Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
(Bantam Press, £9.99, 523 pages, trade paperback, published April 1999; mass market paperback, 729 pages, £6.99, published 16 March 2000).
In the beginning, there was a confusing map - no, two! - and then there was a long list of characters, and then a dull poem - no, two!
Get the impression we've been here before?
So did I.
One problem with the fantasy genre is that there's so much poor quality product filling the shelves it's hard to find the good stuff. Another is that even the better - particularly newer - writers must conform with the established market, whether through pressure from above ("And what will you do in parts two and three?") or simply through shrewd commercial judgement.
A consequence of these combined pressures is that they all tend to look alike, the good merging with the bad. I'm sure a lot of readers shy away from the genre for these reasons. (Although, it must be said, an awful lot more are probably attracted by the sameness of the product lines.)
And where does that leave Steven Erikson? A new writer of a big fat fantasy, the first in a series - so easy to miss in the crowd. Which would be a shame. Gardens of the Moon is by no means an instant classic but in it Erikson shows a lot of promise, enough insight and compelling detail to make me wonder, what will he do in parts two and three?
An emperor dies, and with him goes the old order. Now, the Malazan empire struggles to contain the conflicts within its borders, while simultaneously seeking to spread its influence in foreign lands. It's the old historical lesson of unity through foreign conflict. But Vietnam and Afghanistan, for example, have shown us that this doesn't always work, that war isn't always a unifying force, that drawn-out conflicts can fester, turning against their instigators.
Gardens of the Moon is set on the subcontinent of Genabackis, following the exploits of a squad of soldiers whose loyalty is undermined by the manipulation of their superiors, thrown into a succession of dangerous and ultimately fairly pointless covert operations in an attempt to overthrow the last of the Free Cities.
The characters, here, are always interesting: none are good or bad, right or wrong, in a complex situation Erikson takes no sides which, in itself, is refreshing. This is no simple struggle between Good and Evil. The realism of the author's approach is compelling, but where he struggles is with portraying the broader picture: there are lots of battles, lots of intrigues, but little indication of how they fit in with the wider campaign, the high-level struggles for power. In portraying the detail convincingly, Erikson leaves the reader struggling to piece it all together into a coherent whole.
A common problem with the genre, particularly for reviewers, is joining a series partway through - volume two of a trilogy, volume four of a never-ending series. Erikson has a novel solution: make volume one read as if you're joining partway through!
So many incidents are mentioned in passing, as if the reader should recall them, that there's a distinct sense of having started well into the story. It's good that a story, a world, should have life beyond the confines of the book, but too much and what should be convincing depth becomes frustrating. There must be a strong possibility that Gardens of the Moon will have prequels as well as sequels, at some stage.
Steven Erikson could become a giant one day, an epic-writer with something to say, and that would give fantasy a refreshing kick up the backside. All he has to do is master the epic side of things: the over-story, pulling all the elements of his work together instead of leaving them to fight it out in the reader's poor, confused mind. Definitely one to watch.
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© Keith Brooke 6 November 1999