The only words that I can think of to sum up Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series are “Wow.” and “What the heck is going on here?!?” (I would have used stronger language, but this is a family website). Erikson appears to be doing something big and shiny, but I have not yet been quite able to grasp what it is. Maybe I am being dense, but this is the second of his books that I have read, and I have the pervasive feeling as I progress through this series that I am missing something important, but I can’t put my finger on what precisely that is.
Deadhouse Gates is the second of the Malazan novels, but it does not pick up where Gardens of the Moon left off. The events in it occur immediately after Gardens of the Moon, but they are on a different continent, and using largely different characters. The Malazan books do this — the third book, Memories of Ice, goes back to Genebackis, and so on. The main plot behind Deadhouse Gates is the rebellion of the people of the Seven Cities in Darujhistan, which calls itself the Whirlwind, and how elements of the Malazan Empire in the Seven Cities try to survive. We are introduced to Duiker, the Imperial Historian, who recounts the March of Dogs of the great general Coltaine, who tasks himself with protecting the Malazan refugees in their attempt to reach safety across an entire continent. The theme so obvious in this story line is the civilian population’s disdain and contempt for the soldiers who are quite literally keeping them alive. In addition to Coltaine’s March, there are a number of vital sub-plots that underpin the entire series, but due to the length of this review, I won’t go into them.
Erikson has interweaving plots and sub-plots, and he expertly ties them together by the end of this book. His characterization is brilliant, and he has created people you cheer for (who wouldn’t follow Coltaine?) and people you despise (Felisin — read the book and you will know what I mean), and one’s you identify with (Duiker) but at the same time you understand why they are the way they are. I found the ending of the book a bit improbable, and Erikson went over the top at the end in his pursuit of brutal reality, but I cannot say more without spoiling the read.
My biggest difficulty is the world building aspect. This is not the classic medieval fantasy world, but it appears to be a blend of the Roman Empire and Henry V (you have crossbows and explosives and heavy cavalry, but Roman organization), and it “feels” middle eastern. I like this a lot. The Malazan world is very well-done and complex, and it is on a scale more massive than anything I have ever seen, but the reader is not given much information about why things are the way they are, despite there being two 1000-page novels under his or her belt. I am not asking for an info-dump, but Erikson could do a better job of educating his readers about this incredibly imaginative world he has co-created (Ian Cameron Esslemont has written two books in the Malazan world). However, he only releases little bits of history here and there, and so this reader, at least, is left feeling a little lost. Perhaps this world is just too big and different for Erikson to be able to do so. Also, if you can find a person who understands the Warren system of magic, please have them explain it to me. I won’t try, because I cannot understand it at all … which is not necessarily a bad thing. Can we really understand something supernatural anyway? I have the sneaking suspicion that Erikson intended his systems of magic to be incomprehensible.
Erikson’s military campaigns read like history come alive. They are brutally realistic, and I feel like I am reading the accounts of an eye witness of battles in our own world like The Somme, Vimy Ridge, Ortona or D-Day. A veteran soldier would be better able to pronounce on this aspect of Erikson’s work. His world is awful and as messy as ours is, and for this he is to be applauded. He is one of the writers that shows that fantasy has grown up and become something even more deserving of the respect that more conventional genres enjoy. However, fantasy does not get much darker than Erikson. Deadhouse Gates is brutal, and very, very human — at least, at our worst. The best description I have heard is that people would love to vacation in Middle Earth, but they wouldn’t go to the Malazan Empire in a million years. This is not a book or series for the faint of heart or the unintelligent, and I cannot recommend this book for young adults, due to the sheer amount of brutal violence (including rape and brutal, violent mob murders, etc.). There is very little light to balance the grim reality of Erikson’s fantasy, and that appears to be the trend in fantasy today. Personally, I prefer a little more balance, which in its own way is more realistic, but I do not fault Erikson for this. He has created a masterpiece.
I can, given my difficulties in comprehension, only give this book 4 stars. The quality is amazing, but some of my enjoyment is lost as I cannot understand the story well enough to enjoy it the way that I would a Janny Wurts or a George RR Martin novel. My brain is not given enough fuel by Erikson to soar into his world without restriction, and I have to think too much about the story line in order to comprehend it. This book — aye, this series — is not for the fantasy neophyte, nor for any kind of neophyte. If you are a fan of the big epic fantasy, this is worth a try. If you love the gritty realism of A Song of Ice and Fire, I think you will like these books. If you are a fan of the complex plots and deep characterization of The Wars of Light and Shadow, try Malazan. However, Erikson does something that is remarkably different from anyone else. Just what the heck that is I have yet to discover… maybe you can figure it out.
ANGUS BICKERTON practises law in a small town in Eastern Ontario. He lives with his wife, their two youngest children, and their black lab in a 160 year-old stone home, which also holds his law office. He has become, through inadvertence bordering on negligence, an expert in money-pit properties, and in do-it-yourself repair and construction. He has always dreamed of writing novels, but so far he has only self-published a play about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ entitled The Gate.