Gardens of the Moon: The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1 Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Vast legions of gods, mages, humans, dragons and all manner of creatures play out the fate of the Malazan Empire in this first book in a major epic fantasy series
The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations with the formidable Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, ancient and implacable sorcerers. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen's rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.
For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.
However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand....
Conceived and written on a panoramic scale, Gardens of the Moon is epic fantasy of the highest order - an enthralling adventure by an outstanding new voice.
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|Listening Length||26 hours and 3 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||October 02, 2012|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #1,423 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#3 in Sword & Sorcery Fantasy (Audible Books & Originals)
#8 in Military Fantasy (Audible Books & Originals)
#29 in Military Fantasy (Books)
Reviewed in the United States on February 4, 2020
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This book is a complete mess in many ways, but it was still enjoyable to read.
Let me start with the good parts. First, there's a lot of creativity in this book. The world is interesting, the history is long and complex, and the world is bigger than any one character. Second, Erikson is an excellent writer. I couldn't have finished this book otherwise.
Now there are problems. It's going to sound like I'm really negative about the book and hate it. I don't hate it or Erikson. I do think it was over-ambitious for his level of writing ability at the time of writing. I also think there are some things new readers should know before starting.
* You expect a lot of new characters and places when you start a new fantasy series. Never have I been forced to endure such a steady stream of characters, histories, and magic systems with so little in the way of development or explanation. It becomes so overwhelming with so little structure it's hard to even care enough to read on.
* The dialog is a mess, especially early in the book. Most writers would put clues in the dialog to help with exposition. Unfortunately, I don't think Erikson even knows what exposition means. At many points it just sounds like the characters are speaking nonsense. It's not entirely because you don't know anything about the topic of the conversation, but also because their dialog lacks subjects and is often jolting and unnatural.
* Character development is okay, but very abstract. You get to know a new friend by seeing what they do and say, right? This is also the best method for getting to know characters because it aligns with our real-life meetings. In the book almost everything happens in characters heads, and you don't get to visualize a lot of what they say or do. They also talk to themselves quite a lot. This leaves you with a sense of what they think, but not really much in the way of how they act with other people. It's told to you, not shown. This may have actually worked out, because otherwise character development would have been even more incomprehensible dialog.
* There are far, far too many unexplained character intuitions. Some of these unexplained intuitions are explainable by the story, but most are lazy shortcuts for foreshadowing and having characters think things a normal person wouldn't.
* The book desperately needed an editor with some pull. I don't know what happened here, but it really read like a self-published book from a first-time author with dreams well beyond his abilities. An editor should have pulled back and reminded the author we don't know about this civilization or that type of creature, and he should probably make us care about the current cast before adding on more. You want to craft a world, fine, but take some time to explain it rather than just assuming we've read (or want to read) your academic thesis on Malazan history.
* Everything stops reading like nonsense about halfway through. I can't imagine many people make it that far. You start to focus in on some characters and get a sense for what they want to accomplish through their plans. The "how" turns out to be excessively convuluted and poorly-explained, but you don't realize that until you think back after finishing and realize their plans were actually just the plot outline made manifest.
* The book all builds to the final climax, but the final climax is a series of loosely-related stories. Rather than ending in a big climax, then, there are an awkward series of resolutions as bad guys 1 through 4 all meet with their just ends ... in totally different scenes to wrap up totally different character stories.
* While introducing new side-stories and mysteries can maintain a sense of mystery, doing it endlessly and to resolve stories rather than begin them is frustrating for the reader. You don't even care to think ahead by the end. Will the story be resolved according to your clever interpretation of prophecy with our protagonist's cunning? Nah, there will just be some new entity or plot device that is totally unforeseeable. Probably some new entity appearing or falling from the sky.
* Minor spoilers here, but nothing that will ruin the book. Even at the VERY END of the book, Erikson is introducing new characters, creatures, and items. The demise of what you thought might be the most powerful villain and tyrant happens in a place that isn't even clear, with new rules (you can't be enslaved if X), and at the hands of a new being that hasn't even been hinted at. It honestly felt like a child was telling the story. "But then then there's this other guy, and he's even more powerful, and he beats the bad guy."
* My saddest criticism is that character motivations don't really move the story along. It's what writers call "and then" storytelling. Characters have plans, but they don't really make sense in light of what they want and know. Almost no one is acting like a normal human with normal human motivations, which makes them all harder to relate to. "Why was she doing that?" is an unanswerable question for a main viewpoint character at the very end of the book, and she's not alone in that respect.
