If Gardens of the Moon was an intriguing but imperfect introduction to the Malazan world then the second book, Deadhouse Gates is where the series really hits its stride. It is not really a direct sequel to the first book, although it does take place shortly after the events described in Gardens of the Moon it is set on a separate continent, the land known as Seven Cities which was conquered by the Malazan Empire a generation ago. The Malazans see themselves as having given the Seven Cities peace and prosperity after years of endless tribal warfare and suffering under the rule of despotic religious cults, but the people of the Seven Cities still see the Malazans as foreign invaders and they seize the opportunity of the Empire’s declining strength to launch a rebellion lead by Sha’ik, the prophetess of an apocalyptic cult devoted to destruction.
The rebellion is widely supported by the local populace and the Malazans quickly find themselves besieged in their strongholds, principally Aren, the largest of the Seven Cities. Aren’s mighty fortifications are sufficient to hold off the ragtag armies of the rebellion but the Malazan forces in the rest of the continent have more of a problem. The main plot threat follows the Malazan 7th Army who, surrounded by enemy forces with superior numbers, face an overland march of 1500 miles through hostile lands to get to the safety of Aren. The bulk of the 7th Army’s strength is made up of Wickan cavalry, expert horsemen from a tribe on the Malazan’s home continent who have long fought for the Empire. Individually their soldiers are more than a match for any of their enemies but the 7th Army’s leader, the Wickan warlord Coltaine, also has the problem of protecting the lives of fifty thousand Malazan settlers who face certain death at the hands of the rebels if they are not protected by his army. The story of the march and the series of battles the 7th army faces along the way is probably the most compelling plotline in the entire Malazan series featuring many memorable scenes and multiple varied, convincing and well thought-out battles. Gardens of the Moon occasionally suffered from the fact that it was hard to really care whether the Malazans succeeded, but here they are more clearly the good guys in the story as they seek to protect innocent civilians from the vicious tortures of the rebels (of course, the Malazans also possibly deserve criticism for their war of conquest that lead to them controlling Seven Cities, but few of the Malazan characters in this novel were involved with that). The climax to the plotline is also one of the most powerful moments in the entire series.
Although the 7th Army’s march (the so-called ‘Chain of Dogs’) is the biggest plotline in the book there are also a number of other plotlines taking place, all of them occurring during the Seven Cities rebellion. One focuses on the character of Felisin Paran, a teenage daughter of a senior noble family exiled to the harsh Malazan prison camp of Otaratal Island after the Empress launches a cull of the noble families. To survive in the harsh prison she finds herself doing some unsavoury things to survive but eventually escapes in the company of Heboric, a former senior priest of the God of War has lost his faith and former soldier Baudin. Their escape takes them on an eventful journey, including a frankly bizarre encounter with a giant jade statue buried in the desert which sets in motion a series of mystical events which leave them trapped on a ship filled with mysterious corpses in the flooded alternate dimension of an unknown Warren. Meanwhile, several characters from Gardens of the Moon have chosen a poor time to come to the Seven Cities, as the former Bridgeburners, assassin Kalam and sapper Fiddler pass through on their way to try to take revenge on the Empress they believe betrayed them. Kalam finds his loyalties torn, between his mission of revenge and his almost-forgotten loyalties to his homeland, before joining the Bridgeburners he had been a native of Seven Cities and feels compelled to try to aid Sha’ik’s rebellion. Along the way they will encounter a number of other characters with their own agendas such as Iskaral Pust, the seemingly mad High Priest of Shadow and Icarium and his companion Mappo. Icarium is one of the series’ more interesting characters, a seemingly amiable half-human half-Jaghut warrior with great power but no memory of his past who is constantly driven to journey and to try to remember where he came from. Mappo is his friend and constant companion, but is also charged with making sure Icarium remains ignorant, since he knows that his friend is potentially very dangerous and has in the past brought down whole civilisations in made rages. Other encounters deal with the mystical Path of Hands, an ancient ritual followed by the Soletaken, people who have the ability to change into animal forms, often losing their humanity and sanity in the process.
