Reading Time: A long time…
One month and 1000 pages after starting this book, I’m exhausted. And depressed. We’ll get to that in a minute.
I’m not sure what I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. By all accounts, this is Erikson’s finest work, and I’m inclined to agree so far. The first 800 pages are fascinating, following the journeys of several different characters as they gravitate towards the cities of Capustan and Coral. Although Erikson jumps between different viewpoints as he did in previous books, which I found maddening, here he is much more restrained. With longer sections devoted to each viewpoint, it is easier to follow the storyline. There are some memorable scenes, too, as main characters meet up with one another for the first time.
I still can’t help but feel, though, that I’m missing something. I’m often lost trying to follow Warrens and worlds, gods and spirits and first swords, that all suddenly come into being or are created out of nothing – I just feel like the imagery and explanation required to illuminate these concepts are inadequate. Erikson probably has such things very clear in his head, and some folks seem to pick up such subtleties, but I’m not one of them. Sometimes there are limits on power, and other times power seems limitless.
The last 200 pages revert back to the rapidly-switching viewpoints, and there’s so much action crammed into those pages, that the end gets wrapped up a little too quickly. Characters who once traveled together for weeks, pass each other at the end unknowingly, and some of it comes off as a cheap stunt merely for effect. I can’t explain it more without giving away spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Finally, don’t these people get tired of fighting? That’s all that happens in these books. There’s no exploration, no adventure, no romance (bedhopping doesn’t count), and friendships are short-lived. We see a lot of characters just so that we can see a lot of characters killed off. There’s so much fighting and dying. Even heroic acts cost multiple lives. It’s rather depressing.
I’m really conflicted on my feelings towards this book. It’s Erikson’s best yet, not having read anything after this one. I liked parts of the story, particularly the early journeys of Toc the Younger. I just don’t know if I will continue to follow the death and destruction that seem to be the only thing these books have to offer.
Format: Hardback, First Edition (U.S.), 2009
Reading Time: about 5 hours
Night of Knives takes place over the course of a single night, under a Shadow Moon, when a conjunction opens a portal to the realm of Shadow and allows mortals to ascend. At the same time, the Empire’s 3rd in command, Surly, is attempting to consolidate her hold on rulership. These events all occur on the island of Malaz. The story is told from two viewpoints: Kiska, a young girl who wants to leave the island, and Temper, a veteran soldier hiding from his past. Esslemont and Steven Erikson are writing about events in the same world, in the same time period. Chronologically it occurs before Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon.
Some other reviews of Night of Knives around the ‘net:
Temper is a decent character: he has a strong sense of duty and honor, determination, stubbornness, and a skilled combatant. Through his backstory we are given insight into the Sword of the Empire and the Seven Cities campaign that later sets the stage for Erikson’s second novel, Deadhouse Gates. The same cannot be said for Kiska, who I found incredibly annoying, especially in the way she would insert herself into events, her insistence that she has “skills” despite being constantly caught off guard, and her pouty-yet-cocky attitude that has her blurting out questions and being unwilling to do what anyone instructs her to.
The novel has some other issues. The first is that the writing is very choppy. Esslemont will write an entire paragraph of simple sentences that inhibit any kind of attempt at a free-flowing narrative. He does a better job in the second half of the book, but occasionally it resurfaces with a jarring effect.
Another issue is that so much action is crammed into the last 40 pages that it is sometimes difficult to tell where characters are in relation to their surroundings. The Deadhouse needs far more description than is devoted to it, for instance, and as Temper battles the guardians of the Deadhouse I was frequently asking myself “where the heck is this taking place?” Supporting character motivations aren’t really explained…things just happen, with the reasons left unclear.
I also had a problem with the many deus ex machina devices in this book. Just as characters are about to die, someone comes along and saves them, sometimes for no reason, while other characters are left to die…this happens multiple times. Rarely am I given the impression that the main characters survived due to their wits – it’s usually due to luck or stubbornness. They are able to withstand forces others can’t stand against, often surviving magic battles, encounters with Hounds, powerful guardians, grenades, etc. Lots of people in the story take horrible wounds and gush blood, but they stay on their feet, continue fighting, and perform heroic acts. It’s all a bit much and totally unbelievable.
Finally, most authors will present backstory in italics, to clearly separate past events from the present. Esslemont slips into the backstory of a character without italics. This has the effect of making past events suddenly become current. It can be disorientating and awkward, and for me it does not work well.
Some people recommend reading this book after several of Erikson’s books. I actually recommend reading it first. Despite its shortcomings, Night of Knives does help explain things like Gates, Ascendancy, Shadowthrone, Cotillion, the Empire, the Seven Cities, Claws, Bridgeburners, etc. There aren’t really any major spoilers that would ruin Erikson’s stories; in fact, I might argue that Esslemont hasn’t gone far enough in this area.
