The way I have described my experience in reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon—and how I will continue to refer to it—is graduate level fantasy. This definition became increasingly apt when, after finishing the novel, I Wikipedia-ed Erikson and found out he is, in fact, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It all makes sense.
If you haven’t read much fantasy before, I don’t recommend this book to you. If, conversely, you’ve read a lot and all the narratives are beginning to sound the same, then I highly recommend Gardens of the Moon. I put myself in the venn diagram overlap between fantasy reader amateur and fantasy reader pro. This is to say that while I enjoyed the novel, it was unexpectedly difficult. My undergrad was English. I’m well accustomed to reading turgid, florid prose from the 1800s. Yet I still struggled at times with the complexity and vastness of Erikson’s world. I’m not even going to give a synopsis for this reason. Moreover—and mostly why I’ve coined the term ‘graduate level fantasy’—is that concepts, subplots, and characters exist without explanation and without adhering to traditional fantasy tropes.
There are foundations upon which almost all fantasy writers scaffold their stories. When I use the world “elves,” for instance, that’s enough of a description to conjure up the image of tall, stately, and regal creatures (possibly with pointy ears). Elves are everywhere in fantasy. Although it’s worth revealing that those kind of elves were more or less created by JRR Tolkien. Before Lord of the Rings, elves were relegated to the squat, waddlesome kind usually associated with Santa. However, if I were to start talking to you about a Barghast, you might not have the same reaction. The obvious thing to do when a writer is introducing a new non-human creature (albeit with humanoid qualities) is to provide the reader with some background, function, and description of that creature. Well, okay, here you go: Barghasts are a relatively barbaric society as evidenced by their tribal tattoos and draw their heritage as an interbreeding between the T’lann Imass and the Tehelomen Toblakai.
The what! The who!?
Exactly. Erikson doesn’t take the time to provide the minutia concerning Barghasts. The astute reader must keep reading until descriptions of T’lan Imass and Thelomen Toblakai have been given and then, Erikson expects you to put them together and draw your own conclusions. But he doesn’t tell you to do that either, it’s all implied. This is graduate level. You, dear reader, must do the work because this bloody campaign is ceaselessly moving forward and there’s no time to dillydally on silly physical details.
If that wasn’t enough, Erikson hijacks foundational fantasy elements to fit his world. Dragons for instance. Erikson has argued in an interview that it doesn’t make sense that dragons spit fire. His world relies very heavily on magic (his own redefined version of magic) and thusly, dragons exist and subsist on that magic. And they don’t exhale fire—they use magic. Erikson doesn’t explain that either. It just is. And if you’re not quick enough to keep pace, then you’re not up to snuff. No apologies given.
Take that and about 200 characters in a rotating third person point-of-view between all those characters for about five hundred pages and you’ve got Gardens of the Moon. Except, oh yeah, that’s only the first installment of the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series. So my real question is, if I finish all of them do I get an honorary doctoral degree? 4/5 stars.