If you seek the crumbled bones
Of the T’lan Imass,
Gather into one hand
The sands of Raraku
Deadhouse Gates both isn’t and is a sequel to the first Malazan Book, Gardens of the Moon. Reading the Malazan books is a bit like reading a history of the Second World War, where the first book is about the eastern front, the second book is about Japan, the third book goes back to England and the fifth book is suddenly set in Africa. But in time they form a picture of the whole.
Deadhouse Gates takes us to a different continent with a largely different cast, but continues many of the first book’s themes. Seven Cities is on the verge of rebellion. That continent is a cesspool of treachery, backstabbing assassins and politicians, ancient history and will see a convergence of great powers while the Malazan Empire crumbles further into a rotten state of its own making. In comes Kalam, with his audacious plan. In come Ganoes Paran’s two sisters, Felisin and Adjunct Tavore, who will see firsthand that Seven Cities’ ancient past only lay sleeping. And in comes Coltaine, the new Fist sent by Empress Laseen. Is Coltaine sent, like Dujek and the Bridgeburners, to be abandoned in this dusty hell as a member of the old guard, or is Coltaine a weapon, honed and sent to subdue the unruly Cities?
The answers are never simple in Erikson’s books.
History is everywhere in this novel. Not only are two important characters historians, but Erikson peppers the story with desert ruins, cities built upon layers of cities, side stories that tell the dangers of ignoring history and even a character that cannot remember his own history. I’m talking about Icarium, of course, one of my favourites. He is a walking attempt at burying the past, but everything about Erikson’s novel hints at that being a doomed exercise, whether we are talking about individuals or empires. In any case, this all really adds to the atmosphere of the book.
There is a lot going on here. We start off with 4 or so plot strands, which fracture into even more. It gives the story a scattered feeling, with lots of viewpoint switching within chapters. On a first read, it’s all a bit much and many of the strands are slow burns that only start to deliver in the second half of the book. The great source of conflict, the simmering tension of the book is that of the Malazan Empire and its effort to impose its rule versus the more organically developed identity of Seven Cities and its history that the Malazans want to suppress. Again, Erikson doesn’t pick sides. Most plot strands are complications of these abstract themes.
The emotional heart of the book belongs to those stuck between loyalties or stuck between opposing forces.
Coltaine and his army. The Malazan Empire and the Whirlwind uprising are large, impersonal forces and most characters are dragged along in the wake of events, but Coltaine’s situation is right in the middle of these opposing forces; he is either the focus of hope or wrath. The entire continent rests on the shoulders of a wild, genius man. His story is all about making the right choices even if nobody appreciates it. What should be done when every side is bloodthirsty and everything is shades of grey? And Felisin, a character lost among betrayal and violence. What does she have left to fight for?
Erikson still maintains a sort of scholarly distance from his characters, as if he is an historian himself. New folks like Duiker are interesting enough to follow, but take Fiddler, a major character in the series. We still only know him by this one nickname. Maybe Erikson gave a throwaway line in Gardens of the Moon as to his physical appearance but I must have forgotten it. We know little of Fiddler’s plans. Out of the blue he can blend in with local tribesmen and knows their customs, but we never hear much about his past as a veteran of the Seven Cities campaigns. Sometimes I fill in the details for myself to stay invested, but it is a lack that I am feeling here.
Nonetheless, there are enough awe-inspiring feats of the imagination to make this a fascinating read. Whether we talk about the shapeshifters, demons, goddesses, prophecies or touching bromances such as Icarium and Mappo. The battle-scenes are among the best in the genre. There are moments of wonder and puzzlement that may one day receive an answer and cinematic moments that would look great on film.
One of the greatest journeys of the book concerns the twists and turns around a prophesy where Erikson plays with our expectations. But on a deeper level, the possibilities around the fulfilment of this prophecy tie into alternative futures for the continent that may or may not come to pass, and ultimately rest on decisions made by single persons who are driven by compassion or hate. It is a major theme of Erikson’s series: how individual acts of either kindness, cowardice or hate can have major effects on history.
The book is stuffed so full that it feels like reading an entire trilogy in one go. It is among the best that epic fantasy has to offer, and a powerful exploration of themes of identity and history, morality and cycles of destruction and renewal.