Welcome to the Malazan Re-read of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda (with Amanda, new to the series, going first), and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll cover Chapter 17 of Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (MoI).
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing.
Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A forum thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
I hope everyone is keeping up with our new posting schedule! Wednesdays AND Fridays, one chapter each day!
Toc is fevered and delirious in the cave and clutches of the K’Chain Matron. He dreams of wolves, “hunting, not to feed, but to deliver something else . . . the quarry fled when it saw him . . . as they closed in to deliver . . . the quarry vanished.” Meanwhile, the Matron is always breaking his bones when embracing him, bones which heal quickly though not evenly so he is malformed. He’s also visited by the Seer who gives him news that Envy’s group is trapped, “swallowed in ice,” while the Malazan army is too late and Capustan fallen. Then later, the Seer comes and says his defenses are being sorely tested—“they are not mortal beasts”—so they are leaving, heading north. Toc shifts to a POV outside the city as Envy’s group attacks and he watches Tool, Baaljagg and Garath defeat Kell hunters, and Garath get badly wounded but then he’s ripped out of the vision as the Seer takes him and the Matron via warren from Outlook to Coral. Envy assaults the warren and Toc blacks out.
Paran looks over Capustan from a hillside. He sees it fallen and thinks only the Crimson Guard might have made a difference, that otherwise “mercenaries were less than worthless.” He hopes Humbrall Taur’s children are still alive. Trotts arrives and Paran tells him it could be worse—there’s fire but no firestorm and Trotts says the Bridgeburners saw one in Seven Cities once. Trotts describes Taur’s plans for disposition of the clans and tells Paran Hetan and Cafal are alive, the bones protected by sorcery. When Paran chafes at the pace, Trotts says he has been given leave to lead his “clan” at his own speed and so the Bridgeburners will be first into the city. Paran thinks how his pain is worse—he’s throwing up blood now—and also how he has been pushing away Silverfox’s questing thoughts. They prepare to enter with the 37 Bridgeburners.
The Bridgeburners edge up to the city, Paran once again pushing away Silverfox’s presence, though he is beginning to wonder if it is indeed Silverfox he feels. They prepare to punch through a group of infantry with Spindle leading the sappers in their use of munitions. After they use cussers, Paran runs with the squad toward the city, horrified by the devastation: “The hand of vengeance stayed cold only so long. Any soul possessing a shred of humanity could not help but see the reality behind cold deliverance, no matter how justified it might have at first seemed . . . Destroyed lives. Vengeance yielded a mirror to every atrocity, where notions of right and wrong blurred and lost all relevance . . . we are their match in calculated brutality.” They enter the city and seeing the cost of the siege to the Pannions, Paran thinks “I should revise my estimation of the Grey Swords.” They head toward the glowing Thrall, having to climb a slope of corpses to pass one street. As Paran thinks how the Grey Swords have humbled the Bridgeburners with the evidence of the courage and unyielding nature, they realize the slope of bodies was constructed as a siege ramp, ending just below the roofline of a building. Gruntle calls down to them and when Hedge says “I like the paint,” referring to Gruntle and his squad’s stripes, Gruntle says it isn’t paint. As the Malazans climb to the roof via ladders Gruntle’s squad sends down, Paran notes that Picker is in pain, but she says Mallet can’t help her when Paran suggests it. On the roof, Gruntle tells Picker she has something for him and he reaches out for her torcs, which she says have been getting tighter and tighter. She tells him Treach is insane and Gruntle says he is dead and ascended into godhood. He takes the torcs and puts them on. Paran, looking at him, thinks “A beast resides within him, an ancient spirit, reawakened,” and notes that Gruntle is a combination of himself and Treach, not merely a vessel: “[Gruntle’s] power . . . was born as much from a natural air of command as from the beast hiding within him—for that beast preferred solitude. its massive strength had somehow been almost subsumed by that quality of leadership. Together, a formidable union.” He also realizes Gruntle is important and Paran meeting him “is no accident.” Gruntle tells them Stonny is dying in a tent and when Mallet goes to heal her, Paran warns him how the last time almost killed him. But Mallet says the Barghast spirits are helping him, that “someone’s taken a personal interest.” As he communes with the spirits he speaks of how Stonny has wounded flesh and spirit and he’ll need to heal both, then comments on how the Barghast spirits will sacrifice so many to save her. He then mentions “threads” that the spirits see in her, Gruntle, and Paran, but says he cannot see them. Mallet and the spirits heal her to Gruntle’s shock.
