The sheer scope
of DEADHOUSE GATES is truly amazing. It’s also nearly
impossible to describe. Imagine THE ILIAD, THE ODYSSEY, DUNE,
and an Elric novel all seamlessly integrated into a single
narrative and then lightly spiced with a little LORD OF LIGHT.
And I’m not even beginning to do it justice.
When I got to
page 200 in this book, I thought for a moment that I had it all
figured out: I knew exactly where Erikson was going with the
story. But then I realized I was only a fifth of the way through
the novel and, in point of fact, I had no idea where he was
It was then that
I realized something special was happening here.
When you look at
this 900 page novel, I suspect your first instinct will be to
cry, “Bloat!” After all, your typical 900 page fantasy epic
is just begging for a ruthless edit, right?
is, in fact, one of the tightest novels I’ve ever read.
There’s more plot per square inch of page space in this book
than any other book I can think of, and I wouldn’t give up
even the tiniest iota of it.
Let me back up.
talking about fantasy masterpieces, you’re talking about books
like DEADHOUSE GATES.
When I finished
GARDENS OF THE MOON with a somewhat tepid reaction, I had a lot
of people tell me that DEADHOUSE GATES was going to be a massive
improvement. I thought I understood what they meant. But I
didn’t. See, they meant massive improvement. The
type of improvement which just leaves your mouth gaping open.
Erikson jumped straight from “pretty damn good” to “one of
the best fantasy books I’ve ever read”.
in basic storytelling is immediate and amazing. The primary
difference between DEADHOUSE GATES and GARDENS OF THE MOON is
not the size of the cast, the density of the plot, or the
complexity of the world – it is simply the fact that, in
DEADHOUSE GATES, you can actually follow the story.
There are a lot
of things that contribute to this: Erikson sticks with each plot
thread long enough for details to establish themselves. He’s
also much better at identifying the important details of who,
what, and where in a scene – rather than expecting you to read
his mind through loose detail. To some extent, I also learned to
hook location to character groups – but that’s also an
improvement on Erikson’s part, because his characters no
longer hopscotch across continents while off-screen.
relatively simple improvement, but it allows everything else to
shine – the epic plot; the extravagant detail and depth of the
world; the powerful characters. With GARDENS OF MOON we were
looking at Erikson’s genius through a smoky room. With
DEADHOUSE GATES we’re staring straight into the halogen bulb.
too much to rave about here: The sheer, brilliant pacing of
Coltaine’s march. The dozens of characters drawn with a depth
which will absolutely wrench your heart out. The careful point
and counterpoint of every plot thread. The tragedies of
Sophoclean scope and Euripidian detail. The ineffable brilliance
which lends the whole a greatness larger than the sum of its
many accomplished parts.
On top of all
that, there is a quality here which is really quite remarkable,
because Erikson manages to evoke the mythic and the epic within
the framework of a modern novel. And that’s something I really
haven’t seen out of Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS –
especially with the kind of scope and scale that Erikson
My joyous shouts
aside, there are still some problems here: The names remain a
grab-bag of inconsistency. Erikson can, at times, make butchery
and pain amazingly boring through its senseless repetition and
lack of effect. (Oh, sure, people feel pain – but there’s no
lingering effect or psychological impact. Even the most pampered
nobles apparently have a limitless capacity of stoic resolve in
Erikson’s world. People can have their eyeballs burst, their
faces crushed with maces, and their ears ripped off… and still
be smiling about it a couple minutes after it happened.)
There is a whole
range of fantasy species, but I never get a firm description of
any of them. For example, one of the main characters is a Trell:
I know that he has a thick hide and lots of muscles. But
that’s not enough information to actually construct a coherent
picture. All of these races are well-defined and detailed (in
fact, they feel truly *alien* in a way that most fantasy races
don’t)… except when it comes to physical appearance. The
ironic thing is that I found myself continually struggling to
pin some kind of fantasy archetype onto Erikson’s creations
– not because they’re particularly similar to other fantasy
races (they aren’t), but because I was desperate to find
something to base a mental picture on.
There is also a
slight tendency towards minor deus ex machinas to resolve minor
plot points in midstream, and a handful of authorial tics…
none of these amount to a significant criticism when compared to
sheer, towering might of Erikson’s accomplishment.
As a final note:
Don’t let GARDENS OF THE MOON be the only Tale of the Malazan
Empire you read. If you must place the series within a crucible,
then let DEADHOUSE GATES be the work you judge. (It’s also
notable that each novel in this series stands independently of
the rest. Each is its own story, with a unique beginning,
middle, and end all its own.)