Fair warning: some minor spoilers for Gardens of the Moon may follow:
In Deadhouse Gates – Steven Erikson’s second entry into his epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the action moves away from the setting and most of the characters of Gardens of the Moon to introduce some new players, along with new mysteries, revelations and some truly dramatic twists. Away from the dark and war-torn continent of Genabackis, we find ourself thrust into the unhinged desert sub-continent known as Seven Cities, where rebellion is prophesised and it is rumoured that Gods walk the earth. Following several new characters, such as the Imperial Historian Duiker, Ganoes Paran’s youngest sister Felisin and the quietly mysterious Jhag, Icarium, Deadhouse Gates expands the already intimidatingly vast universe of the Malazan Book of the Fallen with what is almost an entirely new cast, mostly unrelated to the likes of Whiskeyjack, Tattersail and Anomander Rake. In fact, the only Bridgeburners represented in this novel are the assassin Kalam and former comic-relief, Fiddler – now elevated to major point-of-view.
Mainly, the story involves the mass-uprising known as the Whirlwind – an organised rebellion against the Malazan forces in every one of the seven holy cities of Seven Cities. The backbone of the plot involves the “escort” of thousands of Malazan refugees across the continent to safety by the surviving Seventh Army, led by the formal tribal leader, Coltaine. Seen mostly through the eyes of the historian Duiker, this plotline allows Erikson to form the rest of the novels sub-plots around it, and provides one of the most harrowing and exhausting reads in the genre. The plotting here is notably stronger and far more cohesive than Gardens of the Moon. With much of the work surrounding the basis of the magic system and the various Ascendants done in Gardens of the Moon, Erikson is able to trust the reader to hold her own while wrapping everything in a truly outstanding narrative that puts most other epic fantasies to shame.
We’re also treated to some terrific new characters, as well as given lots more insight into the returning characters of Fiddler, Kalam, Crokus and Apsalar. Icarium and Mappo the Trell in particular provide much of the entertainment, with a double act that is both believable, hilarious and tragic in equal measures. Erikson is not afraid to offer quick answers to major mysteries, even this early in the series and to introduce new ones – often even solvable if the reader has really been paying attention. One particular scene involving a ship, a crazy mage and a mystery elder race is a real highlight. Indeed, despite the new setting and cast, knowledge from Gardens of the Moon makes this an intense read as revelations come thick and fast. Also interesting are hints towards events on Genabackis during this novel (Deadhouse Gates takes place concurrently with Book Three, Memories of Ice) making this a truly rewarding read.
There are a few minor niggles, though. The tone of the novel, from beginning to end, is one of deep tragedy. George RR Martin would have a hard time with some of this material, although none of the violence is gratuitous. I also found some of Erikson’s battle scenes difficult to picture. The chaos of battle is certainly represented, but more than once I found these scenes hard to visualise, with the scenery in particular being often awkward to imagine.
Despite the sense of horror present throughout the book, Deadhouse Gates is also in places a hilarious book. Iskaral Pust and the Malaz sappers in particular provide a lot of the (MUCH NEEDED) relief.
A seriously impressive second entry in the Malazan Book of Fallen, things are really falling into place with Deadhouse Gates. Steven Erikson has outdone himself in pretty much every single way with a novel that really does prove he knows what he’s doing. Incredibly satisfying, intense and truly epic, Deadhouse Gates is epic fantasy as only Steven Erikson could envision.