"Now these ashes have grown cold, we open the old book.
These oil-stained pages recount the tales of the Fallen,
a frayed empire, words without warmth. The hearth
has ebbed, its gleam and life's sparks are but memories
against dimming eyes - what cast my mind, what hue my
thoughts as I open the Book of the Fallen,
and breathe deep the scent of history?
Listen, then, to these words carried on that breath.
These tales are the tales of us all, again yet again.
We are history relived and that is all, without end that is all."
Gardens of the Moon is the opening novel in Steven Erikson's 10-volume fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. The book is set for the most part on the continent of Genabackis, where the Onearm's Host, a Malazan army led by High Fist Dujek Onearm, wages war of conquest against the city state of Pale, planning to advance next towards the gem of Genabackis, Darujhistan. The story recounts the fall of Pale and the efforts of the splinter group sent to Darujhistan to undermine the defences of the city, as well as the daily life and opposition of the Malazans posed by some important characters of Darujhistan nobility and low-life alike. Another important part is played by the imperial inner politics, the aim of which is to weaken those loyal to the old Emperor and to install the current Empress' trusted officials in positions of power. Apart from these all there are the mysterious Tiste Andii, who have taken upon themselves to oppose the advance of the Malazan conquest, though they themselves are without a land to call their own; as well as machinations of two newly instated gods among the pantheons, who possess a strange hatred towards the Empire and, in most part, Empress Laseen.
The prologue of the novel seems at first glance a simple premonition of things to come - a young boy, dreaming of becoming a soldier, is standing on the battlement of Mock's Hold, the keep on Malaz Island where it all supposedly began for the Malazan empire: "once capital to the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist's holding" (p 3). He is staring out to the sea and is soon joined by two veterans of the war - identified by their crest as Bridgeburners, who were the old Emperor's élite soldiers. These three are soon joined by a woman who exchanges words with older of the men - these are remarked upon by the young Ganoes Paran with awe, as he can recognize them as the most influential people in the whole Empire, after the Emperor Kellanved and his right hand, Dancer themselves. The words they exchange now feel meaningless to the reader, but after getting acquainted with the backstory of it all, as it were, it becomes clear that at this time the Emperor and his companion have already disappeared and the throne stands empty. It is later explained, though the reader will know nothing of this in a long, long while, that there were two candidates people whose claim of the throne people were likely to support, and it is these characters that join Ganoes Paran on the battlement of Mock's Hold, which makes this scene a much more powerful opening for the novel in retrospect.
'One day I'll be a soldier,' Ganoes said.
The man grunted. ' Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking up the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.'
'The world,' Ganoes said, 'doesn't need another wine-merchant.'
Beginning of Book One takes the reader on the coast of the Malazan conquered mainland, to a small fisher village that is massacred by two mysterious figures commanding huge, black hounds. This scene is then viewed by the now-grown-up Ganoes Paran, a corporal of Malazan army, who catches the eye of the Adjunct Lorn, aide to the Empress Laseen. Most things set in motion within this scene unravel only much later in the book, as the main point of Book One involves the Genabackan campaign. The victory at Pale is devastating to Onearm's Host, killing of soldiers both as tunnels dug below the city wall collapse as well as collateral damage when the army's mages take on the Lord of Tiste Andii, who has moved their flying fortress to stand guard over the city of Pale. Eventually though the city falls and in the course of the battle the reader is introduced to the main characters of half the novel: Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his Bridgeburners; Corporal Kalam, the squad mage Quick Ben, healer Mallet, the sappers Fiddler and Hedge as well as their new recruit, a female assassin Sorry. Other important characters are some of the high ranking mages with the Host, including the Imperial High Mage Tayschrenn, as well as high mages Tattersail and Hairlock. Also arriving after the fall of the city is the newly promoted Captain Paran, who comes with orders to take command of the Bridgeburners. It is to be noted that the series has lots of characters, most of whom are introduced in one book and are given a much more important role in another - this is true of both the High Mage Tayschrenn, who in Gardens of the Moon is introduced rather one-sidedly, as of Captain Paran's escort, Toc the Younger, who is both a soldier of the Host and a Claw, an imperial assassin and spy.
