Deadhouse Gates by Steven EriksonNovember 24, 2010 at 3:04 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 6 Comments
Tags: Steven Erikson
If there’s one thing you can say about Steven Erikson, it’s that he’s not afraid to take risks. Gardens of the Moon was a novel that refused to compromise its vision, even if many readers were left struggling to keep up. Deadhouse Gates, the second book in the ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen series, requires similar concessions on the reader’s part, but they are concessions of a different kind. At the end of Gardens of the Moon there’s a fair amount of narrative momentum leading into the conflict with the Pannion Domin, but this is left entirely for the third book, Memories of Ice. Instead, Deadhouse Gates leaves almost all the characters from the first book behind in favor of a different story set on a different continent.
Although there isn’t a lot of carryover from the previous novel, readers new to the Malazan series are still advised to start with Gardens of the Moon, which I reviewed at length last week. One reason is that even if there’s not a lot of direct continuity here, there are revelations about the history and nature of the world that are much more effective in their proper context. Another is that, in my opinion at least, Gardens of the Moon is a significantly better novel.
It turns out that most of the shortcomings I identified when reviewing Gardens of the Moon have been addressed. The narrative is more focused. There are fewer characters trying to do far fewer things. The timespan of the story is much longer, stretching across months instead of days. All these things give the characters a great deal more room to breathe than in the previous novel, which always felt in a hurry to get to the next scene.
Unfortunately, many of the virtues I celebrated in Gardens of the Moon are likewise absent. Where Gardens suffered from a conclusion that felt diffuse, most of the main story threads in Deadhouse end poorly, or else not at all. Meanwhile, although it’s more focused, Deadhouse Gates is actually quite a bit longer than Gardens of the Moon. For vast stretches of the novel, characters are stuck traveling from point A to point B, thinking back to what happened at A and planning what they should do at B. This has been a problem for fantasy novels since Tolkien (and some would say Tolkien suffered from this as well). Generally a few of these scenes go a long way, since all things being equal I think most readers would rather read about the points of interest instead of the trip between them, but this sort of traveling is responsible for a considerable portion of Deadhouse Gates‘s length.
It’s also, frankly, a rather dreary novel. The characters spend most of their time worrying about dying, whether from starvation, thirst, or through attack by the many powerful and malign forces around them. Not a few of them do, in fact, die, and almost all of them are in various stages of despair. Erikson tries to lighten the mood periodically but for me most of these “light” moments fell flat. Worse, they threatened the suspension of disbelief that is so important in secondary world fantasy. In particular, scenes with the courier service and Coltaine’s sappers felt completely out of place with the rest of the story. The only exception was Iskaral Pust. I haven’t looked around for other people’s reactions but, like Kruppe in Gardens of the Moon, he seems like the sort of character a lot of people would find tiresome. For my part I thought he was hilarious, and his behavior seemed more or less believable given what we’ve seen of Shadowthrone.
Although it’s too long and suffers from other problems I’m going to dive into momentarily, I do want to point out that this isn’t really a bad book. The vast detail of Erikson’s world is still a big selling point, and its unique attributes (briefly, the vast sense of history and the grand disparity of powers) still make for some very nice moments, like Icarium standing in the ruins of a city trying to understand the survival of his timekeeping device or the dragons flying over and then through the vast mosaic. Erikson’s background in anthropology continues to provide a fairly unique sense of history to the landscapes his characters must travel, and when they fight and die it is always clear that these are just the latest verses of an old, sad song.
The plot of Deadhouse Gates can be split fairly cleanly into four distinct narratives. All of them concern the rebellion in Seven Cities and each has a few links with each of the others, but they could have been published separately (or, the cynic in me mutters, not at all in some cases) without losing very much in the process.
Of the four storylines, the one readers will have the most initial affinity for concerns Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar, since along with Kalam they are the only holdovers from Gardens of the Moon. They get off to a bad start, however, mired in authorial contrivance. At the end of the previous book they were, after all, heading for a completely different continent. Why did they come to Seven Cities instead, and having come there, why does their best plan to reach their real destination consist of traveling to a place whose location and even existence is not certain, all so they can take advantage of a a means of travel that is even more hypothetical? It’s not that the book doesn’t provide answers to these questions, but they are not very satisfying. This is the sort of novel where the characters frequently ask, “What are we doing here?” or “Why am I doing this?” It’s probably unfair to suggest they are channeling the author’s subconscious, but since I was asking the same questions and was unimpressed by the answers, I couldn’t shake the suspicion.