The White Face defeat the Pannion reinforcements and enter the city, routing the Tenescowri and pressing back the Pannion rearguard. Picker watches from the rooftop, wondering about the others, if they’re even alive. She thinks Paran’s condition doesn’t bode well. Stonny arrives and asks Picker if she is sworn to Trake, because of the torcs. Picker says no and realizes what has Stonny confused is how Gruntle ended up transformed into what he is. Gruntle says she doesn’t recognize him, he’s “cold, inhuman” like a tiger. Picker points out he fought for Stonny, but Stonny says that was just his excuse. Picker says it isn’t just Gruntle but his men as well, and says Treach may have shaped all this and Picker had a role to play as well. Stonny says she won’t worship Trake; she’s sworn to another god. Picker says maybe Stonny’s god found it all useful: “We [humans] ain’t the only ones who sometimes walk in step, or even work together to achieve something of mutual benefit—without explaining a damned thing to the rest of us . . . It’s deadly attention when it’s a god’s.” Saying that makes her realize others are keeping secrets and she asks Paran if he’s heard from Silverfox. He says she’s alive and that confirms Picker’s suspicion and she thinks it is a bad decision: “the last time us Bridgeburners was kept in the dark, that dark swallowed damn near every one of us.” He tells her Dujek and Silverfox are only three leagues away and they know the Pannions are being driven toward them. Picker wonders how tight the bond is between Paran and Tattersail and why he’s kept it secret. She’s angry as is Antsy who upbraids him “speaking for all the Bridgeburners” because they’ve been fighting and dying and not knowing what was happening with the rest, and if Paran had been killed they would not have known at all. Antsy draws his sword and when Picker tells him to stop, Paran says “I’ll make it easier” and turns his back on Antsy. Picker is horrified that Paran is hurting so bad he wants to die. Mallet tells Antsy to stop and Picker yells at him for also keeping secrets, as he spent a lot of time talking with Quick Ben. Mallet says Paran has been pushing Silverfox away so they aren’t actually talking like Picker thinks, and she’s wrong if she thinks the Bridgeburners are being singled out for betrayal again; Paran simply isn’t talking to anyone, “and if you had as many holes burned through your guts as he does, you’d be pretty damned tight-lipped yourself.” Picker realizes she screwed up.
Paran is barely paying attention, “assailed by the pressure of Silverfox’s presence.” He wants to die, wants it over. He feels her close and senses her power, “that was so much more than just Tattersail. Making its relentless desire to break through his defenses much deadlier of purpose . . . This isn’t Tattersail at all. It’s Nightchill. Bellurdan. One or both.” Suddenly he has a vision of a card—Obelisk—”a leaning monolith . . . now of green stone. Jade. Towering above wind-whipped waves—no, dunes of sand. Figures, in the monolith’s shadow. Three . . . Ragged, broken, dying. Then, beyond . . . the furred hoof of a god stepped onto mortal ground. Terror. Savagely pulled into the world . . . Fener was as good as dead . . . like a babe on an altar. All that was required was a knife and a willful hand.” He wants to step away from the knowledge, from the “choices being demanded of him.” He realizes that as Fener has fallen, another has been pushed into his place, “mortals sworn to one, swear them now to another? Are we to be shoved—flicked—around like pebbles on a board?” He grows angry and his anger drives his pain away: “you wanted my attention. You’ve got it. Listen and listen well, Nightchill—whoever . . . Maybe there have been Masters of the Deck before . . . whom you could pluck and pull to your bidding. Hood knows, maybe you’re the one—you and your Elder friends—who selected me . . . But if so, oh, you’ve made a mistake. A bad one. I’ve been a god’s puppet once before. But I cut those strings . . . ask Oponn . . . I walked into a cursed sword to do and I swear I’ll do it again—with far less mercy in my heart—if I get so much as a whiff of manipulation.” At first he senses amusement from the presence, but his anger at that response draws out the beast/hound in him and the amusement quickly changes to alarm. He tells it “I’m taking a step forward. Between you and every mortal like me. I don’t know what that man Gruntle had to lose, to arrive where you wanted him . . . is pain your only means of making us achieve what you want? . . . until you can show me another way—something other than pain or grief—I’ll fight you. We have our lives . . . and they are not for you to play with. Not Picker’s life, nor Gruntle’s or Stonny’s.” He threatens Nightchill (assuming it’s her) with him riding down their connection with the blood of a Hound of Shadow and also with calling the rest of them along: “because in the sword Dragnipur, two Hounds of Shadow returned to the Warren of Darkness. Returned Nightchill. Do you grasp my meaning? They were going home. And I can call them back . . . Two souls of untamed Dark.” Nightchill finally answers him, telling him he has “no idea what you threaten . . . My brother’s sword hides far more secrets than you can comprehend.” But Paran tells her, “Worst than that Nightchill. The hand now wielding Dragnipur belongs to Darkness. Anomander Rake . . . the pathway has never been so straight, so direct . . Should I tell him what happened . . .” When she says Rake would kill him Paran says don’t be so sure and then demands she show him this vast struggle she says justifies their treatment of mortals and when she says it would drive him insane he calls her a “patronizing bitch.” Angered, she tells him he’s so sure the gods only use pain, but “appearances deceive. When he mockingly asks if keeping mortals ignorant is supposed to be mercy she says yes, actually. But, he says, the Master of the Deck cannot be ignorant. She answers “in time” they will. He asks who she means and she answers herself, K’rul, “the surviving Elder Gods,” but not Draconus, who can now only “act indirectly, for he is chained within the very sword he created.” Paran realizes he spoke to Draconus in Dragnipur and Nightchill tells him Draconus has been changed by his time in the sword; his cruelty has been “blunted.” When Paran asks if she wants him to free Draconus she says yes and when Paran says he wouldn’t do that and let Draconus go after Rake for the sword, she says Draconus will not battle Rake for Dragnipur since to free Draconus the sword must be shattered. Paran says no way, since that would mean freeing everybody in the sword, but Nightchill says he needn’t decide now, and Draconus may have to figure out some way to not allow the rest out. She tells him they are not as cruel as he thinks and he says he’s skeptical of that claim and thinks she wants vengeance still. She agrees, but says only against “the one who voiced” her ancient curse (Kallor). He asks what Nightchill has done with Tattersail and she says nothing; “we shall not harm her . . . there is honor within her. And integrity.” The conversation breaks off suddenly as Mallet puts his hand on Paran’s shoulder, saying they’d thought they’d lost Paran there. Paran orders them to the Thrall. Gruntle is going with them.
