Is epic-length fantasy epic Deadhouse Gates the second of ten or the last of two?

, | Book reviews

You don’t read Deadhouse Gates to read Deadhouse Gates. You read it because you just read Gardens of the Moon and you’re about to read, uh…hold on, let me go look up the next book. Memories of Ice. You read it because you’re reading Steven Erikson’s bloated drawn-out Malazan series and this is the second book of, good lord, ten? There are ten of these?

So that’s one issue I have with the novel. I was told — correctly — that in order to appreciate Deadhouse Gates, I should read Gardens of the Moon first. I’m glad I took that advice, because skipping directly to Deadhouse Gates would mean missing out on a lot of context. There’s enough baffling stuff here even if I do recognize characters and events from the last book.

But I’m mainly glad I took this advice because I can see now why someone would recommend Deadhouse Gates rather than saying, “Hey, you should start reading the Malazan series”. I don’t know if the books get progressively better, and I’m not even sure I’d agree that Deadhouse Gates is better than Gardens of the Moon. But Deadhouse Gates is definitely more exotic. It has a more memorable setting, a unique premise, and some really exciting set pieces.

From the very first — well, after the prologue — we’re in a desert setting instead of the usual mild fantasy clime that’s basically Europe. There are constant reminders that we’re not in mild fantasy clime land. Characters wield tulwars instead of swords. They wear telabas instead of capes. The armies are primitive horse tribes, an amalgam of Arabian nomads, Native Americans, and Mongols. The cities are oases with bazaars and if Erikson were more concerned with architecture, we’d probably read more about minarets and bronze domes and gardens. The landscape is storms and ruins. This is a distant, exotic, and harsh land. “Around here,” a character explains, “people ride camels, eat horses.”

This desert continent is occupied by the Malazan empire established in the first book. Deadhouse Gates takes place over the course of an uprising that calls itself the Apocalypse, lead by a charismatic priestess. It seems to be accompanied by a magical storm. What’s more, rampaging monsters and shapeshifters are stampeding towards something in the heart of the storm.

Erikson’s strength is his setting and how it builds on elements introduced in Gardens of the Moon. Warrens, the Empress Laseen, the Seventh Army, sappers, an assassin god, familiars, an undead army, ancient races with names like jhag and trell, the occasional dragon flying overhead. Time is marked by bells in cities, or heartbeats to measure shorter durations. One of my favorite aspects of this world is magic. It’s basically two things: transportation and artillery. Mages access interdimensional pockets called warrens. This is where they get their power, and the idea is that different warrens confer different powers. These warrens are also like subways that people use to move around. There are a couple of really good developments of the idea of warrens in Deadhouse Gates, both as shortcuts and traps. Gardens of the Moon told us about the warrens. Deadhouse Gates enters and explores them.

In conflicts, magic is artillery. Tremendously powerful and colorful artillery. One of the action sequences in the first book is a mage in a flying castle fighting a bunch of mages on the ground, and the army milling around is just cannon fodder. Mana fodder. Unless you’re a mage, and sometimes even when you are a mage, magic just falls on you and explodes and you’re all “WTF?” During the uprising in Deadhouse Gates, some characters are on the receiving end of a magic attack.

The night blossomed around them, a coruscating, flame-lit explosion that flung all three men to the ground. The historian’s shriek of pain joined two others as the sorcery seemed to claw into his flesh, clutch icy cold around his bones, sending jolts of agony up his limbs. His scream rose higher as the relentless pain reached his brain, blotting out the world in a blood-misted haze that seemed to sizzle behind his eyes…the sorcery was killing him, a horrifyingly personal assault, invading every corner of his being.

These aren’t just magic missiles doing 2d4 damage and fireballs doing 2d10 damage. They’re horrifyingly personal assaults, and their victims are shellshocked if not shattered, just like the victims of an artillery barrage. Erikson has four really good battle scenes in Deadhouse Gates. Well, three. The final battle isn’t really a battle, but it’s certainly a scene. Two of the battles are largely decided by magic. If you were to read a history of these battles with diagrams that have arrows showing the directions of armies, you would need some kind of symbol for where the mages made something happen. An X wouldn’t suffice. You should probably come up with some kind of glyph or sigil. It speaks volumes that during these battle scenes, I really wanted to go play Total War: Warhammer, but first I had to find out how the battle ended.

