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Erikson Surmounts the Sophomore Effect With "Deadhouse"

  • Matt Winslow Infuze Magazine
  • 2006 12 Oct
Erikson Surmounts the Sophomore Effect With "Deadhouse"

Author:  Steven Erikson
Title:  "Deadhouse Gates"
Publisher:  Tor Books

The sophomore effect is a well-recognized result of telling a large story in serialized segments.

In the first installment there is always the excitement of setting up the story, introducing the characters, creating the tension. In the final installment, if done well, there's the excitement of concluding the story, having the character conflicts (both internal and external) come to resolution, an overall lessening of tension. But what about the middle? Too often, it's merely getting from point A to point B (whether literal or metaphorical), and that's just plain boring. Consider how often you've put aside a book because the middle just dragged. Now expand that to a multi-book series. Authors face quite a challenge to keep the interest alive beyond the first book.

Steven Erikson in "Deadhouse Gates," the second volume of his massive "Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen" series, faces that very problem and successfully surmounts it. He not only moves the story forward but he also strengthens and deepens the epic story he's telling. He does this by setting aside most of what he set up in the first book, bringing over only a handful of characters from the introductory volume, and instead focuses on a new storyline that dovetails smoothly into the story already established.

"Deadhouse Gates" follows Felisin, youngest daughter of the House of Paran, which in Gardens of the Moon was thrown from its lofty position. Felisin is now a slave in the horrific Otataral mines and is reduced to prostitution to survive.

Across the Otataral sea, the Seven Cities of the Malazan Empire are still at war, resulting in 30,000 refugees fleeing across the continent. The untried but charismatic commander Coltaine makes it his mission to save these 30,000 refugees (known as the Chain of Dogs) by marching them across the continent while pursued by enemies, to the safety of the holy city of Aren.

One factor in Coltaine's way, however, is the prophesied Whirlwind, an event that will upturn the known world. Leading this Whirlwind is the seer Sha'ik and her followers who will stop at nothing to see their apocalypse realized. And were this not enough plot threads to try to juggle, Erikson throws in one more:  from the first novel, Fiddler and Kalam, two of the fabled Bridgeburners (an elite military squad), have come to the Seven Cities to assassinate the Empress Laseen.

Before novel's end (and this is a massive novel), all of these threads become tangled together and then are skillfully pulled apart and woven into a single tapestry. It is amazing to watch how what at first appears to be four separate novels come together to a satisfying conclusion. This is only the second volume of a long series, so don't expect to find long-term resolution, but the short-term story threads are resolved, making this a satisfying read.

As for writing style, "Deadhouse Gates" is not as elliptically written as "Gardens of the Moon." The narrative is more straightforward and thus easier to follow. The characterization is as strong as ever. Erikson's skill lies in mastering the art of showing and not telling so that the reader comes to feel for the characters because of their actions rather than because the author told you you should.

One of the downsides is that this is only the second volume of a large series and so there are still thousands upon thousands of pages left before this epic story is fully told. Can Erikson keep interest in the series alive? Only time will tell, but if "Deadhouse Gates" is any indication, he may just be the writer to pull it off.

 © 2006 Infuze Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.