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Deadhouse Landing by Ian C. Esslemont

Deadhouse Landing by Ian C. Esslemont
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Book Name: Deadhouse Landing
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher(s): Tor Books (US) Bantam Press (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Release Date: November 14, 2017 (US) November 16, 2017 (UK)

Spoiler Warning: This review contains minor and very general spoilers for the Path of Ascendancy series. But then this is a prequel series so the spoilers here are no worse than the ones you’d get from reading the blurbs of books from earlier Malazan series.

Ian C. Esslemont is the co-creator, alongside Steven Erikson, of the Malazan setting, a vast and sprawling tapestry that stretches across multiple worlds and through many long ages. Deadhouse Landing is the second book in the second series that Esslemont has contributed to this most epic of all epic fantasy sagas. As you might have guessed from that description this is one of my favourite settings of all time so please forgive me if I become misty-eyed at any point.

If you’re new to the Malazan world then you should at least read the prequel to this book, Dancer’s Lament, before attempting Deadhouse Landing. Or, if you have plenty of time on your hands, you might consider reading all ten books in the original Malazan series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen. And reading the Malazan Empire series after or alongside the Book of the Fallen to get all of the context and to understand what happened to everyone.

But why commit yourself to such a tremendous amount of reading?

Well, all Malazan books are told from multiple viewpoints that weave in and out of complex and arcane plots. These plots inevitably include the clash of titanic sorceries, meddling gods and battles filled with immensely skilled martial artists, immortal heroes and world-weary soldiers. Ancient beings lurk in the shadows or bestride the trembling earth, alien worlds spill into one another and armies, tribes or even whole civilisations are crushed beneath the tide of history. In short if you like your fantasy high powered, original, beard-strokingly complicated and as gritty as any novel that ever aspired to be called ‘grimdark’ then this is probably the setting for you. So, if the rest of this review seems to consist of a lot of nit-picking and lukewarm praise then please imagine that after every paragraph or so I repeat the phrase – “But this is still one of the most original, epic, clever and morally complex fantasy settings of all time. This is what epic fantasy should be.”

On to the book in question.

This particular series, Malazan Empire – Path to Ascendancy, goes back before the time of The Malazan Book of the Fallen to explore the beginnings of the empire which gives the Malazan setting its name. It is the story of why the assassin Dancer and the mage Kellanved became partners, what led them to create one of the mightiest empires their world has ever seen and how they started down the path that would eventually lead them to ascend to immortality as the gods of Shadow.

The actual beginnings of that fateful partnership are documented in Dancer’s Lament, although that takes place in a different part of the world and only a small handful of plotlines and characters are shared between the two novels; in some ways the series so far feels more like a biography than a story with a consistent through-line. That’s not a bad thing, it just might take some getting used to if you’re new to the Malazan authors’ style of writing.

Deadhouse Landing depicts Dancer and Kellanved arriving on the benighted pirate isle of Malaz, dealing with rivals both mundane and magical and attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Deadhouse; a silent but sentient building created to imprison beings of power. The novel also follows Cartheron, a massively muscled sailor who serves an exiled queen. Tattersail, a young mage with big ambitions who happens to be the lover of Malaz’s de-facto ruler. Tayschrenn, a different and far more talented young mage embroiled in the politics of the cult of D’Rek – the god of decay. Dassem Ultor, an inhumanly skilled swordsman and the chosen champion of the god of death. And a handful of other viewpoint characters including an aging wizard and a youthful street tough.

Overall the writing is well put together. There weren’t any stand out bits of word-craft that really took my breath away but there was hardly anything that tripped me up or spoilt my enjoyment of the story either. And there’s no shortage of enjoyment to be had here. The battles and duels that pepper the novel are suitably visceral and were engaging enough to keep my attention to the end, lovers of martial arts stories where a lone hero massacres a score of opponents without breaking a sweat will find plenty to like here. There’s a sea battle or two as well and those are always a refreshing change of pace in epic fantasy. This is high epic fantasy though so there’s plenty of magic and mystery to go with the violence; the Malazan magic system is strange, many-layered and raises more questions than it answers.

Esslemont has lots of treats in store for fans of the series as we learn more about the origins of a whole bunch of legendary and beloved characters. In fact, to my mind the novel takes this a little too far; it felt as though certain familiar characters like Tattersail, Hairlock and Cowl were shoehorned into the narrative without really adding all that much to it or to their own personal backstories.

I’d have liked to have some of these extraneous stories trimmed out in favour of focusing on the ‘main plot’, in which a handful of eccentric characters in a pub manage to take over an entire island full of pirates and criminals.

Some of the characters themselves would probably have preferred to spend more time focusing on that plot as well. But Kellanved, (or Wu or Ammanas or The Emperor or Shadowthrone depending on who and when you ask), doesn’t seem that interested in building an empire, it’s a side project to him when compared with his quest for mystical mastery over the shattered magical realm of Shadow. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the tension between Kellanved’s explorations into Shadow and the more mundane ambitions of the people around him. Kellanved is a deceptive character though and has a habit of casually spurring the ‘conquest’ plot along with one underhanded move or another, usually just when you start to think that he’s too self-involved to be of any use at all. It’s certainly enough to make you wonder why Dancer, who is relatively straightforward, honourable and likeable, puts up with his devious partner. I’m not really sure that the novel answers that question except by demonstrating that anyone who bets against Kellanved will lose.

Esslemont appears to sympathise with Kellanved’s attitude to the empire-building plot and a lot of the grunt-work of taking over an island is skimmed over, leaving us with little more than some planning and a few vital confrontations here and there. But then I don’t imagine many people besides me would enjoy a book in which a pirate town is conquered street by street in exhaustive detail, so no great harm done there. Just be prepared to invest in the admittedly intriguing glimpses of the plane of Shadow, with its alien realms and remnants of fallen worlds, if you’re going to have fun reading this novel.

Character development is fairly limited simply because there are so many characters jostling for the pages in which to develop. Some viewpoint characters get arcs and some more or less stay the same. Again, fans who know where those arcs are ultimately leading will likely get more out of this novel than a first-time reader would. And don’t worry if you’re not enjoying one person’s story all that much because you’ll soon be jumping into another. Personally, I liked Dancer and Cartheron the best. Dancer because his plotline is the one that most interests me and Cartheron because of his boisterous and bantering relationship with his equally oversized brother.

To wrap things up. I had fun reading this book and not just because of the hold that the Malazan world has on my heart. I was rarely bored, I always wanted to know what would happen next and you can bet a copper wire against the One Ring that I’ll be picking up the next book in the series when it comes out.

If you’re a fan, then go right ahead and read this book. If you’re not a fan then this series isn’t a bad starting point for getting into the Malazan books, particularly if you dislike the idea of coming back and reading this book later, once you know what ultimately happens to everyone in it.

P. S. I’d just like to add a quick apology to Ian C. Esslemont for not crediting him as the co-creator of the T’lan Imass in my article about the Ten Strangest Races in Fantasy Literature. Sorry for that Mr Esslemont, won’t happen again.

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One Comment

  1. xiagan says:

    Good and fair review, thanks!

    “Esslemont has lots of treats in store for fans of the series as we learn more about the origins of a whole bunch of legendary and beloved characters. In fact, to my mind the novel takes this a little too far; it felt as though certain familiar characters like Tattersail, Hairlock and Cowl were shoehorned into the narrative without really adding all that much to it or to their own personal backstories.”

    > I saw it more as a way to show that the famed convergence of the main series started much earlier and that it is a power in itself not to be underestimated.

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