Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates

I've read Steven Erikson's fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen out of sequence. Or rather, I've read parts of it out of sequence. I first stumbled onto the sixth book, The Bonehunters a couple of years ago and fell in love with Erikson's world for several reasons which I will detail below. After that, I read Books 5 and 7 before finally tracking down the first two books, Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.

This out-of-sequence approach has yielded an interesting experience. I initially missed all the explanations of the world's politics, religion, and magic system that is always painstakingly reveled in the exposition of the early novels of a series. Fortunately, I've read enough fantasy with different approaches to magic to reverse-engineer some basic ideas about these things in the later volumes. It turns out that I was largely right about the way warrens work but missed the boat about the relationship between the fortune-telling Deck of Dragons and the gods.

The World of the Malazan Empire

Erikson does several things in his fictional world which make it distinct from many others.

Magic. One of the complaints about Dungeons & Dragons is that the world would look nothing like the conventional quasi-medieval setting portrayed if the magic users actually used the powers at their disposal. Erikson handles this problem in two ways. First, he makes mages in his world specialized. The source of magic in this world is warrens, other planes of existence whose energies can be drawn upon to create particular kinds of magical effects. Each wizard can only draw on one warren, and thus only cast one kind of magic. However, since wizards can also travel through their warren and take other people with them, every magic user has the ability to travel fast (but not to teleport).

Erikson does a much better job of integrating magic into his world than some fantasy authors. The role magic plays in the lives of the people of the world--from military campaigns to everyday life--is shown in a coherent way.

Time Scale. While Tolkien's Middle Earth has a detailed history of several millenia divided into three ages, the world of the Malazan Empire has a history stretching back for hundreds of millenia. Much like the real world, humans are latecomers to an astonishingly ancient biosphere in which many life forms preceded them. Imagine that the dinosaurs had also built civilizations and that a few of them are still around, and you have an idea of the history of this world.

Races. There are no elves or dwarves in the world of the Malazan Empire. Instead, Erikson makes up several unique fantasy races, both living and extinct. Each of these races also has its own distinct culture. For example, the reptilian Jaghut, though magically sophisticated, prefer a life of solitude and live in small family units rather than towns or cities. While I tend to use some version of the Tolkien/D&D list of fantasy races a lot, the existence of fantasy worlds with different paradigms is a good thing for the genre.

There is also an ethnic diversity within the human race that doesn't often exist in fantasy fiction, with its Eurocentric roots. Erikson's world features several regions dominated by dark-skinned people with fully developed and sophisticated cultures. Unlike Tolkien, in which all the important movers and shakers are white, black people hold positions of authority in Erikson's Malazan Empire.

The Book

Deadhouse Gates was the toughest read of the series for me so far. For some reason, it seemed ponderous to read at times, unlike any of the other books. I suspect part of that may be that the book carried the weight of a lot of exposition, being only the second in the series and the first to take place on the continent of Seven Cities. However, the first book, Gardens of the Moon, had even more expository duties and it was an incredibly engaging read. I think part of the problem might have been that much of the plot involves detailed descriptions of military logistics and complicated geographical formations, subjects which struggle to hold my attention.

Though it was slow in spots, the book was ultimately rewarding, with its gritty depiction of life in a war zone as rebellion against the Empire breaks out. This part of the overall story takes place in the continent of Seven Cities, as mentioned before. While some parts of Erikson's world don't remind me of any place in the real world (e.g. Genabackis, the continent on which Gardens of the Moon is set), Seven Cities is clearly the Fantasy Middle East. It's a desert land whose culture is dominated by a somewhat fanatical religion which serves as a basis for resistance against an occupying power. In this case, the religion also carries a whiff of Christian-style millenarianism to make it an even more potent incitement to violence.

We mostly see the rebellion through the eyes of soldiers and government officials of the occupying Malazan Empire. Fortunately, this practice is not too limiting, since many Seven Cities natives serve in the Malzan army. Our window into the perspective of the native culture is Kalam, a native who at one time had worked his way into a high position in the Claw, the Empire's elite band of assassins. In the process of pursuing a personal agenda shared with some of his friends, he plays a key role in helping the rebellion get under way.

Once the rebellion starts, it interrupts the status quo for several high-profile prisoners on a nearby island, who use the opportunity to escape. It also forces the Imperial Historian Duiker to join a train of soldiers and refugees desperately trying to make their way to the last city on the continent still held by Imperial forces. While Gardens of the Moon dealt mostly with setting up static military engagements, Deadhouse Gates is all about travel. Every major character is on their way somewhere for most of the book. In fact, one of the themes of the book seems to be that the journey reveals a person's character, while the destination often disappoints. Along the way, Erikson explores the social divisions both between Malazans and the "foreign" inhabitants of their empire, and within the class structure of Malazan society. He also takes an unflinching look at the realities of war and occupation and how people treat each other under stress. Thus, the book contains frank references to sex and violence. None of Erikson's works are pornographic, but they're definitely written for an adult audience.

The strength of this book is the characters. Deadhouse Gates features several returning characters (notably Kalam) from the first volume while also introducing new compelling people into the reader's world. My personal favorite of the newbies is Duiker, a historian and ex-soldier who ends up being the combination of scholar and bad-ass that every nerd wishes to be. Then again, all of Erikson's characters, from the elites to the masses, think a lot about what's going on in their world. That may be the most fantastic thing about this world, possibly more unrealistic than the magic, dragons, undead, and shapeshifters. However, it makes for a thought-provoking work even while telling a story full of action.

Deadhouse Gates has very few weaknesses. One of those may be a tendency for some of the refugee scenes to lag as Erikson captures the tedium of the marches between battles far too well. Strangely enough, the other major weakness in the book's pacing also involves the refugee train. Toward the end of the book, the final stretches of their march toward the holy city of Aren feel summarized rather than told, as if Erikson suddenly realized his page count was way up and he had to wrap things up. For all those problems, the refugee march is still one of the best parts of the book because of its dynamic conclusion.

Another weakness is that when Erikson decides to use literary allusions, he runs them into the ground. For example, when he writes about a certain character's death, he beats the reader over the head with the fact that he's trying to symbolize him as a Christ figure. It actually takes the reader out of the feeling of being in a fantasy world and reminds them of the real world too much.

Still, despite these weaknesses, Deadhouse Gates, like the rest of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is well worth reading.

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