Gardens of the Moon
One of the most recurrent problems in fantasy literature concerns the presentation of the universe created by the authors: sometimes the exposition is too on the nose to the detriment of the characters and the fluidity of the narrative, but sometimes it is put aside, failing to capture the readers’ interest. In Gardens of the Moon, archaeologist Steve Rune Lundin’s greatest achievement (writing under the pseudonym ‘Steven Erikson’) is achieving the right balance between description and fluidity, providing information in a measured but engaging way.
Gardens of the Moon is the first novel in a series of ten entitled The Malazan Book of the Fallen. This one is centered on the process of expansion of the Malazan Empire, specifically in the attempt to conquer the last two great free cities: Pale and Darujhistan.
The beginning of the story highlights three specific plotlines: one follows a soldier named Paran, who always dreamed of a military career and now has a chance to pursue it; the second focuses on Sergeant Whiskeyjack, the commander of the regiment called “The Bridgeburners”, who tries to keep them alive at all costs; and the last one follows the mage Tattersail, who seeks revenge for the death of her lover, Calot.
Readers are likely to be a little lost at the beginning of Gardens of the Moon. The universe described by Erikson is complex and considerably vast, bearing countless creatures, peoples, gods and distinct races, and the author seems to refuse to offer explanations of its characteristics. Few characters will remember past events just to contextualize the reader. Here, such information is only transmitted when the author manages to use them organically in the narrative. In other words, what moves the exposition is not the need for it, but its inevitability. Following this principle, Erikson manages to turn information into a valuable asset, making rewarding the moments when the reader finally understands the small nuances of the events that are occurring in the story.
In Gardens of the Moon, gods occupy a significant space in the narrative, interfering with human affairs directly, manipulating, possessing and even murdering people. They are unpredictable elements: readers will be able to understand their motives, but never their plans in their entirety. It is by inspecting the scene of a massacre promoted by one of the enemy gods of the Empire, Shadowthrone, that the young Paran is recruited by the right hand of the Empress Laseen, Adjunct Lorn. His mission is to chase after a girl – suspected of being used as a Shadowthrone’s receptacle – while becoming captain of the Whiskeyjack regiment.
Meanwhile, the sergeant needs to worry about the welfare of his own squad after a disaster that has wiped out more than half of its soldiers. Whiskeyjack is an old companion to the Empire’s military leader, Dujek, and both actively participated in the taking of the throne by Empress Laseen, while defending the losing side. Thus, fearing that the Emperor’s growing paranoia over the old Emperor’s allies will cost him his life, the sergeant must come up with a plan that will ensure the survival of his regiment while he is strategically assigned to assist in the taking of the cities of Pale and Darujhistan.
The siege of Pale, the first great battle of the novel, makes the reader get used to some of the elements of the story, such as how magic and violence are portrayed. The only force preventing the city’s fall is a mysterious floating mountain, called Moon’s Spawn. The mountain is supposed to be the habitat of ancient beings, the Tiste Andii, and no one knows for sure why it is protecting Pale. Apparently tired of waiting for answers, Empress Laseen orders that the mage Tayschreen attack the mountain and take with him a group of experienced mages, composed, in addition to Tattersail and Calot, by allies of the old Emperor. The Lord of Moon’s Spawn then emerges and begins the battle. Magic is a crucial factor in the universe created by Erikson and it is introduced in Gardens of the Moon in a shocking way: during the fight against the inhabitants of the floating mountain, waves of fire and energy disintegrate and burn hundreds of soldiers in mere seconds, mutilate the bodies of mages and destroy everything they touch. Erikson makes the reader fear magic by inflating its impact, constantly putting it responsible for massive violence.
At the other end of the spectrum, ordinary people are relegated to one mention or another, which serves only to show how decimated, hungry, doomed, and desperate they are. The author aims to tell a story of epic proportions and, for this reason, in this first volume, prefers to treat the population as a mere, though regrettable, collateral damage of the great plans and deeds of the characters that matter.
And how many characters there are. As the narrative moves to the city of Darujhistan, a dozen more appear, adding their motivations to the already complicated web of conspiracies. Among them, three stand out: the friends Crokus, Rallick Nom and Kruppe.