The supporting plotlines vary in quality. Some elements of them are well-executed, Icarium and Mappo’s storylines is one of the more interesting in the series (although the events in this book are just the first instalment of it) and Felisin is in some ways one of the series’ best bits of characterisation – in a series filled with powerful warriors and mages it is an interesting contrast to spend so much time on a character who is in many ways very weak and suffers through some terrible and unjust ordeals. Felisin is not really a very likeable character due to her understandable bitterness at what she sees as her abandonment, but she is a believable character even when sometimes does some fairly stupid things. Other parts of the story are less satisfying; the plotline concerning the Jade Statue that Heboric and Felisin encounter is frankly incomprehensible and despite being revisited several times in later books has yet to really make any sense. The Path of Hands subplot is a bit more comprehensible and does have some interesting bits in it but it is difficult to really see the point of including it in the novel as it doesn’t add much to the story.
The overall quality of the writing has improved since Gardens of the Moon and most of the time the characterisation is better as well, although there are still some moments where character motivations are a bit difficult to follow – Kalam’s decision to take time out of his mission to help Sha’ik get a critical religious relic seems a bit out of character given his characterisation in the rest of the series.
In summary, Deadhouse Gates competes with the third book Memories of Ice for the title of the best book in the series. The central Chain of Dogs plotlines is probably one of the most entertaining, compelling and memorable Epic Fantasy storylines and many of the supporting plotlines are also interesting, although the quality does dip at times (the bizarre Jade Statue plot being one example that detracts from the overall quality of the book). It is not a perfect book, but is still an excellent piece of Epic Fantasy.
Rating : 9 / 10
Gardens of the Moon is the first of ten (or 17 depending how you want to count them) books in the Malazan Empire series.
The world the Malazan series is set in has a slightly more advanced setting than the typical medieval setting of many fantasy novels. The main focus of the series is on the Malazan Empire, an aggressive and expansionist Empire which in the space of a few decades expanded from an obscure island city mainly famous as a base for pirates to conquer several continents under the influence of its powerful and ruthless Emperor Kellanved. At times in the series the Malazans seem like imperialist villains, at other times they seem like the good guys (especially in comparison to some of their rival powers). The Malazans are in many ways quite enlightened by the standards of the world with a relatively egalitarian culture usually hostile to the feudal aristocracies or fanatical religious cults that held sway in many of the lands they conquered. At the same time, they are undeniably aggressive, starting many wars and can be uncompromisingly brutal when they think it is necessary. This is a common theme of Erikson’s work, it is very rare for any civilisation or individual in his books to be regarded as being entirely good, and equally many (although not all) of his major villains have some redeeming qualities. Throughout the series it is often ambiguous as to whether the Malazans should be supported in what they are trying to do, or opposed.
Although the Malazans are one of the most powerful of the current-day powers in the world, past civilisations and powers also play an important role in the series. Erikson trained as an archaeologist and has constructed a long history of his world filled with many Gods and civilisations and dozens of races, some of which still exist, some of which are extinct and some of which aren’t as extinct as they appear to be. The history takes in important events that happened millennia or even hundreds of millennia ago and in some cases the participants in those events are still alive (or at least, still animate). The variety of races are one of the most fascinating elements of Erikson’s world-building since he eschews the typical clichéd fantasy races with such inventive creations such as the four so-called ‘Elder Races’ - K’Chain Che’Malle (reptilian creatures with hive minds and highly advanced technology), Jaghut (tusked, strong, powerful sorcerers with vast power but whose stubborn individualism prevented them from working together), Forkrul Assail (tall humanoids with a fanatical hatred of other races) and the T’lan Imass (undead Neanderthals whose hatred of their Jaghut oppressors caused them to enact a magical ritual which gave them eternal existence as undead warriors).
