When I wrote my review for Gardens Of The Moon, I didn’t have that much new to offer to readers familiar with the series, and instead I tried to convince possible new readers to give that book a go, as it was one of my favorite reads that year. This is the sequel: what to say about a 943-page book that is the second in a 10-book series, set in a universe co-created with Ian Esslemont – who also wrote another 7 books?
Let me start this review by something that could be also of interest to readers not familiar with the series, namely the philosophical foundations underlying the book, and presumably the entirety of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen.
After that, I’ll try to voice my assessment of Deadhouse Gates as a work of High Fantasy fiction – the actual review, so to say. That might also be of interest to readers still pondering whether to start this series, as I didn’t feel this book to be as successful as Gardens Of The Moon.
Maybe ‘philosophical foundations’ is a bit of a pompous term, but then again, this is EPIC High Fantasy. Erikson portrays a world whose events will ring true to the death metal aficionado: a variant of ‘nihil verum nihi mors‘ – only death is real. The bulk of this book portrays life as futile, subject to chaos and, ultimately, death – wizard healers notwithstanding. In that sense, human existence is meaningless, and a higher Justice non-existent – endless revenge is the only possibility left to those who feel to need to morally balance things out.
The same goes for the life of the immortal races populating the world, and even the gods themselves – who in these books at the end of the day are just humans with a lot more magic prowess than a mage. Nobody can escape violent death or eternal torment in some magic warren – not the immortal races, nor the gods. It seems as if the gods aren’t even creators in the traditional mythological sense, but subject to Creation’s laws just the same. Even the powers feeding the magic in this world (‘warrens’, elder spirits) can be hurt or destroyed. These ‘warrens’ seem to have a personality, maybe even a conscious will of their own; and the elder spirits are variants of animistic powers infusing land, rock, landscapes.
The only exception to all this might be Hood, the god of Death, but I’d have to read more of the series to confirm this. If you have an insight in this, don’t hesitate to share it in the comments.
And while Erikson muddles the concept of death as that what obliterates all higher meaning or purpose by writing a world wherein souls exist – some (not all) humans can be reborn via a form of reincarnation -, these souls are born again to again undergo the brutality of a life ending in physical death. What happens to the souls that don’t reincarnate isn’t yet clear in book two, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it never becomes clear at all. Again, drop a note in the comments if you’ve progressed further down the series and are able to shed some light on this.
A lot of people don’t like to be confronted with death and the reality of their mortality. They might feel that art that puts death in the spotlight is something negative: as such a lot of death metal is often misunderstood. I think they might miss the instructive, even positive message of artists who do so. That message is always a variant of a lesson Erikson felt to need to spell out verbatim, in a bit of a clumsy way. I’m not a fan of didactic prose, but here you go:
a sobering reminder that the world was [indifferent and] far bigger than that defined by their own lives, their own desires and goals. (…) of no greater import than the struggles of a termite. (…) We are all lone souls. It pays to know humility, lest the delusion of control, of mastery, overwhelms. And indeed, we seem a species prone to that delusion, again and ever again…
Yet on the very final page before the short epilogue, Erikson backtracks a wee bit on all the nihilistic carnage of all the lonely people.
‘What would I do without you, my friend?’
One of the basic plot lines of this volume is an ode to long-lasting friendship, and as such love does play a role in what Erikson wants to communicate. It is the only glimmer of hope Deadhouse Gates offers. The only other higher ideals people populating the book seem to live for are forms of nationalism and imperialism: not things that provide hope for all of humanity.
While I can sympathize with Erikson’s basic viewpoints – death is a reality, and love between humans is the most important, palpable thing to give meaning to and consolation for our confined lives, even though it is a source of tragedy itself – Erikson seems to forget beauty and entertainment. So while he seems to be a morbid nihilist, hedonism as one of the cures to all this bleakness is absent from this book. Nihilism, hedonism and love work wonderfully as a team – Erikson’s focus is strangely one-sided for these 2000 pages I’ve read so far.
It’s fitting that characters talking about the futility of it all in the light of war & bloodshed still keep on resorting to some code of honor: I guess soldiers have to self-deceive to be able to do their thing.
What Erikson also gets right is the desire of some humans to strive to be remembered: others’ memories as a form of justification, a longing to leave a trace, the slim possibility of eternity: that what is said on countless funerals – the deceased will live on forever in our hearts, as if anybody will remember even the bereaved in 3 or 4 generations time.
You wear [the magic protection], Historian. All we have done avails the world naught, unless the tale is told.
All and all, Deadhouse Gates doesn’t break any new ground. That doesn’t mean it’s superficial – it’s not. But it’s not exactly metaphysical rocket-science either. Obviously the book doesn’t need to be, as it’s first and foremost a form of entertainment that doesn’t sugar things. Still, although it’s not 100% conceptually tight, it offers a much more interesting, and, yes, truer look on human life than Sanderson gave in his first 2 volumes of The Stormlight Archive, the competing 10-book series-to-be of that other commercially successful giant of High Fantasy.
That leaves me with the regular stuff of book reviews. I’ll try to be quick about it. This was hard work. Nearly 1000 pages with lots of shifting point of view plot lines, and for once an index of ‘Dramatis Personae’ you actually need and use. The first 65% or so were a joy, but things slowed down, got confusing, even repetitive at times. I considered giving up multiple times. I actually gave up twice. I’m glad I reconsidered, as the final 100 pages were redeeming indeed, but still, top notch writing this is not.
Most of the characters aren’t worked out very well, and there’s so much detail in the world-building it saturates the overall image into something that’s hard to connect with emotionally. There’s a lot of battle scenes, and Erikson dutifully names all tribal factions involved: Wickans, Khundryl, Tregyn, Bhilard, Semk, Can’eld, Tithansi. Yet we hardly know any of these clans: not their defining characteristics, not their history, hardly any of their living, breathing members. As a result those names aren’t much more than words on a page.
Maybe paradoxically, this book is not about the Empress, the King’s High Mage, or the Supreme General, as so much other fantasy is about. For the most part it is about regular people, soldiers mostly, and as such more true to life. I’m not saying I didn’t feel emotions – but not enough to merit 1000 pages.
Maybe most importantly for me, Deadhouse Gates also lacked the extravagant imagination of Gardens Of The Moon. No wooden puppet mage, no Anomander Rake. There’s good stuff, Erikson did try (the headless oarsmen, the child mages, Aptorian) but for me it wasn’t on the same level as his debut. Only scaling up the violence and the setting – why not crucify 10.000 people as if it’s all in a day’s work? – doesn’t amount to having a bolder, bigger imagination.
In a year or so, I will read Memories Of Ice, book 3. I’m even pretty optimistic about it, not sure why. I guess Deadhouse Gates‘ final chapters invigorated me enough to forget what a slog it became. But Memories better be an overall more adventurous affair, or I’m out off Malazan.