February 4, 2013

Review: "Deadhouse Gates" By Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates is the second book in Steven Erikson’s brilliant and uber-epic ten-volume fantasy series, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" (MBotF).  I think this is now the third time I’ve read this book and it still remains one of my favorites.  Deadhouse Gates is nothing short of a ‘nail-biter’ from the get-go and the pacing is utterly relentless.  I have to say that Deadhouse Gates is an easier read than Erikson’s first book in the MBotF series, Gardens of the Moon, and much of that is because the reader is slowly, but surely, becoming more familiar with Erikson’s writing style and more comfortable with the unique qualities of the Malazan world that he has crafted.

In my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is a fine example of what I truly love the most about the MBotF series, and that is Erikson’s ability to make his readers empathize with the characters in his books.  One thing that really impresses me about Erikson’s characters is that they are all typically people that the reader can relate to, and there are really very few, if any, characters that aren’t flawed in one fashion or another.  Also, Erikson’s MBotF characters exhibit a strong dose of egalitarianism, as men and women in the books commonly occupy positions of authority and responsibility across all walks of life in the Malazan world.

Much of Deadhouse Gates occurs on the continent of “Seven Cities” and introduces a whole new cast of characters from those presented in Gardens of the Moon.  Never fear though, of the multiple story arcs in Deadhouse Gates, one arc does involve a small group of characters that the reader met in Gardens of the Moon and who become quite important to the storyline in this episode.  As is typical of Erikson novels in the MBotF series, there are plots and sub-plots galore swirling around throughout this 600+ page book (trade-paperback edition), and each of them is an attention-grabber, and at times contain a powerful ‘punch to the gut’.

Without giving away anything of significance away, Deadhouse Gates revolves around the rebellion of many of the subjugated peoples of the Seven Cities continent.  This rebellion is known as “The Whirlwind” and is intended to rid the continent of all of the Malazan occupiers, both administrative and military.  The main plot of the novel is one that just takes your breath away—that of the tactical retreat of the Malazan Seventh Army over several hundred leagues from one city to another.  The Malazan Seventh is commanded by Coltaine, a Wickan Crow Clan warchief, and now a Fist (General) in the Malazan Army.  Fist Coltaine and many of the other Wickan characters are some of my favorites in the entire MBotF series, and the Wickan Clans themselves—with names like “Foolish Dog Clan”, “Weasel Clan, and “Crow Clan”—reminded me of some of the Native American tribes that so effectively battled the U.S. Army in the latter half of the 19th century.

Honestly, the story of the Seventh Army’s retreat across the landscape of Seven Cities is truly nothing short of epic, as Coltaine must try and not only preserve the fighting capacity of the Seventh Army, but protect more than 50,000 refugees that his forces are endeavoring to shepherd to safety.  This plot thread that weaves through much of the novel becomes known as “Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs”, a moniker of significant distinction and pride to the members of the Seventh Army, as well as the rest of the Malazan Empire. As a veteran of the military myself, there was something in this story of the “Chain of Dogs” that truly tugged at the heartstrings of my very soul, and I cannot begin to tell you how many times while reading about the desperate attempts of the Seventh Army to survive its horrifying trek across Seven Cities that I had to set the book aside for a few moments and simply let the tears roll down my cheeks.  While at times a terribly tragic story, the tale of Coltaine’s “Chain of Dogs” is also one that exhibits the finest qualities of humanity—courage, compassion, comradeship, and Love. 

Erikson's description of this epic journey, and the battles fought along the way, rivals any that have been written about in numerous superb non-fiction military histories.  Examples that immediately come to mind include the U.S. Continental Army’s retreat from New York to Valley Forge, or Napoleon’s Grande Armee’s retreat from Russia, or Field Marshal von Manstein's strategic retreat of several German armies across the frozen steppes of southern Russia in early 1942 (after the fall of Stalingrad).  Erikson’s tale of the “Chain of Dogs” in Deadhouse Gates is some of the best military fiction I’ve ever read, and should appeal to readers with even a passing interest in military or historical fiction or non-fiction.

But wait, there’s even more—So much more!  Deadhouse Gates is also chock full of important plot and story lines that really help to begin to open up the full breadth and scope of the Malazan world to the reader.  There are significant tie-backs to important events and happenings in Gardens of the Moon, as well as explanations of the fascinating and complex system of magic and sorcery, and loads of new information about the mythology and significance of the pantheon of gods and goddesses who occupy the Malazan world.  Deadhouse Gates can perhaps be best characterized as the ‘tale of multiple journeys’, with Coltaine’s “Chain of the Dogs” being the centerpiece, but there are also the journeys of several other groups of characters that are just as meaningful to the overall plot and are very, very important to future episodes in the MBotF series.

I continue to be completely blown away with the sheer quality of the writing, the plotting, the character development, the pacing, the pathos and drama, and 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 it is 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.

In closing, 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 MoonDeadhouse Gates was the book in the MBotF series that cemented my love affair with all things Malazan.  Read Deadhouse Gates--you’ll become a believer too!

Deadhouse Gates
By Steven Erikson
Tor Books, 2005
Trade Paperback Edition, 608 pp