“The named soldier – dead melted wax – demands a response among the living…a response no one can make. Names are no comfort, they’re a call to answer the unanswerable…Why to do the survivors remain anonymous – as is if cursed – while the dead are revered? Why do we cling to what we lose while we ignore what we still hold? Name none of the fallen…let my death hold no glory, and let me die forgotten and unknown. Let is not be said that I was one among the dead to accuse the living.”
My journey through Steven Erikson’s seminal military fantasy work, “Malazan Tales of the Fallen” continued in August 2022 with Book Two “Deadhouse Gates”.
A small group of more minor characters from “Gardens of the Moon”, who seemed to take on much bigger significance near the end of that book, headline another huge assemblage of players in “Deadhouse Gates”.
I was left with a bit of a different impression of the writer’s work, after now reading two of his books. This book was longer (almost twice as long), and in parts, somewhat just as confusing to me as the previous one. But it was also even better-written, and I found the first book to be outstanding. I also ENJOYED this book more, and I believe that is primarily because I found the improvement in Erikson’s characterization astounding. I am a character-driven reader, and this book REALLY connected with me on that level. Thus, I enjoyed this book more than “Gardens of the Moon”, and that was an incredible, five-star read.
Aside from the improvements in characterization, this book differs from the first novel, in two main aspects that hit me every early in my reading. One: in “Gardens of the Moon”, the Malazan Empire looked almost entirely unbeatable. In this second book, its quite the contrary. Two: we leave most of the big players (such as Ganoes Paran, Anomander Rake, and Whiskeyjack) and the settings of book one (the continent of Genabackis and the free cities the Empire is trying to conquer) behind, and traverse hundreds of miles through an entirely different location – the Seven Cities and the very heart of the Empire.
Count on Erikson, worldbuilder extraordinaire, of course, to take an already massive cast of characters and bevy of places evidenced in the first book, and expand them even more. If after reading the first book, and having your head spin trying to keep up with everyone and everywhere, you were hoping for a bit of a respite, think again.
I also must admit, at first I was a bit disconcerted leaving some of my favourite aforementioned characters like Rake behind. With a series like Malazan, I feel one needs all the security blankets one can find, since I clung onto my favs for dear life to help me navigate the sometimes opaque and perplexing narrative of “Gardens of the Moon”. But after a shocking and compelling prologue, and meeting some great new players, I was quickly invested, though still looking forward to future books and hopefully learning the fate of those characters I grew to like in book one.
Four distinct storylines, which converge later in the novel, frame the story of “Deadhouse Gates.”
First, find Felisin Paran, youngest sister of Ganoes, in dire trouble. Felisin’s life is endangered as she finds herself, as a member of a noble house, in the middle of a carefully orchestrated selective slaughter of the Malazan Empire’s Seven Cities nobility. The orchestrator of the cull is the ever-devious Empress Laseen, still trying to wipe out any of those who were loyal to the previous Emperor Kellanved and his main ally Dancer (who she had murdered), and keep her grip on supremacy. Co-incidentally, Laseen’s new right hand is Adjunct Tavore, who just happens to be a sister of Paran and Felisin. Tavore is the general in charge of the culling of the elite.
This makes Felisin, understandably, incensed. She vows to kill her sister, as her sister has disavowed their family and former noble friends in favour of allegiance to the Empress, being willing to see Felisin die as well. But first Felisin will have to survive the violent riots seeking the death of the former ruling class, stirred up by Lassen. In self-preservation, Felisin teams up with an excommunicated former High Priest of the war deity Fener, named Heboric, and a strong-man named Baudin, who are also both caught up in the calamity. Though forced to associate with these two undesirable companions, Felisin is only beginning to understand how low she is going to sink from the heights of privilege, as she is destined for a place of even more danger, darkness, depravity, addiction, self-loathing, and emotional and physical trauma.