Itkovian stands atop the palace tower, exhausted, knowing the battles are winding down and the Pannion will soon be driven fully off. The Capan recruit, Velbara, is with him. Itkovian says they will head for the Thrall. He wonders at how a surviving Gidrith, “sworn to Hood follows my command.” And he feels something has happened, leaving him feeling hollow and “incomplete . . . as if I had surrendered my faith . . . I am . . . emptied as if I await renewal.”
As they prepare to head out, Itkovian listens to the silence of the city and thinks “Dear Fener, find for me the victory in this . . . a city has been killed.” As they move through the corpse-strewn streets, he muses on how “what the Pannions had delivered had in turn been delivered upon them. We are all pushed into a world of madness, yet it must now fall to each of us to pull back from this Abyss . . . From horror, grief must be fashioned, and from grief, compassion. They meet a group of Barghast also heading to the Thrall, who praise Itkovian for the strength and bravery of the Grey Swords. As they walk, Itkovian notes Gruntle’s building and how it hadn’t been touched by fire and realizes it is packed (literally) with dead. The Barghast leader says they fled from it, and that the only similar thing they’d come across was an estate guarded by animated corpses. Itkovian thinks how “The Reve of Fener voiced the truth of war. It spoke true of the cruelty that humanity was capable of unleashing on its own kind . . . insisted the glory to be found was not to be a blind one, rather a glory born of solemn, clear-eyed regard.” Regard, he thinks, that is failing him, though he swears to himself he will assume the burden. he would redeem the dead, though he worries that his redemption can only come from his god but he cannot find Fener, his realm “seems empty.” And he wonders “who will embrace me?” They enter the plaza and meet the Bridgeburners and Gruntle’s group also coming. Itkovian realizes at the sight of Gruntle that “we are replaced.” The Masked Council and Keruli appear as well. Gruntle tells Itkovian “it is done,” but Paran says not so fast, that while the Grey Swords have lost their god, a “path has been prepared.” He is interrupted though by the appearance of Humbral Taur. Before Paran can continue, Itkovian tells him to wait so he can punish Rath’Fener. When Itkovian says he will invoke Fener’s Reve, the priest says only a Mortal Sword can and Gruntle, who knows of the betrayal, says he’ll do it then. Rath’Trake tells Itkovian that without Fener, the punishment will be especially harsh and suggests mere execution. But Itkovian refuses, though Rath’ Trake says “his soul will be torn apart. Where they (the priest’s hands) will go, there are no creatures of mercy.” Itkovian cuts of Rath’ Fener’s hands, which disappear. Paran says with Fener gone, “he cannot bless you. With what you take upon yourself, there is nowhere for it to go, no way to ease the burden.” Itkovian says he knows. Paran continues that there is another way though, and Rath’ Trake says the Tiger of Summer will welcome them, but Itkovian says no. Paran says this moment was foreseen by Elder gods and they would want the Grey Swords to do this, but Itkovian refuses, saying “I am not yet done.” Rath’ Fener’s body suddenly spasms and “alien script swarmed his flesh as the unknown claimant made its mark, claiming possession of the man’s mortal soul. Words that darkened like burns.” The priest is being tortured, his skin boiling, but he is not dying. Itkovian steps forward and asks the priest if he will accept Itkovian’s embrace and Rath’ Fener, knowing what that would mean to Itkovian, pulls away out of mercy, but Itkovian picks him up: “I see you recoil and know it for your final gesture. One that is atonement . . . I assume your pain . . I free your soul to Hood, to death’s solace.” All of the priest’s life goes before Itkovian’s vision so that Itkovian understands him fully and he takes his pain and grief but “suddenly, beyond the pain, a mutual awareness—an alien presence, immense power. Not malign, yet profoundly different. From that presence, confusion, anguish. Seeking to make of the unexpected gift of a mortal’s two hands something of beauty . . . yet that man’s flesh could not contain that gift. Horror within the storm . . . and grief.” And so Itkovian opens himself to take that presence’s grief as well: “even gods weep. Commend yourself then to my spirit. I will have your pain.” But it is too much for Itkovian: he felt his soul dissolving . . . there was, beneath the cold faces of gods, warmth. Yet it was sorrow in darkness, for it was not the gods themselves who were unfathomable. It was mortals. As for the gods—they simply paid. We [mortals] are the rack upon which they are stretched.” The alien god manages to extract itself but Itkovian is still overwhelmed by Rath’ Fener’s pain and the pain of the entire city “as his embrace was forced ever wider . . . Not one he would turn away. Souls in the tens of thousands, lifetimes of pain, loss, love, and sorrow . . . Memories of piteous, pointless ends . . . I must atone. I must give answer to every death . . . to free the souls to find their way to the feet of countless gods, or Hood’s own realm, or indeed to the Abyss itself . . . Reach gods! Redeem them, sir [Itkovian]! you are the bringer of peace, the redeemer of the fallen. . . without you death is senseless and the denial of meaning is the world’s greatest crime to its children.” The others watch as Itkovian is overwhelmed, as he drops to his knees, stops breathing. Paran shakes him and Itkovian draws breath again, “such weight! Why? God, you all watched. You witnessed . . . but did not step forward. You denied my cry for help. Why?” Paran tells him he can feel it; the city has been “cleansed.” And Itkovian thinks “I am not yet done.”