Erikson also has a fondness for sappers, which is refreshingly different. Cavalry, phalanxes, axemen, slingers, archers. These all get their due in any battle. By contrast, sappers as the units that are totally useless unless you’re going to attack walls. A waste of army points, frankly. But in Erikson’s universe, they’re the guys who really know what’s going on. They literally understand the lay of the land. The sappers in Deadhouse Gates’ beleaguered army adopt the role normally occupied by the cavalry: elite troops who play by their own rules and are clever enough to save the day. In fact, in both the battles that are partly decided by magic, the magic goes hand-in-hand with the sappers’ clever schemes. One of the main characters is a sapper carried over from the previous book. Erikson does for sappers what Age of Empires did for trebuchets.

Unfortunately — and this is a huge drawback for me that won’t necessarily bother some readers — Erikson’s weak point is characters. Almost everyone speaks with the same voice. If you were to open to any page and read any bit of dialogue without context, you would never know this was a novel told from the perspective of about ten different characters. They all talk alike. They all think alike. They all sound alike. They all make the same kinds of decisions with the same Mary Sue competence. An assassin is indistinguishable from a sapper who’s indistinguishable from a disgraced priest who’s indistinguishable from an ancient warrior wandering the earth for thousands of years.

(An obligatory mincing goofball is the exception. In Gardens of the Moon, it was Kruppe, a sort of Falstaff to several of the characters. He spoke in third person because that’s wacky. In Deadhouse Gates, it’s a treacherous priest named Iskarl Pust who says what he’s thinking out loud because, hey, that’s wacky! He’s Tom Bombadil’s speech patterns meets Gollum’s cravenness.)

For some reason, Erikson seems reluctant to describe his characters, which makes them blend together all the more. Take this passage:

Against the present fashion, he was bearded, the wiry black ringlets oiled and scented. The hair on his head was cut short. Watery green eyes glittered from a permanent squint above high cheekbones. His wide mouth was bracketed in deep downturned lines.

Okay, that’s good stuff. I can work with that. I know things about this character other than the way he thinks and talks. But this is just an ancillary character who appears on no more than a dozen or so pages. None of the main characters is given this sort of portrait, and if they are, it’s just a quickly forgotten throwaway. Characters are virtually identical cogs in the plot, running internal monologues indistinguishable from each other.

One of the characters is called a “jhag”, but it’s not until page 259 that it’s revealed he has tusks (to be fair, I think I was supposed to remember this from the first book). This important detail is referenced perhaps twice more. It’s an example of how Erikson lives inside his characters, perfectly comfortable looking out, and he sees no reason the reader shouldn’t live there as well. You, the reader, are Fiddler. You are Icarium. You are Felisin. You are Kalam. They might have different character sheets, but they’re always just avatars for the same player. So when Erikson describes the guy with the perfumed beard ringlets, which is a great touch, it’s no different than a dungeonmaster describing the tapestries in the throne room, the heavy wooden door in the dungeon, or the scales on the dragon. You don’t need to know about the characters because you already know about them. They are you.

One of my favorite characters is a demon. It’s worth noting she doesn’t talk, so she doesn’t get swallowed up in the other characters’ slurry of sameness. Furthermore, she has one eye. And Erikson hints at just enough of her physical characteristics to let my imagination fill in for the rest. I wish he had done the same for other characters. On page 815 — out of 836 — I learned that Fiddler, one of the main characters, is a redhead and that he has a beard. “A grey-streaked red snarl of a beard,” Erikson writes. So he’s older as well? Now you tell me. A good writer can paint a physical and psychological picture of different characters. Erikson does neither.

Which is one of the reasons the book sputters to life when the plot threads converge and characters finally meet each other and now we’re seeing them from the outside. The sapper meets two of the characters from a different plot line, which is when we discover a jhag has tusks. His companion, a trell, is “wide as a siege engine”. Characters are inherently more interesting when they interact. The overall structure of Deadhouse Gates is multiple groups in multiple storylines converging. These convergences are among the best parts of the book.

