What I'm Reading #24 - DEADHOUSE GATES by Steven Erikson

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 going.

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?


DEADHOUSE GATES 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.

When you’re 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”.

The improvement 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.

It’s a 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.

There’s almost 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 attempts here.

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…

But, really, 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.)


Author: Steven Erikson
Published: 2003
Publisher: Tor
Cover Price: $25.95
ISBN: 0-765-31002-3

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