As Gruntle watches, he feels the fog that has been around him lifting and notes how he has changed. He is terrified by the coldness of the killer in him, and tells Trake “you could’ve at least asked.” He recognizes his group are now followers, “sworn” to him, but is thankful Stonny is not, sworn to Keruli’s god instead. Stonny fills him in on what’s been happening and mentions she’s surprised at him, as she never took him for the worshipping type. He says he isn’t and Trake made a bad choice. When she assumes Buke is dead, Gruntle points out the sparrowhawk overhead and explains. They’re interrupted by Rath’Trake who is shocked and disturbed by Gruntle’s noted lack of reverence for their god—Gruntle calls him the “Whiskered One” and says he’ll be the Mortal Sword as a “hobby.” Paran overhears and laughs: “it never goes how you think it should, does it priest? That’s the glory of us humans, and your new god had best make peace with that.”
Blend tells Picker what seems to have happened and says Paran’s power and attitude will be good for them. Taur and Trotts and the Barghast begin moving to the Thrall’s gate to meet their gods.
The sparrowhawk watches everything, sees the Pannions retreating, the city being slowly cleaned up, Barghast heading to the Thrall. It keeps its distance, which is what keeps it sane, “vast dramas of death and desperation were diminished almost into abstraction . . . the sheer muddiness of humanity, all diminished, the futility reduced to something strangely manageable. Burned out buildings. The tragic end of innocents. Wives, mothers, children . . . No closer. Ever again.” It heads further skyward—”there was pain the gifts of the Elder Gods. But sometimes, there was mercy.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Seventeen:
“What the soul can house, flesh cannot fathom.” I believe this is a direct reference to Itkovian and his position as the Shield Anvil.
The Matron is hideous, isn’t she? I weep for Toc—seriously, did Erikson have something against this guy? Was it a case of seeing how much pain and terror you can put one character through? [Bill: Oh you just wait.] I wonder who the characters are that Toc sees as he dreams? Are they his memories or the memories of the wolf within him?
Speaking of a guy dreaming of wolves: give me Toc over Perrin any day. *grins wolfishly* [Bill: Funny, but I had the same thought.]
The quarry in his dreams—that would be the Mhybe, correct?
Hmm, somehow I thought that the Matron was controlling the Seer but from this comment it sounds as though the reverse is true… “…and dear Mother here—oh, is that horror I see in her eyes? Some sanity still resides in her rotted brain, it seems. How unfortunate…for her.”
A link between Toc and Tool in the future? “His bones are well, his flesh is not. My flesh is well, my bones are not. Are we brothers?”
After the way that the Grey Swords gave up their lives so selflessly and heroically, it is terrible to hear Paran’s rather sneery thoughts about mercenaries. “With the lone exception of Prince K’azz D’Avore’s Company of the Avowed, mercenaries were less than worthless as far as the captain was concerned. Tough talk and little else.” I do hope that his impression of the Grey Swords improves!
Trotts is so damn casual and laid back, isn’t he? And he seems to take particular pleasure in riling up Paran—although I would perhaps have picked a different time to tease were I Trotts!
Maybe it’s just me, but were I throwing up acidic bile and blood I might approach a healer to see if they could do something. Typical man, with all that pride! *winks*
Ack, I can’t take the fact that Trotts is now commander of the Bridgeburners seriously—just because the Malazans have allied with the Barghast (uneasily) Trotts has to be warchief? Paran is certainly taking it seriously enough, but he seems to be running away willingly from all his responsibilities right now.
There are some lovely moments as the Bridgeburners discuss tactics. I love the fact that Antsy is a completely different character as soon as battle is upon him: “This is fightin’, ain’t it? Now answer my question, soldier.” I also like that Hedge—clumsiness extraordinaire—has broken the lobber that Fiddler made him.
*grins* “I thought you were a mage […] I am, Captain. And I’m a sapper, too. Deadly combination, eh?”
Isn’t it cool the way that, in times preparing for fights, the Bridgeburners speak in a sort of shorthand? They’ve worked together for so long that they have no need to speak at length about their battle plan. I appreciate the way that Erikson retains this shorthand in the dialogue; it makes you feel as though you’re peeping into the everyday lives of the soldiers.
“If swords clash…it will be my first. After all this time, my first battle…”
Wow, now that didn’t occur to me. Gods, Paran seems like a true veteran at this stage, what with the knowledge he is carrying and what he has gone through. This is terribly sad somehow….
Those sappers are KER-AZY!
