Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Deadhouse Gates - Steven Erikson

I reread Gardens of the Moon, the first book in Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, last month and it very much revived my interest in the earlier books in the series. They are quite challenging reads so an entire reread of the series might take a while but perhaps I will try. I couldn't resist taking Deadhouse Gates with me on vacation in Germany anyway. Like with the first book it amazed me how much I missed during the first reading of this book. If you think you know what to expect after reading Gardens of the Moon, think again. Erikson is not about to let the reader settle in comfortably in this series. He certainly kept me on my toes.

The Seven Cities, long since conquered by the Malazan Empire is about to burst into rebellion. Fuelled by prophecies and the perceived weakness of the Empress the legions of an uprising known as the Whirlwind is gaining force in the Raraku dessert. Lead by the mysterious seer Sha'ik a torrent of fanaticism and bloodshed is about to descend on the Malazans unfortunate enough to be caught up in the storm. To protect the Malazan refugees an undermanned force lead by the Wickan chief Coltain is sent on a nearly suicidal mission to escort the Malazans fleeing before the Whirlwind to the city of Aren. Witnessed by the Imperial Historian Duiker, Coltain attempts to do the impossible.

In the mean time in the Malazan capital of Unta the latest round of purges makes a new victim. Felesin, youngest daughter of the house Paran finds herself in chains and on her way to do forced labour in the Olateral mines. If she survives the trip. Her brother Ganoes is presumed dead on Genebackis and her sister Tavore has shifted her loyalty to the Empress. Tavore has much to answer for, failing to protect her house and family. Apsalar, or Sorry as she was known to her squad mates, is heading back to the island of her birth to find her father. Accompanied by Crocus, Fiddler and Kalam her path takes her directly into the eye of the storm.

Deadhouse Gates is the only book in this series of which I own the American version. Tor wisely left the cover art for this one unchanged so it is graced by Steve Stone's marvellous image of the hounds forming in the dust storms of the Whirlwind. This image even survived the series redesign of the Bantam editions from The Bonehunters on. Definitely one of the better covers in the series.

Although the possibility of a rebellion was already mentioned in Gardens of the Moon, that book also offers a good opportunity of a sequel with the same set of characters. An opportunity that will in fact be taken up in the third book Memories of Ice. Instead, Erikson develops a whole new part of his world in this second book, with al almost entirely new set of characters. Only a handful are carried over from the previous book. Not a whole lot if you take into account that the Dramatis Personae for this novel lists over eighty characters. It is a pattern that Erikson will follow for the rest of the series. With the exception of the final two books in the series, which could be considered one very big tale, the books constantly switch from one continent to the next.

The story of Coltain's Chain of Dogs, probably the backbone of this book and an arc completely contained to Deadhouse Gates, is without a doubt the most striking part of the novel. A tragedy in Malazan style with an army, abandoned by the higher command, trying to achieve the impossible out of a sense of honour and duty that far exceeds what might be expected of an ordinary soldier. In Gardens of the Moon we saw one squad operate more or less on it's own. The Chain of Dogs is the first real demonstration of what makes a Malazan army so deadly, a lesson that will be repeated in other books.

The first time I read this novel the Chain of Dogs took most of my attention. I occasionally lost patience with Kalam's exploits in particular. Although his story arc is completed in this novel, a lot of the time we spent with him is used to foreshadow events in later books. This is also partly true for Felesin, who ends up playing an important part in House of Chains. A lot of that will be lost on the reader on a first reading. There are lots and lots of references to events and places that won't make sense until House of Chains and Midnight Tides. Holds are mentioned in this book as a more primitive versions of warrens (which are still not adequately explained themselves), the mysterious Toblakai warrior at Sha'ik's side remains anonymous until the fourth book, there are more hints on the coup of Empress Laseen and the purging of the old guard, the first appearance of the Trygalle Trade Guild and in between all that detail, there are the rumours of evens depicted in Memories of Ice floating around. In short, a lot of detail not directly related to the story being told. It will all make sense later on it the series but for now it requires patience on the part of the reader.

So a book with two distinct faces then. One part that sweeps the reader away in the heroic effort of Coltain to save as many Malazan lives as possible and another with probably even more obscure references than the first novel in the series. This second side of the novel has definitely grown on me during the reread but for a first time reader it remains a difficult book. By this point in the series it should be clear that Erikson tells a complex story in a highly developed and messy world. Together with co-creator Ian C. Esslemont he is writing epic fantasy with a scope beyond any other epic fantasy series I have read. For me, this reread is underlining just how good this series really is. If there weren't several dozen other books screaming for my attention I'd dive right into Memories of Ice.

Book Details
Title: Deadhouse Gates
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 843
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-765-34879-1
First published: 2000

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