With the final entry in the Malazan Book of the Fallen saga (The Crippled God) due in just a few short weeks, I wanted to step outside my usual genre of reviews and celebrate the book that began it all - Gardens of the Moon. Like I said, it doesn't really fit in with my 'alternative' mandate (although there are some homoerotic elements, hints of lesbian, and a few bold butches later on in the saga), but I love it . . . and, dammit, I'm gonna take a few moments to sing its praises!
I originally picked up Gardens of the Moon entirely on a whim, having no idea what to expect. It was a bit more militaristic than I generally like my fantasy, which is probably why it took me so many attempts to finally get into it. The characters were interesting, and the mythology definitely captured my interest, but I found it hard to grasp where the story was ultimately going.
That, as it turns out, is precisely what I've come to love about the saga - it's not safe, predictable, or structured in your typical epic fantasy arc. There's no single hero to follow, no epic quest to pursue, and no confrontation with the 'big bad' to look forward to. There are important recurring characters, some of whom certainly would qualify as the hero in a less ambitious saga, but they can disappear for books at a time. Nobody and nothing is safe in Erikson's world - if it suits the natural progression of the storyline, beloved characters will die, civilizations will crash, and sometimes evil will win out, just because that's the way the world works.
The focus here is on the front lines and in the trenches - its with the soldiers, the renegade armies, and the barbarian warriors. Among the main characters in this first volume is an ex-assassin, a damaged wizard, a fallen dark priest, and a young recruit possessed by a dark god. Practically, they are admirable characters (even if their morality is questionable), but they certainly are not the idealized, perfect, fairy tale heroes many readers would expect.
Outside this band of mercenaries, scant attention is paid to the likes of royal intrigues, family crises, romantic sub-plots, and political machinations that pad the pages of so much epic fantasy. Don't get me wrong, I love a complex political sub-plot, and I absolutely swoon over a good romance, but sometimes I just like it gritty and real. With a dying empire, a surging rebellion, and a holy war brewing off-stage, there's simply no need for extraneous plot details in the saga. That's not to say this is entirely a dark and depressing saga - not at all. There are some genuine moments of humour, and some beautiful moments of both tragedy and hope that are all the more poignant for the overall context in which they occur.
Without a single hero or plotline to follow, the saga (as a whole) has a much broader scope and impact than I could have possibly expected. There has literally NOT been a bad book, and there's never been a book that hasn't surprised me and amazed me in some way. This is a saga that encompasses thousands of years, dozens of warrens (overlapping, parallel, magical worlds), and a multitude of races. It's truly a shame that Erikson doesn't get the recognition he deserves, but I think part of that is because he writes difficult, literary fantasy - you really need to pay attention and invest a bit of yourself in the books to make them work.
Although it's really only touched on here, and isn't thoroughly explored until later in the series, there is a very rich magical/mythological element to the saga, complete with ascendant gods, immortal races, and magical warrens. For me, that's where Erikson rises head and shoulders above his peers. It's the supernatural elements that give the novels their depth, even if the gods are as down and dirty as the rogues and soldiers that struggle against them. There's no sense of childish wonder and delight here. Instead, Erikson invokes a sense of awe and fear with his mythology, and that's entirely as it should be.
If you're a fan of epic fantasy, have some patience for a different approach to the genre, and don't mind shades of moral grey (as opposed to absolute shades of white/black, good/evil), please give Erikson a chance. I daresay he will surprise you.