Ultimately book 1 was exceptionally ambitious with lots of interesting ideas, but the author lacked the skill to pull it together into an interesting story.
How, then, could I possibly say Erikson is a good writer? He writes each paragraph well. Being good at putting words together is not the same thing as being a good storyteller. Erikson is like a runner with excellent form and top-notch ability who will never win a race because he's running all over the stadium looking at new shiny objects. It limps along, but only because he can manage the next step. It feels like it's about to collapse at any moment, and in the end it sort of stumbles to a halt and then simply ends.
Surprisingly, I do plan to read book 2. I've been told it gets much better and that I "just have to get through" book 1. It was so frustrating I can't imagine a world where the quality of story changes dramatically. I will give it a shot, but I'm putting it down unless there's significant improvement.
The best fantasy novels/series typically place enormous emphasis on the mundane/normal, partly to provide a real grounding for the fantasy elements and partly because the further aspects of a story get from our reality, the less relatable the whole experience tends to become. For example, George R.R. Martin spends quite a bit of time developing an enormous set of fully fleshed out, real-feeling human characters, relationships, political conflicts, etc. before showing us dragons and extreme magic (and dragons and magic still make only very occasional appearances). J.K. Rowling doesn’t begin the Harry Potter series with magical battles or ground it in magic but in dozens of characters that feel fully alive and relationships and conflicts that feel real (a lonely boy mistreated by stepparents). Similarly, Tolkien doesn’t begin The Lord of the Rings with Gandalf fighting the Balrog and passing through the center of Middle Earth but with Bilbo and Frodo and the hobbits, whose very relatable lives and connections draw us in and enable us to relate to, and care about, the fantasy that follows. Gene Wolfe, whose writing is more challenging and literary, can create an incredible feeling of magic, mystery, and oddity with only the smallest devices of fantasy or science fiction thanks to his prose and first-person narration. Susanna Clarke and Mervyn Peake (whose Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Gormenghast are top ten all-time fantasy) are other examples of fantasy writers who are great in part because of their brilliant characterization and their ability to ground fantasy (in Clarke's case, fantasy eventually involving rather amazing magic) in what feels like reality. In truth, the greatest strength of the best fantasy writers is their ability to present dozens of figures who feel more alive than the protagonists in bad fantasy.
Erikson, either intentionally or as a result of misunderstanding what makes the best fantasy work, unleashes a bizarre number of very extreme fantasy elements right from the beginning: multiple apparent god figures, mages of all kinds with an odd and complex system of magic involving "warrens" (which are also methods of transportation), multiple inhuman beings, one mage who has been transferred into a small puppet, a floating moon ruled by a mage lord (and peopled by some kind of crow who can live for hundreds of years), etc. I'm probably getting some of that wrong, but the point is: he's overloading us with tons of extreme magic and fantasy before he's established any human grounding to make this feel real or to make us care.
And unlike the best fantasy writers, he's not especially good at making his characters feel alive: two hundred pages into Gardens of the Moon, I mildly cared about Paran and Tattersail, but only mildly, and almost no one else felt like a real, living person. Martin, Rowling, or Clarke, who would know to focus on character and grounding in reality, could do more with an unimportant character who's going to be killed at the end of the chapter than Erikson can do with major characters in two hundred pages. Peake could make someone come to life (and remind us of people we’ve met or seen) in a few pages. Even Brandon Sanderson, who I think is far from the level of Martin/Rowling/Tolkien when it comes to characterization and dialogue, does at least have a strong ability to get readers to relate emotionally to his characters by providing access to their deepest feelings in a vivid, moving way. I cared much more about Kaladin in the early chapters of the first Stormlight Archive novel than I did about anyone in this.
This might be defensible if Erikson had Gene Wolfe's or Ursula Le Guin's literary style, artful prose, and psychological depth, but his writing is unremarkable. Not Terry Brooks level embarrassingly bad or Robert Jordan level mildly bad, but nothing special. I think, unfortunately, like Sanderson in some cases, Erikson seems to operate on the belief that the elaborate world-building and history are what make fantasy work. And unfortunately, some fantasy fans seem to buy into this idea, allowing Robert Jordan to spend tens of thousands of pages telling a mediocre story with uninteresting, paper-thin characters because the world of the story is vast and complex (even if literal people in it aren't). This is also evident in the way many fantasy readers lump Tolkien, Martin, and Jordan together—as if two of them weren't brilliant (one in telling a beautiful idealized story and the other in critiquing it) and one of them a hack.
