The Death Gate Cycle is a series of seven books. I remember starting it years ago and never finishing. I picked it up again in the new year and yesterday finished the last book. The story is fundamentally about fear—about different manifestations of and reactions to it. It was an enjoyable read with some exciting moments. I think the series falls clearly, though, in the realm of young adult/juvenile fiction.
What do I mean by “juvenile?” I’m not saying the books themselves are written by teenagers. They are well crafted. But the intended audience is clearly younger. For me there are two hallmarks. The first is characters that are too simple. I don’t mean that the characters are boring or one-dimensional, just that they adhere too closely to a single stereotype or trope and never deviate. The second hallmark regards narrative development and foreshadowing. Fiction aimed at younger readers tends to telegraph major reveals too soon and very heavily. Mature readers (perhaps I’m overreaching here—I’m pretty sure I’m typical) like the occasional genuine surprise. Like a good mystery story, it’s satisfying to sit and reflect at the end of a book or momentous chapter and see how everything led to that point, though it wasn’t obvious at the time.
Ultimately, despite the relatively simplistic characters and heavy foreshadowing, I enjoyed the series, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction. I especially recommend it to younger readers who want to tackle something with a little meat on it. With the exception of book two, the pace builds nicely and the last two books are non-stop. I can’t say I loved the very end. That’s what kept the rating to a two. But I get the impression that I’m a little picky this way. I’m disappointed with book endings enough to assume that “it must be me.”
I decided to go ahead and talk briefly about each of the books. This will necessitate some spoilers. If that’s not what you want, stop here.
Individual book notes: SPOILER ALERT!
Volume 1: Dragon Wing
While the style and setting is formulaic, it is not boring. Weis & Hickman have always understood the necessity of strong characters, and they show it again here. I won’t go as far as to say the characters are nuanced. They are built around certain tropes and stereotypes and are deep enough to be engaging, but there are only a few surprises. Their development is quite predictable, and the surprises are telegraphed quite heavily. It was still a fast and satisfying read that kept me wanting more. I did not like seeing Hugh die. He was my favourite character. But at least it made some narrative sense—a redemption of sorts. I didn’t like seeing Limbeck and Jarre break up either. Fortunately that gets resolved later. At least Weis & Hickman create characters you can actually care about for a time and whose actions can actually disappoint.
Volume 2: Elven Star
This book was almost silly. The love stories were pathetic and melodramatic. While the Zifnab character provided a few cheap laughs, it really shattered the “fourth wall” in a jarring way. I am interested (scared?) to see how he fits in to the entire series. It’s a little harsh to say, but you really could have condensed this story to 100 pages instead of 350 and still got the same message across. Volume 1 had its problems, but I felt the characters had much more depth and believability. I sincerely hope volume 3 gets better.
Volume 3: Fire Sea
Fortunately, volume 3 was better. It was darker, and I liked the Haplo–Alfred interaction. I felt the larger story arch start to pick up here.
Volume 4: Serpent Mage
This was much more entertaining than books 2 and 3. It’s nice to get some overall story progression now. Some real moral issues are starting to be raised. This was also the most humorous of the books. Grundle’s a hoot. At this point, Alfred is getting somewhat irritating. I really don’t like how he does these things that he can’t remember. I’m all for discovering latent powers and all that, but the character Alfred goes that few steps too far. I do like the spiritual aspect the story is taking.
Volume 5: Hand of Chaos
This is certainly the most exciting book so far. Lots is happening. Bane is indeed evil incarnate, and Xar’s true colours are coming out. I’m glad Bane got his comeuppance. Haplo finally comes ’round, and I am very pleased to see Hugh come back. He always was my favourite character. I like the Kenkari overall, but I’m not thrilled with using Krenka-Anris as a sort of spiritual counterpoint to the serpents. Cliff-hanger ending keeps you reading.
Volumes 6 & 7
These books run together into one continuous narrative. These are definitely the most exciting of the books (as they should be). It was nice to see Alfred “man up,” but disappointing to see that it wasn’t a complete transformation. I didn’t love Haplo dying, and I particularly didn’t like how Hugh died. There was really no narrative on that point. It just sort of happened.
The series is a worthy read for fantasy lovers and younger readers.
Haplo is a great character who makes great progress. I enjoyed watching him develop.
Hugh is still one of my favourite characters overall, though, and I was very happy that he came back at the end of the story, though his ultimate end was underwhelming given that they just didn’t even mention it! He just had some depth and texture that the others lacked.
The characters from the second book are a complete write off. I felt like I was reading Wuthering Heights again. Even when they came back in later books, I just groaned inside.
And what up with the suggestion that there was a room like the Seventh Gate on Pryan in the citadel?! No mention was ever made of being able to reach the Gate from anywhere. If it wasn’t the Seventh Gate, what was it?
One of my biggest frustrations was with the Alfred character. He never really came ’round. Even when all was said and done and his emotional motivations were laid bare, he still “couldn’t remember” all sorts of stuff. It just got so irritating!
My biggest frustration, though, is with the resolution of the spiritual story arc. I just felt the authors chickened out. You have all these mentions of “higher power,” you have the Seventh Gate and the feelings associated with it, and then they opt for New Age “God is within us” silliness. I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it given the narrative context. I expected something a little more concrete.