Review: Steven Erikson – Deadhouse Gates (2000)

Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen #2

Review: Gardens of the Moon (1999)


9/10

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.

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15 Responses to Review: Steven Erikson – Deadhouse Gates (2000)

  1. Pingback: Review: Steven Erikson – Gardens of the Moon (1999) | A Sky of Books and Movies

  2. bormgans says:

    I should reread it someday. I liked it, but dat didn’t understand what was going on most of the time.

    Like

    • bormgans says:

      But first find the courage to start 3.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The first time I read Deadhouse Gates I didn’t understand any of it. But I continued on to book 6 before dropping the series. Now on the reread, everything is quite clear and understandable, and a great deal more rewarding, because I have a clearer idea of the overall story of the series and I started to understand the magic and the peoples. But I needed the exposure to the rest of the series.

        But here’s what you could do… Book 1 and 2 are set on different continents, right, with largely different casts. Book 3 is a direct continuation of the story of book 1. And book 4 is a direct continuation of book 2. So you could reread book 1, then go directly to book 3. And if you like book 3 you could always go back and reread book 2 and then 4 if you feel like continuing.

        Like

  3. piotrek says:

    I’m not going to read the entire post, as I’m reading the very book right now, but I’m happy you rate is so high, I’m enjoying it immensely myself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    I remember that the main feelings I associate with Deadhouse Gates are despair and oppressiveness: no easy way out, no escape, no hope. Felisin was for me a more realistic rendering of a princess in trouble, juxtaposed with Martin’s fairytale treatment of his precious Khaleesi. I never reread any of Erikson’s books, though. After I read Cook’s Black Company I felt Erikson’s debts too keenly 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despair and oppressiveness sounds about right. It gets pretty grim in this book. But I wouldn’t say that it is without meaning. The characters are really in impossible situations, but they still try to make the right decision and that sort of carries its own value.

      Felisin is a really controversial character in the fanbase. Many don’t like her bitchy behaviour but I saw her as a victim who is coping with that she has nothing left to fight for. Except her sanity. I think you’re right when you say that she is more realistic than the usual fairytale princess in distress.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        I think people love to hate Felisin – but few consider what it must mean to someone pampered and believing herself the centre of the world and having ally this taken away and being forced to fight for survival… Some assumptions and habits die a very long and painful death 😉 Plus, she’s a teenager – she’s got evolutionary right to be bitchy 🤣

        I don’t feel Deadhouse Gates’ grim nihilism is meaningless – just heavy and depressing and closer to certain reality of our world than I like 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Totally agree with your take on Felisin. I mean, have you ever seen those MTV shows about wealthy teenagers throwing tantrums? What would happen if you were to drop one in Syria.

          The Malazan series has debts to older fantasy, that’s very clear. I’ve never read Glen Cook’s work but I don’t want to start it before finishing Malazan. Wouldn’t want to ruin things! Also, some influences come from books that co-creator Ian Esslemont has read, so there are debts that Erikson is not even part of!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ola G says:

            Yeah, I know that Erikson openly acknowledges some of his debts, and that he was still able to make Malazan something of his own (and Esslemont’s but I just can’t stand Esslemont’s writing, especially in the old books, sorry 😉). Still, reading Black Company after Malazan was something of an eye opener for me and took away a substantial portion of my former awe for Malazan. The first six books are really great, not evenly, but still. I hated the guts of the Letheras one, ie. Reaper’s Gale, and Erikson did some things in Dust of Dreams that I’ve found hard to forgive, and then backtracked them (sort of, in his usual way) in The Crippled God.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely an amazing blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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