Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I stated in my review of the previous book in this series, I am typically not a series reader. I very much dislike series, especially series composed of thick novels. The fact that I read the second book in this series says plenty about how good this pair of sword and sorcery novels are.
I shall not even attempt to write a summation of this excellent novel. There are all sorts of summations out there. Go and read.
But I cannot just leave it at that. Because, while my actions might be a good indicator of my like for this book, I’d like to tell you why it is so darned good. I am liable to repeat myself from my review of Gardens of the Moon, for which I apologize in advance. There are just not enough superlatives.
Steven Erikson has a gift for packing complexity in his characters and revealing it with the subtleties of dialogue. As a writer who struggles with dialogue (I really have to work at it and edit it like crazy), I admire that. He's pretty amazing at it. The dialogue here opens a window into the character’s internal thoughts and shows their feelings about each other without pedantry towards the reader. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Erikson does it with panache.
That’s not to say that I like all of the characters – far from it. Yes, I love the assassin Kalam, who kills more people than you think he will in any given chapter (though you know it’s going to be a high number), and High Fist Coltaine is the greatest military strategist in Sword and Sorcery literature. But Felisin, I hated. This noble brought low (who is eventually exalted again, sort of, but not in the way you might expect) was every bit as whiney as Holden Caulfield, whom I hate with a flying passion. Now, Felisin, unlike Caulfield, had reasons for her whininess, but still, I just wanted to throttle her. And I have no doubt that Erikson wrote her that way. So, well-played, Mr. Erikson, well-played. You jerk.
My favorite character, though, was the ex-soldier, now-Historian (yes, capitalized, as in this is his title) Duiker. And it’s not just his personality that I like. I like how Erikson used him in the novel. Erikson's clever use of Historians such as Duiker is a shrewd maneuver. The Historian has to be at the crux of every important event or recitation, thus the reader gets to see much that a non-Historian observer would not have access to. In fact, the Historian is not only invited, but often required to see events personally, to facilitate the proper recording of such events. Erikson baked the storyteller right into the story, dodging the fourth while and breaking it at the same time. Duiker’s perspective as an ex-soldier, now Historian, often in the thick of combat, makes me remember that I would not have liked to have been a sword-wielding warrior, if I could have avoided it. I'll take the desk job, thank you.
There is plenty of fighting to be had in this novel. It is a military sword and sorcery novel, unapologetic in both its vividness and scope. Still, Erikson wields his weapons subtly, at times, portraying large, important sections of the combat and tactics off-screen, particularly when presenting the early engagements involving Malazan forces led by High Fist Coltaine. By presenting them from “around a corner” or “through a veil,” as it were, the author builds up a sort of mythical aura in the reader’s mind. Later, we learn that this mythical aura surrounding Coltaine’s conquest is shared by those in his world. Thus, we become observers of Coltaine’s exploits in the same manner as those who encounter him in the book: first as a shadow, then a rumor, then as the person he is, and the Ascendant that he is becoming.
“What is an Ascendant?” you ask. Frankly, I don’t know. There are many things I don’t know about this world, just like the characters themselves. We learn through their eyes, though there are many cultural assumptions and phrases that we just have to learn as we go. Yes, there are several very short glossaries to help you from going completely off the rails, but they are sparse and intentionally vague, leaving you to fill in the gaps as you go – or not: several things about . . . well, things, are never fully explained. Ascendancy is one of them. We know it happens and that those who are ascending are greater than mere humans. But are they gods, demigods, or merely heroes?
These vagaries are often presented in poetic language (and sometimes outright poetry). For example, one of the more epic battles in fantasy literature, the Battle of Sekala Crossing ends:
If not for a dumb beast's incomprehension at its own destruction beneath the loving hands of two heartbroken children.
Where else do you find poetry like that in fantasy literature (in a sentence fragment, no less), especially at the end of as grim a scene of combat as you've ever read?
Nowhere, at all.
Finally, Erikson shows a clever wit. The running dog jokes throughout are hilarious. I love Erikson's sense of humor. Kalam describing Salk as "breathtakingly sardonic" and the merchants' excuse to leave Tremorlor, that place of utter horror: "Now we must flee - ah, a rude bluntness - I mean 'depart' of course. We must depart."
I laughed out loud, which typically does not happen when I’m not reading Wodehouse. This lightness makes the darkness all the more bearable.
Still, I shall probably not read another volume of the ten-volume set. Honestly, this is the best sword and sorcery novel I’ve ever read, and I really don’t want to spoil it. I don't want to leave this higher ground.
And, yet, I’m still curious about that lapdog. Oh, that rare lapdog . . . I mean, the raw one . . . you’ll know what I mean when you read it. Enjoy!
View all my reviews