A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen continues with its second novel, entitled Deadhouse Gates. Here the story moves from the continent of Genabackis to that of Seven Cities - the backstory is that this was the Malazan Empire's bloodiest conquest to date, with high cost in both foot soldiers' and leaders' lives. From Gardens of the Moon we continue to follow the journey of Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar, who endeavour to both bring Apsalar back to her home as well as, as far as the two Bridgeburners go, to confront the Empress about her unjust policy against the Bridgeburners. The story begins, however, with the introduction of new characters: Felisin of House Paran and sister to Captain Ganoes Paran familiar from the previous novel, who together with historian Heboric Light-Touch and a ruthless thug by the name of Baudin is sent to a prison island off the coast of the main continent of Seven Cities - this being due to noble houses being stripped of power in the Empress' name, to control the masses of the people by giving them someone to blame for their hardships. Watched on by her sister, Tavore, newly risen to the position of Adjunct to the Empress, Felisin gets on board the slave ships and begins her own journey of deprivation, deterioration and finally, of growth. At the same time, the holy desert Raraku is being traversed by two mysterious companions: Icarium, who searches for something that even he doesn't know is there, and his companion Mappo; who meet up with the band of Fiddler and the children in the midst of the desert. And finally, the Malazan garrison in Hissar welcomes its new Fist: Coltaine of the Crow Clan, a former enemy and now subject of the Empire, who has been sent there to do what he can in the face of an upcoming rebellion of the Seven Cities populace against the Malazan rule.
So, to begin with there are four major groups of characters, each with their own goals and and plots to follow. Coltaine's chain of events is followed mostly through the eyes of Duiker, an imperial historian, who also sends for help for his colleague Heboric, who together with Felisin and Baudin eventually escapes the prison and ends up on a journey through the magical warrens and finally, the desert Raraku. Kalam splits of from the rest of his party early on, reasoning to make a better time to the capital on his own, being a Seven Cities native and taking an indirect part into the rebellion as he travels. Fiddler is left to travel with the children Crokus and Apsalar and they meet up with Icarium and Mappo in a temple to Shadow, tended to by a psychotic madman of a High Priest, Iskalar Pust. Together the group join up to follow the Path of Hands, a prophesied event of Ascendancy sought by many creatures and humans alike. The House of Azath which stands at the end of the Path of Hands is Fiddler's group's key to travelling to another Azath house: the Deadhouse on Malaz Island, the roots of the Empire. Meanwhile, as the uprising begins, Coltaine leads a march across the continent to reach the capital of Seven Cities with their train of refugees constantly assailed both from the outside by the rebellion army and from the inside by the disgruntled nobility.
The tale of Felisin reminds one of the journey Frodo leaves on from the Shire. She is stripped from her noble status and made a slave, which she copes with by falling into decay in the form of drugs and abuse. At first she is traumatized by the sexual abuse she is subjected to and tries to escape it with the drugs - this, however, affects her mentality so, that she begins to accept the abuse as a price for the drugs and the reasonable comfort provided to her by her abuser on the prison island - when she escapes with Heboric and Baudin, partly against her will, she blames them for removing her from her safety within the prison. It is as if she feels the physical abuse as a continuation for the mental trauma of having been betrayed by her own sister, who sent her on the slave ships. Her nature changes from a timid young girl to an selfish, rude and intolerant little brat, who is cruel to all those who would show her any kindness. This pushing others away from her becomes almost like self-torture to Felisin; when there's no one to harm her physically, she resorts to harming others and also herself by isolating herself from everyone else. Her path through the warrens and the desert changes even that, however, as she comes to terms with the pain and hatred in her heart and in the middle of the desert, is transformed into a woman.
Coltaine comes to Hissar as a former enemy of the Malazan Empire and this is how he is viewed through the eyes of his Malazan garrison. The story of Coltaine is always told from the viewpoint of Duiker, who interviews both the Malazan soldiers and the members of Coltaine's own Crow Clan and thus records the events of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs. The deep distrust which is at the heart of everyone at the arrival of Coltaine does not alleviate in the minds of the common folk until the very end - in the eyes of the Malazan infantry it happens much sooner as they become to appreciate Coltaine's leadership and the loyalty his own clan accords to him. The storyline raises up difficult questions about allies and enemies, race and nationality as well as class and status, as the train of refugees seeks to reach the garrison in Aren while the country around them is in flames with the uprising. In the end, the refugee train reaches Aren and watches from the battlement as their saviour is overwhelmed, unable to help him.