This made me pause: “He felt himself shutting down inside, even as he slipped and staggered through the human ruin… shutting down as he had once before, years ago, on a road in Itko Kan.” How many years ago was that? Was it actual years or is it just that Paran feels as though it has been years?
I absolutely love this line and feel its resonance for our own time: “Vengeance yiekded a mirror to every atrocity, where notions of right and wrong blurred and lost all relevance.”
“Gods,” Paran muttered, “the Pannions paid dearly.” I think I should revise my estimation of the Grey Swords.
And now I’m deeply sad: “These soldiers humble us all. A lesson… for the Bridgeburners around me. This brittle, heart-broken company. We’ve come to a war devoid of mercy.”
Ha, this meeting between Gruntle’s squad and the Bridgeburners is fraught with meaning and foreshadowing. What is the link between Stonny and Paran and Gruntle? Why is it that Mallet is given the power—and the necessary sacrifices – to bring Stonny back from the brink? I like the fact that Gruntle’s innate character and authority has affected the Tiger within him—the beast is solitary, but Gruntle is gathering people around him. Neat use of the word “converging” here to describe both squads—apt, don’t you think? And that last line from Antsy made me smile fiercely: “Hello, Capustan. The Bridgeburners have arrived.”
Another comment on the fragility of the Bridgeburners: “Not a single clash of blades yet. Good. We ain’t as tough as we used to be, never mind Antsy’s bravado.” So much is being made of their new vulnerability that it must be building to something?
Well, here, it did lead to something immediately—Picker’s innate distrust of being left in the dark and secrets surrounding the Bridgeburners, after the events of Pale and the betrayal that occurred. Mallet’s quiet pronouncement that Paran is ill and not talking to anyone makes Picker see such shame in herself—and realisation that neither she nor the rest of the company have recovered much at all from the situation at Pale.
Ooh, through Paran’s eyes we’re seeing the events from Deadhouse Gates, with Felisin and her crew, aren’t we? Fener’s appearance in the mortal realm must be due to the betrayal he has suffered: “Fener was as good as dead. A god trapped in the mortal realm was like a babe on an altar.”
It is interesting that Paran finally recognises that Nightchill is more than what she has been represented to him—he sees her as one of the Elder Gods, and someone who is attempting to manipulate him. It’s great that this has stirred his defiance—I’ve not been enjoying the sad and quiet Paran much at all. Mostly because I know what his character is capable of.
And how! Look at Paran taking a stand here: “I’m taking a step forward. Between you and every mortal like me.” What amuses me is that Paran states this because he doesn’t want to be manipulated anymore—but Nightchill has manipulated him into action whereas before he was holding himself aloof from proceedings.
This intrigues me: “…two Hounds of Shadow returned to the Warren of Darkness.” Does this mean that the Hounds were never originally of Shadow, and were stolen for use by Shadowthrone? Does this mean High House Dark actually has the use of them? Curious.
Paran also shows a fairly deep understanding of Anomander Rake—a knowledge he didn’t have before, I don’t think. Where has he gained this knowledge? Also, Paran reflects the same respect and almost reluctant liking for Rake as the latter showed for him previously.
I love the way here that Nightchill tries to play the “Need to Know” card, but Paran isn’t having any of it, and states that if he is to become the Master of the Deck he cannot stay ignorant. I can sort of see both points of view here—definitely Paran’s, since he cannot act effectively without having full knowledge, but also Nightchill’s, since a battle does require people to only know the parts of it they can influence and keeping knowledge restricted is handy in the event someone falls into the enemy’s hands.
Huh! Draconus was the hooded figure to walk alongside Paran within Dragnipur. I’m going to have to haul out my tattered copy of Gardens of the Moon in order to re-read that particular passage! (In fact, I might have to do a skim read of GotM after Memories of Ice to really cement some of what is going on in my mind….)
I’m surprised to find that I actually like Nightchill. She has been built up to someone who is now to be feared and disliked; someone who might take over Silverfox as opposed to Tattersail. But she seems a strong and reasoned voice, confining her thoughts of vengeance towards Kallor: “The one who voiced that curse is the sole focus of my desire for vengeance.” I also appreciate that Nightchill feels respect towards Tattersail: “There is honour within her. And integrity. Rare qualities, for one so powerful.”
Here again we have links between Hood and Fener’s followers: “A Gidrath sworn to Hood, yet he follows my command without hesitation. Simple expedience, one might reasonably conclude. Notions of rivalry dispensed with in the face of the present extremity. Yet… I find myself mistrusting my own explanations.” What is Hood up to?
Poor Prince Jelarkan—he will become one of those almost nameless people by the end of this series who it would have been good to see more of, had war not swept him away into death: “A young prince who had loved his people, now joined to their fate.”
Itkovian is an awesome viewpoint to follow through the decimated city of Capustan. His compassion, and his raison d’etre (to take on the grief of the world) lends extra resonance to the passages where he looks at what has become of a lively city. “A soul hardened beyond humanity was the only defence, and for Itkovian that price was too high.”
I like the point Erikson makes where he details the fact that at some point the spiral of hate and vengeance must end in order to make recovery happen: “We are all pushed into a world of madness, yet it must now fall to each of us to pull back from this Abyss, to drag ourselves free of the descending spiral. From horror, grief must be fashioned, and from grief, compassion.”
