Posted by: markfender | January 7, 2015

Deadhouse Gates

It took me just as long to read this book as it did to read the previous two. Which says something about the length these things get to.

Deadhouse_GatesI’m not going to do the exhaustive, book by book, breakdown that I did for Gardens as I don’t see it quite as necessary. When the writing actually improves, there’s less to be annoyed at and to comment on. And, oh God, did the writing improve in this book. So much so that many people consider Deadhouse Gates to be their favorite book of the series (It is not mine, but it is quite good).

The primary thing I think that Erickson improved upon was in his structure. Some of this would only be noticeable in a reread, but Erickson lays the groundwork for the most important plot bits throughout the book. Most importantly, this isn’t just in plot but in theme. Constantly echoing through the novel are themes of insects, vast age, and rivers of blood. Each of these connect in various subtle ways to the main stories. The phrase “children are dying” is echoed, restated, expounded upon, and generally referenced multiple times in various ways. For instance, almost every battle scene includes someone observing the dead body of a child. Likewise, rivers of blood constantly leer up from dreams, mentions of the erosive power of water, and other mentions. Even random descriptions of the terrain the players are crossing across contains small hints towards these themes. Much of this doesn’t matter to the story itself, but simply reinforce the themes of the novel. It’s well-done, and powerful in places. Erickson still isn’t going to explain a lot of stuff (and he has a strange fondness for the word ‘febrile’), but he is laying “pipe” for those things so that they cohere into a fully-formed whole.

Great example that requires some minor spoilers: One of the themes running through this book are comparisons made between two young girls: Apsalar and Felisin. Both were used horribly, are adrift in a strange new land, and experience a gamut of hardships throughout their journeys. However, Apsalar emerges at the end a stronger person, whereas Felisin continually drifts down. While the two girls never meet, their journeys echo each other, often in compare/contrast sections. This plays off in an excellent scene where Erickson requires your close reading skills – Leoman and the Toklakai (not even given a proper name yet, but so, so crucial for the entire series) are the guardians of Sha’ik and are awaiting the arrival of Sha’ik Reborn. In one of their few viewpoint scenes, we see them notice a young girl approach with her elderly male companion. At this point in the novel, Felisin is traveling with Heboric who has lost his eyes and both hands (to gods and stuff), but has somehow acquired ghost hands (don’t ask…No seriously, don’t. I couldn’t even tell you why.) Meanwhile, Apsalar is traveling with Rellock, her long-lost father, who earlier had a force-grown arm so that he has one scarred, aged arm and one new, pink arm. Leoman and the Toblakai greet this new arrival, suspecting her of being Sha’ik Reborn when the girl warns them of her companion, saying “Beware his hands.” So, which girl was it? It all comes down to singular versus plural. Erickson has been linking the two girls together in reader’s minds throughout the entire novel, having similar emotional journeys echo in their respective sections. As readers, we honestly don’t know which will become Sha’ik Reborn and aren’t given enough contextual clues to make the connection…until that mention of hands. Erickson isn’t coddling his readers.

Speaking of, I still hate Felisin. She’s sold into slavery, raped repeatedly, addicted to drugs, attacked by insects, and generally forced into worse and worse circumstances throughout the book. You’d think you’d have some sympathy for her. And yet, she’s a terrible, terrible person, who lashes out at everyone around her, too wounded by the world to even understand when people are being nice to her. It’s tragic, of course, but she is so ungrateful throughout the entire thing and so pointlessly cruel that it’s really hard to like her. Heboric, her usual companion, isn’t much better, too wounded in his own way to really grasp how to talk to her to maybe turn her around. The two of them just basically snipe at each other the whole book, and then get all wounded when the other snipes back.

Iskaral Pust is another new character that probably needs a mention, since he’s another funny Erickson character. Iskaral has no inner monologue, but at the same time is a schemer. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, as people dismiss him as crazy, or read too much into his constant running commentary. He’s actually fairly amusing, as is the way other people treat him.

