The OF Blog: Malazan Re-read Series: Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates

Friday, May 21, 2010

Malazan Re-read Series: Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates

In my commentary on Gardens of the Moon, I mentioned that it took me reading the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, before I found myself wanting to read the Malazan series in full.  This was back in 2002, when only three volumes had been the released and the fourth was near its release date.  Since then, I believe I have re-read this particular book three other times, all before mid-2005. 

Each of those previous reads left me considering this book to be the second-best in the entire series, behind only the third novel, Memories of Ice.  But I am curious to see how a five year break will affect my perception of this book (as well as the series as a whole).  There was much, after all, that I enjoyed in previous reads:  the introduction of the tragic friendship of Icarium and Mappo, the deepening of the events, the Chain of Dogs, Kalam's quest to assassinate Empress Laseen, and the Path of Hands subplot.  But were each of these elements integrated well into the text? 

What I noticed more about this book (just as I recall noting about the last four books written by Erikson) compared to the first book is that there is more of a buildup to the action-oriented scenes.  Whereas Gardens of the Moon placed the readers in the midst of a multi-sided war with little information provided that would orient the reader as to what was happening (this was intentional, I believe, rather than a mistake in approach, although the execution certainly was not flawless, as I noted in my prior commentary), Deadhouse Gates begins with a vivid scene in the Malazan capital city of Unta.  New characters, such as Captain Paran's youngest sister, Felisin, the ex-priest Heboric, the mysterious Baudin, and the Wickan leader of the Malazan Seventh Army, Coltaine, are given strong introductions that allow the reader to find more depth to their characters than the staccato bursts of dialogue that marked much of the character interactions in the first novel.  This greater focus on character I believe is the main factor that separates this novel from its predecessor and it serves to offset the structural problems I noticed with the narrative.

Felisin often has been criticized by several readers for being "unsympathetic."  I, on the other hand, have always found her to be one of the more complex characters in this series to date and this re-read only strengthened my belief.  Erikson does a good job, through the use of this character's actions and her comments to her companions, to show just how battered and embittered she had become during the course of her imprisonment on the orders of her older sister, Tavore, and her subsequent selling of her body in the slave pits in order to gain concessions for herself.  Her bitterness at how Heboric and Baudin view her is in part justified, but the times where her actions cannot be defended end up feeling as though Erikson were showing this character's foibles instead of being entirely sympathetic toward her plight.  By the time she comes to be Sha'ik Reborn and the leader of the Seven Cities' Rebellion, she has become perhaps the most well-rounded and morally ambiguous characters in the series to date.  The scenes where she appears ended up being among my favorites this time.

Most readers would cite the Chain of Dogs as being the emotional heart of the novel.  While I agree that it is a well-written novel of honor and courage in the face of antipathy and greed on the part of those being protected by Coltaine's forces, I am not for certain if it is greater than the rise of Felisin from the ashes of her imprisonment.  I believe both of these subplots serve to establish the tumults that are taking place in the novel.

The other subplots, however, were at best underdeveloped (or rather, unfinished, since elements of events here appear in the next few novels with greater elaboration) and at worst a detraction from the two main subplots noted above.  As intrigued as I was (and to a degree, still am) by the Icarium/Mappo mystery, I felt as though that and the entire Path of Hands were there more to set up events of another novel than building on the thematic issues contained within the Felisin and Chain of Dogs subplots.  While I recognize that the Iskaral Pust scenes were meant to provide humorous relief from the traumas of Felisin's experiences and from the tragedy of the Chain of Dogs, there were moments that I felt that those scenes added little and detracted a lot from the narrative flow.

But despite these concerns about the unevenness of the subplots, on the whole I enjoyed my re-read of Deadhouse Gates.  As I stated above, two of the subplots were very well-done, with the others feeling a bit underdeveloped or extraneous for this particular novel.  If those had been pared down or excised and placed in a succeeding novel, I believe the story would have been stronger.  As it stands, this is where the Malazan story, sprawling and messy as it can be at times, takes off.  Looking forward to my re-read of Memories of Ice this weekend.


Abalieno said...

You had a similar reaction to the one I had, with maybe a slight difference.

I think that 3/4 of the book are wonderfully written, better written even than the majority third book. But the convergence of the finale felt, as a whole, again rushed as in the first book, and losing intensity. When analyzing I figured that both Felisin and Coltaine threads were strong thoroughly. While the other two storylines, Kalam and Fiddler, ended into weak and repetitive combat scenes and ultimately lost their impact. Woven together these two weaker threads also broke the balance of the other two.

What I mean is that I think that the structure of the book was solid, for all four plot threads, for the majority of the book. But was then flawed in the last 250 pages or so.

I also thought that the Felisin part was deeply flawed in its structure. In order to show the journey and change of a character you show an origin and then a destination. This book misses the origin. We aren't being show the "former" Felisin as a young girl (which is also connected to the fact that we NEVER see "slice of life" scenes for ANY character, making a rather daring and unusual choice). We only see her already broken. So her evolution as a character is actually omitted. We only see a segment.

Now I'm reading the 4th book and in retrospective it could have been a wonderful choice, and yet even here only hinted and not realized. What Erikson could have done is restoring that missed part of book 2, in book 4, through flashbacks. He actually does this, but not enough to fully flesh out the character before she was "broken". This possibility could have been great because it builds the character with an inverse direction. We finally get to know and see Felisin when Felisin is no more (dominated by the goddess), and the contrast would give a lot more meaning and empathy to both book 4 and 2.

I also thought that the theme of obsession worked really well and "motivated" Felisin to behave like that. The exaggeration you point out origins in the obsession (but again the obsession isn't well perceived because the betrayal is not shown and "felt" by the reader). Taken from the interview on your blog:
"Felisin's inability to recognise people who cared was a direct result of the betrayal that sent her to the mines and her experiences once there.

Book 4 enhances quite a bit the whole second book.

Yes, cutting some spurious plot threads would have made a neater and more effective book, but would have made the series itself weaker. This was, I think, something deliberate. It is repeated in every novel: there are plot threads that are brought to a close and others used to connect the books.

Gabriele C. said...

For me, the series took off right away with Gardens of the Moon. I didn't find it confusing at all.

I find Felisin unsympathetic, too, but that doesn't prevent her from being an interesting character.

Larry said...

I would agree with you, but I recall Ganoes mentioning his sister in the first book and how she was like. While doubtless it would have been more powerful to have seen the actual arrest as a means of contrast, I do think Erikson attempted to do more than just show Felisin after her degradation.

Gabriele C. said...

That scene in GotM between Ganoes and Tavore hints at tensions between Tavore and Felisin/Ganoes pretty clearly, I think. Felisin hates Tavore (and I'm sure she never expected her sister to go that far) but I think she subconsciously also hates Ganoes for not being there to help her.

Could be an overinterpretation, but I think by deliberately leaving some of the background and motivations in the dark, Erikson encourages the reader to create her (or his) own ideas about events and relationships. He gives directions, but leaves us to cross some mountains ourselves, to meet up with him on the other side.

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