Steven Erikson, The Gardens of the Moon (Bantam Books, 1999)
There are big books, and then there are big books. There are books that run 700 pages but do not seem to tell a large story, just a long one. (One example would be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) And then there are books that run the same length and tell such a large story that the reader feels completely enmeshed in the secondary world by the end. Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon is one such book.
The Gardens of the Moon is an unconventional epic fantasy in many ways, but perhaps we should look first at the ways in which it is like much conventional epic fantasy. The book is but one part of the large story of the rise and fall of the Malazan Empire, which has come over the sea to conquer the Genabackis peninsula-continent. The empire, however, is getting old and has many internal problems. It is currently controlled by the Empress Laseen, who took control after the death of the former emperor seven years before the opening of the novel.
The first quarter of the book relates how the Malazan army conquered the city of Pale in Genabackis and then turned its attention to the great city of Dirujhistan. Leading the army is the High Fist, or military leader, Dujek One-Arm. However, leading the mages in Dujek's army is the grasping Tayschrenn, who effectively wipes out the powerful mages in his cadre, but does so in such a way that he is not held responsible.
Within Dujek's army are also the elite squad known as the Bridgeburners, who are led by the fomer great military leader Whiskeyjack. Tayschrenn, operating under the Empress's command, is attempting to get rid of the Bridgeburners, since many remember Whiskeyjack's former greatness and would rally around him were a rebellion against the unjust political desires of the Empress to form. The Bridgeburners are sent to Durijhistan to covertly destroy the city's infrastructure before the Malazan army arrives.
As I said, the story itself is in many ways conventional to epic fantasy. However, the book is full of surprises and unconvention at nearly every level. To begin with, Erikson's narrative style is anything but straightforward. Actual scenes are told simply and plainly, but it is only slowly that the overarching story is pieced together for the reader. Often a scene will appear and unfold, but Erikson does not tell the reader the scene's significance. It may not be until a hundred pages later that the scene's full import is revealed. Thus, the reader is expected to keep track of multiple plot threads and to read very closely each scene, for a casual statement may lead to enormous circumstances later. Such a writing style may at first be disconcerting, since the reader is not sure of the significance of much of the first half of the book. But perseverance is rewarded, for in the end the story becomes so much more complex and rich especially since Erikson doesn't waste time and pages with extra exposition to explain the politics.
This hide-and-seek style also creates a feeling of depth in the book. The reader feels as if he were dropped right into the middle of a pre-existent world and that this is just one story in that world. As in The Lord of the Rings, there is as much already going on behind the scenes and before the first page as there is within the novel itself. The world of the Malazan Empire is pre-existent, and the reader is looking in on a portion of its history. This is different from the usual feeling in epic fantasy that the secondary world was created for the sake of the story being told. (This is, of course, nearly always the case, but it tells of an author's skill if he can avoid making the story read as such.)
In addition to (and in part, because of) this complex narrative style, Erikson has created a story that is thematically complex. It is not until the last 150 or so pages (of a 700-page novel) that he makes entirely clear who the "good guys" are. Erikson follows the movements of the Malazan agents as well as the Genabackis with equal sympathy. Caught in the middle are the Bridgeburners, and since Whiskeyjack is playing his cards close, we do not learn where he stands in it all. As with the real world in which we live, the agents in Erikson's secondary world are not paragons of virtue or vice, but are living, breathing people who sometimes do good and sometimes do ill. In the end, Erikson does declare who is in the right, but he spends most of the narrative showing that quite ignoble people are often those seeking the noble ends, and vice versa. This creates a strong thematic tension in the book between the means and the ends.
Furthermore, the book is labeled "A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen" and nowhere in the book's packaging are we told that this is the first volume of the series (which it is). As mentioned above, the narrative structure reflects an attitude of in medias res and the reader is left to piece together what is going on. This is just one episode in a large series (already in its fourth volume and running to nearly 4,000 pages), and not necessarily the first.
The book is challenging, and that's not always an advantage. One has only to look at Finnegan's Wake to see a book whose challenge ultimately makes it inaccessible and unreadable. The Gardens of the Moon, however, is worth the effort. It took me more than twice as long as usual to read through the book, but when I turned the last page, I let out a contented sigh of relief. This is epic fantasy as it ought to be written, and authors like Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind should take note. Epic fantasy has received a reputation in the years since The Sword of Shannara as being brain candy. I hope that Steven Erikson's Malazan saga will help to restore well-written epic fantasy to the place it belongs.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]