have any relevance to the first set.

I'm sure this style will appeal to other people, but it did not appeal to me. I feel that when there are so many characters, there's less time to understand them. I felt that Whiskeyjack is built mainly from an archetype. He's the solid, reliable, sergeant-type character. His name kind of says it all. Don't get me wrong -- I liked him. In fact, I felt more at home with him and his group than with the other characters, and he's got a very wry sense of humor.

When looking at Whiskeyjack and his squad, the plot reminds me somewhat of Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards! but turned far, far darker than Discworld's overall "good guys always win" style of storytelling and involving a cadre of gods. In fact, summoning dragons is a plot point, although it ends up overshadowed by other events.

I've read from other reviews that the later books in the Malazan series are more focused. In fact, some people recommend reading the second book first. If that's true, then it seems to me that this book might be best read after one reads the other books. Then all of the little connections it makes will make clearer sense.

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