It's rare for me to go back and re-evaluate a title I've already reviewed. I've only done it once before now, with Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, a book that just missed me on the first attempt but hit me right between the eyes on the second. And I don't expect I'll feel the urge to do it any more than a handful of times in future.
It isn't a rare occurence because I'm inordinately smug in my opinions or anything (he said smugly). In the case of the Reynolds novel, and now this one, a re-evaluation comes along because my first reading of the book left me with nagging doubts. (Also, I felt I needed lots of memory-refreshing in order to tackle later volumes in the series.) Most books I dislike are sufficiently unambiguous in their crapitude that I feel confident in moving on with my life and my reading schedule. But there are those rare instances, where either I simply wasn't in the right place in my mind to be receptive to the work in the way it was meant to be received, or where appreciation of a book only comes after you've spent a lot of time digesting it. This happens all the time in criticism of all the arts. The history of cinema is strewn with movies that bombed upon their initial release, only to be hailed as classics in after years. Blade Runner is an exemplar.
I'm not prepared to hail Gardens of the Moon as a classic. But I am willing to say I was full of shit when, in 2004, I wrote it was "a meticulously crafted sedative that will put out your lights faster than a double lungful of nitrous oxide." I do think there are a lot of readers who will still think that, and I am sympathetic to the view. (I recently saw two copies of Gardens at a local used bookstore, and both previous owners had given up around page 200, as indicated by the thumb-dirt that always comes off on the trim edge.) But whereas I saw Gardens as being little more than another bloated, confusing and overextended fantasy the first time through, I now have more respect for the work as an honest and ambitious if flawed attempt at flaunting the rules of epic mythmaking. It reads like the work of an incipient master still working towards his masterpiece. Steven Erikson knows where he wants to go, but he still has to figure out how to draw a balance between complexity in world-building and clarity in storytelling.
In Gardens, Erikson's greatest blessings are also his curses. He overreaches, to be sure. But one does not create myths by remaining prosaic and earthbound. The world-building here is genuinely jaw-dropping. One gets the impression Erikson spent decades of his life laying the groundwork for this series. Certainly he has brought his experience as a professional anthropologist and archaeologist to bear. The Malaz Empire, the continent of Genabackis and its Free Cities, are rendered with a remarkable sense of place. They feel real.
Gardens is demanding work. For the casual reader it may prove inaccessibly so. Erikson, thankfully, never infodumps, but there's still a lot of information to take in. A lot. Of information. To take in. Among Erikson's biggest devoteés, the word "complexity" pops up as a high accolade. The level of sheer data being thrust at you is daunting. Gardens' biggest flaw as a novel is that, for much of its first half, Erikson is so focused on conveying information that he makes it hard for the reader to connect with the story and its characters on the visceral, emotional level that makes for the best epic fantasy (think GRRM, of course). You're having to spend so much mental energy keeping track of who's who, who's on what side (many players are on more than one), what those strange gods are up to, what the hell just happened, and why, that you'll have little left to let yourself just get swept up and away. After two readings, there are still a couple of vexing plot points about which I'm hazy.
For such a sprawling work, to attempt a synopsis is the kind of task that can make your eyes glaze over. Suffice it to say that this is a book to be read attentively, and that there is much you will appreciate and much you'll find bewildering. The gist is this: the Malazan Empire, under the Empress Laseen, has been warring on the neighboring continent of Genabackis for 12 years. It's going badly, as Genabackis has enlisted the aid of an Elder Race called the Tiste Andii, who inhabit an airborne, floating mountain (!) called Moon's Spawn, ruled by a mage of extraordinary power named Anomander Rake. Moreover, the paranoid Laseen is busy trying to purge her own ranks of anyone she suspects loyal to the late emperor, especially his cadre of elite fighters, the Bridgeburners.
Enter the gods. Ammanas and his companion The Rope, from the Warren of Shadow, decide to weigh events against Laseen. They slaughter entire Malaz cavalry with their giant hounds. The Rope possesses a simple fisherman's daughter and turns her into a ruthless assassin who enlists with the Bridgeburners under the name Sorry. Following an immense battle at the city of Pale, nearly all the Bridgeburners and most of the Malaz mages are wiped out, not only by Rake's counterattack, but by treachery. A newbie captain from the hated ranks of the nobility, Ganoes Paran, is sent by Laseen to take command of the remaining Bridgeburners with an eye to ferreting out the mysterious, Shadow-led assassin. Meanwhile, Laseen has sent her right-hand woman, Adjunct Lorn, on a mission to discover the mythical burial place of Raest, an ancient warlord of the extinct Jaghut race. If this being can be revived, the lunatic plan is to draw out Rake, the only one whose magical power could possibly defeat it. Rake would then be sufficiently weakened that he could be dealt with once and for all, depriving Genabackis of its strongest defender.