It is harder to pinpoint themes for the rest of the plot lines - Icarium's and Mappo's mysterious search, Kalam's quest for revenge and Fiddler's desperate gamble on a hunch that Quick-Ben had about the Houses of Azath. In a way, apart from Icarium and Mappo, these plots continue the story from the Gardens of the Moon and are thus interesting to the reader - they are after all the only familiar characters in the book and as such are immediately identifiable with. Icarium and Mappo's storyline explain a bit more about the workings of magics and mystics in the world of Malazan Book of the Fallen, and also pave the way for the continuation of their search in the later novels of the series. With all of these characters too, there is growth and development, as each and everyone of them is somehow affected by the Holy Desert Raraku.
In the course of this post about the Deadhouse Gates it seems fitting to talk about the kind of women Erikson writes. So far, we've had the characters of Adjunct Lorn and Tattersail in Gardens of the Moon and Felisin in Deadhouse Gates who get a voice in the story, as well as several minor female characters. What characterizes much of Erikson's writing in general is, that you hardly ever get the viewpoint of characters in leading positions, such as the Empress, or the Fists, but you get an account of their command through the eyes of people under them. This is no different when it comes to the female characters - the highest ranking female whose viewpoint the novels adopt is Adjunct Lorn, but that lasts only for a short period of novel time in the Gardens of the Moon. (Of course there are others than Malazans to take into account as well as the novels progress, but for now, let's focus on the Malazans.) The women come from all walks of life and the three I've already mentioned give a good representation of them as well: Lorn is high ranking personal aide to the Empress, Tattersail is a High Mage and Felisin a noble-born young girl imprisoned and sent to slavery. Apart from them, there are a lot of women in the ranks of the Malazan military, who fight equally alongside the men.
While reading the Malazan series, I have never been caught by surprise by the occurrence of the female characters. They are represented as a natural part of the other characters and being a woman seems to make no difference in the way they are described or behaved towards. In fact, in the company of the lewd and sex-hungry soldiers there are also lewd and sex-hungry women. It is not as though the women are invisible in the novels, it's just that no special attention is given to the fact that this or that character is a woman and not a man. There are cultures within the world that have different views about gender, but for the part of the Malazan Empire, what you are capable of is more important than which sexual organs you possess. Partly my blindness to people's sex can also be cause by the fact that I'm a Finnish reader and as a Finn I've always been rather blind to all sorts of genderism occurring in the world - when you grow up making no distinction between men and women, it's sometimes difficult to see why other people bother to do so.
To quote George R. R. Martin, Erikson's women are people. They may do some things differently from men, but it is never raised as a crucial point in the stories. They are not glorified any more than the men are, and there is also weakness and self-deterioration among them, just as there are men who are badass soldiers, evil sorcerers or self-important noblemen. I especially like the character of Felisin, whom you both love and feel sorry for but equally also hate and think of as a stupid teenager in the course of her story - it illuminates well both the troubles of being young as well as the troubles of becoming a woman in your own right, faced by the problems of betrayal, loneliness and cruelty, and growing eventually into the independence she gains.
Deadhouse Gates works well as a novel by itself - the only points of continuation from Gardens of the Moon are really the reasons why Kalam and the others came to Seven Cities, and everything else is new and elaborated. The storylines intertwine somewhat, but for most part tell of events occurring on opposites sides of the continent and of the ramifications actions here have on actions there. The novel is written in a way that leaves the reader thirsting to know more about the events when it moves to talk of different characters and by the time you get to return to the first plot line you are already completely engrossed with the second and third ones. This is, I believe, because of the believable characters - it is easier to identify with them and thus become interested in what is going to happen to them in the course of the story. Also, as each and every character faces some sort of hardship along their way, the reader is likely to become empathetic to their respective causes, which makes you want to turn a page after page in order to find out what eventually happens. What I also like about the novels is that not every ending is sugar-coated in happiness and joy - sad things occur, people you've come to know as a reader die and even some of the victories leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The thing that really matters in the end is, I believe, that you become involved with the growth of the characters and immerse yourself with the intricate world that is described in Malazan Book of the Fallen. And it is those things that keep you wanting to come back for more.