"Gardens of the Moon" is the first book in a proposed ten volume series titled "The Malazan Book of the Fallen". To call this an epic fantasy would not do justice to the potential scope of this book and series. Steven Erikson has most often been compared to George R.R. Martin ("A Song of Ice and Fire") and for good reason. Erikson is writing a long running series set in a medieval styled realm with a good deal of political talk mixed heavily with battle. The tone of the book is very dark and gritty, despite characters displaying good humor. This first volume is a bit daunting to begin because Erikson dumps the reader into the intrigue of his world with very little warning or exposition. What we know from the start is that there is a woman seeking to overthrow the Emperor of the Malazan Empire, many underhanded dealings regarding the missions given the mage soldiers, a young boy named Ganoes Paran who wants to be a soldier, and a hardened veteran who is angering this woman who is already claiming to be Empress. But this is just the exposition given in a short prologue. The meat of the novel begins several years later.
Several years later Paran is a captain in the Malazan Army. He is assigned to lead the legendary Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners are being sent on every nasty mission the Empress Laseen can come up with, mostly in the hopes of the Bridgeburners being destroyed by attrition. Her problem with the Bridgeburners is that they are a reminder of the deposed Emperor and of the old battlefield glories of Malazan. They are a beacon to any who may consider revolt against the Empress. But Laseen's reach and ambition is far beyond getting rid of the Bridgeburners. She has turned her eyes to the city of Darujhistan. Darujhistan is one of the largest cities in the world, but while Laseen has turned her eyes to that city Malazan also faces a threat from a non-human race called the Tiste Andii and their magic. There is also another sub-plot regarding a young girl who has her soul taken and been turned into a ruthless killer, and another storyline featuring several different characters in Darujhistan.
Confused yet? This is only the tip of the iceberg, but to go into greater detail may spoil some of the surprises found in "Gardens of the Moon". It is also a book that is very difficult to adequately describe in a relatively short space. The viewpoint that Erikson gives the reader is that of the common soldiers and mages and peasants. We seldom get to see things through the eyes of those who hold real power. Laseen is never given a viewpoint, nor are the nobles or many commanding officers of any real rank. But this is where the sense of discovery comes in. As far as I can tell, Steven Erikson has built up a very rich world but he only gives us bits and pieces of what is really going on. With each character and with each chapter we get a little bit more of the overall story and more often than not what we think is going on is only a small piece of the whole, and since this is Book One, what we learn by the end is still only a small piece of an even greater whole.
While some time is spent trying to figure out who these characters are and how they relate to each other and the world, this is fascinating fantasy novel and one of the best opening novels to a series in some time. It compares well to "A Game of Thrones" except that it is a bit more confusing from the start. I understand that this series starts to come together a bit more in the next two books, and that may be a high price to pay for some readers who want to fully understand what is going on early, but I feel that the time invested in reading this book (and ultimately the series) is going to be worth it. Because the US publishing of this series is behind that of the UK, we are only just getting Book 4 where the UK is already on 6 and waiting for 7 (maybe 8), which means that we can expect to see each subsequent volume in a reasonable amount of time (unlike George Martin).
The bottom line for this book is that it is well worth the time spent reading it and it marks the beginning of what may be one of the best fantasy series ever written. I have read elsewhere that each subsequent book is better than the one before it. If that is the case, and this book is already quite good, it bodes well for the future of this series. While a 10 Book series may seem daunting, know that Erikson is almost done and he has a specific plan on how to finish it and seems to be churning out high quality books at a fairly good clip. If you like the fantasy of George Martin then this is certainly one to check out.