Erikson doesn’t really do female characters, especially in Deadhouse Gates (Gardens of the Moon featured an interesting lady wizard who was pointedly described as not your typical Frank Frazetta cheesecake, but she’s not in this book). It seems like one of the main characters will be a powerful female military leader but, oops, no, she gets assassinated in short order. Another woman is a widow sweet on one of the main characters, so she follows him around because she really wants to hook up with him. Another potential love interest doesn’t even get a name. She’s just a lady soldier. Another female was the puppet of a god in the first book, but now that she’s no longer the puppet of a god, she’s just a vague love interest for another character from the first book. The primary female character is a crack whore. Seriously, she’s a crack whore, but the crack isn’t called crack, it’s called durhang because that sounds more fantasy. She somehow has a dramatic change at a certain point that I didn’t understand any more than I understand Balthazar Getty turning into Bill Pullman in Lost Highway. But to Erikson’s credit, it sets up what I imagine is going to be a long-term character arc between two sisters. That’s probably the most compelling reason I can think of to keep reading the series.

If Erikson’s strength is setting and his weakness is characters, his plotting is somewhere in the middle. I especially respect how he isn’t interested in writing the typical “foozle with a magic doo-dad gonna end the world!” fantasy nonsense. He’s more interested in the “there are good people on both sides” Game of Thrones fantasy nonsense. Or, to be fair, political intrigue, moral complexity, and epic scope. There is no good or evil here. There are factions with different priorities and agendas. The bad guys he does introduce are ridiculous caricatures who get their comeuppance. Usually a punch in the face.

But at times, this attempt at moral complexity hamstrings the storytelling because the stakes aren’t clear. Foozles with magic doo-dads ending the world are idiot-proof. Any writer can do that and the stakes are baked in. But without more compelling characters, I don’t really care which empire rules which continent or whether someone gets to assassinate on offscreen character or how this party is ever going to reach that plot point.

In fact, when it’s all said and done, I’m not sure any of the stuff about the eponymous deadhouse even makes sense. Look, I’m not one of those “why didn’t they just ride the eagles to Mount Doom?” guys. I know why they didn’t just ride the eagles to Mount Doom. It would have been a short and uninteresting story. So they’re not going to ride the eagles to Mount Doom. But my problem with Deadhouse Gates is that one of the two main plot threads is various parties trying to manage some kind of interdimensional gateway. But isn’t a fundamental part of Erikson’s worldbuilding the idea that mages can navigate interdimensional gateways called warrens? These warrens are used the way that technobabble is used in science fiction. Oh, I’ve pulled out some magic. Oh, here’s a demon or a dragon. Oh, this character is suddenly over here. Magic can do that with warrens. Okay, got it! So why all the fuss about some other magical gateway? It seems like half of Erikson’s plot is trying to create drama around something that’s already resolved.

The other half of the plot, however, is beyond reproach in terms of establishing stakes and making me care. After the uprising, one of the characters has to make a difficult choice, and it results in an army crossing a vast barren continent, under siege, under supplied, and outnumbered the whole way, but determined to protect and provide for tens of thousands of refugees. This is great stuff, instantly relatable and even starkly relevant. This half of Deadhouse Gates is really the reason to read it. Here are the battles and the intriguing perspective on magic and characters making hard decisions.

This overall structure — converging storylines in a fantasy desert while armies rage and magic seethes — is sound, but there are too few plot points based on magic doo-dads instead of characters making decisions. Erikson isn’t shy about just throwing in deus ex machinas whenever he’s plotted himself into a corner. A dragon here, a magic ship there. At a couple of points, a guild we’ve never even heard of before just teleports in to save someone. They even feed an army. It’s the fantasy equivalent of a supply airdrop. Oh no, we’re starving and dying of thirst and months from any relief! Hey, look, it’s an interdimensional merchant vendor from the Trygalle Trade Guild with free stuff. His name is Karpolan Demesand. Yep. Karpolan Demesand. That’s the kind of name these characters have.

