REVIEW: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Last Updated on February 14, 2024

I first read Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson eight years ago. This was a few years before I started reviewing books and I was in a very different mental headspace to the one that I find myself in now. I do not look back on this period fondly. That being said, I read and loved this series throughout this stage. However difficult or messed up my life seemed, there was always a Malazan Book of the Fallen entry close by that helped me escape and assisted me with feeling things that I did not get from the real world. I have opted to re-read this series, to see how it holds up and, additionally, to see what I get from it now being the person that I am today.

Gardens of the Moon is about Empress Laseen continually pushing for the expansion of the Malazan Empire. At her disposal, she has seasoned armies, powerful mages, Claw assassins, and many allies, both natural and unnatural. She is unforgiving, will backstab when required, and can go to what seem like absurdly risky lengths to get her way with domination. To commence, we join the action in Pale where the Malazan military are facing a confrontation from the impressive and very capable combined forces of Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, Pale’s army, warlord Caladan Brood, and The Crimson Guard.

My memories from the first read are hazy, yet, back then I remember I did not quite feel the sense of being lost as many admit to when starting Gardens of the Moon. I will admit that I found it tough going at certain moments and I still believe the first page is a difficult read and that the glossary and dramatis personae are required. The beginning sets the standard that follows in that this series does not welcome you warmly with open arms. When you arrive as a reader, this world is living and breathing, has histories that span millennia and vast continents, presents existing power struggles between gods and immortals, warfare and factions and ranks and reputations, a broad array of races and contingents, and a complicated magic scheme where the rules are not explained. There are a large amount of point of view perspectives in Gardens of the Moon yet, we often find ourselves looking and learning through the eyes of the young noble Ganoes Paran, who is the closest to a main character Erikson presents in the book.

‘Every decision you make can change the world. The best life is the one the gods don’t notice. You want to live free, boy, live quietly.’
‘I want to be a soldier. A hero.’
‘You’ll grow out of it.’

Malazan Book of the Fallen features some of my favourite characters in fantasy literature. When reading Gardens of the Moon, I tried to forget what I knew and wished to analyse them based on the actions and dialogues of this novel alone. With that in mind, there are still so many intriguing and captivating members of the dramatis personae. Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Sorry, Shadowthrone, Tattersail, Adjunct Lorn, Kalam, and Tool are just a few names out of thirty-plus that truly stand out. A vast amount of the major players are complicated and mysterious, with varied motives, multilayered personalities, and past experiences. For example, with Anomander Rake, is he a villain as he is fighting against the Malazan Empire? Is he as honourable as people mention? Is he a High Mage or something all the more impressive and frightening? When reading his mannerisms including when he chooses to laugh or speak sternly or with who he engages or the decisions he makes, this is a character so deep that you can almost feel the weight and burden that his long lifetime and his god-slaying sword, Draginpur, have laid on his shoulders.

The magic system in Malazan Book of the Fallen is phenomenal. Essentially, mages or wizards can access warrens. The warrens are magical realms, which can be traversed as a type of fast-travel, and are sources of power that those with the necessary attributes are able to draw from. Each warren has an element or flavour, such as Denul (healing) Meanas (shadow) and Kurald Galain (darkness) and, although they are rare, some powerful mages can access more than one warren simultaneously, making them extremely formidable. Sourcing from these magical domains comes at a cost and those who dabble unaware or without caution can go mad, die, or be consumed. In addition, the warrens can be the residing realms of various types of nastiness, such as things best left forgotten, wanderers, ascendents, gods, and hounds.

I fondly remembered that during my first read, I adored following the actions and drama that featured the Bridgeburners. They are a squad from the Malazan army who are respected and made up of a wide variety of talents including an ex-commander, an ex-Claw assassin, a Seven Cities Mage, a pair of sappers, a healer, and a possessed young girl. I also reflected that I was frustrated when, after finally feeling content that I had figured out what was happening, (following the Bridgeburners et al), the reader is whisked away to another city entirely with a whole new cast of characters to learn about. (There was an element of this on my re-read but I readjusted to the new setting and players promptly.) In Darujhistan, there are a few great character creations to follow also, but this side of the story did not gel with me as strongly. In this city, there is a war of assassins and a variety of class and political infighting and intrigue. This section is a slower burn than the sieges and magical battles elsewhere, yet does pay off by the finale which features half a dozen standout segments, showdowns, twists, and deaths.

Having read the book twice now, I assess that Erikson has done admirably with the pacing of Gardens of the Moon. However, the first time I read this, my reading pace would not have been smooth at the beginning, as I was trying to get my head around the novel’s many elements. On my re-read, it seemed easier and by the time I reached Book 4 Assassins, I was racing through the pages, culminating with me devouring over 150 pages in a couple of hours this morning. The ending is well-worked and has three or four moments that could be the finale before the novel finds another gear or twist, concluding in an exhilarating fashion. A huge plus is that I find the unpredictability of Gardens of the Moon and later series entries fascinating. Before the novel closes, it neatly sets up the journies and endeavours that are to follow for the cast in Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice.

For the most part, the writing in Gardens of the Moon is well-crafted and paints an excellent introductory view of the vastness and complicatedness of the Malazan Universe. Some moments may be over-descriptive and during my re-read, I noticed parts that would make extremely little sense to a fresh-eyed, first-time series reader. The dialogue presented in Gardens of the Moon is strong, and one of my favourite scenes is a fairly emotional farewell between a wizard and a demon. Knowing what follows, I can see that some elements of the humour, camaraderie, and philosophical musings present in Gardens of the Moon had not yet been perfectly honed by Erikson. Even with that considered, the potential and statement made by the author presenting this as a debut, looking back, is immensely impressive.

‘Don’t quibble with words,’ Dujek muttered. ‘Damn it, Fiddler, is that your sword lying over there? In a puddle?’
Breath hissed between Fiddler’s teeth and he hurried over to the weapon.
‘The man’s a hopeless legend,’ Dujek said.

An element of my re-read that I hugely enjoyed was the foreshadowing and seeing how aware Erikson was, even at this early stage of this series, where this story would lead. For example, he mentions, quite early on, the Tiste Edur, a race that does not feature until the fifth novel Midnight Tides. This is absolutely a story that is worth paying close attention to. A seer mentions something in the first few chapters that could sound, to a casual reader, like nonsense, yet is of great importance to a standout scene later on. I definitely caught more of these special nuggets understanding the world’s jargon and history more on my second visit to this narrative.

I am wholeheartedly delighted that I decided to re-read Gardens of the Moon, which seems like an oxymoron when considering that this is often a brutal and unforgiving dark fantasy epic. My next steps are to review the rest of the novels in this series including Ian C. Esslemont’s books Novels of the Malazan Empire when they fit chronologically.

If you have not yet read Malazan Book of the Fallen, I would recommend it highly. I also strongly encourage being diligent when researching it online as this is a series that is best to appreciate and be amazed by unspoiled. 8.5/10.

Too many regrets. Lost chances – and with each one passing the less human we all became, and the deeper into the nightmare of power we all sank.

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James Tivendale

James Tivendale

Reviewer. Sober. Runner. Peer Mentor. Pool Player. Poker Player. Fitness. Metal. Rap. Mario Kart. Zelda.

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[…] getting to know the characters that were featured throughout Gardens of the Moon, Erikson introduces a mostly new ensemble in Deadhouse Gates. The events of this book take place […]