On the positive side, Fiddler and company meet up with Icarium and Mappo, whose situation is intriguing and eventually even somewhat moving. Unfortunately some of the power of the Icarium/Mappo scenes is lost through overuse. Again and again we are treated to Mappo’s angst without him being able to arrive at any sort of decision. Considering he’s been traveling with Icarium for centuries, it seems like Mappo ought to have thought things out a little better. When push finally comes to shove, the reset button is hit and nothing changes in their relationship. Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar meanwhile finish the book having had almost nothing to do throughout.
The same can’t be said for Kalam, since he plays a key role in the uprising. However, it’s a role that comes on him suddenly and is dispensed with almost immediately. The scene where Kalam takes shelter with Malazan soldiers and has a Deck of Dragons thrown at him is great, but it’s downhill from there. Kalam incites the uprising, becomes linked with a demon, inexplicably acquires a love interest, and fights pirates, but he does all these things essentially by accident. He himself doesn’t seem to know why he’s doing any of these things and certainly doesn’t feel very strongly about them. For a series widely considered the epitome of swords and sorcery, the climactic ninja battle in Malaz City is hopelessly silly and reads more like a parody of the subgenre. Finally, after a conversation that lasts about a minute, Kalam decides that everything he’s been doing for the past few months was a waste of time. I’m not sure why, as a reader, I shouldn’t conclude the same about his portions of the book.
The chain of dogs storyline is a different matter entirely. This is by far the best material in the book, not to mention the most memorable (it was the only part of the book I remembered from my original reading a few years ago). It’s still longer than it needs to be, but because it’s a story of endurance the slow pace isn’t as harmful here as it is to the novel’s other narratives. It reads something like a sports story, in that you know the team is going to get to the final game, but you don’t know where the author will go once they get there. It also has some similarities to Ender’s Game in that they both concern a military genius using trickery to defeat stacked odds again and again. It also indulges in some of the hoary cliches of military fiction, setting selflessly noble soldiers against morally bankrupt savages and painting both the high command and wealthy civilians as utterly craven. This use of over-the-top villains is a regrettable first for the Malazan series and mars what are otherwise the strongest elements of the novel.
The last of the four groups of characters centers on Felisin, sister of Captain Paran from Gardens of the Moon. Felisin’s an unusually unsympathetic viewpoint character, although her character goes through some changes that some readers probably find interesting. I’m afraid I found them quite disappointing. She undergoes two wrenching experiences that change her personality, but the first happens completely off screen. She then spends most of the novel being contemptible until going through the second shift, and this one happens only at the very end, so we don’t see the woman she becomes. While I appreciate what Erikson was trying to do, I find it mystifying that he didn’t spend more time on the changes and less time on the long period in between when Felisin is completely unlikeable.
It doesn’t help that Felisin and her various companions spend most of the book undergoing constant deprivation, exhaustion, and attack. The similarity to the vastly more effective chain of dogs scenes doesn’t do either storyline any favors. Meanwhile, her mostly helpless group is subject to constant attacks by vastly more powerful forces. On occasion these result in characters dying, but the there’s a crying wolf effect. After the tenth time they are attacked by a deadly foe, it doesn’t seem that important any more. Again, this is aggravated by the presence of another narrative, in this case Fiddler’s, since that group is under similar threat, making the reader even more inured to it. When someone finally dies as a result of one of these attacks after there was no lasting damage from the previous fifteen, it feels arbitrary. Sometimes arbitrary catastrophe can provide a sense of realism, but here it never feels very likely that these underpowered characters could survive as much as they do.
It’s possible that many of my problems with this novel are a result of treating it as if it stood alone when it’s the second book out of ten. This is obviously only the beginning of the story for characters like Felisin and Icarium. But some of the blame must also be laid at the feet of Erikson’s refusal to provide context for his characters. This was probably a strength in Gardens of the Moon, since it gave the world a feeling of depth. But in Deadhouse Gates the lack of information caused me to have real problems sympathizing with the characters. We have no idea what Felisin was like before her arrest, for example, so there’s absolutely no way to tell how much of her personality afterward was warped by that experience. Much is made of Heboric’s loss of faith in the god Fener and his partial reconciliation, but it’s never made clear exactly how and why Heboric fell away from the god in the first place. Nor is it explained what Fener is like, what demands he makes of his priests, and what rewards he confers on them. Without this information, it’s impossible to make heads or tails of Heboric’s issues. Kalam and Fiddler are perhaps the worst off, since their feelings about the Malazan Empire and the Empress are crucial to their aims in the novel, but again we have no reliable information on either of these things. Laseen and Kallanved in particular and the Malazan Empire in general are all ciphers. Kalam, Fiddler, and the other Bridgeburners from the previous book all seem like good people whereas Laseen and Kellanved do not, but they dislike Laseen and revere Kellanved. I assume this will all be filled in later, but it’s asking a lot of readers to make them go for so long without this information given how important it is to understanding the main characters and their motivations.
