I haven't read a pulp fantasy novel in years, but I decided to take your recommendation. I have a shiny new copy of Gardens of the Moon right here, and plan on giving it a shot.
A lot of people find about a hundred-page hump to get over before they internalize the rhythm of the first book. I myself took three running tries at the book before I got over it. I know it's a lot to ask, but the payoff is enormous.
Well, it's two weeks later, and I'm reading the first chapter of Deadhouse Gates.
Gardens was a bit tough at the beginning, but I made it over that hump on the first try. It is a little rough and sprawling, but I hear that Erikson's craft matures as the series progresses. If I actually hang on to this series, and read the whole thing, it'll be quite a coup, since I've long avoided giant series.
I recommend the more accessible Black Company books, too. In fact, the first three Malazan books seem to me a lot like the first Black Company arc on steroids. The strength of both series is taking some pretty far out characters--the kind fantasy gamers like to make--and never letting go of the characters' essential humanity. They seem, for all their magic and exotic cultures and weird powers, like people you might know.
I have a copy of the first Black Company book, bought at a supermarket when I was a teenager, and a copy of the second one bought used a few years ago. Never read them, though, and never found the third book, so I picked up a copy of the omnibus edition of the first three. I'm thinking about trying Black Company out instead of moving directly into Deadhouse Gates.
I love Conan and Elric, too, but I don't know anyone like those guys. I don't mind, in some cases, people playing their characters like cartoons, if they like. I want people to have fun. But I feel like they're missing a golden opportunity to create something with a little more nuance in Arduin.
IMO, the original Conan (from the 1930s) is the perfect RPG adventurer archetype. He was no superhero. He starts out wet behind the ears, and with a healthy respect for the unknown, then hammers his name into history by gambling his own sweat and blood, but never his principles. Besides the rage and might, Howard showed the adult Conan as a world wise, savvy, and well-spoken leader of men. I can believe people like that exist.
Elric? Yeah, he's a bit too high opera for a PC. Great stories, though, if you're into existentialist psychedelia.