DEADHOUSE GATES – Steven Erikson (2000)

Deadhouse GatesWhen 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 ofย  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.


24 responses to “DEADHOUSE GATES – Steven Erikson (2000)

  1. Memories of Ice are actually one of the very best in Malazan Book of the Fallen, at least in my opinion. I found “Deadhouse Gates” rather depressing and indeed tiring, without the emotional impact “Gardens” provided. Yet it can be viewed as a stepping stone, a foundation, so to speak, to the plotline of the next books. “Gardens” creates a world and introduces the very general lines of conflict, “Gates” sets the missing pieces on the board.
    I consider the whole series a long paean to regular soldiers and infantry as a form of community. Erikson doesn’t hide his fascination, nor his debt, to Cook, and both are very visible in the Malazan as an entirety.
    Still, I would be far from calling Erikson nihilistic – the view he paints in the early books is very grim indeed, but my take on it is that he did it to achieve a higher contrast between the world as essentially an uncaring and unforgiving place and sentient races who give this world and their place in it a meaning. It doesn’t mean he gets joyful and skippy anywhere – it’s grim and bleak to the very end (almost), but his message is deeply humane.
    As for the mystery of the warrens and the Hood, I won’t spoil it – it’s too good a treat ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is that Glen Cook? I have yet to read him.

      Nihilism as I understand it is actually what you describe: admitting we live in an uncaring world, so it’s up to humans to provide meaning themselves. It’s just that Erikson doesn’t provide a lot of that ‘meaning’, hints of friendship, nationalism are about it. Now that I think about it, ‘honor’ features too, but what is that in this book? Living by some form of code, and usually reacting violently if that code is transgressed.

      I know I wrote in my review Erikson provides a truer look onto humanity than Sanderson, and I stand by that, but I’m intruiged you calling his message ‘deeply humane’, I’m wondering if he’ll surpass the rather onesided soldier-kind of humane. I’m also not sure if ‘soldiers’ are a good metaphor for humanity as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Glen Cook. Very highly recommended :).
        As for nihilism, for me it is a more emotional approach to the world than what Erikson presents in his novels: nihilism is a shout of defiance in the face of an indefferent world. Erikson more focuses on loyalty – to others, but also to oneself, as in being true to one’e values and ideals. Friendship, love (more in an unromantic sense) and a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself (not necessarily a nation, there are almost no nations in the modern sense of the word, but to cohesive groups of primary and secondary socialization) are in the Malazan series all crucial to understanding Erikson’s message. Soldiers are a vehicle through which he translates most of his ideas, but there are other human communities in the later Malazan books which play an important role as well. I think Erikson was fascinated by the Black Company and the soldiers as a plot vehicle gave him more mobility and cohesion than any other group he could think of (except maybe nomads ;)).
        I am not a fan of Sanderson ;). I find his books shallow and very generic, and his message unoriginal. But I highly recommend Cook. He writes about soldiers as well, but knows a good deal more about it, being a Vietnam vet himself.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the honor I spoke about is what you point out as loyalty. That something bigger than yourself might be life? In that sense it his message just the tired old (but true): love life because death is imminent?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think it’s more than that – I think he maintains a broadly stoical point of view: there are values which need to be cherished even at the price of life itself ๐Ÿ˜‰ But epicureanism is there as well, and limiting one’s desires is something soldiers of Malazan need to quickly accept ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. I liked Malazan but never had the emotional response to it that so many others seem to have. In my memory, this one and Memories of Ice were the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was more awe than emotions in Gardens for me. Deadhouse didn’t have much of both, except maybe at the beginning with the halfblood Jaghut Icarum, and the end with Coltaine & Duiker. Icarum & Mappo’s ending wasn’t really emotional for me, but I’ve read other reviews indeed. The joy I experienced during of the first half of my reading was mainly anticipation I guess.