Night of Knives was a quick read while I was waiting for The Wise Man’s Fear to arrive, and while I have some serious issues with content, I wouldn’t say that the book is awful – rather, it’s an “okay” read. Since most reviews claim that Esslemont’s sequel, Return of the Crimson Guard, is an improvement over Night of Knives, and it’s in the Malazan world, I’ll give Esslemont another chance. I’d recommend this book only to those who want to dive into the Malazan universe and experience all it has to offer. But if you decide to skip Night of Knives, you’ll still be okay…
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.
This is my first review using my newly-established review methodology. I’ve finally finished Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. So let’s dive right in to the first category…
Pacing & Structure
I found the pace of this book to be odd…I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a result of so many different characters and plotlines all vying for attention. Usually a book slows in pace due to too much detail. In this case, there’s not a lot of intricate and unnecessary detail (like you might find in a Wheel of Time book), but rather a lot of people, places, and plot to introduce. Therefore we jump around from person to person, place to place, and though we are moving through the story, at the same time it takes awhile to get from one place to another, which makes the pace seem slow despite the fact that it isn’t. One thing that is helpful are the breaks within chapters – there are lots of good places to stop and process all the information that has been presented. You’d better believe there is a lot of that information that requires processing. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, without a single protagonist, though Paran is probably the most prominent. Within chapters we switch between multiple viewpoints; I found this occasionally irritating from a coherence standpoint. I would have liked to see more chapters devoted to one point of view.
My main criticism of this book is a lack of characterization. With so many multiple viewpoints, it’s hard to get a handle on some of these people. I felt strangely detached from the characters, and found myself not really caring what happened to them. Erikson does a good job of detailing how his characters change throughout the story, but many of them have the same “voice”. Since you are dropped in the middle of the story, you get very little backstory on the characters, so while we know what they want to do, we don’t necessarily know why. The scope of the book doesn’t allow for detailed characterization – I imagine that had this book been split into two, with more detail on Whiskeyjack, Paran, Tattersail, and Anomander Rake, I think both books would have been outstanding. Kruppe is the lone exception to this lack of characterization. It is clear that Erikson put a lot of thought into this character, which had the result of making him the most intriguing, according to most other reviews I’ve read.
There are a lot of names of places thrown around, but again a lack of detail hampers the setting. Some of the early descriptions of the battlefields are spot on, although it can be difficult sometimes to see where characters are in relation to the environment or even to each other. There is a ton of history, which is presented in an informative manner, but again detail is often lacking. At times I felt like I was once again wading through The Simarillion, which is not a good thing. Descriptions of the terrain vary between adequate and inadequate. Weather and sound play a very small role in the environment. Magic comes from Warrens, but it’s not really clear how much power people can draw and what makes them able to do so. Travel is a mystery, as it’s not clear how far distances are between places for people on foot.
There is no unifying opposition until the end of the book. Up to that point we have characters pitted against each other. Here Erikson does a great job of making the conflict realistic. The main opposition at the end, however, is not so clear. Why should I be really worry about this guy that’s being awakened? What exactly is he capable of? Why is he so powerful? After walking away from the book, I thought that the answers were there, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember these details. As far as why the big bad guy was suddenly present, Erikson handled this very well. Someone woke him from his slumber on purpose. Well, that makes sense why he’s now in the story, but the reason seems strange. Aren’t there better ways of taking out your opposition than to get a third party involved that you have no control over? It seems more like a plot device than something that would naturally happen.
Plot and Overall Impressions
This is not your typically fantasy, and it is appreciated. The sheer scope of what Erikson is trying to accomplish is to be commended. There are some Deus Ex Machina moments in overcoming the opposition, mostly related to the use of ultra-powerful magic. There were some twists I didn’t see coming, but I wouldn’t describe anything as shocking or jaw-dropping.
In conclusion I have to say I struggled with this book. Proponents like to rip critical readers by saying that you have to use your head to enjoy this book. Let’s be perfectly clear: using your head to figure out the plot has nothing to do with pacing or characterization. If you really enjoy this book and rate it highly, you must prefer shallow characterization and tons of detail. Personally I like strong characterization – I want to feel for the characters, identify with them, enjoy their successes and sympathize with their problems. There’s very little of that here. The best judge of a book, at least for me, is how fast I turn the pages and how the book captures my attention. I will blaze through an outstanding book, startled as I look at the clock to see hours have flown by, but unable to put the book down. It took me three weeks to slog through this book. I picked it up because I was becoming bored with the ending of Confessor, but often I would leave Gardens of the Moon and return to Confessor because of disinterest or because I needed a break from all the data flying at me.
I’m hesitant to dive into the next book, because I don’t want more of the same. However, I feel I must try, because this is Erikson’s first book and he’s bound to get better. I understand that his plot will expand over the course of several books, and in retrospect maybe I won’t be quite as critical. Plus, he’s set the stage now, so he should be able to focus more on the characters. Given the amount of books in my queue, however, it will be some time before I take that leap.
And what exactly does the title have to do with any of the major plotlines in the book? I’m still scratching my head on that one…