Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #2) by Steven Erikson

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Unlike a lot of new Malazan readers, I loved Gardens of the Moon. There were a couple of bumps in the road, but the journey was extremely enjoyable. Deadhouse Gates brought me to a whole new appreciation of the series, though. It’s not often I finish a 900-odd page book wishing it had been longer.

Deadhouse Gates leaves Genabackis behind and crosses the seas to the Seven Cities, where the native population is preparing to throw off its shackles and ride against the conquering Malazan Empire in service to their goddess, Dryjhna. A couple of old favourites from the first book do continue their story here — Kalam, Fiddler and Crokus are escorting Apsalar home as they promised at the end of Gardens, but the wayward Bridgeburners naturally have a little more up their sleeves than merely assisting the damsel in distress (or in this case, the distressing damsel) — but the bulk of the story deals with a new cast. I can see how that has the potential to be confusing or off-putting to some, but I had no difficulty falling in love with the newcomers.

In most multi-POV tales like this one I develop favourites quite quickly and am excited to see their sections come around and disappointed to see them end, but every strand of this story had me captivated. Felisin, the youngest daughter of the Paran family who is sold into slavery by her sister as proof of loyalty to the Empress, is sometimes hard to read about because Erikson so fully and painfully captures the breaking and slow piecing back together of a sheltered young woman whose every solace in life has been ripped away from her, but although at times difficult to love she was never difficult to relate to. If I favoured one POV over the others it was probably that of Duiker, former soldier and Imperial Historian, who gives us our bird’s-eye view of the Seventh Army and its embattled flight across a hostile nation. I love what his own moments of wry humour, self-doubt, silent desolation and (rarely, but all the more precious for its scarcity) hope add to the story:

“‘Children are dying.’

Lull nodded. ‘That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.'”

By making it so personal, it somehow drives home the sheer scale of what’s happening around him. I can say no more for fear of spoilers, but the event that becomes known as the Chain of Dogs is one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of fantasy I’ve read in my life.

Erikson retains all of the strengths that made the first volume in the series such a pleasure to read. He foreshadows events with the lightest touch, sometimes indicating what’s to come with a single sentence that you can only hope to fully understand in hindsight, and yet when you reach the end and look back you see how perfectly everything adds up. There are no true “Well, that came out of nowhere” moments because even when it seems that way at first, if you look back over the hints you’ve been given you can see how elegantly you’ve been trapped in your own assumptions. The ten years that passed between the writing of Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates show in how much his writing has evolved, though. I said in my review of Gardens that there weren’t really any instances where his prose made me stand up and take notice, but in this book I found myself stopping to reread some paragraphs, despite the tension of the moment. He contrasts some of the most violent, heartbreaking moments of the story with some of the most beautiful description, as when we stop to note, “And over it all, the butterflies swarmed, like a million yellow-petalled flowers dancing on swirling winds” in the midst of a bloody slaughter. It’s one of the things that brought those moments to life for me, because so often fantasy authors seem to forget the world around their protagonists when the action ramps up, but in real life I find that the moments of greatest trauma give the world a concreteness that is overlooked during the humdrum of everyday life.

I honestly can’t name many complaints. Once again the ending felt too rushed, but nothing was thrown together at the last minute, all of the hints were given well in advance. I think I just wanted some closure for these characters — these people — before I’m ready to leave them behind for a while, but it isn’t there. And in book two of a long series, that’s a fair price to pay for having so much left to look forward to.

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