  3. “pompous term”
    What’s pompous is Erikson’s shoving his philosophy wholesale down his readers’ throats instead of telling a damned good story. Like I wrote in my tiny comment to your comment earlier, by the last book the story is lost in verbose soldiers wondering about the pointlessness of the whole of existence, in the middle of freaking battles. It really came across as preaching to me. While I’m a hardcore Christian, even I’m not a fan of “shovel it down their throats in the guise of a story”, much less when it’s a philosophy diametrically opposed to what I believe.

    The multiple POV’s never decrease. Esslemont does a slightly better job, but save his books for after the main malazan series, as they are all sequels. As for excessive details about tribes, etc, etc, it stays at the same level. Their archeological roots show bigtime in regards to that.

    My only caution about waiting a year between books is perhaps forgetting some of the storylines. They don’t all tie directly together book by book, so a clear memory helps tie book 2 to book 4, etc.

    Great review too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thanks, yes indeed, I shouldn’t be whimpy about it, Erikson asked for it. What you write isn’t really encouraging me to read the whole series. I’m more and more weary of mouthpiece characters. It ruined NY 2140 for me. Why did you continue yourself?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I continued, originally, because I had read the first 7 books and wanted to know how it all ended. I still thought there was one big overarching story plot that Erikson would spring on us in the last books to tie everything together. I thought that right up to the end of book 10. I was so young then ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Now, I continue because I want to properly review the bloody things and I want to see what I think on a second read. That and Gardens of the Moon is probably one of the best books I’ll ever read. I can see re-reading that multiple times over the coming years.

        And sometimes I’m a bit of a masochist! ๐Ÿ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

      • I appreciate your review and agree with it. Though I love the Malazan series I found DG to be my least favorite, although in retrospect itโ€™s probably the most important.

        Itโ€™s nihilism and violence wasnโ€™t the turn-off for me but the new characters were hard to root for (for awhile) and I found the chapters too full of events. It was like too many view points and scene jumps would occupy a single chapter, something Erikson fixes in different books.

        But please continue reading as the next book is truly great. And despite what Bookstooge said, there is an overarching plot. Iโ€™m not sure how he could have read till the end and not seen the full picture of the tale. His statement boggles my mind because I thought the series was great and ended on a perfect note. But to each their own I guess. But just know there definitely is an overarching plot.

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  4. Memories of Ice is my favorite in the series so far, I also prefered GotM to DH which I found way too long for what it was. I really need to continue this series, I have been stuck at the beginning of the seventh book for two years now but I really want to know how Erickson is going to tie everything up!
    Great review ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, the consequences of metaphysical chaos — one might even say a _theology_ of chaos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yet he does speak of a rather cliched balance of destruction & creation in the book… I’m still not sure if their is much more than the old ‘love life because death is imminent’ message to these books. Not that it is a bad message, but as I said, there isn’t much to life in Malazan to celebrate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And indeed, it seems like there are no ‘positive’ gods in that world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • One could have a negative theology that enfolds positive processions — a saturated emptiness, rather than an abyss. A theology of chaos does this odd thing where there is nothing, but the nothing is something, is a positive envelope for the world.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I used positive less in an ontological sense but merely in the emotional sense of our everyday language. The way you describe it, Deadhouse Gates is indeed full of this saturated, chaotic emptiness, possible even giving meaning to the characters, and as such positive in yet another way. Interesting comment, thanks!

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  6. If you read till the end of the series, you will realise Erikson is as far from nihilism as you can get. The main theme of the entire series is compassion. What he does not want to do is sugar coat the realities of the world โ€“ in fact, being able to see the world for what it is makes us value compassion even more.

    The great thing about this series is that it has so many other themes, some that only come out from re-reads. I never appreciated the Mhybe and parenthood until I read MOI a 2nd time after I became a dad. And it never ceases to amaze me how Erikson manages to weave the eternal balance between chaos and order into a compelling storyline in TtH.

    Anyway different people have their own favorite books. Many love Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice. But the one that moved me the most and made me drop buckets of tears was Toll the Hound. Go figure ๐Ÿ™‚

    The best thing I can see about this series is that it has changed me and how I see the world (hopefully for the better)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the elaborate comment, that further clarifies a few things. OlaG made a similar comment. It will definitely shape my reading experience of book 3 for the better.


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