January 15, 2011
Review: "Deadhouse Gates" By Steven Erikson
The main plot of the novel is the one just takes your breath away--rebellion has broken out on one of the continents that the Malazan Empire controls--and this is the story of Coltaine's 'Chain of Dogs' march of one of the Malazan armies over several hundred leagues (over several months) from one city to another. What makes it incredibly remarkable is that it is not just 'a march' of the Malazan 7th Army. It is both a strategic and tactical retreat of the army while several huge enemy armies continually attack and harass the Malazan forces the entire distance. Not only does Coltaine (The 7th's commander, or 'Fist') need to try and preserve his army and tactically respond to the enemy, he also must simultaneously protect nearly 50,000 displaced civilians that he acquires along the way (i.e., evacuees and refugees).
Erikson's description of this epic and heartbreaking journey, and the battles fought along the way, rivals any that have been written about in numerous superb military histories. Examples that come to my mind include Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's strategic retreat of several German armies across the frozen steppes of southern Russia in early 1942 (after the fall of Stalingrad); or Sherman's "March to the Sea" bisecting the Confederacy. This is stuff for the ages, and what Erikson writes about in Deadhouse Gates, with Coltaine's march as the focus, is that intense and dramatic, and really is some of the very best in military fiction. Somehow, I can honestly see students at military academies around the world reading Erikson too. There are huge lessons here.
By way of disclosure, while I have only read two books in this series so far (with eight more to go!), I am absolutely blown away with the sheer quality of the writing, the plotting, the character development (bordering on Dickensian or Tolstoyan), the pacing, the pathos and drama, and just the sheer inventiveness and originality of the world that Erikson has created. Mr. Erikson doesn't pull his punches, this is truly some hard, bleak, and dark fiction; and at times viscerally tragic and profoundly sad. At the same time though, Erikson soars to heights almost unknown in fantasy fiction with his moments of triumph, success, and the joy of experiencing those fleeting instants of pure and unbridled goodness and humanity.
I highly and unhesitatingly recommend this series; and, in my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is much more than a quantum step forward from the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon. Read it--you'll become a believer too!