Deadhouse Gates, the second volume in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, is an even better book than the first. Beautifully structured and written, the novel proves to be incredibly pessimistic, with a wide range of tragic characters, whose narrative arcs always come back to the same question: how to face the horror of violence?
The story in Deadhouse Gates takes place on a continent different from that presented in Gardens of the Moon, introducing new characters and environments. The focus is the Seven Cities, a region surrounded by desert, whose mythology is all sustained by the notion of rebellion. Having been conquered by the Malazan Empire years ago, the cities are at boiling point when the old historian Duiker is assigned to work for General Coltaine in an attempt to contain a civil war.
Besides Duiker’s, there are several points of view in the book: Felisin Paran is a young woman of nobility who has to deal with the shock of being sent by her own sister to a mine, where she begins to work as a slave; Mappo and Icarium are extremely powerful creatures who face a dilemma capable of putting their old friendship in check; and the assassin Kalam travels with his colleagues, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar, in order to assassinate his empress, Laseen.
The book’s prologue proves to be effective in establishing the tone of the story, and introducing the main themes and part of the devices employed by Erikson, while accompanying the journey of a bewildered Felisin during the purge of her city by the Empire: nobles are being sentenced by a jury of beggars and drunken judges to be dumped into a kind of arena for the violent catharsis of the poor, who pull, trample and kill them. The Malazan Commander in charge of the event is precisely Felisin’s sister, Tavore Paran, who is punishing her as a way to clean up the family name. Following in line to the impending lynching, the girl talks to a handless monk named Herboric and an assassin named Baudin about their chances of survival. Baudin’s response comes with a sudden, but lengthy, execution of a noblewoman whose head is thrown to the crowd in an attempt to gain time with the distraction.
Deadhouse Gates is a violence-driven novel whose characters are prone to outbreaks of anger, hate speeches and acts that cause the deepest repulsion. Gore, therefore, is a constant element in the narrative, which always surprises the readers with the horrors that one human being can inflict on the other. The climax of the prologue is a terrifying execution, but the events that follow are even more shocking.
Erikson works with graphic violence through a calculated process, where the level of brutality is progressively intensified, while visual metaphors mark it in the mind of the reader. In addition, he makes the characters seem eternally imprisoned in a last moment of agony, incapable of dying and, therefore, seeing death as salvation. On the first page, for example, one can hear the desperate howls of a dog close to die, “but not close enough“.
One of the many atrocities that Kalam encounters on his journey is a crucified child. The development of the scene follows the aforementioned guideline: first he observes a bloody hole in the place of one of the boy’s eyes, and that his nose is destroyed. Then, the assassin boggles at the sight of several other children in the same conditions behind that one. His gaze, then, follows the moths devouring the boy’s flesh – so many that made the child’s arms remember wings – to finally notice that the child was still alive.
Finally, Erikson makes a point of highlighting the human element behind the tragedies: it is not enough to describe that hundreds of women were raped while they were hanged by the guts of the men who lay around them. The author inserts a pause, indicated by dashes, to indicate that such men were their husbands, brothers, parents and children.
Erikson deserves applause as well for working on the issue of anger and aggression not only in the account of the narrative descriptions being visceral but also in his choice of vocabulary. The characters in Deadhouse Gates do not “talk” or “say” stuff, but grunt their every sentence. The most used verbs are “grunt“, “growl“, “groan“, “grimace” and “grin“. All starting with “gr”, producing in the narrative the constant noise of a growl: an excellent use of alliteration that complements the suffocating atmosphere of the story and even produces an ironic effect, since Coltaine’s group is called Chain of Dogs.
Faced with so much violence, the characters in Deadhouse Gates show to be hopeless, taking a cynical stance on the future of humanity. In this sense, the protagonist, Duiker, finds himself in a special situation for being a historian. His aim is to record the events that transpire in the withdrawal of Coltaine’s army from the Seven Cities, when the outbreak of civil war forces them to travel through the desert with more than fifty thousand refugees.
Coltaine’s journey bears many resemblances to the 300 of Sparta: his army is far fewer in number than its enemies, but resists due to the discipline, union and ferocity of its members. Each battle takes place in a situation more disadvantageous than the previous one, but in each one Coltaine comes out victorious and with an even smaller number of survivors.
