Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gardens of the Moon

I caught wind of Gardens of the Moon (1999) in a thread of recommended books over on BGG.  I had not heard of it before and was surprised to see that it has garnered an almost fanatical following among some internet circles (the kind that argue over whether GRRM's ASOIAF or Tolkein's LOR is the best series EVAR!).  The internet fanboys promised world building on a grand scale, an intricate plot, lots of epic battle scenes, complex magic system, etc.  Basically all the things that make D&D-raised fantasy readers drool over.  Well, it is certainly epic enough--as it turns out, GotM is the first installment in a 10-volume series known as 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen' (which has thankfully been completed as of this writing...always something to worry about when embarking on reading an epic fantasy series).  While the novel does deliver on most of these promises, it does so in an almost infuriatingly convoluted way.

GotM takes place in a world dominated by the Malazan Empire, a human government attempting to conquer anything and everything it can get its hands on.  I certainly wouldn't want to spend much time in this world--everything is dark and gritty with evidence of war and despair everywhere.  Perhaps the most striking feature of the Malazan universe and, indeed, what sets it apart from other fantasy series, is the complexity and importance of magic which is controlled through an enigmatic construct known as a 'warren.'  In addition to different human factions, there are a number of non-human (but also non-elf/dwarf/[insert conventional fantasy race here]) races running around in the background controlling different and altogether more ancient kinds of sorcery.  Did I also mention that there are gods battling with one another to control the action?  Perhaps you are getting the picture here.  Erikson, an archaeologist and anthropologist by training, has created a complex universe that, while well-realized, is somewhat difficult to approach (much less internalize fully) at the outset.

Couple this fantasy setting with a plot that matches it in complexity.  My attempt at a complete summary would frankly be laughable given my level of confusion throughout most of the novel.  Basically, the Malazan empire has come up against some stiff resistance from a mysterious group of warrior mages that ally themselves with the remaining free cities.  In addition, the Malazans face internal dangers from an army that is growing increasingly loyal to its commander.  The action centers around the struggle within Darujhistan, one of the last holdouts against the empire, and how the many different factions (soldiers, mages, residents of the city, gods) try to manipulate events, and are, in turn, manipulated by each other.

I've not been so seriously challenged reading what I thought was a light, "for-fun" read in a long time.  The causes for this are manifold, but most prominent is the unusual plot structure employed by Erikson to tell his story.  We are literally thrown head first into the middle of a complex plot with no context to the characters, their actions, their relation to one another, etc.  This is not to say that there isn't a lot of background information given.  Quite the opposite is true--there are dozens of characters, locations, and past events thrown at you.  Right up until the end of the novel, I never seemed to grasp enough information to satisfy me that I actually understand what was happening at any given time.  The best comparison I can make is to the TV show Lost...understanding the island's mysteries never seemed that far away if only you could get that one critical piece of information that would make everything clear.  Reading the novel was certainly not a chore, but it did require some focused attention.

Despite my bafflement, GotM has whetted my appetite for more of the Malazan universe.  I really (really, really) want to see how the major plot lines play out.  So, perhaps GotM has done what its author intended!