Second, we meet Mappo, a huge Trell warrior, and his travelling companion, the mysterious Icarium, who is a part Jaghut. These two extremely long-lived beings, with legendary reputations as fighters, have an unshakeable bond. It seems Mappo is hiding things, however, from his friend. Moreover, Mappo appears to be responsible for keeping Icarium from his worst demons, unbeknownst to Icarium. Icarium is also suffering from memory loss, which may be a good thing, as his past is shrouded in death and destruction. This seems at odds with his calm and restrained, even gentle nature displayed at times.
But shapeshifting beings called Soletaken and D’ivers are at war, trying to achieve Ascendency (which leads to godhood). Mappo and Icarium stumble unwittingly into the midst of this war, but they are a pair so formidable that even the deadly shapeshifters must tread lightly with. Still, fleeing the conflict, the two friends find themselves taking refuge with an insane High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust, who has his own plans for the two.
Third, Dukier, Imperial Historian, joins the beleaguered 7th Malazan Army in the Seven Cities, at entirely the wrong time if one wants to stay alive. Revolution is imminent, and a holy war called “The Whirlwind”, that been prophesized to free denizens of the Empire form the tyrannical yolk of Laseen, has come. Sha’ik, prophetess of that Holy War, has whipped up her followers into a frenzy, convinced that they can overthrow their feudal masters. The seemingly indomitable Empire has never looked so vulnerable.
We learn the real reason that Lassen has cleverly and brutally culled the nobility was in as an attempt to placate the revolutionaries. But It’s not enough. Desperate, the Empress turns to the barbarian Wickan chieftain Coltaine. Coltaine’s repute is as a redoubtable warlord who led a revolt against Lassen’s predecessor, and eventually came over to the Emperor’s camp.
Much of the Malazan generalship disdains Coltaine as a savage, but he is a daring and highly capable commander who backs down from no one. Still, Coltaine’s marching orders are to retreat, safeguarding thousands of forlorn Malazan civilians enroute to the imperial city of Aren, which lies hundreds of leagues from Seven Cities. There is little hope for such a forced march – disparagingly know as “The Chain of Dogs” – to make it to Aren, but if anyone can do it, Coltaine can. Dukier just has to make sure he survives the journey, while trying to work his own schemes to save Heboric for his own purposes .
Finally, we return to four characters familiar to us from “Gardens of the Moon”, who at the end of that novel embarked on a mission to return one of those characters to their family. The gruff sapper Fiddler, the mysterious assassin Kalam, the former thief Crokus, and his lover Apsalar (Sorry) who was also a soldier, and once possessed by will of a capricious god, also arrive in Seven Cities. Instead of getting Apsalar to her hometown, the diversion to Seven Cities is part of a precarious, if not suicidal mission, conceived by Kalam and Fiddler.
These two plan to assassinate the Empress, who they believe is oppressing her citizens, and she also conspired to kill the famous Bridgeburners military unit Kalam and Fiddler are part of, who are now considered rebels and outlaws. But a mage who utilizes the power of song, may provide a way to make the rebellious Bridgeburners even more powerful, even as secrets behind who is actually leading the gods and demi-gods of House of Shadow and those leaders connections to the empire, are revealed by the formerly possessed Apsalar.
I spoke of Erikson’s improvement in characterization in the beginning of this review, and it is marvellous to see. The damaged Felisin is the lynchpin for the entire plot, and her character is phenomenal. Bitter, devious, full of self-loathing, false rationalizations for her meanness, cruel to those she cares about most , motivated by revenge and self-preservation, drug-addicted, yet fiercely loyal, brave, determined, and cunning, she is a stupendous, tragic character. The reader will aghast at what she undergoes in the book, and at moments will despise her, and other moments root for her, hoping she will live long enough to change. She was definitely my favourite character, and for the most part is completely unlikeable.
Coltraine was another one of my favs. The underdog, whom military elitists look down their noses on, he is ruthless, clever, conniving. And he’s just the man needed to save tens of thousands of innocent people, while staving off internal revolt among his soldier, and the rabid army that seeks the destruction of the 7th and the Malazan refugees. Also very intriguing were Mappo and Icarium. For some reason, the pair reminded me of Dante and Virgil in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. Allegorically representative of achieving oneness with God, in the face of sin and death, Divine Comedy features two heroes who ultimately are observers to grand events beyond their control. I get this same feeling with Mappo and Icarium, even though they are very much involved in the action, and are far from casual in their witnessing of events.
