An incredible sequel that manages to surpass the excellent original.
Deadhouse Gates is Book 2 of Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.
After reading Gardens of the Moon I decided to jump right in to the sequel while the depths of the original story were still fresh in my memory. With so many characters, covering so many story threads, with so much backstory, I believed that this would be the best way to ensure that I was able to keep a firm grasp on such an encompassing story that could so easily slip away. However, little did I realise that, even though this story carries on immediately after Gardens of the Moon, only a few returning characters were present to carry on the narrative threads of the previous novel.
So this book, both epic in length as well as scope, throws you in to a brand new conflict, with Erickson introducing a plethora of characters to build upon and keep you enthralled in their plight. Apart from a couple of cameos, the only characters that remain from GotM are Kalam Mekhar, Sorry (or Apsalar as she is now known), Crokus, and Fiddler and we see their journey as they aim to bring an end to the tyranny of Empress Laseen, who so blatantly tried to crush them (quite literally) at the battle of Pale. Fiddler had never been at the forefront in the last book, so what we saw of his character was only fleeting and shallow. This time he steps up and shows his worth as a hero, which also succeeds in accentuating exactly how much of a force the Bridgeburners are that one who is simply a Sapper amongst them proves to exude valour even when thrust in a situation where he is a reluctant leader. As we follow the path of these GotM alumni, we witness as they get dragged in to a conflict that diverts them from their passionate vengeance.
This brings us to the new and complex story of Deadhouse Gates. No longer are we on the continent of Genabackis, but now enthralled in a brand new uprising in Seven Cities, where the prophesized Sha’ik is due to rise and bring the Whirlwind rebellion down upon the forces of the Malazan Empire. GotM was vast, but even still the story centred on characters in fairly close proximity. This time the main characters are separated by hundreds, if not thousands of miles, yet this story felt far more intimate and focused. At first I was concerned that I would struggle to embrace these new characters and their rising plight, but this quickly dissipated thanks to Erickson’s exceptional talent at building up their personalities and bringing a humanity to those who are far from human.
Most of these new characters are exceptional. Icarium and Mappo are instantly likeable. Actually they are more than likeable, they are incredibly enthralling. Even in the scenes where they do very little, their personalities keep you fixed to the page. Then you also have the Wickans who are leading a ragtag group of Malazans as they flee across a hostile environment with their enemies trying to crush them from all angles. Coltaine in particular is a stand out in this book, even though his presence can be sometimes elusive and occasionally no more than inferred.
But not all of the characters are so instantly likeable. This story is led, in large part, by the Ganoes family once again, only this time it’s Paran’s sisters, Felisin and Tavore. Felisin is intrinsically an unlikeable character, in my opinion. The scenes with her in can become slightly laborious as her personality is grating and oft times verges on unnecessarily vile. Yes she is a young woman who has been through an extremely rough ordeal, but the way she acts towards everyone makes you simply want to hate her. The characters who carry the role of villains in this novel, the generals of the Whirlwind, are also nowhere near as complex as those in the previous novel. They are out and out evil. There are no apparent reasons for their actions other than that general idea that the Malazans are evil and they must be crushed. That is where my main criticism comes in. The whole of GotM portrayed The Malazans as a villainous tyranny, and we are following Kalam and his group on their journey to assassinate the Empress. Yet we are expected to root for a group of Malazans that we currently believe are intrinsically evil. This oxymoron dictates the first sections of the novel, the contradiction proving to be somewhat jarring. It is only later that the complexities of the Malazan Empire are so explicitly demonstrated and you begin to see that there are a hundred different shades to their nature.
These minor criticisms aside, the novel is outstanding. Once I finished it I realized that this confusion was inevitable considering how complex Erickson’s story is. The quality of writing is brilliant. The battle scenes can drag out a little, but they are so well written that they certainly encapsulate the horrors of war, and this depth of prose is necessary in order to conjure such troubling images. The events are also brutal and callous. They make you cringe and almost feel the pain that each of the characters feel. Erickson manages to do this without resorting to some of the crass imagery that is common with some other popular authors (ahem, Terry Goodkind). Special kudos go out to one of the most gruesome and unexpected deaths I have ever read. It was so shocking that I think I read it half a dozen time, just to make sure that I had indeed read it right. Like the first novel it is a slog of a read, such is the depth of the world Erickson has created, but it is so thoroughly worth it that once you get in to it, you will not be able to put the book down.