Duiker watches the victories with astonishment, shocked by the load of savagery witnessed on both sides of the battlefield. The historian realizes that at the time of killing, of murdering and tearing down the enemy, there is no more specific discrimination of gender, race or class, just being the “other” is enough to merit carnage; that the hate speech “us or them” is toxic and only leads to acts of brutality; and that history and reason are abandoned in the midst of all the bloodshed, condemning everyone to a tragic end. When Duiker attests – like Kalam – that even children are not being spared during the revolution, he enunciates, unbelievingly, “Children are dying” – a sentence that is immediately complemented by a soldier who puts the function of his colleague in perspective: “That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words. Quote me, Duiker, and your work’s done”.
Felisin does not deal better with the horrors she witnesses. Since the prologue, her reaction is to move away from reality, finding strength of will only in the desire to take revenge on her sister. Numbness is a term constantly related to the character while she works in the mines: Felisin is numb by her hatred to Tavore, being no longer able to feel anything else, anesthetized. Such lack of sensation leads to a social numbness, a resignation that does not exempt her from a growing complicity to what happens around her. At one point, Erikson – who loves to work with symbolism – constructs an intense visual metaphor by temporarily blinding the girl to the action that is happening around her. It is a heavy scene, for the insects that assault her try to enter her ears, mouth, eyes and even between her legs, while she defends herself with mud, until she is completely immersed in it, devoid of all her senses: the narrative arc of the girl is even more tragic than that of Duiker, because if he never stops being bewildered by so much violence, condemning it, Felisin struggles lead her precisely to embrace violence, taking it for herself. Hate, in all its forms, whether political or personal, at the level of discourse or action, is treated in the narrative as a dehumanizing machine, which removes the individual’s capacity for empathy, transforming them into a cog of hate itself.
The story finally gains a lighter mood in the interwoven journeys of Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus, Apsalar, Mappo and Icarium. The plot of the assassin is the most serious of the group, from which he separates early on, taking a path of his own until he reaches Laseen. His journey through the desert is lined with scenes of action and persecution, being responsible for several important events of the story. It is a character divided by his alliances – he was born in the Seven Cities, but works for the Empire –, that sees in the death of the Empress the solution for the war. Kalam, therefore, wishes to end violence with a gesture of violence – though surgical – which makes the anticlimax of its end appropriate, closing the character’s narrative arc by dealing with the problems of that irony.
Erikson builds very well several scenes involving the assassin: a simple statement about Kalam’s motivation in revealing his identity to the guards of a fort, for example, makes more interesting the moment when a group of mercenaries enters the place due to the irony of the resulting events. Besides that, the episode itself serves to increase the tension over the possibility of the character failing in his mission, as it shows him making errors of both observation and judgment.
Now, the remaining of the group meets Iskaral Pust, a Shadow priest who follows the pattern pioneered by Kruppe in Gardens of the Moon: to function as a mysterious comic relief, because of the contrast between his seemingly illogical lines and the immense power they imply. Pust, however, has his own characteristics, like the habit of speaking his thoughts in an apparently involuntary way, leading to hilarious situations in which he ends up exposing to others precisely his desire to betray or manipulate them.
Finally, Mappo and Icarium are responsible for the emotional load of the book. Their friendship, born of a tragedy, seems destined to end in the same way it began. Icarium suffers from amnesia due to his outbursts of fury, a torment that his companion sees as actually a blessing: a way of forgetting all the violence he perpetrates. Thus, their friendship moves the reader by the opposition of being honest and yet walking towards an inevitable fatality.
If Gardens of the Moon was a great start, Deadhouse Gates is a brilliant book that reaffirms Steven Erikson as one of the greatest authors in the fantasy genre. Working with the concept of violence, the novel offers several possible answers to the source of such hatred, but one is especially sad in its simplicity: “Difference in kind is the first recognition, the only needed, in fact. Land, domination, pre-emptive attacks – all just excuses, mundane justifications that do nothing but disguise the simple distinction. They are not us. We are not them.”
December 08, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on August 01, 2016
February 1st 2005 by Tor Books