Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (a review)
Gardens of the Moon starts off much like Dune and the Black Company, in that you are literally thrown into the middle of this fully realized world, replete with an ancient but still living prehistory (in the form of the T'lan Imass and the Jaghut), a powerful but aloof alien species (in the form of the Tiste Andii), and a host of elder gods who are anything but passive and who routinely interfere and direct the lives of the general populace.
I remember when i was a teenager and I had heard of a movie called Dune which was apparently based upon a best-selling novel. The premise intrigued me to the point where I read the book and then immediately saw the movie by David Lynch. I did not see the movie alone. I took my cousin with me. My female cousin who knew nothing of sci-fi or fantasy and who probably was looking for a movie like Gremlins or Ghostbusters, rather than a strange sci-fantasy like Dune. And the movie was incredibly strange. If i had not read the book…i don't think even I would have been able to pick up on all of the subtle nuances and grand scope of things without having read the book first. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my poor cousin, who was so confused and befuddled afterwards that all she could do was ask "What is the 'water of life'? and why did he keep saying 'the sleeper has awakened'?"
I recount this story only to illustrate a potential problem point: readers who are looking for the standard/typical mode of fantasy storytelling which have become so predictable that many times we're not looking for diversity in narrative, but rather looking at what type of new "power" is being contested or won. No, Gardens of the Moon will be as baffling and mysterious and potentially frustrating for many readers who are looking for something straightforward and simple to explain. Such is not the case with this series. Steven Erikson has created a complex and living breathing world and populated with various races and cultures and countries and thrown them into this story.
And what is the story? It's hard to say really. There are so many narrative plot points. But I think the fundamental story is that something happened thousands of years before, something so terrible and cataclysmic that the repercussions of the event have reverberated throughout history, affecting the elder races and have now culminated into a series of devastating and world-ending consequences that the modern races and their current use of magic must now contend with in the here and now.
I having been reading this series for the past few years now, and am on the last few novels. These books are not easy to read, but they yield so much pleasure in terms of epic storytelling and the range of characters.
I will point out two things that you may need to know about the entire series:
First, Steven Erikson believes that all characters, big and small, matter. You might agree with that viewpoint, but if you think about what that really means, it means that each and every little character gets their share of the page, meaning what would normally be a 400 page book could turn into a 1,000 page book because the lives and dreams of each and every character is detailed and told. Hence the massive length of most of Erikson's books.
Second, Steven Erikson's prose style is almost as complex and flowery as his story and settings. This prose is as purple as purple can get, waxing poetically and philosophically in an abundance of artfully wrought tangents.
But with that said, these books are marvelous. And if you can get through the first book, as dense and complex as it is, then you will be rewarded by the 2nd and 3rd books, Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, which are about as good as anything i've ever read. The book Deadhouse Gates will break your heart with its grueling story about Coltaine's Chain of Dogs. And Memories of Ice will astound you in its scope and power; it is perhaps Erikson's one Masterpiece, though some may argue that the entire series is what constitutes his masterwork. but if one were to give the word masterpiece to any one of his novels, it would probably have to be Memories of Ice.
But in order to get there, you have to go through Gardens of the Moon, which is not his best work, but the beginning of his greatest work.