I had to have a long hard think before deciding whether to post a review this book. Not so much because of the book, more because I really can’t decide whether I like it or not. I have multi-farious faults but lack of an opinion isn’t generaly one of them, so finding myself so indecisive is noteworthy in and of itself.
‘Gardens of the Moon’ is the first novel in Steven Erikson’s ‘Malazan’ sequence. A process of inevitable attraction seemed to draw me into picking up the first book, having run into Erikson’s name referenced repeatedly as the current cutting edge of high fantasy. With the first novel digested I can see how that reputation arose, but I’m stil not certain whether it’s deserved.
One of many excellent reviews embalzoned on ‘Gardens of the Moon’ refers to it as ‘fearsomly readable’, and this is entirely true. Erikson constructs his novel with the pacing of a boulder tumbled from a cliff. He uses a clearly delineated act structure that traces the story over a long period, but each act itself covers only a few days, a single night or even just one or two hours. This is a strong narrative tool that keeps the story engaging and avoids the ‘and then they walked a bit more accross the endless wilderness for a few days until something interesting happened’ syndrome common to epic fantasy. Bolted onto this strong narrative are an intoxicating mixture of high fantasy elements that have clearly been through Erikson’s patented ‘reimagining’ machine. Yes there is magic, but its a dirty elemental type of magic. Yes there is war, but its more like intense urban conflict than the last stand of Gondor. Yes there are heroes, but they are conflicted, greyer than grey heroes. Great stuff I thought as I plowed my way through the first few hundred pages.
So it took be by surprise when I realised that the excellent writing and brilliant imagination had distracted me from the almost total lack of character in the story. Not characters mind you, those crowd the ages of the book in abundance. As does characterisation. There are fat female wizards, gritty cynical sergeants and dangerously dark eyed female assassins. But character – the aspects of actual human behaviour that are both the back bone and meat&potatoes of a good story – was mysteriously absent. Take the dangerously dark eyed female assassin. She spends a lot of time looming dangerously. Other characters spend a lot of time scared of her scarily dark eyes. She even stabs people occaisionaly. But none of the events of the story establish her character. In fact the story and the characters often seem to be living in two completely different dimensions, as though Erikson designed the two elements in isolation and then spent 700 pages trying to jam them into the same book.
When a story has both huge strengths and huge weaknesses you might expect them to cancel each other out and produce a mediocre product, but ‘Gardens of the Moon’ is a novel that can be great on one page and appalling on the next. I will definitely venture further into Erikson land, but will be alert for the appearance of better realised characters before buying the round the world ticket.