Itkovian is brave. He feels the absence of Fener, but is determined to go on until he is done. Only… “I am not yet done. I accept this. And when I am? Who awaits me? Who shall embrace me?” Who will take in the soul of Itkovian? Is Hood aiming for him too? On top of this weakening of his resolve, Itkovian is then faced by the Mortal Sword of Trake and thinks: “We… we are replaced.” How heartbreaking for a man of faith that he faces the death of his own god.
Every time I think that Erikson has reached the pinnacle of what he is able to achieve with his writing, he shows me something more. This scene with Itkovian opening himself to the grief of an unknown god who has claimed the hands of Rath’Fener; allowing his gift to embrace all the fallen souls of Capustan—this scene is something else. Haunting and deeply profound. I’m left unutterably moved by what I feel I have witnessed. Erikson’s clear writing gives everything such a clear picture in my mind and I have the same thought as Paran: “The lone, kneeling figure seemed—to the captain’s eyes—to encompass the exhaustion of the world, an image that burned into his mind, and one that he knew would never leave him.”
Awww, poor Gruntle! “Dammit, you could’ve at least asked.” It does bring to the fore that fact that gods use mortals with horrible casualness.
Hahahahahaha, I LOVE Gruntle! And how fabulous to have him back to relative normality:
“I’m a caravan guard captain, and damned good at it. When I’m sober, that is.”
“You are the master of war in the name of the Lord of Summer—”
“We’ll call that a hobby.”
And what a beautifully sweet note to end the chapter on—after a quick blast of humour that refreshed my palate, as it were, we see Buke reflecting on the fact that the gift of distance for him was one of mercy from the gods.
I think this here has been my very favourite chapter to date. And my homework is reading that exchange again between Paran and Draconus! *grin*
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Seventeen:
Toc is dreaming in the same world as the Mhybe, but now as readers we get what is happening to her from the perspective of the hunting wolves rather than the quarry Mhybe. And from this POV we get that the Myybe’s fear is unjustified. The wolves are hunting not to feed but to “deliver,” and when they cannot, they are upset at their failure—expressing it in “mournful howls.” What will they deliver to the Mhybe? From whom?
Hmm, you called the Matron “hideous” Amanda and she is that, but hideous in a grotesque or gothic way perhaps than in an “evil” way. “Embrace.” Like “armor” it’s a word that appears and reappears. Itkovian embraces. The Matron embraces. It’s difficult for a reader to see that link and separate the good guy and the bad, “evil”reptile. It gets harder obviously with the maternal imagery, twisted and “hideous” as it is, surrounding the Matron and Toc—she embraces him, she licks him clean when he fouls himself. Yes, she breaks his bones, but not out of malice. And we’re given further reason to sympathize with her when the Seer shows up and refers to the “horror” in her eyes and mocks the little bit of “sanity” left to her. We’ve seen Erikson turn things around with the Imass, the Jaghut, and we’ve got a glimpse here of some complexities with regard to the K’Chain.
Did anybody really think for a second that Baaljagg and Garath fled? Didn’t think so.
Note how Toc has moved from calling Tool his friend to his brother. This ability to transcend race, species, cities, cultures, etc. is a key counterweight to the horrors we see humanity (loose term) propagate. Cruelty and Empathy. Atrocity and Compassion. Our twin poles.
We’ve seen a contrast between nature and action before and we get that here as well, with the death and horror of Capustan contrasted to the humus, the warm air, the “fecundity.” Once again, the world, life, spins on regardless of the horrors we inflict one each other.
File away these lines:
- “I’ve heard tales of of firestorms”
- “Aye. We saw one from afar in Seven Cities once”
- Paran’s lines: “The hand of vengeance stayed cold only so long. Any soul possessing a shred of humanity could not help but see the reality behind cold deliverance, no matter how justified it might have at first seemed . . . Bodies twisted in postures no one unbroken could achieve. Destroyed lives. Vengeance yielded a mirror to every atrocity, where notions of right and wrong blurred and lost all relevance . . . we are their match in calculated brutality.”
A few comments on this:
The effect of violence, even justified violence, on those who perpetrate it is something we’ve seen examined before, especially in Deadhouse Gates. As is the idea of brutality on both sides. I don’t think what Erikson is offering up here is a relativist view—the idea that both sides are equally horrific regardless of intent. Intent does count for something after all. But I think (and obviously this is my interpretation) what is happening here is he is requiring clear sight—one cannot hide true ugliness underneath the veil of intent. Nor does intent “cleanse” you. It reminds me a bit of The Untouchables and Sean Connery’s awakening to Costner of how one “gets” Capone and of Costner’s statement to the judge at the end how he has become what he hunted. Or you know, the Star Trek episode with Lincoln telling Kirk and Spock we must match the villains’ brutality. Cuz if I can’t get a decent Star Trek reference into a biweekly multi-year blog what good am I?
This is also a good revelation for someone who will soon be in the position of power that Paran will be. The question will be what will that power do to Paran, if anything.
It’s also a paragraph that should bring to mind what we just read a little while ago with regard to Gruntle, whose fighting is both cold and vengeful.
Finally, I like how concrete Erikson is here, with the twisted bodies. No letting the reader off the hook with abstract hypotheticals.