My point is that Gardens of the Moon is (on the basis of the amount of it I could force myself to read) the case of an author who thinks the core of great fantasy is creating an elaborate and strange world rather than realizing that what matters most is one's ability to tell a compelling human story (with characters who feel fully alive and conflicts that engage us emotionally) in it.
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Steven Erikson CANNOT tell a story. He fundamentally fails at the key things a good storyteller must do.
The book starts with a foreword by the author in which he half apologises, half refuses to apologise for how badly written this book is. But there is no excuse good enough. It was rejected by so many publishers with good reason. It is atrocious.
The reader is dropped into the middle of a scene, with no exposition, no explanations, no character introductions. That itself might not be so egregious, if we later learn what is going on. But Erikson then repeats this technique for every scene for the rest of the book. Every time you start a new scene, you have no idea where it is taking place, who is in the scene, how they got there, even who is saying which item of dialogue can be confusing at times.
There is very little in the way of scene descriptions or character descriptions. Most of the book seems to be pointless dialogue between an unknown number of people. I have nothing against dialogue, but the dialogue is wooden and written as if we are mind readers. It's fair to say that I had no idea what anybody was talking about most of the time, or why they were even talking about it.
A lot of the time I couldn't even form a mental image of what was going on, because of the complete dearth of descriptions. When you don't know what someone looks like or what their past is or what their motivations are, it's very difficult to remember them from one scene to the next. In Gardens of the Moon you read a conversation about unknown things by unknown characters in an undescribed location. And then you do that repeatedly.
I did not get the impression that the characters say or do anything due to innate motivations or desires, because they are so devoid of personality. The only thing the characters remind me of is a 14 year old's D&D game. They are overpowered and make seemingly random decisions. I was constantly asking myself: have I missed something? The book reads as if you are missing key information, and you keep reading expecting it to be elucidated, but it never is.
The most important thing for a good novel is the characters. If the characters are interesting, intriguing, or if the reader cares about them, then we want to continue reading, because we want to find out what happens to them.
I couldn't tell you anything about the characters in Gardens of the Moon. Because I wasn't told anything about them. And most of them have terrible names that ruin the readability of the book.
The 10 book series seems to have a very fanatic following on the internet who are eager to claim that you have to read all 10 books and then reread them in order to finally appreciate this series. I'm sorry, that is a poor excuse for bad writing. It is the writer's job to tell a story. And Steven Erikson catastrophically failed.
Ignoring the temptation to bin the book, I somehow managed to read a quarter of it, trying my utmost to give him the benefit of the doubt, telling myself It'll get better. It doesn't. He spends too much time bouncing from one cryptic scene to the next (probably twiddling his fingers together like Mr Burns praising his own 'cleverness ') leaving you in a perpetual state of indifference as to the fate of his two dimensional characters.
I should have listened to my inner doubts. Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable experience not a perseverance.
It wasn't the endless incomprehensible battle scenes, or the unnecessarily overblown descriptions of anything and everything (he gets quite rapturous about rotten flesh), that did it for me. It was the fact that every-time a main character gets killed off, they somehow spring back to life. I don't consider this a spoiler since it happens right at the start and regularly thereafter. I quite like it when an author dispatches one of the main characters - It can really shake things up, your expectation for the rest of the story is shattered in an instant. But then, with this book - two chapters later, the character is right back in the thick of it and the story is plodding on just as before. It might be fine to do it once, but it becomes such a regular occurrence in this book that you start to expect it. It also winds me up when major leaps of plot (including repeated reanimation) are explained away as due to some previously unmentioned magical force. 'Because Magic' bleugh. It renders the rest of the plot fairly pointless. I like a clever plot.
There were loads of other things that I did not like about this book (you might have guessed that), but I have to admit I only read halfway. Perhaps the story was just about to change from the long hard uphill slog into something much more interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps I am missing out, but I really could not bring myself to read any more.
I liked Tool, he was the best. One of the stars is for him.
Other than that - just not my cup of tea.
Holds, warrens, ascendants, elder gods and so much more - it defies a normal imagination.
These books are awesome - get into deciding about the Tiiste, T'lan, Jaghut, mortals and many more - these books rock, read them. You won't regret it.