Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)


Genre giant Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is the first in a ten-book series that you will inevitably love and worship. (Or hate and resent.) (Or maybe just give up on before reaching the end of book one.)

The first chapter in the truly epic Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces a hugely diverse and seemingly endless cast of characters: mages and soldiers; humans and not-quite-humans; demon lords and talking ravens; gods and nobodies; heroes and villains and others occupying the grey space in between. There are a great many overlapping storylines – huge-scale campaigns, deadly assassin wars, magical battles, political manoeuvring, covert missions – and not all of them appear to fit together very well (at least at first).steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

Yes, Gardens of the Moon gives us a LOT to take in, and the first three hundred pages or so are enough to leave any first-time readers as lost and helpless as a puppet with its strings cut. In the prologue to the newer editions Erikson himself states that he refuses to spoon-feed his readers, and finds it insulting and patronising when other writers do the same. His decision to withhold important backstory and omit dreary exposition is a conscious and tactical choice, and he is fully aware that Gardens of the Moon is likely to leave readers floundering.

However, Erikson assumes that those of us who choose to read his work don’t mind floundering a little; don’t mind having to work things out for ourselves, and don’t mind waiting many hours and thousands of pages before the pieces finally begin to fit together. As someone who has read all ten books in this series I can unequivocally state that finally reaching the moment(s) when everything starts to make sense . . . makes ploughing through the confusion at the beginning so worthwhile.

The Malazan series as a whole contains enough ‘ohhhh, so that’s what that was about!’ moments that the rewards of reading well outweigh the challenges. That said, it’s only upon re-reading Gardens of the Moon and the rest that you really begin to appreciate the amount of planning and detail that Erikson has put into this series. There are so many tiny nuances that take on a double meaning, so much of the dialogue that becomes multi-layered, and so many little things that you didn’t notice the first time but are steeped in pathos now that you’re fully aware of the events to follow.

As a debut novel, Gardens of the Moon is insanely dense and ambitious. It’s also incredibly clever and well-executed; and while I’m not claiming that Gardens of the Moon is the best book I’ve ever read, it is the first book in the best series I’ve ever read. In my opinion Gardens of the Moon is actually the weakest instalment of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen, yet it’s still spectacular (and far superior to much of what’s on the shelves today).

If you haven’t read Gardens of the Moon, my advice to you is ‘read it, but have patience, and be prepared to read more in the series in order to fully appreciate it’. If you have already read it, then go ahead and re-read it right now. 

Either way, you can thank me later.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on August 10th 2014)


Blurb

The vast Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, its subject states bled dry by interminable warfare and clashes with Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, and the mysterious Tiste Andii. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet the Empress’ rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his cynical squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, sole surviving sorceress of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to heal the still living and mourn the many dead. The Empress has other ideas.

However, it would appear the Empire is not the only player in this great game. A more sinister, shadowbound force is poised to make its first move . . .

Review: Daniel Polansky, ‘Those Above’


As I’ve already talked about here, the Gemmell Award longlists are up and I’m reposting my reviews of the nominees I’ve read. (I’ve already done Joe Abercrombie (here), Mark Lawrence (here) and John Gwynne (here).) Next up it’s the author of the phenomenal Low Town trilogy: Daniel Polansky.

Those Above is the first instalment of Polansky’s epic fantasy duology The Empty Throne. Set in a world dominated by ‘Those Above’ – immortal four-fingered beings who are mentally and physically superior to the human race – the story introduces those who live beneath their eternal overlords in varying states of both poverty and privilege. Although somewhat slow to get going, Those Above does an admirable job of establishing both world and character, and of artfully weaving together a series of events to set the ball rolling for the inevitable conflict to come.
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Those Above
utilises the familiar style of having each chapter written in third person and from the point of view of a different character than the previous chapter. This can occasionally make the story lose impetus, as this style forces the reader to pause for breath at the end of each chapter before re-acclimatising themselves with the next character. Although used to good effect the third person narrative and multiple POVs do lack some of the distinctive voice and character of Polansky’s Low Town novels, which were written in first person. However, this style better suits the epic scope of his new series; and instead of following in the footsteps of George R. R. Martin and creating a sprawling cast of characters Polansky has instead wisely opted to focus on just four, in a similar style to Daniel Abraham’s fantastic Dagger and Coin series. In this way the author manages to keep the story tightly focused and avoid the disorientation usually caused by shifting POVs.

Like Abraham’s, Polansky’s four characters are diverse and interesting, and each has their own unique perspective on the upcoming conflict due to their different situations. There’s Bas, a veteran army commander whose name and past deeds are legendary; Eudokia, a powerful noble and religious leader who schemes from behind the scenes of her Roman-esque society; Thistle, an impoverished and angry slum boy forced into crime to feed his family; and Calla, the privileged Seneschal to Those Above, unaware that she lives in a gilded cage and harbouring a dangerous secret. Each of the four characters are entertaining to read about in their own way – I particularly enjoyed Eudokia’s chapters – and though none of them actually do very much it’s clear that all four of them will have a huge part to play in the events of the rest of the series.

To sum up, then: Those Above, while not exactly action-packed, does a great job of establishing character and setting events in motion for the rest of the series. It’s entertaining and clever, and best of all contains Polansky’s trademark dry humour, albeit subtly hidden beneath the surface. Polansky’s first foray into epic fantasy doesn’t disappoint, and I look forward to reading the conclusion to the duology, Those Below.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 18th January 2015.)


Blurb

They enslaved humanity three thousand years ago. Tall, strong, perfect, superhuman and near immortal they rule from their glittering palaces in the eternal city in the centre of the world. They are called Those Above by their subjects. They enforce their will with fire and sword.

Twenty five years ago mankind mustered an army and rose up against them, only to be slaughtered in a terrible battle. Hope died that day, but hatred survived. Whispers of another revolt are beginning to stir in the hearts of the oppressed: a woman, widowed in the war, who has dedicated her life to revenge; the general, the only man to ever defeat one of Those Above in single combat, summoned forth to raise a new legion; and a boy killer who rises from the gutter to lead an uprising in the capital.


Review: John Gwynne, ‘Ruin’


As I’ve already talked about here, the Gemmell Award longlists are up and I’m reposting my reviews of the nominees I’ve read. (I’ve already done Joe Abercrombie (here) and Mark Lawrence (here).) Next up is yet another deserving title from my five star club: ‘Ruin’ .
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It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that Gwynne really, really makes it work here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. Gwynne takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 1st August 2015.)


Blurb

The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing – Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair’s own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him – his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.