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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

With the final entry in the Malazan Book of the Fallen saga due next month, I thought I'd take a moment to go back and revisit the first - a book that struck me in much the same fashion as Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. I picked it up, starting reading it, and put it back down . . . several times.

In Jordan's case, I think it was the pacing that allowed my attention to drift. The characters were interesting, and the history/mythology definitely captured my interest, but I felt as if the story was always waiting in the wings. The appeal of Erikson's work was very similar, but something about the narrative structure kept putting me off. There just seemed to be a lack of depth in how and why things were happening. Fortunately, in both cases, something eventually clicked. There was no 'ah-ha' moment, no turning point that I can pinpoint - just a span of pages that finally pulled me down into the epic maelstrom and refused to let me go.

For those unfamiliar with The Malazan Book of the Fallen (of which Gardens of the Moon is the first volume), this is a very militaristic fantasy saga. The focus is on the front lines, in the trenches, with the soldiers, renegade armies, and barbarian warriors. Scant attention is paid to royal intrigues, family crises, romantic sub-plots, and political machinations that pad the pages of so many of Erikson's contemporaries. With a dying empire, a surging rebellion, and a holy war brewing off-stage, there's simply no need. Among the Bridgeburners at the forefront of the story are an ex-assassin, a damaged wizard, a fallen dark priest, and a young recruit possessed by a dark god.

If you're looking for idealized, perfect, fairy tale heroes, this is not the book for you. As much as the reader might admire their motives, the moral ambiguity can be a little unsettling. There is also a very strong magical/mythological element to the story, complete with ascendant gods, immortal races, and magical warrens. For me, that's where Erikson rises head and shoulders above authors such as Glen Cook, George Martin, and even David Gemmel. It's the supernatural elements that give the novel its depth, even if they are as down and dirty as the rogues and soliders that struggle against them. There's no sense of childish wonder and delight here.

Anyway, that brings me back to the Robert Jordan comparison. Once I made it through the first book of The Wheel of Time, I was hooked. It may have taken me a couple years of false starts to do so, but I read the rest of the series between the hardcover and paperback appearances of Knife of Dreams. There were some weak books, and it has begun to feel as if he's dragging it out (especially with Sanderson expanding the final book into a trilogy), but overall I'm still enjoying it. The same is true for Erikson, but to a much greater extent. Without a single character or plotline to follow, the saga has a much broader scope and impact.

There has literally NOT been a bad book, and there's never been a book that hasn't surprised me and amazed me in some way. It's a shame he doesn't get the recognition he deserves, but he does write difficult, literary fantasy - you need to pay attention and invest a bit of yourself in the books to make them work. If you're a fan of epic fantasy, have some patience for a different approach to the genre, and don't mind shades of moral grey (as opposed to absolute shades of white/black, good/evil), give Erikson a chance. He will surprise you.

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