John C Adams Reviews 'Deadhouse Gates'
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson (Bantam Books, 2000)
This sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel is the second in the 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen' series. I hadn't read the prequel so I was a little worried about how much knowledge of the story so far would be assumed, especially as the book features multiple plot strands across different locations. That's something of a pitfall with any series regardless of genre, but perhaps particularly so with fantasy where character, location and plot can be very complicated and each books runs to many hundreds of pages.
Before I get into my review of this novel, I am going to place a trigger warning. Felisin is a sexual assault/rape survivor and much of 'Deadhouse Gates' is taken up with the consequences of her trauma.
It's clear from the get go of 'Deadhouse Gates' that Felisin's life trajectory is on a nasty downward spiral. For that she quickly earnt my sympathy as a reader regardless of her exalted original status before the narrative began. She was never self pitying despite the extent of her personal trauma. The younger daughter of the House of Paran, Felisin is sent to the Otataral Mines by her sister after their brother is killed. The novel opens with her walk of shame to the harbour, in the company of many other disgraced nobles, most of who are killed without reaching the boats.
Meanwhile, Fiddler and Kalam are plotting to bring down Empress Laseen (Felisin's mother) by journeying across the desert to deliver the Holy Book of Dryjhna to the seer Sha'ik as her followers prepare to rise up against the empire. The warfare from the prequel has caused refugees to flee the violence in great number, and Coltaine (leader of the Seventh Army) leads a lengthy march to take them to safety.
During the voyage to the mines, Felisin is forced to offer sex in order to survive. It can be incredibly difficult for any writer to put themselves in the place of an abuse survivor unless their personal life experience encompasses it. Including characters of this kind is really important, but the approach needs to be one of caution grounded in listening to the personal stories of those who have experiences of this kind. I was unclear from my reading of 'Deadhouse Gates' whether this kind of exercise in empathy had taken place. There was, thankfully, a total absence of graphic detail. But as I read the story I couldn't help but inwardly contrast it with David Gemmell's novella 'Ironhand's Daughter', which featured a more humane treatment of a victim of sexual violence. Even though we are spared the sexual encounters, the feel in 'Deadhouse Gates' was still quite unsympathetic towards Felisin's behaviour. Given that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, this lack of understanding from the male characters was the aspect of the novel I appreciated the least.
It's fair to say that despite my prior concerns any prior knowledge of the prequel proved not to be essential, and I enjoyed the book very much. Like any self-respecting fantasy novel, the story is drenched in detail and I'm looking forward to a second reading to immerse myself in that aspect a little more. On a slow first read my attention was mostly taken up by the story and characters. This hefty sword-and-sorcery tale is likely to repay regular re-reading because of the depth of world building, providing excellent value to the reader.
Best of all was the complexity of the unfolding story. I had to pay very close attention to follow it, but it was compelling to the final page. It also provided clear evidence of the developing narrative to come during subsequent books in the series. Felisin and her companions' fortunes are likely to improve, however this will probably occur only very slowly. The challenges that lie ahead will make for a tense narrative over many hundreds of thousands of words.
A first-class, down-in-the-dirt fantasy novel that combined superb world building with gritty and likeable characters forging their own destinies against the odds.
Many thanks to HFE and Co Studio, Henry Hustava and Johny Goerend for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash. I'll be back on Monday. In the meantime, the comments section is open. Thank you for reading my review!