Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
The already vast Malazan empire is in an expansionist mood although discontent simmers within the ranks of the armed forces . Powerful wizards on both sides clash with arcane sorceries leading to huge loss of life. Only two free cities hold out against the oppression of the empress and the air is thick with magic, vile treachery, and the unsubtle touch of the gods themselves.
Gardens of the Moon is a complicated book, there are a lot of overlapping stories going on and many of the characters are secretly not-what-they-seem so it can be hard to keep track of who is who. The incredibly silly names do not help matters; along the way the reader will meet High Fist Dujek, Anomander Rake (Lord of Moon's Spawn), Sergeant Whiskeyjack, mage Tattersail, love interest Challice D'Arle, and elder god K'rul - none of whom are really that interesting. It is this sort of thing that gives fantasy a bad namecould be worse though.
On the other hand the setting is pretty great. There is whole backstory of the empire lurking under the plot not to mention a very unique system of magic, which is important since half the characters seem to have some sort of magical power. Also, unlike a lot of fantasy, there are plenty of females to mix things up and less of the standard casual racism. This strikes me as a tad unrealistic but it is a refreshing change of pace.
The novel's biggest flaw is the dialog. Gardens of the Moon is a dialog-heavy tale but almost all the characters speak with the same (very modern sounding) voice, using the same flat tone whether they are addressing a lover, a demon or a thief in a back alley. Even worse, all the named characters tend to talk only to each other, as if the novel was a cheap TV show that can't afford to spend money on extras that speak. Much of the story is supposed to take place in a teeming city, but it feels deserted and most scenes take place in one of a handful of locations.
I am sick of books that will not end properly to encourage you to buy the next one so I was happily surprised to find the Gardens of the Moon comes to a pretty satisfying ending for a book that spawned a bunch of sequels. I struggled through GotM because a friend reckons that the first of these sequels, Deadhouse Gates, is one of the best fantasy novels he has read. This might be a low bar, but I am reading it now. Deadhouse Gates does seem like an improvement but I am reserving judgement until I reach the end. UPDATE: reviewed here.
As for Gardens of the Moon, I cannot recommend it unless you really like this sort of thing.