July 07, 2004

Gardens of the Moon, by Steve Erikson

One of my (few) complaints about The Lord of the Rings involves the economics. The Shire evokes the simplicity of the pre-industrial English countryside--but even that simple countryside did not exist in a vacuum, and its inhabitants depended on trade for much that they could not produce themselves. Tolkien mentions trade now and then, when it suits his story, but it has always seemed tacked on to me, not really a part of his world. And though those simple English countryfolk might not travel more than ten miles from their homes over the course of their entire lives, there certainly were those who did. At a minimum, there was always contact between neighboring countries. Yet in Middle Earth, even long-time allies and next-door neighbors like Gondor and Rohan are so estranged that there is little contact between them.

In short, people have a tendency to reproduce, and spread out, and fill the available space. Realms have a way of butting up against each other. When you think of it that way, Middle Earth seems strangely empty, especially in the regions around the Shire.

Gardens of the Moon, by a new author named Steve Erikson, is squarely at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's the first book in a projected ten-book series called the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and there is little about it that's simple, least of all the geopolitical background. Indeed, I'm inclined to call it the theogeopolitical background, because the Gods are very definitely involved in human affairs, as if human affairs weren't complicated enough already. And I call them human affairs, although there are at least five different intelligent races involved (none of them, blessedly, elves, dwarves, or goblins).

To begin with, there's the ever-expanding Malazan Empire, a sort of magical police state ruled over by the Empress Laseen. Laseen, the former head of the Claw (the Malazan secret police), killed her predecessor and usurped the throne, and immediately purged as many of the old Emperor's supporters as she could; at least one reason for the wars of expansion is to provide plentiful opportunities for the remainder of the Malazan old guard to die in battle, far from the capital. But that's just part of the story.

One remnant of that old guard is the Bridgebreakers, a company of the 2nd Army, now commanded by Dujek One-Arm. They were the backbone of the army in the days of the old Emperor; of late they have been given assignment after assignment designed to get them killed. And they are tired of it. When they are ordered to infiltrate the city of Darujhistan to prepare for a later Malazan, they decide to do it their own way. But that's just part of the story.

Then there is the city of Darujistan itself. Largest and wealthiest of the Twelve Cities of Genabackis, it is the place where many and diverse threads will come together. There's the young fisher girl, now posessed by Cotillion the Rope, and turned professional killer. There's the young thief, chosen tool of Oponn, the Twin God of Luck. There's the seemingly frivolus Kruppe, a man who speaks much nonsense and hears everything of sense in Darujhistan. There's the assassin who's determined to avenge the wrong done one of his friends, and the fop who aids him. There are the councilmen who think they rules the city, and the cabal who actually do. But that's just part of the story.

Then there are the mages and alchemists, including an insane puppet with a nasty sense of humor and a penchant for chaos. The magic they practice is refreshingly novel in its details, which (delightfully) are never fully explained. And one mustn't forget the gods and demigods: Cotillion and Oponn, already mentioned; Shadowthrone, King of the Shadow Warren and lord of the Hounds of Shadow; Hood, the Lord of Death; Anomander Rake, the Lord of Moon's Spawn; any many others.

In passing, I'd like to point out the opportunities for some struggling grad student to do a thesis on the evolving notions of godhood in fantasy literature. The divide between the concepts of divinity in your average modern fantasy novel and any religion practiced by real people has (with a few exceptions) become a yawning chasm. But that's a topic for another time.

All in all, this is an amazingly rich and complicated book, and as it's the kind that doesn't pander to the reader it took me a while to get into it. Once I did, though, I was hooked. In fact, I ended up staying up late to finish it (on a weeknight, no less), which doesn't happen as often as it once did. The climax was worth it, too.

So I was entertained. Beyond that, I'm not really sure what to say. At times I was reminded of Fritz Leiber; at other times, of George R.R. Martin. The book is certainly better than many I've read, and might really be very good, but it is so different from its nearest neighbors that I think I'll have to read it once or twice more (at judicious intervals) before I know for sure. In any event, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the next book in the series.

Posted by Will Duquette at July 7, 2004 08:39 PM