Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Malazan Book of the Fallen series
1. Gardens of the Moon (1999) *
2. Deadhouse Gates (2000)
3. Memories of Ice (2001)
4. House of Chains (2002)
5. Midnight Tides (2004)
6. The Bonehunters (2006)
7. Reaper's Gale (2007)
8. Toll the Hounds - forthcoming
9. Dust of Dreams - forthcoming
10. The Crippled God - forthcoming

Normally, a book/series where anything/everything goes would present some intriguing elements for readers. Normally, I enjoy a book where conflict and war reign throughout. Usually, I don't mind a generous display of magic. Unfortunately, I found Steven Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON way too convoluted for an opening installment to an epic SFF series. All of the following severely handicapped the reading experience: Erikson's liberal use of magic, nonsensical events, and intricate names of races, people, gods, creatures, magical houses/warrens, history and places, all of which develop Erikson's world. Oftentimes, I doubted even Erikson's capacity to keep everything straight. GARDENS OF THE MOON appears to emphasize world building above all else and I thought suffered from it as a result. The history, the races, ascendant hierarchy, etc. all detracted from the characterizations, prose, the pacing and even the plotting. I found the characterizations one-dimensional, the prose below-average to average, the settings sorely lacking, and the pacing dull. Unlike another book I'm reading (Jim Butcher's episodic page-turner ACADEM'S FURY), Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON never really grabs you. Two very different books obviously but unlike Butcher's series, I was never really interested to read more in GARDENS OF THE MOON, much less entertained. I just continued to read out of rote since I harbor an obstinate habit of trying to finish books I start.

I thought Erikson did a relatively decent job of crafting the same event from multiple perspectives. For example, when the book first introduces us to the central focus of the novel -- the city of Darujhistan -- Erikson crafts a night from multiple perspectives: from a common thief, from an assassin, from various killers, and then from other Phoenix Inn regulars in the city. Erikson pursues a similar style at Lady Sinital's Fete in the finale of the book as the plotting comes to a head from various points of view: the alchemist Baruk, the eccentric sorcerer Kruppe, the thief Crokus, the assassin Rallick Nom, Captain Paran, Whiskeyjack and our antagonist Adjunct Lorn, or the Empress's right arm. Unfortunately, many obtuse occurrences jarred the reading experience. For instance, Paran at Hood's gate (entrance to death) early in the novel and salvaged by the twin gods of luck and chance, Oponn. Tattersail's bizarre reincarnation in Kruppe's dream, and Paran randomly hijacked by the House of Shadow late in the novel. The Jaghut Tyrant and his source of power in an object (Finnest) develops as the primary threat late in the novel despite the Malazan Empire and its quest to conquer the city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, the 7-foot tall Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake evolves as the most powerful entity in the story. Also towards the end, Rake seems to randomly appear, saves Paran from the House of Shadow's hounds, and then Rake compels House of Shadow's King Shadowthrone to recall his assassin partner the Rope from possession of the girl Sorry's body thereby rescuing the Coin Bearer Crokus in the process. Convenient? Yep. Convoluted? Yep. Entertaining? No so much.

The Story, such as it is.

In the prologue, Surly (later, she fashions herself as Emperor Laseen) wrests the Empire from Emperor Kellanved in a coup with her "Claw," or a specialized force of assassins able to blunt magic with an "Otataral" sword. Many years later, Empress Laseen pursues her quest to subdue the free world and we pick up her plight in the siege of the city Pale. Immortal players from High House of Shadow (Ammanas, Cotillion or the "Rope") and High House of Dark (Anomander Rake) confound Empress Laseen's efforts along with the twin gods Oponn. The Empire, High Mage Tayschrenn, and High Fist Dujek (military commander) successfully conquer Pale but at a high price ultimately obliging the Empire's adversary Lord of Moon's Spawn (Anomander Rake) to retreat. The Empire's advance military task force responsible for fomenting dissent and clearing obstacles in a target city are called the Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, headed by the wily old veteran Sergeant Whiskeyjack, play a significant role in GARDENS OF THE MOON when after Pale, the focus shifts to conquering the free city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, High House of Shadow's assassin the "Rope" has possessed a young fisher-girl (initially called Sorry and later named Apsalar) to impede Empress Laseen's progress. High Fist Dujek and Whiskeyjack's popularity compels a ruthless Laseen to eliminate Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, it would seem, do their job too well. Laseen dispatches Adjunct Lorn for this special task.

As events shift to Darujhistan, we're introduced to a group of Phoenix Inn regulars that will eventually play critical roles: the assassin Rollick Nom, a petty young thief Crokus, the eccentric Kruppe, Murillio, T'orrud Cabal's leader alchemist Baruk, Crokus's Uncle Mammot and the Lady Sinital. Whiskeyjack and his squad arrive in the city to make contact with the city's assassin guild in order to eliminate the real power of Darujhistan: members of the T'orrud Cabal including Baruk thereby paving the way for conquest. The Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake allies himself with Baruk and Rake's band of Tiste Andu begin to eliminate Darujhistan's assassin guild hoping to ensure the security of Darujhistan's power. Most of the book centers on the Empire's efforts to conquer the free city of Darujhistan and all the various mortal and immortal players that obfuscate the endeavor. The Empress's "right arm" Adjunct Lorn, Anamonder Rake, Whiskeyjack, Captain Ganoes Paran, Baruk, Rallick Nom, and Crokus all play various roles. Darujhistan's Phoenix Inn regulars Kruppe and Coll also turn out to be more than they initially appear.

In the end, I found the characters stodgy, the events and magic jarring, the world building too involved for an opening installment, the settings entirely lacking and the prose pedestrian. I felt like I wasn't reading a story with interesting characters but rather a history text on a world of magic.

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