What a great metaphor—that siege ramp of the dead. How many times have you read in a book of a force climbing over its own dead? How much more of a nightmare is it to add the calculation of “fashioning” the dead into a siege ramp, a construct?
I wonder what it costs Gruntle, to tell Hedge, “It’s not paint.”
What makes Stonny so important that the Barghast spirits will “sacrifice so many” for her? Who has taken the “personal interest”? We know she’s linked to Keruli and K’rul. Mallet tells us as well she is connected to Gruntle and to Paran—the “threads” the spirits can see but he cannot.
I love Antsy’s reaction to Stonny’s healing. And I can’t help but hear it in the vein of Spinal Tap’s “Hello Cleveland!”
One of the aspects that make this series a notch above some others is that it respects its history. What I mean by that is it doesn’t have things happen then completely forget about them or pretend that the repercussions of the event only exist for a few days. So here we get Picker and the Bridgeburners still affected by the events at Pale. Pale resonates throughout these books in sundry ways, as it should. One doesn’t simply walk away from that event and forget it in a few days, or “move on”—it changes those involved and it haunts not just their memories but their actions and reactions as well for a long time to come.
It’s a nice inkling that we’re no longer dealing with Tattersail (which we’ve had hints of earlier) when Paran describes her closeness as “if she strode a bridge of bones stretching from her to where he now stood.”
And then his vision of Fener being pulled down. Here is a line to file away:
“Fener was as good as dead . . . like a babe on an altar. All that was required was a knife and a wilful hand.”
But who would kill a god? File.
I love how Nightchill’s first response to the anger that sweeps over Paran (negating his pain, by the way) is “cold amusement” and how quickly that turns to “sudden alarm when we get that inner Hound in Paran. Which makes his choice of words—“collared”—all the more appropriate. And his next lines—”taking a step forward between you and every mortal like me” is a nice echo of what Picker had just spoke of to Stonny—that Gruntle had stepped between Stonny and the Pannions. You can’t help but be swept up in Paran’s fierce protectiveness, his anger at manipulation, his reclaiming of lives. But, in usual Malazan fashion, we’re given indications the Elder Gods are not so simplistically manipulative, that there may indeed be mercy behind what they do, something we’re more willing to accept since we’ve seen how “compassion” plays a role in K’rul’s thoughts now.
Paran has some cryptic thoughts on the Hounds of Shadow in this scene, when he tells Nightchill that when he freed them in Dragnipur they returned “home” to Darkness. Something that isn’t too important here but to file away as we gradually learn more about the Hounds—both of Shadow and of Darkness.
Another line that is a bit more self-evidently important for the future: “to free Draconus, the sword must be shattered.” Cue organ music: Dunh dunh dunh!
Boy, if anything gives the sense that “victory” is a tainted term in this war, it’s that image of Prince Jelarkan back on his throne, his removed skin stitched back together, his body half-eaten, his death’s grin getting bigger as the skin dehydrates. Just wow.
Playing off of that image is the sound, or more precisely, the lack of it that Itkovian notices as they prepare to head to the Thrall—a once lively city now silent.
Once again, we get echoes of earlier ideas and themes: the cycle of violence, the “matched brutality” and the counterweight of compassion: “what the Pannions had delivered had in turn been delivered upon them. We are all pushed into a world of madness, yet it must now fall to each of us to pull back from this Abyss.. . . From horror, grief must be fashioned, and from grief, compassion.” Have I mentioned how important that word is yet?
I like how Itkovian’s future redemption of Rath’Fener and then the city/god (and he is not yet done) is foreshadowed by his approach through the city: “He was recoiling like a caged animal cruelly prodded on all sides. Escape was denied to him, yet that denial was self-imposed, a thing born of his conscious will . . . He must assume this burden, no matter the cost . . . He would be the redemption.” At this point, it seems mere metaphor or religious abstract mumbo-jumbo. But in fantasy, mumbo-jumbo can carry some serious reality, and metaphor can be made literal.
And how tragic is the thought process that leads him to an emptiness where his god is supposed to be and that aching refrain: Who will embrace me? Who will embrace me?
I love how Rath’Fener is hoist upon his own pretentious deceptions—his claim to being Destriant that will save him from the Reve but only if he can call upon his Destriant power to call upon Fener.
A reader is probably not caught up on the details and implications here fully, of what is being done to Rath’Fener, but the horror is made explicitly clear not just by the priest’s terror, but in the way that Rath’Trake tries to intervene, the way he is also horrified. Paran’s wish not to be involved, as well as Gruntle’s inhumanly cold acceptance of it area also obvious guides to the reader as to how to react. And then again, it’s turned on its head.
Paran’s humanity and empathy, two traits that will stand him in good stead as Master of the Deck, are laid bare when his concern is not simply for the priest, but that Itkovian has taken on a burden impossible to be relieved. Yet even he does not know how far Itkovian will take this.
Paran’s view regarding the “negotiation” is an interesting one, and it’d be even more interesting to see what he would have said were it not constantly interrupted by the Reve events. After all, here is a guy who just told off the Elder gods—they’re our lives dammit, not yours—trying to persuade Itkovian to be “embraced” (there is that word again) by Trake because “this was foreseen . . . by Elder powers . . . I am here to tell you what they would have you do . . .“ Then he gets cut off—one wonders how he would have continued. Would he have been neutral, told him it seemed best, told him to tell the Elders to go screw themselves?