Thematically, given how impressed I was with the way Gardens of the Moon dealt with violence and war, it’s surprising that Deadhouse Gates doesn’t seem remotely as nuanced. At first, Coltaine’s chain of dogs seems like a continuation of the first book’s modern spin on warfare. Everything about the setup and the mission itself is anachronistic. Not only do I doubt an ancient army in our world would protect poor refugees, the sheer number of refugees wouldn’t make sense in previous eras. Including the many who die along the way, the chain of dogs probably had about fifty thousand refugees. Considering that far more civilians were killed in the cities and the surrounding countryside, it seems like a million people would be a reasonable guess at the total number of Malazan people in Seven Cities. This is a preposterous number of colonists by ancient standards, especially considering their home country is on an entirely different continent.
However, this tale of modern war is built on a foundation of, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this, imperialist values. Most people today are pretty sympathetic to the concept of self-determination of peoples, but that principle makes no appearance here. The Malazan Empire conquered Seven Cities fair and square, it seems, and they need to just accept it. At best, the opponents of the Malazans are primitive people being manipulated by a god. They are fundamentally dishonorable opponents: they attack civilians, they commit all manner of atrocities, and they violate the terms of truce on multiple occasions. Again and again we are invited to compare the steadfast Malazan soldier bravely fighting to defend civilians with the undisciplined rabble they are fighting. Unlike in Gardens of the Moon, we are given no viewpoints from the other side to humanize this opposition. And whereas in Gardens of the Moon death in battle was seen as an almost meaningless sacrifice on the altar of a vast Imperial war machine, the chain of dogs story is rooted in the view that dulce et decorum est. The tragedy here, we are made to feel, is that there are not more righteous Malazan soldiers available to put all these vile rebels to the sword, with the caveat that Coltaine and his army are winning great glory for themselves and their nation thanks to the absence of same.
That’s not to say that Deadhouse Gates is completely lacking in self-awareness. Running through all its disparate narratives are questions of responsibility. Icarium is judged not to be responsible for the results of his violent rages and this is sufficient reason to preserve him from imprisonment, even though it endangers countless future lives. Felisin is absolved of responsibility for her constant hateful behavior by Heboric on the grounds that it is her suffering that has made her this way. Many people, meanwhile, are proposed as being responsible for the Seven Cities rebellion. There’s Kalam, since in his autopilot wandering through the novel he helped Sha’ik get everything started. Kalam’s opinion, shared by several other characters, is that the Empress and her negligence is to blame, although this is mostly dropped about halfway through the novel. At other points the Whirlwind goddess seems to be responsible, since the rebels are, after all, religious fanatics. Yet by the end, Felisin tells us that no, the goddess was horrified, absolutely horrified, by what is being done in her name, and those awful prophecies emerged from the warped mortal soul of Sha’ik. Even Emperor Kellanved is put forward as being responsible since the T’lan Imass army theoretically under his command committed mass murder at Aren, an atrocity not forgotten by the people of Seven Cities. He wasn’t responsible, Kalam and Fiddler insist, on the grounds that he didn’t actually order the slaughter, although they don’t contest the fact the Emperor brought the ancient army of undead to Seven Cities in the first place.
No matter who is responsible, this seems to be the latest in a cycle of violence that began with the Empire’s invasion of Seven Cities many years before. In another break from the previous book, there isn’t really any acknowledgment that this cycle ought to be broken. The Empress hisses that Seven Cities will pay for their rebellion, much to Kalam’s approval. Fiddler even enlists to go with the Adjunct’s army and fight the rebels, presumably because he considers the mission of wrath to be a righteous one. Coltaine several times tells Duiker that being a historian makes him the most important person in the chain of dogs, for the memory of what has happened must be preserved. The implication, I think, is that the efforts of Coltaine and his soldiers must be recorded as an example for future Malazan armies to follow, but this memory will necessarily preserve a record of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the rebels. “Possessing these memories enforces a responsibility,” Apsalar tells Icarium, “just as possessing none exculpates.”
The Malazan Empire seems more in need of exculpation than responsibility, I think, and perhaps the Empress agrees, since her purges of the Emperor’s men are frequently said to be a deliberate attempt at effacing the record of his reign. There’s no doubt that the Malazan forces sent to put down the rebellion will make the Seven Cities answer in blood for what was done to Coltaine’s army. “Eventually a man reaches a point where every memory is unwelcome,” Fiddler tells Mappo at another point, and it seems the Malazan Empire and its enemies reached that point a long time ago.