After the victory at Pale, the command begins to plan the assault to Darujhistan, with schemes and planning occurring also on a lower level - the Bridgeburners are afraid of the Empire's plans for them and try to convince their commander of it, while making plans to prevent or at least retaliate against it at the same time - this plot is mainly carried on by the mage Quick Ben and his friend Kalam, as well as the crude and unruly mage Hairlock who also has schemes of his own. Tattersail is pulled into these machinations both through Hairlock and Quick Ben, as well as through Captain Paran, whom she watches over as he miraculously heals after an assassination attempt. Captain Paran fails to take command of the Bridgeburners, as he is still recovering while the company is moved on to Darujhistan and joins them in the blue city afterwards.
Meanwhile, in the city of Darujhistan, a young thief has fallen in love with a noble's daughter. Crokus Younghand goes about his daily life and battles his emotions and aspirations - sharing his burden with his friends at Phoenix Inn: Kruppe, a master thief and blatherer, assassin Rallick Nom, dilettante Murillio and a drunkard ex-councilman Coll. They all work for a master Baruk, an alchemist in the city and a member of a secret council of mages, who more or less rule the city in the shadows. After the fall of Pale, Baruk is approached by an interested party offering his assistance against the oncoming Malazans; Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon's Spawn and the Tiste Andii. At this time the city has already been infiltrated by the Bridgeburners, who attempt to contact the local assassins as well as plant explosives at all important junctions of the city. And naturally, also portrayed are the city's petty politics, the fights over council seats and balls where alliances are decided and decimated.
Removed but still connected to all this are Adjunct Lorn and the T'lan Imass names Onos T'oolan, who travel Genabackis in search of something covered in dust and myth and have philosophical discussions over the state of war, conquest and the Empire along the way. Further players include Oponn, the twin gods of luck and chance; the lords of the Shadow realm; K'rul, an elder god who is accidentally awakened by Rallick Nom bleeding on his shrine long since in disuse; and many more named characters, who play smaller, but no less important roles in the lives of the individual characters. Some simple incidents that in the Gardens of the Moon are easily dismissible in the face of the greater events resurface in the later novels as something far more important - some examples of such are the death of Nightchill, the madness of Hairlock, the demise of Tattersail and the arrival of the Crimson Guard, to name a few.
The novel is filled with so much intricate detail that it feels more realistic than reality itself - the world has been created as a background for a roleplaying game campaign utilizing GURPS, the Generic Universal RolePlaying System - to those who are familiar with it, it is no surprise then how each individual battle is described by every second that passes and how each character seems to have so much more under their surface than meets the eye. To those unfamiliar with it, GURPS is a system that strives to describe everything through mechanics that can be written down on paper and tries to model reality as much as possible - the turns in a fight take exactly one second each, for instance.
The novel can be quite overwhelming, if one just stops to really think of everything - it is the appreciation of the links, the details and the growth of the characters that really brings Gardens of the Moon home to me as a reader. The novel is captivating also in the sense that it describes very well the hopes and fears, actions and sometimes also inaction of its characters; it is the characters who are in the focus of the story and the story unrolls not on its own accord, but at the pace of the characters' development. Also, I'm a huge fan of the single character, living his or her simple life, becoming something great through choice, actions or chance - the more epic a character or the events get, the better. It is, in my opinion, this evolving the reader is able to see that makes you root for the imagined character, or for the thing they hold dear in their hearts. Erikson's work is defined by the way it describes everything through the eyes of its characters, so that the actual narrator stays hidden for the most part and the reader can sometimes be led astray by characters' view of things. Also to a person in love with the English language, the language Erikson uses is superb in complexity, managing to put words in mouths of the characters in such a way that makes each of them an individual in their own right, as well as give a lovely account of the environs, while not overplaying the role of landscape as such as some fantasy novels tend to do. (Also, a big part of the environs in the novels are battlefields, so their description might not be as lovely as gritty and disgusting. But even that doesn't generally leave a bad taste in your mouth.)
However, as much as I rant about Gardens of the Moon of being part of a bigger whole and establishing so many links to later novels in the series, it is also a complete novel in its own right. The bigger story archs aside, the story the novel sets out to unfold reaches its turning point and ending and most of the matters dealt with are resolved one way or another, while naturally paving way for the stories to continue in the later instalments of the series. The next book, Deadhouse Gates, takes the reader in a new direction entirely, maintaining only four characters from Gardens of the Moon: Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar/Sorry, who travel back to the heart of Malazan Empire by the way of Seven Cities continent, the bloodiest conquest of the Empire to date. The story of Gardens of the Moon is continued from where it was left in the third book, Memories of Ice, that sees the abandoning of the Genabackan campaign and engaging of a foe unimaginable by Empire and city states alike: the Pannion Dominion.