Sunday, 3 August 2008

Book review: Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates

By Steven Erikson

(Bantam, 2001)

Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon is easily one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. I've read it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time around. I love the frenetic pace of the plot and its numerous twists and turns, the characters with all their personal quirks and traumas and the sheer number of unbelievably cool scenes. I therefore had very high expectations for the second book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Deadhouse Gates (DG). Unfortunately DG did not meet those expectations, nor did it actually come anywhere close to them. 

The first issue I have with DG is its length. At 959 pages, this is an absolute monster of a novel. The problem is, it really doesn't need to be this long. My feeling is that the story to DG could have been told in around 650 pages, maybe 700 at the most. The result is a plot - which, compared to Gardens of the Moon (GOTM), is relatively straight-forward - that becomes bloated and seems to stumble along interminably towards its eventual conclusion. I just felt there were some scenes that were too drawn out and some which didn't even really need to be included. Many readers complain about GOTM being a challenging read, but DG beats it hands-down on that score. I was never in danger of losing interest - something that Erikson should be given credit for - but there were times when I found myself wishing the plot would just move up a gear. 

Which leads me on to the plot itself. What I like about GOTM is that there are so many different elements in the story, so many different threads and layers. The plot to DG is by contrast quite simple: rebellion has arisen in the Seven Cities, and the Malazan commander Coltaine is forced to undertake an epic 1500 mile journey to guide 50,000 refugees to safety, through hostile enemy territory. Meanwhile, Fiddler and Kalam - two characters from GOTM - embark on different paths, Kalam on a mission to assassinate the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Fiddler to guide home the fisher-girl-turned-god's-pawn Apsalar/Sorry to her homeland. At the same, two ancient warriors - whose purpose is unclear - enter the fray, as does Felisin Paran - sister of Ganoes Paran from GOTM - who has been caught up in a cull of the nobility and sent to the Otataral her sister Tavore, who is now Adjunct to the Empress. 

The plot for me just felt bloated and lethargic. This is undoubtedly partly due to the book's length. I feel a shorter book would have added a bit of pace to the various plots. But some blame must be laid at the feet of the plots themselves. The first problem is that 90% of the book takes place in a desert, and this lack of scope or variety quickly becomes repetitive - most of the action takes place in "ochre-tinged clouds of dust" which just starts to grate after a while. When the characters' paths take them - occasionally - into a warren, the escape from the monotony of the desert is refreshing. 

The second problem with the overall plot is that each sub-plot involves characters traveling. Slowly. Subsequently we have lots of journeying, interspersed with combat. Coltaine's march is the worst offender: his plot is just a long, drawn-out sequence of marching and battles that becomes rather tired after a while. Likewise, the journeys of the other characters - equally as slow - fail to really spark into life. There's the odd moment of excitement, but overall each plot thread just seems to plod along grimly to its distant conclusion. The last 100 pages or so pick up quite nicely and we get a bit more of the variety that the book was crying out for about 300 pages earlier. While the resolution of Coltaine's plot is good, it's not enough to justify the length of his plotline. Nor are those of the others (Kalam's in particular is rather disappointing). 

I also have to take issue with the characters themselves. The only ones I felt any attachment to were those that had also appeared in GOTM. None of the new characters really proved that interesting to me. Baudin is pretty cool, Iskaral Pust and Coltaine are well-worked, and Duiker has a sense of duty that is easy to identify with. None however really connected with me like those from GOTM did. The worst is Felisin, who is a smug bitch at the start and a smug bitch at the end. 900+ pages of story and yet she barely changes at all. I kept praying that Anomander Rake would appear and put her out of her misery in style, but sadly it didn't happen. Because I didn't really care for the characters, it meant that their respective journeys seemed even longer. GOTM is full of fascinating figures - Anomander Rake, Caladan Brood, Kruppe, Quick Ben, Raest and so on - but those in DG just seem - by and large - dull in comparison. 

On the more positive side of things, Erikson's writing is very good indeed and the fact that he managed to hold my attention - despite the fact I didn't really care for many of the characters - deserves some sort of recognition. There are some cool moments in DG - the Jaws-esque scene early on is brilliant - but they are just too few and far between. Perhaps I'm partly at fault, because what I really wanted was a continuation of the events started in GOTM (which is why I will definitely read the third novel, Memories of Ice) and DG doesn't really fit the bill in this regard. 

DG is by no means a bad novel, but in my opinion is inferior to GOTM in almost every aspect. My lasting impression is of a novel that would have been better had it been 300 pages shorter and ultimately is just a rather large obstacle I had to overcome in order to continue with the story that really mattered - the continuation of the events that occurred in GOTM.

Verdict: ddd


ThRiNiDiR said...

Lethargic - I really like the word; I wonder why I haven't think of it first :p

About the review; I think we all agree about Erikson being bloated etc. etc., but we are all differently affected by this element. I mean, I absolutely loved DG (the best Malazan novel besides MoI) - especially the Coltaine's march you disliked so - but the bloatedness started to grate on me with the fifth book in the series and the feeling is just getting worse and worse (I've up to book 6).

Felisin is one of my favourite chars...ofc she is a bitch? first, she gets "fucked" by her sister and then the situation just gets worse in the camp (plus, the drug abuse doesn't help); duiker and baudin want to help her, but she just doesn't want to be helped - she kind of gave up.

Great review though.

James said...

Thanks Thrinidir.

I think ultimately DG didn't work for me because I just wanted more of the same (ie a continuation of GOTM) whereas it delivers a very different story. But on top of that my other criticisms are valid, imo.

Sure, Felisin is a total bitch. I have no problem with that, as that is clearly what Erikson intended. But my problem with her is that she barely changes at all, which to my mind is not acceptable over the course of a 900+ page book.

I am looking forward to Memories of Ice though, it sounds very cool and much closer to what I really wanted in terms of story.

Abalieno said...

Yeah, I couldn't have a more different opinion about the book.

I loved 3/4 of the book, disliked the ending (too many cheap fight scenes and deus ex machina) and thought Felisin was one of the better characterized, fully realized and most changed characters I've ever read.

When you say "she barely changes at all" I just can't believe it. NO other character I can remember of went through a more challenging and deeply changing journey.

On the other side, I'm pretty sure you'll like MoI. I haven't read it yet, but it's surely a better continuation to GotM.

Which is another difference. I like how the series changes so much from book to book, introducing new characters, fleshing out the world and exploring different themes. With little retreading compared to other fantasy series that are "more of the same".

James said...

Abalieno: I know that amazon reviews are a pretty poor indication, but the reviews on amazon US seem split between people who loved the book and people who thought it was ok but was flawed in one or two ways. Whereas I'm in the latter camp, you clearly fall in to the former.

I'm sure I'll like MoI more as well. :)

As for Felisin, I'm not saying she's a bad character. She's well fleshed out and an interesting type of character to have as one of the major protagonists. But I just don't see how she changes. Perhaps by the end of the book she's slightly less cynical towards Heboric and perhaps more certain of her future path, but I wouldn't say she undergoes a huge emotional transition. Maybe I missed something...