Tolkien Gestures Book 17: Gardens of the Moon

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we start to really get to grips with “modern” fantasy with the first book from the 21st century!


I was reminded, about half-way though Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon about an odd conversation i had several years ago, about a role-playing game i was then running. This game had been going on for several years, and was approaching one of the big campaign climaxes, which i was rather pleased with myself over. A (non-playing) freind asked me about it and i proceeded to unload onto him the current plot synoposis, which of course made no sense whatsoever and was pretty far removed from the “core” idea of the game to start with. That glazed look in his eye, I now know how he feels.

Gardens of the Moon starts with an introduction by the author sort of preemtively defending his “take no prisoners” approach to setting out his world and telling his story. Keep Up! he seems to say, or Sod Off. I really admire this, actually; too many books in a lot of genres spend too much time explaining pointless stuff that should just work, and coming from and SF-fan background, 10 pages of “this is how my stardrive works, good innit” got old a long time ago. But thats not really the books problem.

The books problem is complexity.

Complex stories are good. I like complex stories. Complex worlds are good, expecially imaginary ones, as they bring depth to characters and shade to situations. But Erikson is going for complexity by sheer, unrelenting volume and it makes an otherwise enjoyable book in a interesting setting really hard going. Every character, out of a pretty large cast, has his own story going on. some tie in, some go nowhere, some are clearly, in the way of Fantasy Books, are just there so that in book 14 they can suddenly be relevant. A lot of characters are magic users, but each magic user uses a different sort of magic, which a different name and seemingly different rules. Non-magic characters either come with bonus-secret backgrounds or acquire them pretty quickly after being introduced. Theres at least three, maybe four, ancient races bodding about mentioned in visions, flashbacks and clawing back to life. some characters are all of the above.

By about halfway through the book I was wishing I had started to take notes.

Its just so unrelentingly vast it actually detracts from the story, which isn’t bad, in fairness. Several of the core plotlines start disperate and interweave nicely, and the shifting alliances of convience and survival are compelling and keep moving along pretty well. There is a moment towards the end when the whole book seems about to converge on a proper, focused climax and then just sort of doesn’t, as the characters break up again to resolve their stories (or not, in several cases) in a blaze of lots more deep background erupting up around the story. Literally, in a couple of cases.

So in the end i’m slightly conflicted. Theres a lot to like; it’s well written, good characters, a nice background that manges to include a lot of fantasy tropes without then ever feeling as old as they are, and an interesting series of plots. But it’s also really…inelegantly…presented, like Erikson is too keen to show his working for extra credit, and a somewhat pathological need for so many of the characters to be extra special and unique. A bit like with A Game of Thrones I sort of want to read more but I’m not sure I want to commit to that sort of mental effort required to keep up.

So actually, I think I would recommend this as good, modern fantasy, but with the huge caveat that some sort of note taking would probably help you follow it…

Next up: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. Again, still reading, so probably a fortnight for the next review.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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