Crokus is a street thief who falls madly in love with a nobleman’s daughter who he was trying to rob. He is a naive young man who, oblivious to the real importance of his actions, becomes a fundamental piece for the plans of very powerful beings. Rallick Nom, on the other hand, is an assassin who wants to recover the assets that his friend Coll has lost to a woman and decides to set a trap during a party organized by her. And Kruppe is an enigmatic character, since his harmless appearance, his grotesque eating habits and his speech contrasts heavily with the wisdom of his reflections and the gravity of his dreams that, because they contain conversations with long forgotten gods and are about extremely relevant subjects, suggest an individual far less foolish than he appears to be.
Kruppe, by the way, is the main responsible for the charm of the book, which is due mainly to his characteristic way of speaking. In order to confuse his interlocutor, he usually uses vague terms and makes his sentences partially wrong, besides referring to himself in the third person to convey naiveté. Notice the subtle effect of the apparent numbering error in his answer, when asked about Coll’s health: “Twas healed magically, Sulty said. By some stranger, yet. Coll himself was brought in by a second stranger, who found a third stranger, who in turn brought in a fifth stranger in the company of the stranger who healed Coll. And so it goes, Murillio. Strange doings indeed”. Now look again at the design of confusing his friend, when also questioned by him about the reason for going to the party organized by Coll’s ex-wife, since he does not even know her: “Not relevant to Kruppe’s argument, friend Murillio. Kruppe has been acquainted with Simtal’s existence for many years. Such association is made better, nay, pristine, for the fact that she has not met Kruppe, nor Kruppe her”. Kruppe is the most intriguing character in the book and further proves that, like any good author, Erikson is able, through language, to direct the readers’ attention to wherever he pleases, manipulating them as honestly as possible.
In addition, Erikson also shows to be a considerably skillful author regarding foreshadowing. He positions hundreds of clues about important events throughout the narrative, sometimes abruptly – what foreshadows Calot’s death has a stunning effect – or, more times in a subtle way – the mask that Crokus’ uncle wears during Simtal’s party adds even a hint of black humor to his fate – creating a fun game that rewards the most attentive readers with a more complex narrative.
Another one of Gardens of the Moon’s merits is the tension created by the increasing conflicts between each character’s motivations. Taking advantage of a concept developed within the story – a kind of convergence of power – Erikson structures the climax at the middle and at the end of the novel in order to encompass the resolution of several plotlines in a single scenario. The chaos generated is minutely orchestrated by him, causing scenes that thrill because of their unpredictability.
However, despite the fact that the author has shown that he knows how to conduct more than ten different plotlines in a complex way, he stumbles on some of them every now and then. The most troublesome is the mage Hairlock’s, Tattersail’s colleague who, after having his body destroyed in the battle against Moon’s Spawn, has his soul transferred to a puppet. Hairlock then wanders through the path of chaos to unravel the plans of his enemies, but ends up going crazy in the process. His storyline is considerably intense at the beginning of the book, which makes disappointing the anticlimactic way in which it ends. The wizard Tattersail and the god Shadowthrone are also discarded around the middle of the story, negatively impacting the narrative.
Erikson’s prose is aptly elaborate, and it is possible to see that each word has been meticulously chosen. The poems that open each chapter serve as a great example, containing terms that have a dual function: they reflect the theme of the chapter in question and develop others that will only be understood later, serving as foreshadowing. These themes follow the genre’s tradition, which uses fantastic situations to discuss universal issues. The time when Captain Paran reflects on gods and men, for instance, is particularly inspired by denying moral relativization: “Morality was not relative, they claimed, nor even existing solely in the realm of the human condition. No, they proclaimed morality as an imperative of all life, a natural law that was neither the brutal acts of beasts nor the lofty ambitions of humanity, but something other, something unassailable”. The author, however, clings to some mannerisms that bother with time: the number of characters who frown and raise their eyebrows at every news or dialogue, for example, far exceeds the limit of acceptable.
Gardens of the Moon is a great example of how to write fantasy literature. The author builds a complex narrative, makes the exposition of the universe rewarding, creates a gigantic range of unique characters, discusses important subjects, and tells diverse stories that thrill in the way they connect and conclude. Nevertheless, what is most noticeable during reading is the fact that the book, going against the industry, has full faith in the reader’s capacity.
December 07, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on March 12, 2015.
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2005 by Tor Books