Doubling of scenes/themes is a constant in this series—taking scenes and showing them from different views, paralleling actions or themes, taking an original and then later showing a mirror image, etc. Here we get a reenactment of what happened with Heboric—the cutting off of the hands as the ultimate punishment. With Heboric, the punishment was unjust, the hands are sent, but are anathema to Fener when he receives them (and starts the roll to his being pulled down). Here, the punishment is just, the hands are sent, but rather than the hands being poison to the recipient (Fener), there is no Fener to receive them anymore and now the new recipient (the alien presence) is poison to the sender.
And we see the burden Itkovian carries for redemption—he is both judge, punisher, and savior to Rath’Fener. He must take on the pain of the betrayer. And in typical Erikson fashion, we are granted the complexity of humanity, as not even Rath’Fener is all evil; even he is not so evil that he would give to Itkovian what Itkovian is asking for. Note this is not Anaster refusing because it would leave him empty; Rath’Fener refuses out of mercy for the man who just cut off his hands and sent him to worse (another mirrored scene, by the way). And in Itkovian’s redemption we get to see that Rath’Fener starts off “pure of heart” and so we get even with him a sense of tragedy—a wasted life, an alternative glimpsed. The self-knowledge of the priest that he was doomed either way but “he had gone too far from his faith . . .”, that echo of Macbeth’s line “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” It takes a lot to make a reader feel something for a character like Rath’Fener—not simply a traitor, a petty little man, but a character whom we haven’t spent any time with, whom we’ve seen up to this point almost solely as despicable.
But Itkovian is “not yet done” because after Rath’ Fener comes the alien god—horrified, anguished, and grieving over what his gift (and what a great image that—“seeking to make of the unexpected gift of a mortal’s two hands something of beauty”) has done. And so Itkovian opens himself to that grief as well, a god’s grief. (File that idea away.) And so he learns what we’ve just heard Nightchill tell Paran: “there was, beneath the cold faces of gods, warmth.” Appearances then, perhaps, do deceive, as Nightchill said.
And then this line, the premise of which we’ve mentioned before and which will be laid out more explicitly later: “We [people] are the rack upon which they are stretched.” After all that self-righteous anger we cheered on when Paran grows angry with Nightchill and the Elder Gods, once again, our easy emotional responses are tweaked and twisted and made complex as a few pages later we are made to feel sympathy for those gods we just detested. And as mentioned, the relationship between gods and their worshipers is going to be very important going forward.
But even now Itkovian is “not yet done” since after Rath’Fener, after the alien god, comes the entire city of Capustan: “not one life’s history unworthy of notice . . . every death. Every death.” Just think of that burden—the entire lives, the entire weights of all those lives’ trauma and pain and grief and sorrow. Think of all that in a normal city on a normal day, then add the weight of what this city has just experienced. This is just simply a great scene I’d say, one of my favorites actually in the entire series. The action, the imagery, the language, the use of parallel structure and repetition, the use of space on the page. The use of those key Malazan words: “hold,” “witness,” “give answer,” “memories,” “gift,” “redeem,” “meaning,” “fallen”. These words all have echoes from earlier and will echo further. And believe it or not Amanda, he is “not yet done.”
It’s an interesting move to go from the epitome of compassion/empathy that is Itkovian to the cold inhumanity of Trake as Gruntle finally awakens from his god-fog and can look at himself: “The violence residing within him was that of a killer. Cold and implacable, devoid of compassion or ambiguity. And this realization terrified him.” And we’re back to Paran’s argument for simple dignity and respect: “dammit, you could’ve at least asked.”
After all this grief and resignation and horror etc., Stonny’s dialogue helps cut the tension a bit, especially when she finds out Buke is now Soletaken—it’s like great, the two drunk guys get turned into Soletaken and a god and what do I get (and in a smart move Erikson doesn’t let us ponder that question but zips us right into Gruntle’s banter).
And then even better is his attitude toward his god and the priest’s response to that attitude. I love Paran’s lines: “It never goes how you think it does . . . That’s the glory of us humans,” a version of which we’ve seen many times already and will again.
After all the angst of this chapter, we desperately needed the humor at the near-end with Gruntle and Stonny, Paran, Picker and Bend, but I don’t think humor would have been a good choice to end such a weighty chapter. We needed the break, but we don’t want that to be the lingering tone. And so we get this great close from Buke—the eye in the sky—that returns us both to horror and hope but with some distance so it’s less emotionally exhausting. And it ends on that note of hope, the metaphor of hope’s uplift made literal as fantasy can do. I love this close and this image of Buke, the many burdened by so much freed of both the Earth and his grief. It reminds me also of a more poetic farewell to Circle Breaker. Erikson can be grim, but he can give the occasional nice send-off here and there. He is after all the “god” of this universe—so he can give us both pain and mercy.
Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.
Amanda Rutter contributes reviews and a regular World Wide Wednesday post to fantasyliterature.com, as well as reviews for her own site floortoceilingbooks.com (covering more genres than just speculative), Vector Reviews and Hub magazine.