The most memorable plot by far (according to those who declare this their favorite Malazan book) is the Chain of Dogs – the Malazan army led by Fist Coltaine as he leads 20,000 refugees across the desert continent to the only friendly city left to them, all the while being pursued by the very forces that made them refugees. It’s a bitter journey with a few battle scenes written into it. This pretty much makes everyone tear up when they reach the end of the Chain’s journey and the ensuing events. Unfortunately, the whole thing is led by Coltaine. Coltaine is one of Erickson’s stoic characters (another trope he’s fond of). And stoic people in Erickson’s world never seem to talk. Which makes it really hard to care what happens to this guy. Since he’s also never a viewpoint character, we never get a look at his inner life, which would have probably given the guy some personality. Unfortunately, he just relays orders through other people. Luckily, the Chain of Dogs itself is given the viewpoint character of Duiker, Imperial Historian, and he’s pretty awesome. Through Duiker, you see the sheer, unending weariness of the army and the futility in their attempts to save these refugees. The fact that Coltaine manages to get them to safety is pretty impressive, but I have a hard time investing in a character I know nothing about, even after hundreds of pages of reading about him.

Luckily, most of the other characters work. Icarium and Mappo Trell are introduced in this book (and will appear in many more) and they’re both great characters. Their friendship is what great friendships are made of, while containing a world of tragedy. Icarium has been traveling the world for 94,000 years, attempting to regain his memories, while Mappo does his best to keep him from those memories, all the while despairing at keeping his friend from them (94,000 years is obviously a long time. These books don’t do small-scale). Both of these characters are some of my favorites from the whole series and Erickson writes the guileless tragedy of their friendship beautifully.

Of course, there’s stuff that doesn’t work as well. The Path of Hands felt more confusing than it needed to be at times, even though enough clues are given to explain the thing. Partially I think this is the fault of those involved in the Path – shapeshifters. There’s never any specific reasoning we see from those characters about why they are purusing the Path, other than power. Likewise, we never see any of them as viewpoint characters. Pretty much, it’s just an excuse to have animals attack people. The fact that it was never a real goal (and the person responsible for guarding the Path didn’t even have to intervene at all to stop anyone accomplishing that goal) made it not matter much in the overall proceedings.

Kalam’s plot was  definitely the part where the book slowed down the most. His journey was never all that interesting (and introduces some more ridiculous backstory that Erickson doesn’t explain, going so far as to start to say the mysterious name of the mysterious stranger, but then having someone interrupt it so that readers don’t know who the hell he’s talking about. Now, I live in the future so I have access to wikis so I was able to type in the letters we are given to figure out who this person was, but it didn’t really matter or make much of a difference…so why bother?) and seemed to twist on itself several times in unsatisfying ways. Erickson writes Kalam’s assassin battle with his usual great attention to action, but the whole journey felt poorly thought out, wasn’t all that interesting, and ended on a twist moment that wasn’t all that satisfying. Likewise, the weird part near the beginning where one group goes off into a foreign warren and meets a ship crewed by undead Tiste Andii and Tiste Edur felt like a lot of left-field stuff. Even those events are important in other books, it felt like a whole lot of “Wait, what? What happened to the book I was just reading? Where am I?” However, I felt like that was the case for most of Gardens and I only felt that way about this particular digression in this book. Most of the other stuff made sense and, even if I didn’t understand every event, I could see those themes echo in the events that happened, tying them closer to the main through line of the book.

If I could point to one thing that seems to have improved in Erickson’s writing, it would emotional impact. While there were moments of introspection in Gardens that worked, there were others that felt almost too simplistic. Here, Erickson has improved his chops at philosophizing and paints some complicated pictures of internal motivations. Mappo wars within himself. Duiker and the 7th Army struggles with giving up on their harrowing journey. Felisin does (or does not) grow. Sometimes the philosophizing goes on too long (not necessarily in this book, but there are later books where it becomes annoying), but these small moments really give some weight to the ridiculously convoluted world and plotting that is happening alongside them. It’s in these small moments where characters become people and I’d much rather a book about people doing cool fantasy stuff than a bunch of caricatures casting spells at each other.



  1. Commenting after two years to thank you for also noticing how many times Erikson uses the word ‘febrile’ in this book.

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