Darujhistan is the last of Free Cities remaining in the Malazan Empire’s conquest of a continent. A squad of elite Bridgeburners enters the city covertly to sabotage it and pave the way for Malazan’s army. Ignorant of all this, the mages, assassins, and councillors of Darujhistan are locked in a tense struggle over the fate of the city. And meanwhile, forces on the level of gods and demons, Ascendants and the inhuman, immortal races of the T’lan Imass and the Jaghut, gather to do battle on a scale that beggars the human mind.
This is the setting for Gardens of the Moon. The cast of characters is immense enough to require a categorized Dramatis Personae, and the story is similarly sprawling. Giving a straightforward summary is challenging; the above paragraph is about the best I can do, along with the following breakdown of the conflicts. There are essentially three levels of conflict in this book: the Malazan imperalist expansion, the political strife within the Malazan camp, and the involvement of Ascendants and other non-human combatants. The first conflict serves as a setting for the other two. The Empire’s conquest of the Free Cities is nearly complete. But Empress Laseen continues to move against anyone still loyal to the memory of the emperor she assassinated, which includes the Bridgeburners. Sergeant Whiskeyjack’s squad has been sent on a number of missions designed to get them killed, and they are close to the point of desertion—or sedition. Mixed up in the free are scheming High Mages; the Empress’ Adjunct Lorn; and her aide, Captain Paran, assigned to take command of Whiskeyjack’s squad only to become a tool for an Ascendant instead.
Steven Erikson weaves magic throughout the story. The magic of Erikson’s world is both structured and orderly but also very raw and connected to primordial forces. Wizards access warrens, pathways in the fabric of the world that possess certain arcane assocations—one warren is good for healing, another for sky magic, etc. Most wizards only have access to one warren; a select few can manage more than one. But magic doesn’t stop with the mages: no, there are all sorts of supernatural beings involved in this story. There are non-human species, like the Tiste Andii and the T'lan Imass. There are the Ascendants, avatars of god-like entities that interfere with mortal affairs as part of their own, larger designs. A soldier gives good advice at the beginning of the book: don’t get noticed. Don’t give the gods a reason to find you useful, because you will get used. Ganoes Paran ignores this and spends a good deal of his life being used.
Erikson’s thoughtfulness extends beyond his use of magic to the world he has created in general. The peoples and cities of Gardens of the Moon feature admirable diversity that isn’t always present in epic fantasy works. The various non-human species are all different and have different lifestyles and goals and relationships with the human factions. While we don’t get much exposure to cities other than Darujhistan, Erikson implies that it is a very unique city, both in terms of its wealth as well as its balance of power among the nobility, the mages, and the assassins. If there’s one area where his worldbuilding falters, it is probably his portrayal of magic and ritual, which seems exempt from this wonderful diversity. Everyone uses warrens; everyone talks about the same group of gods. In a world as vast as this one, it would make sense for different societies to develop their own rituals for accessing the supernatural forces and their own stories about those forces.
Although the story sprawls, the plot of Gardens of the Moon is relatively simple: Empress Laseen wants Darujhistan to fall; some people want to stop that from happening; Ascendants get into the mix and mess with everyone’s plans. What causes problems for the reader is having to choose a side. At the beginning, the Malazans are nominally the protagonists. Yet they are conquerors, imperialists bent on taking cities by military force just to expand their dominion. So should we cheer them on for that? Maybe we should be cheering for the people of Darujhistan, the delightful characters like Crokus and Raillick and Kruppe! Except that some of the Malazans, such as Whiskeyjack’s squad, are perfectly fine individuals, and we want to see them succeed. As a result, I sometimes found myself cheering for two characters whose aims were diametrically opposed. Oops.
I think this speaks to the level of investment Erikson can encourage, assuming one makes the effort to stay involved in the story. To be sure, this is not a simple book or a light read, and I can see why some people would find that unattractive. Erikson walks a fine line when it comes to exposition, and it’s possible he sometimes includes too little instead of too much. (On the other hand, there are some times when he digresses into things that seems rather irrelevant to the larger story, even if they do deepen our appreciation for the world he has created.)
One of the advantages to this complexity is that there is bound to be at least one subplot a reader will like. Whether it’s Crokus’ hapless and doomed love story or Paran’s journey towards autonomy and self-determination, there is no shortage of stories here to be told. Erikson successfully conveys that every character has a history, even if we don’t know all the details—Whiskeyjack and Quick Ben are great examples of this, because we learn just enough about their pasts to whet our appetites, and nothing more.
Erikson could have simplified the story, cut some characters, made the book shorter and easier to follow. It might even remain a good book after such changes; it’s impossible to say. As it is, Gardens of the Moon is definitely complex, but if you are willing to make the investment, it pays off. While not for every reader, Gardens of the Moon is the start to a series that promises to fascinate and captivate those who enjoy vast and roomy fantasy.