I’m not sure whether these names are better or worse than the names in Gardens of the Moon. On one hand, a lot of them are nonsense syllables inelegantly jammed together. Karpolan Demesand and Korbolo Dom and Kamist Reloe. Lostara Yil. Sormo Enath. I can’t be bothered to look up where the apostrophes go, but some of them have apostrophes in there. At least fewer of the Deadhouse Gates names sound like Skylanders. Here’s a quiz for you. Which of these is a character from the first two Malazan books and which is a Skylander?

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The answer is none of them are Skylanders. As a writer, Erikson isn’t necessarily bad, but he needs an editor and I wish he wasn’t so earnest. A city “surrounds and engulfs” a plateau; one of those synonyms is redundant and unnecessary. There is no reason to ever use the word “surcease” unless you’re explaining to the dungeonmaster what your elf wizard is going to say to the dwarf innkeeper. Erikson is pretty fond of “surcease”. People are constantly “swinging their gazes”. Erikson loves to punctuate dialog with text about who’s looking at whom and how. Intently. With regard. Amusedly. Knowingly. If there’s one thing worse than weak dialogue, it’s padded weak dialogue.

He still manages some nice bits, perhaps because he’s so earnest. “Blood and chaos is the wine and meat of the gods” is pretty cool fantasy D&D talk. During a pitched sea battle, he writes, “The gods were grinning down on the scene, but it was the rictus of death’s head.”
That’s awfully purple, but it works. More often, he’ll present a nice gem and then smear word dirt on it. “Desert stars, sharp diamonds that ever seemed eager to draw blood.” Sharp diamonds is great, eager to draw blood isn’t so good, but “ever seemed eager” nosedives the whole thing. Ever seemed eager?

The ending is weirdly abrupt, if you can describe something stretched over a hundred pages as abrupt. But that’s because it’s not, in fact, an ending. It’s the transition to the next book. A few characters are sent packing to “happily ever after” denouements — I suspect they’re coming back anyway — but most of them are just reshuffled and given a new direction. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say the Apocalypse uprising isn’t resolved.

What’s more, I’m at a complete and utter loss as to why some of the characters decide certain things at the end. If I may revisit the Lord of the Rings well, imagine you get to the end and Fredo decides he doesn’t need to throw the One True Ring into Mount Doom after all. He pockets it and goes home. The end.

Wait, what? I just read four Tolkien novels and this is where they ended up? There and back again and the fellowship breaking up and some towers and a king coming back, and then Frodo changes his mind? Are you kidding me? In Erikson’s case, I know he’s not kidding me because he doesn’t kid. Deadhouse Gates and Gardens of the Moon are almost entirely bereft of humor. He takes it all in deadly earnest. It’s a bit exhausting, really. Ease up, dude. 800 pages have room for a little levity.

I suppose it’s just how this world works. This is no kid-friendly Shannara nonsense or stoic Tolkien fading British Empire or benevolently godly C.S. Lewis. Deadhouse Gates opens with a helpless old woman getting her head sawed off with a chain. And although it’s got nothing on Game of Thrones, it does kill off the occasional character. Gruesomely. All the deaths are memorably gruesome and some of them even happen to main characters. Unfortunately, in the last few pages, Erikson pretty much calls takebacks on two of the deaths. I guess it’s like comic books, where no one ever dies.

So do I intend to read, uh, hold on, I have to go look it up again. Memories of Ice. Now that I’ve read the first two of the ten books of the Malazan series, do I intend to read Memories of Ice? No. Am I curious about it? I suppose. Would I understand and appreciate the events and context? Most likely. Would I care what happens? Maybe. So do I want you to just spoil it for me and tell me what happens? No, please don’t! As a guy who doesn’t read fantasy, that’s the highest praise I can offer Erikson’s series. That I might at some point in the future want to read more, so don’t tell me what happens. But for now, I’m good. I’ve read enough Steven Erikson to tide me over for the next several years.


(Why am I reviewing a fantasy novel when I’m not even into fantasy novels? Because the people demanded it (i.e. it won the Patreon review request drawing)! If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, you’ll have the opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want. There’s no limit to what you request and I do drawings every month or so. Want me to move on to Memories of Ice? Support me and cast your vote!)