Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deadhouse Gates

The Norse have the Edda, the English Beowulf, the Welsh the Mabinogian, and so on and so on. The national epic of the Canadians appears to be The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I just read Deadhouse Gates, which is the second in this ten book series, the ninth of which was just released in the UK. It's a pretty massive volume; the mass market paperback clocks in around 836 pages, not counting several pages of appendices, glossaries, character lists, and other items at the back (and the front.) And seeing it on the shelf next to its peers in the series, it looks like one of the narrower of the volumes in the series. Although pagination is a tricky thing, it looks likely that the complete series, in US mass market paperback edition, will be almost 9,000 or 10,000 pages long.

That's not exactly problematic in the fantasy genre; the Wheel of Time is probably as long, as is the Sword of Truth. G.R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice is probably only going to fall short of that total because it's he's such a slow writer that he won't put out as many total books. Heck, even Glen Cook's Black Company books started edging up to that kind of page count by the time they ended. Clearly fantasy fans have an enormous and voracious appetite for long, long books. But what exactly do you get in those 10,000 pages of Malazan wonder?

I started reading Deadhouse Gates several months ago; shortly after coming back from Hawaii in early July. Two and a half months later, I finally wrapped it up. Now, as I mentioned, it's a long book, but it's not that long. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels are a more subdued 350-400 page books (edging up to nearly 450 in the later volumes); less than half that length, yet I can read them in just a day or two sometimes. If Deadhouse Gates were really good, I'd have finished it in a week or two tops. Erikson's work here is very ambitious, and I applaud him for that. He's cranking out a massive, massive epic at a pretty good clip, he's jettisoning many of the tired fantasy cliches, he's really trying to raise the genre a bit, and take it in new directions. He's also got some great ideas, and some great visuals, and when he's really paying attention, he can write some really jaw-dropping scenes. I'm reminded of the finale in Gardens of the Moon, where the Jaghut tyrant comes to town in Darujistan. Great stuff. The Semk godling character here, with his mouth and nose sewn shut, is a fascinating visual.

But, sadly, good visuals and noble intentions do not a good book make, and Erikson's work is brought down by the simplest of problems: lack of good craftsmanship. Let me be more specific.

1) There are no believable characters in this book. Or interesting ones, either. I suppose Kalam almost qualifies as an interesting one, but even he feels cardboard, his motivations arcane, and his actions only barely related to those motivations even so. I actually thought this book was going to be an improvement on the first one when it started. I'm going to name off a few characters, which if you haven't read the book you won't recognize, but bear with me; they're all just examples of the problem I'm referring to. Felisin's predicament at the beginning started off so well, generating human interest and empathy… and then she became completely unbearable to read about. Duiker and Fiddler were major point of view characters who were almost completely indistinguishable other than by whom they were surrounded. Nobody's motivation seemed to make any sense, and they did not act in accordance with stated motivations half the time. I found every single character (again, with the exception of Kalam who, for whatever reason, I kinda liked) unbearable to read about. Some of them were not just boring and seemingly taken with nonsensical whimsy, they were literally painful to read. Iskaral Pust was supposed to be comic relief, I think, yet he was incredibly annoying. Mappo wallowed in so much self pity that I wanted to slap him upside the head. Duiker was even worse; Erikson literally spent hundreds of pages rehashing despairing philosophical internal monologs in this guy's head, making the plot line for which he was the point of view character, the would-be epic Chain of Dogs, tedious beyond belief to endure. Heboric starts off sympathetic and then goes both bitter and crazy making every scene he appears in after a certain point roll-eyes-worthy.

2) There is no coherent structure to this novel. Erikson is firmly, in my opinion, in need of a lifetime prescription to Ritalin. The book bounces around constantly at seemingly arbitrary cut-off points, between the Fiddler group, the Kalam group, the Felisin group, the Mappo group, and occasionally others as well. None of these "plot" lines actually follow much of a plot. There's a structure that you expect in novels, that facilitates reading, that Erikson eschews for reasons that I don't clearly understand. Although lots of stuff is happening, plot isn't necessarily advancing, and the entire book feels very disjointed. After reading it, I'm not even 100% sure I could outline the plot for you, and if I did, it would actually be a very short outline. Plus, like I said, hundreds of pages were devoted to crybaby whining via internal monologs. Hundreds!

3) Erikson's writing style is deliberately dense. It's florid, grammatically awkward, and imprecise. The imprecision in particular is galling; it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly what it is that he's describing at first. A good quality of most fiction is that it disappears; the writing is well-crafted enough that you don't notice it, and the setting, events and characters feel real. That's never the case here; in fact, the entire experience often feels very surreal. You're always isolated from it by the bad writing, the hoaky dialogue, the difficult descriptions and characterizations, and all of the other poor craftsmanship elements that cause the writing to stand up in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Things happen without sufficient explanation or description, leaving you scratching your head wondering why. The dialogue is particularly painful; I think it's an attempt to be clever and/or deep, but the characters rarely feel like they're having conversations with each other; they seem to be reading out of context fortune cookies at each other. Another annoying element of Erikson's style is that he "cheats" and witholds information from the reader deliberately and crudely, by having character internal monolog about the information, and then not tell you what it is that they're thinking about.

4) He tries too hard. Possibly he's got an ideological ax to grind, although I always hesitate to ascribe that motive to writers, but for whatever reason, he focuses too much on "the horror of war" and it doesn't work. Glen Cook, for instance, can write about that theme, and the men who perpetrate those horrors, and it feels authoritative and authentic. Erikson's ham-fisted attempts to evoke an emotional response are completely emotionless; he writes as a man who's read too much and lived too little, and simply doesn't have the wherewithal to present that topic and make it ring true, or powerful.

In short, the book really makes me wonder what in the world happened to editing careers in the fantasy literature department. Apparently there are none, because fantasy publishers don't believe in editors. This book would have been dramatically improved by some good editing; probably 20-25% of it could simply have been cut without disturbing the structure at all, the entire book needs a serious level of polish.

Now… re-reading that, it sounds pretty scathing, and I suppose that it mostly is. And I'm going to stand by it. That said, there's a good book trying to get out of the mess of a book that we actually got, and I did find myself occasionally caught up in Erikson's ambitious grand vision. And, on the rare occasions when he's on track, the books provide some really exciting fun stuff. So, even after about 1500 pages of work that's rendered occasionally nearly unreadable by crippling, fatal flaws, I'm still not 100% convinced that I should drop the series. Erikson's ambitious, audacious take on the fantasy genre is compelling in some way, and I find myself wondering if he can improve his craft enough to pull it off before he's done. I'll probably give the next book, Memories of Ice a try. However, I’m not going to be in any particular hurry to do so. I've got enough stuff on my docket to read as it is, most of which I'm looking forward to quite a bit more than I am to this, so it's going to be a very low priority for me to advance further into the misadventures of the Malazans.

1 comment:

doombringer said...

I've never heard one thing about these books that encouraged me to read them. When a fan speaks of them it has always struck me as fawning, which has been a turn off. When anyone else reviews them, they sound a bit like this, though not as detailed.