Darujhistan is the last remaining Free City on Genabackis. It's the jewel in the crown, a city of wealth and splendor. Laseen wants it, and she wants it intact. Darujhistan is ostensibly led by a council of bickering nobles. But the real power lies with the alchemist Baruk and his secretive T'orrud Cabal. Some council members want a resolution declaring neutrality, effectively handing the city to the Empire. Lorn sends the remaining Bridgeburners under the command of veteran sergeant Whiskeyjack on a mission, coincidentally designed to get them killed in the process, to cut a deal with the city's assassins' guild to take out council members opposed to the resolution. Rake responds by sending his Tiste Andii to eliminate all the city's assassins. But another divine player has entered the fray. Oponn, the twin gods of Chance, have set their coin to spinning, and have chosen an unassuming, simple young thief named Crokus. It appears that events will hinge upon Crokus, and as he finds himself surrounded by people who both want to kill and protect him, he has no idea exactly what is expected of him.
Not all of this is easy to follow. (I'm still in a fog about a subplot involving an insane mage named Hairlock.) And there's one flub in plot logic (involving Raest) that should have been caught. But it becomes clearer and more compelling the more you develop interest in the characters. That the book is more of a chore than any entertainment ought to be is, of course, a liability. But that Erikson could attempt a plot so intricate and labyrinthine for his debut novel and have it work more often than not is enough to earn him a solid A for effort. I can forgive first-novel failings if I see a writer eschewing simple formula and really breaking a sweat to create something daring, original and challenging.
A huge criticism I had in my original review was that the complexity of the plot got in the way of letting me identify with and feel for any of the characters. I never felt I had a true hero among the large dramatis personae to root for. Upon second reading, I found the characters more well-drawn than I originally gave Erikson credit for. But it's true that they do have to fight for your sympathies against the sheer volume of story you're being asked to absorb. It isn't until the book's second half that their humanity begins to shine through.
The point I think I missed in my first reading was that Erikson's intent was not to people his story with any of the traditional concepts of hero or villain. The reason it doesn't seem like there's anyone to cheer on is because Erikson is trying to tell us heroes aren't bred for the reasons heroic stories tell us they are. Erikson's world isn't waiting to be saved from any convenient, one-size-fits-all embodiment of evil by a valiant Frodo or stalwart Aragorn. His characters are embroiled in a war without end, and their heroism only comes when they are forced into choices. Will they let themselves be the puppets of indifferent empires and whimsical gods, or will they take the reins of their own destinies? This is the particular inner struggle of Paran and Lorn. Is who they were taught to be who they really are? Is what they were fighting for just? If not, can they walk away, or turn the tide?
Steven Erikson is not a writer for every fantasy fan. He's probably not a writer for most of them. Despite the tireless efforts of Tor, Gardens sold so weakly upon its initial hardcover run that Barnes & Noble was offering it for half-cover barely five months after its release. But Erikson has, in the end, gone on to become a significant cult writer. He has built a fiercely loyal fan base (few of whom think nice thoughts about this website) who meticulously pore over every detail of every book, revelling in the endless layers, the remarkable texture of the Malazan world.
That seems as it should be. This is not mass entertainment. Its audience is specialized. During a recent trip to a gaming store I was made aware of the existence of the kinds of wargames that the really, really, really hardcore gamers play. These are the ones where you command real-life armies (say, Napoleon's or Lee's) and fight campaigns that are meant to be faithful recreations of the real thing. One such game I saw was titled The War in Europe. It retailed for $250.00 and its objective was nothing less than to let players refight the entire first World War. Apparently this game can go on for years, with much more obsessive-compulsive attention to detail than most RPG's. It occurs to me that the people who enjoy these games might make up the audience who would take to The Malazan Book of the Fallen. That doesn't mean that you won't find plenty to admire in Erikson's work as well. But sometimes you appreciate something more if it comes with a little effort. It's the hard-fought victories one remembers.