My original plan was to get all my summer reading and ARC’s out of the way before getting into Malazan so I can read all of them back to back. However, the constant stream of people posting in various fantasy groups on Facebook about how Gardens of the Moon is so confusing and asking whether they should keep on reading stirred up my curiosity to the point of dropping the WoT #4 and everything else and grabbing this, and I am so very glad I did.
Gardens of the Moon has the reputation for being one of the biggest Marmite books of fantasy genre. I didn’t care much for Marmite, but I totally fell in love with Gardens of the Moon and looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Even Erikson laments about it in the foreword, you can see the pangs of regret between the pages. But I think GOTM is just fine the way it is.
People who are used to reading books with a clear beginning-middle-end and linear story arc where the world and magic and how everything works is explained in detail are going to find GOTM confusing as hell. People who have enjoyed ASOIAF books -preferably more than once- won’t have much trouble. I was warned about paying attention to detail so I watched everything like a hawk from the very beginning. Tiniest details and pieces of dialogues from the prologue comes back to you with a bang later on, but if you miss it in the beginning, you miss out and end up getting lost. This is true for everything else, not only the beginning parts. Just pay attention! Even the seemingly insignificant and unimportant minor characters are there for a reason and serve a purpose.
I have read a number of medieval chronicles and some early modern fiction, so I was no stranger to the format of the book. Erikson doesn’t explain things with infodumps, he doesn’t hold your hand, so you figure things out by paying attention. Some people say Gardens of the Moon requires a lot of effort, but I beg to disagree. It requires no effort other than paying attention. It’s just a book, not some rocket science manual as some folk make it out to be, only it is structured in a rather unusual way. Unusual for the fantasy genre, that is.
Gardens of the Moon is more like the medieval chronicles and early modern fiction. Sort of like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabeleis, which I highly recommend to fantasy lovers of high brow tastes (there is some irony to be found here) and I talk about in detail in this post here. Gardens of the Moon structure is quite similar to that. It is also somewhat similar to medieval Byzantine chronicles.
Those chronicles start with the reign of the current emperor, maybe his predecessor, but they throw you right into the thick of things without holding your hand. They don’t explain the state institutions and how things work and how the framework of the whole empire is structured, you are supposed to know it. Those books were written as a record of the history, and after 1000 years many things got lost. Historians were not able to make sense of some of the jokes, alliterations and references. Some they deciphered by cross-referencing other books and documents of the period, but what’s lost is lost for good.
I have read the chronicles depicting the city I was born and raised and spent the first few years of my adult life in, but it read more like an alien city in some imaginary fantasy land most of the time. Only because some of the edifices present in the period still stand today it is possible to even recognize the place. There are footnotes in almost every page, explaining names, terms, references, military terminology, government positions, measurements (they used different reckoning of hours, calendar, distance units, weight units, nothing like the stuff we use today.) For example, they talk about the time of the day like “third hour of the night” which would be roughly 9 pm of a couple hours earlier or later depending on the season. They measure all distances with stades, which is about 1/10 of a mile. You read the footnote where it’s used the first time and do the conversion in your head through the rest of the book. You convert all those things in your head to the modern units you are familiar with, and if you forget, you have to go back to the footnotes. Now this is something that requires effort to read. Gardens of the Moon certainly does not fall into that category. There is no math, no calculations. You only need to pay attention to things and remember them, that is all.
If you are having trouble, there is an excellent read-along guide recapping every chapter of every book. You can check with it after you finish a chapter or few. Here is the guide: Malazan Reread of the Fallen.
But like I mentioned, if you are an ASOIAF fan, you should have no trouble comprehending Gardens of the Moon. There is a big cast of characters, but even if you aren’t an ASOIAF veteran you eventually get used to it if you stick around. Chapters are short and POV changes within the same chapter sometimes, so it takes a while to get attached to any of the characters. But once you start following them, you will find your favorites. Some of the best ones don’t show up or start revealing their badassery until later.
The sheer number of main characters may be overwhelming for people who aren’t used to that kind of setup, so here is an excellent guide made by my lovely friend Laura M. Hughes to help out: Laura’s Guide to Malazan Characters (Gardens of the Moon)
Some of those characters start out as ordinary folk, but they turn out to be hell of a lot more than what they seem. It’s great fun to watch it unfold, I’m telling you!
Now, if you are a big fan of Riftwar books and Elder Scrolls Games, there is a good chance you will totally love Gardens of the Moon (and the rest of Malazan I suppose.) There are thieves, assassins, rooftop wars, heist scenes, alchemists, cool artifacts, and an epic tavern/inn where all the ruffians meet up and hang out. I’m a huge fan of the thieves’ guild and Dark Brotherhood in Elder Scrolls games, as well as the thieves of Krondor in Riftwar books, so all those scenes were more than reason enough for me to love this book to death before even reaching half of it. Oh, and magic. There is awesome, bombastic, kickass magic. The awesomeness of it is slowly revealed, layer by layer.
More than anything, Gardens of the Moon is a political intrigue and military action book. There is a number of political factions and complex political plots. It was hell of a lot of fun to read as a big fan of political intrigue.
Now let’s get to the characters: There are total cunts you will love to hate, as well as some charismatic guys, silly boys, strong women, loveable ruffians, mysterious elder races, funny dudes, sinister politicians and the legendary Bridgeburners. Brigeburners is the elite military squad everyone respects and their enemies are doing everything to decimate them. Those guys are so damn cool and they have epic tricks up their sleeves and some hilarious bickering moments as the icing of the cake. Gardens of the Moon and the Bridgeburners got me so hooked, I ordered a Bridgeburners t-shirt before I even finished reading the book. That should tell you something.
And then there is the glorious Anomander Rake. I didn’t think I would ever fall head over heels for a character and go all fangirl after R. Scott Bakker’s magnificent Cleric character in The Judging Eye, but Anomander Rake totally caught me off guard. He is ambiguous, mysterious, melancholy, supremely charismatic, has a killer magic sword called Dragnipur unlike any magic sword I have ever read in fantasy books, and badassery level off the charts. I’m smitten! Can’t wait to read more.
And then there is Kruppe, who is the funny uncle with the silly ramblings, but he has some neat tricks up his sleeve and some more. That is all I can say to stick with the spoiler free premise.
There is this Deck of Dragons, which is like a magic level +10 version of Tarot cards. If you are into Tarot, you will definitely enjoy it. Another thing I absolutely loved about Gardens of the Moon is the lack of sappy romance and ridiculous love triangles. There is one case of a dude having a crush on a girl, but it’s hilarious rather than sappy. There is no annoying pining and all that jazz.
It might be a bit confusing to some readers who are not used to this kind of structure, but the payoff is massive. Trust me on that! Not only that but there are excellent companion guides to help out if you are having any trouble, which I linked above. If you love fantasy, this book has every element of fantasy without being cliche and derivative. Steven Erikson is a professional anthropologist and it shows in the realism of the cultures and different lands. It’s incredibly rich in detail. If you are a history buff, you will most probably become a fan.
Then again, it’s known as the Marmite book and you might not like it at all. There is only one way to find out!