Review: Deadhouse Gates

“Seven Cities was an ancient civilization, steeped in the power of antiquity, where Ascendants once walked on every trader track, every footpath, every lost road between the forgotten places.” ~Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen #2) by Steven Erikson
836 pages
Reviewed by Pete
Genre: Fantasy
Re-readability: I won’t be reading this one again, unless I really decide to stick with Malazan
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Spoiler-free review
Reviewed by Pete

I went into the first Malazan book, Gardens of the Moon, ready to be overwhelmed by the lore and massive cast of characters. I wasn’t—it did feel massive, and I had to check the character list quite frequently, but I was able to stick with the plot.

Not so with Deadhouse Gates.

It’s intimidating to begin the second book in a series and recognize only four of the twelve-ish protagonists. This book also takes place on a different continent from the first book, complete with its own cultures and conflicts, though it is linked to the Malazan Empire.

My main issue with this book was that I had no idea what the characters were striving to do. I didn’t know the stakes. What happens if they fail at… whatever it is they want to do? What happens if they succeed?

In short, I had no idea what was going on. And it was not a fun experience.

Many people swear by the Malazan wikis and read-alongs. While I can understand this, I had few issues with GoTM, and I felt rewarded when I figured out a piece of the puzzle. But that didn’t happen here, and I’m sure it’s because there were things I missed or simply couldn’t grasp.

To summarize the plot of Deadhouse Gates: A small, ill-equipped team has set out to assassinate the dangerous Empress Laseen in the hopes of restoring order to the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile, a resistance is rising up in the Seven Cities, and it has the power of the apocalypse behind them. A massive magical storm long kept at bay is about to be unleashed, and the Malazan army and the resistance are bound to clash.

Another issue (aside from the lack of clear conflict) emerged in this book that I didn’t experience in the first one: the plot seemed to be driven forward by random encounters. Perhaps I was thinking too much about how Malazan is based off of Erikson’s long-running tabletop RPG campaign, but there were dozens of scenes where “a character appears” or “a bad monster appears” and the characters had to deal with it. Regardless of whether these events came straight from an evening of gaming, this was just annoying to read.

Most of the characters in this book spent a good 300 pages walking through the desert, and all of them encountered people or creatures that made their journeys more or less difficult. It just isn’t interesting to read about events that came out of the blue like this all the time. True, life is full of random encounters—but when I’m reading, I absolutely must understand how events are connected to past and future events in the story. Here, they just felt isolated.

I have read a lot of praise for this book on r/Fantasy, particularly for its jaw-dropping ending. I was not only underwhelmed by the finale—I failed to understand its significance for the characters and the world. From my perspective, it felt like little changed and many of the events of Deadhouse Gates were pointless or irrelevant. It felt like a slap to the face for being invested in the story.

Fans of Malazan may read this review and think to themselves, “Well, you obviously missed some significant things and thus weren’t able to experience the story as you should have.” To this, I would say: Yes. I missed a lot. Or at least I hope I did—otherwise  I fail to understand the acclaim behind this series.

This book was either incredibly dense and difficult to parse, or it was filled with random, disconnected events. Either way, it was an extremely unpleasant experience.

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