Thursday, January 15, 2009

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

"I killed him," Squint moaned. "... Who took the man's life? A broken old soldier of the High Fist's arm-- Oh, Beru, have mercy on my soul..."

Duiker wrapped the old man in his arms and held him fiercely. The bow clattered on the platform's wooden slats. The historian felt the man crumpling against him as if his bones had turned to dust, as if centuries stole into him with each ragged breath.

Commander Blistig gripped the bowman bu the back of the collar and yanked him upright. "Before the day's through, you bastard," he hissed, "ten thousand soldiers will be voicing your name." The words shook. "Like a prayer, Squint, like a Hood-damned prayer."

Well, I'm officially a fan of Erikson's absurdly ambitious epic. The scene above is from the intense climax of one of the book's five main storylines. I can tell you that just retyping the passage gave me goosebumps. Erikson is brutal with the fates of his characters, and this scene was particularly heart-wrenching.

Deadhouse Gates' plot is a bit more simple to explain than Gardens of the Moon. The book takes place immediately after the events of Gardens, and follows five main archs that occasional interweave with one another. The storylines are as follows: Kalam is an assassin with plans to strike at the very heart of the Malazan Empire. Crokus, Fiddler, and Apsalar are on a journey to return the latter from wartorn Genabackis to her quiet fishing village. Icarium and Mappo are non-human companions of incredible power on an endless journey to escape their own pasts. Felisin, Heboric, and Baudin are escapees from an Imperial mining camp simply struggling to stay alive. Duiker is the Imperial Historian, following the Malazan Army's death march through the wastelands of the Seven Cities. All of these storylines take place amidst the backdrop of Dhryjhna, the Apocalypse. A whirlwind of rebellion, both figuratively and literally. And that's not even to mention the Path of Hands, a background storyline in which shape-shifting demigod's battle against one another in a misguided attempt to ascend to full Godhood.

I have a hard time picking which of the story archs I enjoyed the most. Icarium and Mappo's relationship is deeply complex and surprisingly compelling. The more you learn about the pasts of these two companions, the more attached to them you become, the more you want them to win out in the end. Which is bizarre, considering their secret is one of unimaginable violence, capable of wiping out entire civilizations. All in all, though, I think Duiker's arch is the most interesting. The Historian follows the Imperial Army's escort of tens of thousands of refugees escaping cities torn apart by revolution. Coltaine is the leader of this army, a man feared by enemies and revered by allies. His will to survive and move forward is staggering and in many ways, he alone is responsible for saving the the lives of the horde of refugees. Coltaine's eventual betrayal by his superiors and many of the refugees he delivered to safety is a tragedy of much greater depth than you might expect to find in a fantasy story such as this one.

Erikson continues to amaze me with his ability to create genuinely memorable characters. High Priest of Shadow Iskaral Pust, for example, is perhaps one of my all-time favorite minor literary characters. Pust is a mischievous little man, completely incapable of internal monologue. This failing is apparently unbeknownst to him, but knownst to us*, as he consistently and inadvertently describes his deepest, darkest motives to the very people he is trying to hoodwink. Even with his cast of hundreds, it's hard to think of even a single, insignificant character to which Erikson doesn't give some sort of depth and soul.

All in all, Deadhouse Gates surpasses Gardens of the Moon in just about every way, which is saying something. The characters are richly painted, the dialogue is fresh and believable, and once again, the mythology of this series continues to blow my mind. Magic (thankfully) plays a smaller role in this book than Gardens but Gods and demigods still play a very important role in the story. I compared the Malazan series to a Homeric epic in the way its Gods interfere with the lives of mortals and Deadhouse only further strengthens that comparison. One scene, in particular, involving a lonely demon, the God of Shadow, and the re-animation of the bodies of thirteen hundred horribly mutilated children was simultaneously grotesque and touching. I again recommend everyone goes out and reads Gardens of the Moon, if only so it will lead them to Deadhouse Gates. After you read Deadhouse, you won't need my recommendation to want to continue the series.

Highlights: The entire "Chain of Dogs" storyline, Gesler and his crew, Apt and "her" adopted son
Lowlights: The meaninglessness of death in this series, Felisin's bitchery, not enough Quick Ben

* A cookie to anyone who can tell me what this reference is from without using google.


Nihil Novum said...

I love books about the Civil War.

Jim said...

Yeah... I tagged it as civil war because its about a civil war. Not the American Civil war.

Nathan said...

Spaceballs! I see you schwartz is as big as mine.

Book sounds real good, too!

Jim said...

Nathan gets a cookie. And my eternal friendship. But then he already had that.