Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen (Book 2 of 10)
Genre: Epic fantasy, grimdark fantasy
First published: 2000 by Bantam (UK) and 2005 by Tor (US)
For those who have read Gardens of the Moon and thought it was relatively tame for a grimdark fantasy series, Deadhouse Gates will change your mind. This sequel took the series to new heights and was also when I begun to wholly understand Erikson’s opening quote in the debut. The grimness, violence and brutality in this book made me rethink of how I viewed A Song of Ice and Fire.
The events at the end of Gardens of the Moon saw the Bridgeburners splitting up, with the bulk of squad remaining on Genabackis with Dujek Onearm and Whiskeyjack to face the threat of the Pannion Domin. Meanwhile Fiddler and Kalam headed off to Seven Cities, where the Bridgeburners were forged, and which is on the brink of rebellion as the Seventh Year of Dryjhna, the Apocalypse, approaches. When the Book of Dryjhna is delivered into the hands of the Sha’ik, the spirit of the goddess will embody this prophetess and the Whirlwind together with the rebellion will rise.
Seven Cities portray a landscape of bleakness and despair that seem to seep into the very bones of this ancient civilization. Bones buried so deep and underneath so many layers of cities on top of cities that its very air evoked antiquity and the scent of a bloody history. Amidst this desolate backdrop, and echoing its refrain of grief, loss and regret were five different storylines moving in tandem across this sub-continent as well as the Holy Desert of Raraku. Two of these arcs eventually coincided with the endgame of reaching a gate where the convergence of a host of dangerous shapeshifters was taking place at the same time.
The subplots in Gardens of the Moon appear almost simplistic in comparison to Deadhouse Gates. Fortunately, the writing in this instalment was tighter that in spite of its numerous arcs the narrative was discernibly better and somehow flows more naturally between the different points of view. And while we have the familiar faces of Fiddler, Kalam, Crokus and Apsalar (formerly known as Sorry), we were once more introduced to a substantial number of new characters right from the Prologue. I will refrain from detailing every single subplot or new fascinating characters but instead highlight the ones which made this book so incredible for me.
Icarium, oh, dear friend, I can tell you nothing. My curse is silence to your every question, and the hand I offer as a brother will lead you only into deceit. In love’s name, I do this, at my own cost… and such a cost.
The compassionate tale of Mappo and Icarium was one of unbending love and friendship that grew and solidified from a duty set upon the shoulders of the young Trell over a millennia ago. A duty that now seeks to protect a dear friend who is loved as a brother, from the very thing that he has been seeking for thousands of years; cataclysmic lost memories which may well be the undoing of this gentle and wise half-Jhag. Thus it was the search of such knowledge that brought this legendary pair to seek the gate located within the Holy Desert. The ferocity of Mappo’s appearance belies his gentle nature and his regretful introspection was just simply heartbreaking.
The Chain of Dogs. Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs. He leads, yet is led, he strains forward, yet is held back, he bares his fangs, yet what nips at his heels if not those he is sworn to protect.
I didn’t use to be a fan of military plotlines but my absolute favourite arc in this book was that of the Chain of Dogs. This was told from the POV of Duiker, an ex-soldier now Imperial Historian, who followed Coltaine, war leader of the Wickan clans and newly appointed commander of the Seventh tasked to save the lives of the Malazans from the Seven Cities rebellion. Coltaine’s Seventh and his Wickan clans trudged through the bleak, hot and dry sub-continent of Seven Cities for months under relentless pursuit from the army of the Apocalypse, with an unimaginably vast winding train of Malazan refugees under their protection that just keeps growing.
Duiker, as the Imperial Historian, was meant to record and later recount the events and as such, was many times placed close to the battles’ front lines to witness the brutal and momentous clashes. His ruminations on the savagery of war and the hopelessness of Coltaine’s mission painted a very harsh, cruel and tragic view. War and death just do not discriminate.
I’ll never return to the List of the Fallen, because I see now that the unnamed soldier is a gift. The named soldier – dead, melted wax – demands a response among the living.. a response no-one can make. Names are no comfort, they’re a call to answer the unanswerable. Why did she die, not him? Why do the survivors remain anonymous – as if cursed – while the dead are revered? Why do we cling to what we lose while we ignore what we still hold?
Name none of the fallen, for they stood in our place and stand there still in each moment of our lives. Let my death hold no glory, and let me die forgotten and unknown. Let it not be said that I was one among the dead to accuse the living.
The battle scenes were superbly written with impressive military and sorcery tactics. Erikson’s writing here has a cinematic quality that created breathtaking visuals of contrasting raw beauty and gruesomeness. To top it all off, the important characters in this arc were well-written and had me irrevocably and emotionally attached. Erikson has also yet again created a charismatic character that inspired reverence, in a way similar to Anomander Rake – a leader that was enigmatic, proud, extremely capable and honourable.
And that is, Coltaine.
At its core, the Chain of Dogs was a mighty tale of courage, loyalty, honour, compassion and dignity in the face of futility and hopelessness, and of betrayal of the highest order. The emotions that raged in me while reading ran the gamut from awe and empathy to utter sorrow and despair to stunned outrage and disbelief. This stupendously written storyline has a denouement that was probably among the most emotionally powerful ones I’ve ever read in any book.
With this I can say that from hereon, I’ve been ensnared by the chains of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Review originally written in 2017
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