In the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, the Malazans tend towards being the bad guys of the story, even if many of the Malazan protagonists are more sympathetic characters than their Empire is. It is several years after the assassination of the Malazan Empire’s founder Kellanved by his protégé and rival, the assassin Laseen who has now crowned herself Empress. Laseen kept up the pace of the Malazans’ wars of conquest while at the same time manoeuvring against many of those who were once loyal to Kellanved. The novel is set on the continent of Genabackis, one of the more recently-invaded lands of the Empire, and it begins as the Malazan forces are about to attack the city of Pale, one of the last of the Free Cities that once controlled most of the continent. The Malazans assemble a large army to besiege the city, but the main battle takes place above them in the form of a sorcerous duel between the Malazan’s Mage Cadre and the Free Cities’ ally Anomander Rake, an ancient sorcerer and leader of the Tiste Andii (a race from another dimension, exiled from their home many millennia ago). Despite heavy casualties (including most of the mage cadre being killed in an apparent act of treachery by its High Mage, Tayschrenn) the Malazans are victorious, Rake is forced to flee and the Malazans eyes start to turn towards the last, and richest, of the Free Cities, Darujhstan.
The Malazan books tend not to have a single protagonist. Perhaps the closest to a main character is Sergeant Whiskeyjack, a veteran soldier in charge of a squad of the Bridgeburners – previously an elite unit in the time of Emperor Kellanved but now regarded with suspicion by the new Empress. After the capture of Pale the Bridgeburners are despatched as an advanced party to infiltrate Darujhstan and leave it open for invasion by sabotaging its infrastructure. They take on the role despite misgivings about the casualties they took in the battle of Pale and suspicion that they may have deliberately have been placed in danger as part of an attempt to kill of loyalists to the old Empreror. They also have misgivings about one of their own, a young woman name Sorry who was a recent recruit but has a great capacity for violence and who may be much more than she appears. The Bridgeburners also have a new Captain in the form of Ganoes Paran, a well-intentioned young officer regarded with suspicion by the other soldiers because of Paran’s noble birth and background in a family that was very powerful in Unta (the Malazan capital) before the old Emperor began his pogroms against the nobility. He faces the risk of a knife in the back from one of his own subordinates if he can’t persuade them he is a worthy leader. Another major Malazan character is Tattersail, one of the few survivors of the Malazan mages, who is bitter against the apparent attack on her colleagues by Tayschrenn (the Empire’s most senior mage) whilst also guilty about some of her past acts for the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile the Empress’ senior aide Adjunct Lorne also travels to Darujhstan on a secret mission to unleash an ancient evil which once ruled the city in a reign of terror, accompanied by Tool, a T’lan Imass warrior who is the only member of the undead army that once served Kellanved still working for the Empire.
Meanwhile, in Darujhstan the plot centres on a group of young friends plotting to restore one of their number to his rightful place as head of a noble house, after he was deposed by his ambitious ex-wife and a rival councillor. They are also aware of the coming Malazan threat and their plotline interacts with that of the city’s powerful Assassin’s Guild as it contends with the Malazan’s elite assassins and the machination of a mysterious spymaster who uses the pseudonym of The Eel who is trying to rally the city’s defences.
It is common throughout the Malazan series for the plot to take place on more than one level. The most obvious plotlines involve the soldiers, battles, intrigues and ordinary people of the story. There are also more subtle plotlines as Gods and ancient powers manipulate events to further their own plans. One of the main plotlines throughout the series involves two of the newest Gods to gain power, the beings known as Shadowthrone and Cotillion, who have recently taken control of the long-abandoned realm of Shadow and who have far greater ambitions than just being two ordinary members of the Malazan world’s pantheon. In this case their plans are focused on Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and particularly on their young recruit, Sorry.
The plot of the series is undeniably complex and Erikson took a deliberate decision to start his first book in what was, in many ways, the middle of the story. It is initially quite confusing as within a few chapters the reader is launched into the battle of Pale and introduced to a dizzying array of characters and races, many with long and complex histories which will not be fully explained for several books to come. Erikson’s often inventive world-building can also add to the confusion, his magic system is based on the control of the powers of alternate dimensions known as Warrens (different Warrens having different properties such as being associated with darkness, illusions, fire, water etc.) and it takes a long time for even the most rudimentary explanation of how the Warrens work (and even after ten books it is still not entirely clear). As the book goes on it does gradually make more sense but some persistence is required to get through the initial confusion. Although it can make the series sometimes difficult to understand, the complexity and imaginativeness of the setting and plot are one of the Malazan series strengths and overall it is probably more Epic than just about any other Epic fantasy series.