In terms of themes, this book, for me, was far bleaker and more harrowing than “Gardens of the Moon”, and that is saying something, for that first book was quite dark. Prostituting oneself to survive, attempted sexual assault and exploitation of children, genocide, torture, war atrocities, fanaticism, betrayal, murder, madness, revenge, pettiness, emotional trauma, war and its enormous cost, the themes in “Deadhouse Gates” may give you pause especially during some of the harsher scenes. The images will haunt you; they are visceral, bloody, and horrendous.
The creepy and malevolent dark sorcery, violence, and mayhem occurs in the face of the fortitude, bravery, noble self-sacrifice, and deep-seated sense of compassion among some characters that they must not unnecessarily take lives, and kill only as a last resort to defend themselves and others. This abhorrence of violence among some of the people capable of the most horrific violence in the book – such as Fiddler and Icarium – was very poignant, and something that stood out to me. The spectre of meddling gods, and their sinister designs on the realm of mortals, looms large in the book, although we actually see less of them in “Deadhouse Gates” than we do in “Gardens of the Moon”. Rather we see what they have wrought, their freakish servants and creations, and see the sometimes hapless humans and other creatures who are caught in their web of divine plots and intrigues.
In terms of prose and quality of writing, the more I read “Malazan” the more I am reminded of one of Erikson’s contemporaries, Stephen R. Donaldson, whose work I definitely admire. There are some really lovely, beautifully descriptive passages. Additionally, there is definitely more pronounced ironic humour from the beginning that I only started to pick up on late into “Gardens of the Moon” in this second book.
I mentioned the worldbuilding earlier – Erikson is in rare air here, with the Janny Wurts, George R.R. Martin’s, and N.K. Jemisin masterclass crowd in terms of his depth and intricacy of worldbuilding. To keep it simple, seldom will you find something more elaborate and comprehensive. It is also overwhelming, at times in terms of scale, but one can’t deny the genius. Magic warrens, shapeshifters, gods and demons, numerous and varied races, cultures, histories, traditions, and customs, this book and series have everything one could ask for in terms of worldbuilding. And yes, it has things you don’t ask for, the details of which may bog you down if you let it. But don’t. Just let it enrich the experience, and don’t get lost in all the detail. You will enjoy your reading more.
Of note, there were some large scale battles in the book, as well as plenty of smaller conflicts. Irrespective of size, the fight scenes were magnificent, and in particular Erikson effectively captures all the gruesomeness, heartbreak, and glory of a millitary campaign.
If I have not already confirmed in my review of “Gardens of the Moon”, this series, for me a new reader to Erikson, is a phenomenal achievement. Yet perhaps, more importantly, it is a fabulous EFFORT. Erikson endeavours to have an immense character list and follow multiple character arcs while trying to flesh out MOST of his characters to a degree that they are optimally realized. He strives to create a world so complete that it is staggering in scope and imagery, while still feeling intimate and something you can touch, smell, hear, and feel.
He undertakes a plot that is very complex, and works to keep it enthralling and simultaneously moving forward in a cohesive manner. He works at maintaining prose that is impactful, in order to hold the readers interest for nigh a thousand pages. I think he largely manages to succeed – a feat in of itself. The sheer boldness of the attempt must be acknowledged, even though at times he may fall a little short, in my estimation. If he does fall short, that is under the weight of the complicated backstory, twisty plot, innumerable cast of players. But any writer who is so uncompromising and meticulous in his desire to create something grand, and for the most part delivers, has to be considered brilliant.
This book is a tome, it is dense, and it can be laborious and challenging to read. But I do feel it was worth every page. It is a magnificent novel, and nothing has dissuaded me yet from continuing the “Malazan” series, despite any shortcomings. I will be proceeding with “Memories of Ice” before year’s end, and look forward to complete my reading of the epic saga sometime prior to the end of 2023. I believe I will look back and be glad I did, if the first two books are any indication.