Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
The Malazan Empire is completing its purge of the former nobility, sending thousands to the slave mines to die. Meanwhile a huge rebellion has reached boiling point amongst the tribes that inhabit the plains between the empire’s seven cities. Meanwhile a heavily outnumbered group of loyal empire troops struggles to fight its way across the continent while protecting tens of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile some characters from the first book arrive, among them an assassin who will carry a sacred book into the heart of the rebellion (unknowingly being followed in the meanwhile). Meanwhile, his companions head off somewhere else, while escapees from the slave mines do some other stuff meanwhiley.
Like its predecessor, Deadhouse Gates tells a bunch of overlapping stories, although this book amps it up to eleven with an incredible amount of plot going on simultaneously. The point of view changes very frequently and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who was who. By far the best parts are the passages that follow the Malazan refugees and their tireless protectors as they struggle through the desert under the leadership of the brilliant Coltaine. This is basically a rip off of Spartacus but no worse for it. Other parts could probably be jettisoned without losing much however the multiple viewpoints do allow for a couple of genuinely surprising reveals.
The good news is that the writing has improved immeasurably since Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates is a very readable book. The bad news is that it still has a very D’n'D plot, with events happening because they must to advance the plot rather than seeming to arise organically as a result of previous actions and incredibly arcane and powerful objects just falling into characters’ hands at the right moments. The whole world was apparently created for the author’s role playing game in what must have been a real humdinger of a campaign, but this makes for an oddly constructed story. Huge coincidences drive the plot as the novel jumps from action set piece to action set piece. You can just about hear the dice rolls, and anytime a character doesn’t speak for a while you get the feeling like the rest of the players sent someone out to pick up the pizza.
Speaking of action set pieces, Deadhouse Gates is incredibly bloody even by the standards of grimdark fantasy. I doubt there is an 800 word stretch in the whole novel where nobody gets their liver ruptured or their face staved in. The action is pretty well written though and the talkiness of the first book is greatly diminished.
Only recommended if you really like this sort of thing.