Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is the 2nd book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

I had heard many good things about this series. In particular I was told it was similar to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin with the exception that it is finished (10 books) and far more magical.
You can see my Goodreads review for the first book (Gardens of the Moon) here. I finished Book 2 on New Years Eve, but I'll post my review here since it's fresh in my mind.

Overall Impression:
Very good book and a worthy addition to the Malazan series. After finishing my only thought was "Why haven't I read this before? This is exactly the type of book I enjoy!"
Fast paced action, great characters, and engaging plot. This book has it all. The only 'bad' thing is that character motivations are a bit ambiguous, more on that later.

Without spoiling the story, the book revolves around the events in the Seven Cities. This is a completely different continent from the first book and has already been conquered by the Malazan empire. There are multiple story lines that start independent, but, like the first book, they end up joining near the end. The book doesn't jump into action as abruptly as the Gardens of the Moon, and you also get the benefit of knowing (some of) the main characters. I have to say I was very surprised at the ending(s): the book builds up to two events taking place and what happens is quite unexpected.

The one minor thing I have to say with the plot is the slightly repetitive nature of Duiker's plot line. Again, without spoiling too much, it's about an army marching and facing unfavorable odds. Every so often the army reaches a key location, fights the enemies that greatly outnumber them, win by clever tricks, outside intervention, or sheer dumb luck, and then move forward to repeat it again in a few chapters. To be fair: each battle is unique and after a while you start trying (and failing) to predict how the army will succeed this time.

Great characters are again part of Deadhouse Gates. We get to see some from book 1 (Kalam, Crokus, Fiddler, Apsalar) as well as some that were mentioned (Icarium & Mappo). Others are brand new like the soldier-turned historian Duiker and the cadre mage Kulp. I liked Kulp: he's a mage, but not a powerful one like Quick Ben. His warren deals with illusions so that's the extent of his power. While he makes good use of it, there are times his in situations were any other warren of magic would be better. He's powerful, but not powerful enough, which I think is an interesting scenario. As for humor, Iskaral Pust is hilarious. Check out what he utters at one point:
Oh yes, I have learned much from Tremorlor, and so assume a like strategy. Silence, a faint mocking smile suggesting I know more than I do, an air of mystery, yes, and fell knowledge. None could guess my confusion, my host of deluded illusions and elusive delusions! 
This is said out loud; the rest of the company clearly hear him and turn to stare.
The non-humans Mappo and Icarium are also a very interesting pair. Mappo is overly anxious at what he must do, but when you fully understand the situation you feel sorry for him and cheer him on to do what is right even if it means going against everything he's been taught.

One minor 'quibble' I have is that character motivations are not always clear. This, of course, is true in real life, but it makes a few characters behave oddly. Without naming names, there are a few characters who oppose the empire, actively work against it, defend the refugees of the same empire, and join back up to fight for the empire against the force they unleashed. Whose side are you on?! I'm willing to chalk this up as superb character building: Erikson's characters are just so fluid, their motivations run far deeper than what you glean from a first reading.

Setting / World Building:
One of the reasons I like fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular, is the effort placed into developing the world. It's not just about describing the landscape or the buildings, it's about the people, the cultures, the magic. This work is no different. However unlike other books, the Malazan series does not have the 'apprentice' character that learns about the magic or the world from a wise elder. Hence, you are not introduced to how the magic works, you just know it does and some people can wield it. Furthermore, you have to do a lot of the figuring it out yourself. This makes it a more challenging, but arguably more rewarding, read. Two books in and I still don't know how everything works. One thing I would have liked, though, was to know the difference between a soletaken and a d'ivers. I know both are shapeshifters, but no distinction is mentioned. The characters seem to have no problem distinguishing them, though.

Finishing Thoughts:
I will definitely be reading Book 3 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. From what I hear, the series soon starts shifting around in time so the later books are not truly chronological; that will be an interesting experience.
However, I need to take a break from epic fantasy. Next up: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.

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