The OF Blog: Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon

Monday, May 17, 2010

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon

My history with Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series stretches back eight years.  Back in 2002, I was a moderator for wotmania's Other Fantasy section and there was this Australian poster (his real name is Barry, but his SN there was Druid) who in posts about top fantasy works of recent years kept mentioning this then-UK exclusive fantasy series called Malazan Book of the Fallen.  At first, I was a bit incredulous about this, wondering if a series was so good, why wasn't it available in the US?

This was in the days before book blogging became as popular as it did about six years ago or so, thus internet forums such as wotmania were the main source of information for me.  Needless to say, I was not as familiar with those nascent blogging sites then as I am (to a small extent) today.  So I kept brushing him off, but he kept insisting that there were elements in this series (then only three volumes in the UK) that I would enjoy.  I finally broke out in the late summer of 2002 and placed my first international order, ordering copies of the first two books.  Good thing that I ordered both Gardens of the Moon and the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, or my experiment with this series might have ended after the first volume.

When I initially read Gardens of the Moon in 2002, I found it to be little more than standard military/epic fantasy.  While I enjoyed the fact that there were no long introductions into the author's imaginary setting and that there were no hidden peasant heirs to some mighty throne, I found myself wondering why I should care about the Bridgeburners, the Genebackis campaign, Moon's Spawn, and Darujhistan.  Reading a story in media res is not a bad thing, but the story really didn't have a strong appeal to me at the time.  There were no real "hooks" in terms of prose, theme, plot, or characterization.  What I read was "perfectly acceptable" in terms of prose, plot, and to a lesser degree, characterization, but there wasn't anything that really stood out for me.  The story was just there and that was about all I could say.

However, epic fantasy openers often are best judged not on the basis of that opening book itself, but by how it ties in with its sequels.  When I read the following book, Deadhouse Gates, I found a more compelling plot, more intriguing characters, and a whole lot more at stake in terms of the now-broadening storyline.  I went on and ordered the third volume, Memories of Ice, and preordered the fourth volume, House of Chains, and have since read each of the nine volumes written by Erikson (and four related novellas) and two volumes written by his longtime collaborator, Ian Cameron Esslemont.

But for each of the three times that I did re-read this particular volume between 2002 and 2005 (my last re-reading of the first five volumes of Erikson's main sequence Malazan novels; I haven't re-read any of the latter four), my perception of what transpired in Gardens of the Moon shifted.  After a five year break, it happened again with this most current re-read.

What I noticed most about this particular re-read is how quick and to the point most of the action is.  One of the criticisms of the Malazan series is that there is a long, protracted buildup to a 150-200 page wow-bang conclusion.  That is not the case here.  The reader, after a short prologue that shows the future Captain Paran meeting the general who is soon to be demoted to sergeant Whiskeyjack of the Bridgeburners, is thrown into the midst of a military campaign that involves copious amounts of sorcery and divine interventions.  I have seen some critiques of this series that note that much of the understanding of what Erikson is trying to do in this book depends upon the reader's awareness of what has been written in the field beforehand.  When I first read this novel, I had barely read any epic fantasy.  What I knew of D&D campaigns (the Malazan world originally started as a D&D campaign that Erikson and Esslemont conducted several years prior to the 1999 release of Gardens of the Moon, itself published several years after its initial draft had been written) could fit into a thimble.

Perhaps that might explain why I was nonplussed at the time about all these sorcerous blasts and mages opening up "warrens" that contained different powers.  It was like an alien language to me.  Still is to some extent, although I did get a much better feel for the mechanics of this imagined setting as I progressed in the reading.  For this re-reading, the strangeness of this returned, however.  I found myself wondering at all of these over the top battles and encounters.

But that is not all that I noticed. I also found some interesting moments of a far more subtle nature.  The Bridgeburners were actually more interesting to read in this novel than I ever recalled them being in any of the other novels or previous reads.  Erikson gives them sparse descriptions, but yet there is this sense of a Dirty Dozen vibe about them.  Ruthless, experienced cutthroats who had interesting stories glinting underneath the gruff exteriors shown in the first section of the novel.  These mysteries made for a faster-paced reading than I had expected.

When the action shifts to Darujhistan, there is more a sense of an espionage novel than anything else. Rooftop battles, assassinations, wormings into privy councils, and the sense that the ridiculously witted Kruppe lay at the center of it all - there was never a great letting up on the narrative tension.  Later, the machinations of the Malazan Adjunct, Lorn, along with the introduction of an undead humanoid species, the T'lan Imass, and their 300,000 year old battle against an ancient foe, the Jaghut, adds another layer to the proceedings.  However, this element felt a bit rushed and almost tacked on to the military/espionage elements of the book's first half.  Oh, I know this is to set the stage for the sequels and to also establish one of the recurring themes in this series, namely that Elder Powers are not invincible to the might of present-day mortals, but it still felt a little tacked on in terms of action and mood compared to the previous sections.

The prose was mostly unadorned and usually was to the point.  The characters, as I noted above, were quickly drawn but yet effective in their presentation.  The pacing was fast throughout, although there were a few lags with the party and with the discovery of the Jaghut Tyrant Raest's barrow.  It was a more enjoyable and less frustrating read than I had expected.  Shall be interesting to see if my positive memories of the next two books holds up upon re-reads.


Abalieno said...

GotM improves on re-reads not just because you know the tangle of the plot in the following volumes, but also because re-reads eliminate an actual flaw of the book.

The problem is not that it starts in medias res, the problem is that there's little presentation and introductions of characters and plots. It misses very basic elements like physical and geographical descriptions, and it is something that Erikson solves in the following books (even if still in a terse style).

On re-reads one knows where events take place and who the characters are, so one can enjoy more directly the plot and its implications without the bewilderment of first-time readers. When you know nothing you can't even place the few elements you are given, and a lot is simply lost. Instead the experienced reader can actually pick and enjoy some subtleties of the characters and plots in retrospect. The few people I talked to that were reading GotM had an absolute mess in their heads about where the events were taking place, that Itko Kan was in completely different continent than the battle of Pale and that the Empress was far away. There's a lack of actual good maps (in a book where they are really needed since things happen all over the place) and lack of proper introduction to the moving parts.

It's the leanest book in the series, but it's the one that would really need 100-200 pages added for proper presentations and clarity. The plot and structure are ok, they just need a better exposition.

It is alien even for those readers used to fantasy and a polar opposite to, say, the Wheel of Time. WoT relies completely on the redundancy, whereas Malazan's only redundancy is on the elliptical pattern of its themes (which reminds me closely of Infinite Jest, that you should really read if you haven't).

This first Malazan book would benefit from a fuller exposition, and even the ending felt a bit too rushed that its significance of what was going on was partially lost.

Afterward this flaw becomes a strength, because there's no lingering on superficial details and the series trudges on its themes and dense plot tangle.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

I only started the Malazan series, finishing recently my first read of "Gardens of the Moon". I did enjoy it a lot, although it was a bit confusing at times. But I am certain that the following novels will reveal more to me. I only wonder now what a re-read (when that will come) will reveal to me :)

Jay M. said...

"no hidden peasant heirs to some mighty throne" - a refreshing change, for sure. I don't know why every other fantasy series has to have so many LotR elements in it. Even the other good fantasy series (GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire) always has a hidden heir being brought up in obscurity.

In Malazan all those peasant princes would quicly get slaughtered!

I just finished the 10th book and I am now re-reading Gardens. It has been great so far. Now that I know the whole story I can read with less "what the heck was that??" problems since I know now much more about the people, places and magics than when I first GotM. :)

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