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Most fantasy sagas are fixated on the perennial battle between Good™ and Evil™. But for the characters in Steven Erikson's gargantuan The Malazan Book of the Fallen, things have gone well beyond that point. Here, war may start for any number of reasons, and those waging it may have any number of elaborate justifications (which might even be true) for the nobility and rightness of their actions. But war always does one thing. It spirals into chaos. All you care about at that point is surviving. Good and Evil and the necessity of standing up for the one while vanquishing the other are luxuries that dissolve into absurdity when the greatest achievement you can boast in the last 24 hours is staying alive for all 24 of them.

It may have taken a couple of tries, but I'm warming to Erikson's uncompromising, formidable creation. Then again, it may seem a little bizarre to say that while I admire what Erikson is doing with his series a lot more the second time around, I have still, in the end, arrived at the same opinion and rating for Deadhouse Gates as I did when I initially reviewed it.

Much of this has to do with the fact that I still see Erikson fighting to draw that balance between building his world to the level of depth that he wishes, and finding a way to convey all of that with succinct storytelling and a clearly rendered narrative. Bigger is not always better, and here, the sheer size of the undertaking trips Erikson up — as it has other writers — and leads to a book that becomes quite a serious chore to read. But where so many epic fantasists are easily dismissed as pretentious, boring windbags when they do this kind of thing, Erikson continues to hold a degree of fascination, simply because his vision is sincere in its ambition. He strives so hard to steer as clear of genre convention as he can (while holding on to enough familiar tropes so as not to alienate the core fantasy fan base entirely), indeed, to elevate the genre, that I want to root for him, warts and all.

Malazan forcefully defies any possible label of escapism. Unless your idea of a lark is to escape into hell. Deadhouse Gates, the second of ten volumes, improves upon Gardens of the Moon in every area where that volume showed Erikson could stand improvement. But it has its own shortcomings. It's longer, denser, and even more demanding than the first book; and while this isn't a liability at first, it becomes one as the pages pile up. Your enjoyment of Deadhouse Gates will rest entirely upon how hard you're willing to work for your entertainment.

Erikson's biggest improvement is in his handling of character. Right from the prologue, he displays a much more deft hand at humanizing his heroes and heroines, putting a few of them through harrowing ordeals that evoke immediate sympathy. The opening chapters reacquaint us with a handful of characters from Gardens while introducing us to a bevy of new ones, as the action shifts away from the continent of Genabackis — where a Malazan campaign of conquest has suffered desertions, betrayals, and humiliating defeat — to the Seven Cities of the Malazan Empire itself.

The Empire is on the brink of open rebellion. Denizens of the Seven Cities eagerly await news of the Whirlwind, the long-prophesied war that will annihilate the Empire once and for all and free its peoples. The Malaz armies everywhere are hanging on by a thread. In desperation, Empress Laseen places them under the command of Coltaine, a warlord who once led a rebellion against the late emperor before being won over to his side. Coltaine does what he can to whip the feeble Malaz military into shape. Yet most in power look upon him with open disdain as a crude barbarian. In order to further stave off disaster, Laseen has temporarily won the support of the commoners in the capital by launching a purge of the nobility. Nothing like seeing highborn blood spilled to slake the vengeful thirst of the rabble. In this she is aided by her new Adjunct, Tovere, sister to Ganoes Paran, who took over command of the Bridgeburners in book one. So ruthless is Tovere that their other sister, Felisin, is one of those exiled to a horrific prison camp-cum-mining town far to the north.

For the first 200-odd pages, the story establishes the characters and their individual personal quests, and all this board-setting does hold off the action for a while. Kalam of the Bridgeburners announces that he intends nothing less than to assassinate Laseen himself, and sets off alone to do so, leaving Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar (all from Gardens) to their own devices. Kalam finds himself in possession of the holy book that must be delivered into the hands of the seeress Sha'ik, who must open it to launch the Whirlwind. He undertakes the task mainly to guarantee his passage through the vast deserts he must cross before boarding a ship to the capital. He doesn't realize that he's been set up in this, and is actually leading Malaz agents right to Sha'ik's hideout.

But the rebellion isn't forestalled. When all hell finally breaks loose, things change for Felisin in particular. Having resigned herself to the life of prison camp whore, and burying her misery in drug abuse and pitiful rationalizations, the Whirlwind gives her a new lease on life. She escapes the escape-proof mining town with the only two people she can loosely call friends, the brutish thug Baudin and the disgraced priest Heboric Light Touch. Felisin renews her goal to avenge herself against her sister. What none of them knows is that their escape was actually arranged before the rebellion broke out by the Malaz Imperial Historian, Duiker, who wants the priest freed for obscure reasons of his own. But Duiker is unable to meet the escapees himself, as he is forced to flee for his life when the Whirlwind overtakes the continent and sends Coltaine south, leading thousands of hapless Malaz refugees on a nightmarish forced march that earns the bleak name "Chain of Dogs."

Whew. That's all I'm going to go with in terms of a recap, gang, before this turns into one of those endless and boring "nothing but synopsis" reviews that no one ever reads all the way through. As you might have guessed, Erikson doesn't skimp on plot. The book's earliest passages are its best, with the scenes featuring Felisin conveying the most texture and realism, inspiring the strongest emotional involvement. There are scenes of extraordinary power and unforgettable imagery. Erikson has simply improved as a writer in his sophomore effort. Where Gardens of the Moon was, for about its first half, an exercise in data processing, Erikson is just better at relating necessary information while moving his plot along. As the story progresses, we come to know the other players better, particularly Duiker, through whose eyes we witness the atrocities and horror of the Chain of Dogs, where Coltaine miraculously manages to hold off one rebel army after another despite both their greater numbers and dissension in his own ranks.

The sheer size of the whole enterprise eventually takes its toll, though. A major plot thread involving two characters seeking the titular location, in a quest for ascendency, ends up being pivotal to the overall story. But even as their scenes dovetail with those of Felisin (who, for all her ordeals, never actually becomes likable) on the one hand, and Crokus and Apsalar on the other, things still get harder to follow, with pacing issues hampering one's involvement into the bargain. Another factor is that, although Erikson has improved his characterization skills, turning a cast of dozens, let alone hundreds, into living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people is still nowhere near his strong suit.

Deadhouse Gates is absolutely not for everyone, but as I think we've established that about Erikson in general in the last review, it needn't be dwelled upon here. This novel impresses more for what it attempts than what it achieves. But there's something to be said for that. About a hundred years or so ago, when Ernest Shackleton made his first attempt to reach the South Pole, he was forced to turn back less than 100 miles from his goal, explaining to his wife when he returned to a hero's welcome in England, "I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." It's easy to argue that Shackleton's achievement might have looked a lot less heroic had he calmly skied right to the Pole, planted a flag, and made it look like no big deal.

Erikson strikes me in the same way. What he's trying to do is give epic fantasy something radical and fresh, and if he doesn't always get there in the end, that's only to be expected from a mere mortal. He may be, two books into his fantasy career, only a live donkey. But dammit, he's our donkey! Fantasy has more than enough lion cadavers stinking up the place, thank you very much.

Followed by Memories of Ice.