I'm not going to try to summarize this book. It's been done elsewhere enough times, and I admit I'm not brave enough to try to reinvent that wheel. I read this as part of a group/buddy read; a friend had sent me a copy, and I had heard it very, very highly recommended.
It's something, all right.
Something that usually makes a fantasy or historical novel a wall-banger for me is the use of "OK" or "okay". Misuse, I should say. Believe it or not, I can be very tolerant of a lot of nonsense in a book; I (probably) won't jump all over a writer because he used, say, the word "shrapnel" or "sideburns" or some other anachronism in a medieval fantasy novel - they're words which say what you want them to say and take a calisthenics routing to avoid. I'll flinch, but I'll live and let the book live, if the rest makes it worth forgiving. But "OK" is … not ok. There are lots of alternatives to "ok" - there's no real reason to use it except laziness; to me it demonstrates a signal lack of care about the language and where it comes from. I've permanently closed books because a medieval type said "ok".
Steven Erikson uses "OK" in Gardens of the Moon. Repeatedly.
I was hanging by a thread with the book; others who had read it kept saying "Stick with it! Don't give up! It's worth it!" And my comment while in the midst of it was that I enjoyed it while I was actually reading it, but had to push myself to actually pick it up and open to my bookmark and delve back into it. I actually considered using the "OK" (there were several, actually) as my excuse to quit, but I gritted my teeth and decided that – just this once – I would overlook it as … a translation quirk. Whatever the characters were saying in their native tongues was best translated as "OK". It's a flaw. But I have to admit, it's one of few real flaws I can think of.
Which doesn't mean I loved this book, or the writing of it. Another note I made: "I've been reading through one group's threads on Gardens of the Moon, and while I think it's wonderful that Erikson inspires so much fierce loyalty (which I've seen elsewhere too), I also find it deeply off-putting to read 'study the character lists! Read every word carefully! Study the poems and quotes at the beginnings of chapters! Pay attention to everything!' I do try to read with attention, but to me it's not a mark of a good writer that all useful understanding of a book hinges on a study of every damn word."
I also found it a bit startling how many people told me (when I was mired deep in the middle and a bit afraid that I'd never reach the end) "it will really grab you around page 350!" I can only, again, admire the ferocity of loyalty that can with a straight face say a book will begin to truly claim a reader's attention several pages after a huge percentage of books have concluded. Oddly, it was true. It took me days to get past one middle page (I remember it because it had a smudge on it), and from there to the end it seemed to take less than half the time to read, possibly because I was actually returning to the book more often and more willingly.
Here's the thing. I can't appreciate a writer who does not feel the least inclination to make his book less than hard work for the reader. I don't appreciate a book which should come with its own Princeton Review study guide. I don't need my hand held through a book; I loathe infodump and I don't mind being dropped in media res; but there's a difference between avoiding infodump and … just not bothering to explain anything. It is, apparently, a book which rewards rereading, which is never a bad thing in my world. However, I usually do prefer a book which makes the first read enjoyable too…
Characters with several, occasionally rotating names I can deal with; I read history and historical novels too. Sorry and Lorn got nothin' on Francis Crawford of Lymond. But … huge flying bug-steeds? Warrens? Blue people? Seriously – Warrens? Acorns? Flying monkeys?? Death is negotiable; life is often pretty worthless; loyalty is never to be counted on …
I don't appreciate a book, or rather a writer, almost intentionally setting out to allow me to feel stupid. I believe Jonathan Franzen is the source for the quote "The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator". It's something I'd like set out in nice large calligraphy and sent, framed, to Steven Erikson. By the end of Gardens of the Moon I did not feel like a spectator – I was more involved than that. I'd worked harder than that. I'd been dragged all over the planet, up hill and down barrow and through Warren. But I certainly did not feel like the author's friend, or the book's; of the three options in the quote for adjectives, I'll plump for "adversarial". I fought my way through the book. We reached a détente somewhere in the 300's, and an uneasy peace by the end. This peace was threatened by the introduction of a (to me, maybe not paying enough attention) huge foe somewhere around page 600; I was so glazed over by then, though, that I just went with it.
Was it all worth it? I ... think so. I can't commit myself more strongly than that. It was, once I found it, a compelling story. There were some characters that I came to truly enjoy – or loathe, in a good way – and want more of. I've compared writing to juggling spaghetti – loose strands flopping all over the place and tangling and getting where they shouldn't, and altogether almost impossible to contain; I think reading Gardens of the Moon was also a bit like juggling spaghetti. I'm not encouraged by reading comments here and there about how subsequent books in the series are harder to get into.