Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
Deadhouse Gates is the second book in Malazan Book of the Fallen Series. Though it comes in at 692 pages, this is not just any 692 pages. There is a massive amount of information in the pages, making it a challenging read. Some of the criticisms I had of Gardens of the Moon have been resolved, while others remain. So on to the review (minor spoilers ahead)…
The pacing of Deadhouse Gates has much improved over Gardens of the Moon. In fact, the latter parts of the story move along swiftly. The first third of the book, however, feels similar to Gardens of the Moon, being dropped slightly passed the beginning of the story, with multiple viewpoints. Once again I found the switching between viewpoints within a chapter absolutely maddening. The main viewpoint threads are as follows:
- Felisin, sister to Adjunct Tavore
- Mappo the Trell
- Duiker the historian
- Kalam the Claw assassin
- Fiddler the sapper
- Kulp the mage
All these viewpoints are used to deliver the plot. In fact, Erikson never divulges details of the plot and story as an impartial observer – all such details are delivered by the characters in the course of their observations or discourse. At times this method can make it very hard to figure out what is going on. For the best synopsis of Deadhouse Gates that I’ve found yet, head over to SF Reviews: http://www.sfreviews.net/deadhouse_gates.html
Deadhouse Gates is a dark and depressing story. You won’t find elves, dwarves, and epic quests or coming-of-age stories here. What you do find is traveling through dangerous lands, conflict, brutality, and desperation. Not only does Erikson have a firm grasp on combat tactics, his descriptions of battle are second to none – blood, gore, horror, confusion – he has captured the atrocity of war perfectly. Other authors sugar-coat battles, making them sound clean and noble. Erikson pulls no punches in battle scenes, and is to be commended for it. War isn’t something noble and sanitary – it’s people in power sending others off to be butchered, maimed, or tortured, often for no more than ego or misguided religious or political beliefs. Erikson pulls back the veil of being among the troops and seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, exposing the underbelly of armed combat better than anyone in the business today.
I have heard Erikson’s writing being compared and inspired by Glen Cook’s Black Company. Having read all the Black Company books, I can say there is very little they share in common, although some of the banter among soldiers comes close. I actually had a laugh-out-loud moment in Deadhouse Gates that reminded me very much of Cook, in enchange between Kulp and some of the soldiers. The character of Duiker at times does remind me of Cook’s Croaker, the annalist of the Black Company. However, where Cook shows the ability to balance humor, death, straightforward plots, and a fast-paced single viewpoint, Erikson instead chooses the opposite. Characters are sympathetic figures, but I never truly identified with them. Some of them are truly unlikeable (like Felisin). Motivations in many cases are still unclear, but the main characters do seem to have much more depth than those in Gardens of the Moon.
Erikson can often reveal motivations or plot threads in a single line of text. If it doesn’t register with you as you read it, you can become confused. An immediate re-read of the story makes things much clearer. I skimmed rather than doing a full re-read, but here are two plot points that were explained in a single sentence or paragraph of character dialog that didn’t register with me the first time through; understanding them fully cleared up some of my confusion of events in the story:
- First, Soletaken and D’ivers are shapechangers, and they are everywhere in Deadhouse Gates. Why? They are trying to discover a gate, and if they enter the gate they achieve god-like status over other Soletaken and D’ivers. This is why they are everywhere, fighting everything and each other to discover the gate and become a god. The road to this gate is called the Path of Hands. Some of the characters support the effort to obscure the location of the gate, because there is a massive danger in one of these creatures becoming a god.
- Second, Coltraine was chosen as High Fist to put down the rebellion. This angered Korbolo Dom, another Fist, who joined the rebellion, slaughtering his soldiers that wouldn’t convert and enlisting the rest as mercenaries to his cause. This perceived slight by the Empress is what makes Dom so brutal and bloodthirsty, and intent in destroying Coltraine utterly.
The ending is not what one would call happy. Some characters that you root for are dispatched; others that are pure evil walk away unscathed. Not very satisfying, but perhaps there is more to come in the books that follow.
Despite its faults, Deadhouse Gates is better than Gardens of the Moon in almost every way. It’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach the darkness and brutality, there’s a heck of a story here. I spent the first one-third of the book in frustration, slogging through tons of information, confused by the multiple viewpoints and obscured plot. However, the middle third of the book starts to pick up, and the final third was difficult to put down. I plan on reading the next book, Memories of Ice, but I’ll need to do some lighter reading first just to balance the darkness.
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