Gardens of the Moon was Erikson’s first full-length fantasy novel and it does have some flaws that debut novels often have. The quality of the writing, prose and dialogue can be a bit variable, at times Erikson has some very good writing but at other times the prose can end up seeming a bit clunky and awkward and the dialogue stilted and unconvincing. The quality of the characterisation is also variable, Erikson does have some memorable and interesting characters but the cast of characters is so large than some of them have fairly shallow characterisation. The characterisation can also sometimes be unconvincing and sometimes character’s motivations for their actions do not seem satisfactorily explained. To take one example, at one point in the book Captain Paran takes immense risks that could imperil not just his life but also his immortal soul in an attempt to save from captivity two creatures which shortly beforehand were trying to kill him and it does not really seem believable that he would take such a huge risk.
It is far from the being the best book in the series, Erikson’s writing would improve in later volumes and although there are plenty of interesting moments in the plot the overall storyline often fails to be really compelling – one of the main problems being that it is hard to really be invested in caring about whether the Malazans succeed or fail in their war against Darujhstan. When considered alongside the rest of the series there are also quite a few things that contradict later books, Erikson would revise quite a few elements of the setting in later novels.
Overall, this is an entertaining fantasy novel with plenty of interesting ideas and concepts which large make up for the sometimes variable quality of the writing.
Rating : 7 / 10
I've found Esslemont's previous Malazan books to be a bit mixed, at their best they have had some fascinating world-building and compelling plots but they have a tendency to be let down by often bland characterisation and some of his plots have been a bit underwhelming. I thought Assail was a reasonably entertaining book but I think it's one of the Esslemont's weaker efforts. One problem is that the continent of Assail where the book is set is probably one of the less interesting settings in the Malazan world and it feels a bit underwhelming compared to how it has been built up by mentions in previous books by Erikson and Esslemont. In previous books Assail was referred to with dread by many characters but while it is an inhospitable land I would say there have been more forbidding settings in previous Malazan books (including the jungle setting of Esslemont’s last book, “Blood and Bone”). Many Malazan books are based on a diverse group of different factions journeying towards a convergence at the end of the novel and this is no exception. Most of the characters seem to spend most of the novel travelling to the same destination and while the pacing is reasonable (it isn't as tedious as some of the journeying in Erikson's later Malazan books) this part of the story isn't all that compelling. Once the journeying has ended the pace does pick up and the plot does become more compelling, the book does have a good ending and offers some conclusion to long-running plotlines first brought up in Erikson's books over a decade ago, although some bits do seem a bit rushed and a key part of the final confrontation seems to centre on a character I can barely remember from a previous Esslemont book. It's also a bit irritating that although it's nice to finally have a conclusion a plotline left hanging at the end of Erikson's "Memories of Ice" (which I read over a decade ago) virtually the first thing that happens in this book regarding the plotline is an explanation about why what the ending of Memories of Ice implied about the future was inaccurate, and the actual plotline seems less interesting than what I was expecting.
I think the biggest problem is that while the characterisation isn't exactly bad (there are a decent variety of characters and there is some reasonable character development), there is a lack of really memorable characters. This is perhaps not helped by a sprawling cast that means most characters don't get a huge amount of time spent on them, even important characters like Silverfox. Comparing the two Malazan authors I'd say this is one area where Erikson does have a real advantage, while his characterisation was always a bit hit-and-miss he does have some fascinating and compelling characters.
Overall, this is a moderately entertaining epic fantasy novel but I suspect it won’t turn out to be a particularly memorable one and it feels a bit underwhelming for something described on the cover as the ‘Final Novel of the Malazan Empire’.
Rating : 6 / 10