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Middle of the Road
on 24 October 2010
Well, there's good and bad news here.
The good? Deadhouse Gates is certainly no less than a decent novel. The bad? It's only a decent novel and having waded through 2000 pages of the Malazan saga I'm still not convinced this is a series worth the enormous effort required to see it through to the end.
One feels that Erikson is simply grasping at too much in this series. The main problem here is that there's just too much going on. That's not always a problem but here it is. Events roll on from one to the other and there's no breathing space. There are a few very big revelations in this novel that almost pass by unnoticed given the scant attention devoted to them (for instance, Dujek's rebellion, surely the main point of the first novel is only worthy of one or two lines the entire novel - people in the Seven Cities had more pressing matters, true, but I couldn't believe that there was practically no acknowledgement of the fallout from Gardens of the Moon).
Other events of real consequence don't carry the weight they should because Erikson so swiftly rushes on. Even the end of the Chain of Dogs, the only truly harrowing thing in the whole novel, felt slightly underplayed. There's hardly the extended drama of an event like The Red Wedding, say. The entirety of Coltaine's march should be an epic event, yet only the end feels like that. Erikson never pauses to allow his characters, and us readers, the opportunity to experience the march. For instance - no point of view or knowledge is given to us of how the refugees experienced the march. Who chases Coltaine? Faceless armies, the odd named general who we barely, if ever, see. Who is the villain in such a piece? Where can we direct our anger? A story needs good villains as much as it needs good heroes and a big bad guy is noticeably lacking here.
Likewise, very little is know about the soldiers' experience on the march except that they went to one place, had a battle, moved on, had another battle, did some more walking, had another battle and kept on doing this again and again. That's not to say these battles aren't exciting but they lack an edge as they're fought by characters developed only to a minimum. By trying to do so much in this story Erikson undermines himself. Action is all well and good but I felt Erikson really gave the story and his characters too little room to live and fill out their experiences.
That's another problem with this novel: because so little time is really devoted to the characters almost everyone comes across the same. The uniquely delightful Iskaral Pust aside, everyone seems to be exactly the same in character - unrelentingly grim and serious. True, no-one is really in a good situation but I despaired at how the tone of the novel is completely flat - it is just one long, serious, grim grindfest. Even if Erikson lacks the wit of GRRM he could look to The Black Company (an obvious influence anyway) and see how Cook uses the likes of Goblin, One Eye, Croaker, to change tones and vary the story. The near singular mood of the novel did tire at times and it cried out for another Kruppe (a role Pust doesn't quite fulfil).
World building has been a fantasy staple ever since Tolkien but I feel Erikson needs to apply some brakes on this too. I consider the Malazan empire fascinating and I enjoy the depth Erikson provides that aspect of the story (in fact I wish its organization, its ethos and general philosophical underpinnings were given more substance). Yet I find the T'lan Imass and other non-human groups of his world dull and uninteresting. They might be hugely powerful but I fail, yet, to see why they're given so much space in these novels, why they're important. There is so much focus on Icarium in this novel, but why, apart from the fact he could cause so much destruction is he important to the story? No real reason was given, he was just plonked in there as far as I could tell. Similarly, all the sudden emergence of so many faceless enemy Soultaken and D'ivers in this book was tedious to say the least (although it's not like Coltaine's foes are anything less than "faceless" too).
I can at least congratulate Erikson on correcting some issues I had with the first book. Most importantly, it seemed (stupidly) as if the Empire was blind to the threat from the Pannion Domin. Thankfully events in this book proved that to be untrue and Erikson does a good job of erasing some leftover question marks. I just hope that in the future that details from this novel are properly resolved or given appropriate meaning (such as Icarium's prominence in this book). Another positive is that there isn't such a focus on super-powerful beings in this instalment and so the story feels a bit more human and down to earth this time.
Although I've focused on what I didn't like about this novel it's still, as I said, a decent book, worth a solid three stars. Erikson isn't a bad writer and I'm willing to give the series one more thousand page effort to pull me in (and if it doesn't after Memories of Ice then I can't see myself wading through a further 7000+ pages just to get to the end of it all).
Plot, characters, action, prose - everything's up to a decent standard here, it's just a shame Erikson isn't that much better in the way one feels he could be. I've read my share of great and awful fantasy and Erikson doesn't belong in either category at the moment. He's just middle of the road, for better or for worse, and that's why, in the end, I can only give this novel three stars.