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 Five and the Epilogue of Return of the Crimson Guard (RotCG).
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 spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Book Three, Chapter Five and Epilogue
Hurl’s group tracks Ryllandaras through slaughtered Seti, finally coming upon the main encampment. There they find Amaron looking at the severed head of Imotan, killed by Ryllandaras for trying to compel him. Amaron says he came to avenge Toc and now asks to join Hurl’s party.
SCENES TWO AND THREE
They camp for the night and in the morning are met by Urko, Braven Tooth, Temp, and Ferrule (Sweetgrass), who say they want to join up against Ryllandaras because of what he did to the field hospital, adding they’ll go after the jackal with or without Hurl. Hurl takes them on and for the first time thinks they might actually have a chance.
Liss tells Hurl that Storo died last night from an infection and that the city wants Hurl back to rebuild. Hurl is swamped with emotion over Storo and over her own guilt in releasing Ryllandaras, thinking she is more “destroyer” than “builder.” She asks Liss if she has in truth “seen” them defeat the jackal and Liss replies she’s seen “one way you may succeed.” Hurl orders most of the soldiers back, keeping only a small group to chase Ryllandaras.
After a few days, Liss says it’s time and has them gather a bonfire, then sets Hurl to the side guarding the horses. She tells the others to encircle Ryllandaras when he comes in answer to her summons and not let him through the circle while Liss dances.
Hurl gets some munitions ready then watches as Liss dances and the others fight Ryllandaras, many of them taking heavy blows and terrible wounds from the jackal. As she pulls out a cusser and moves closer, she sees Urko trying to strangle Ryllandaras by jumping on his back, but then get thrown aside. A strange light rises around the fire and Ryllandaras tries to break out of the circle, but the men push him back despite the heavy toll. Finally, Rell pushes the jackal back into the circle of light which disappears, the jackal with it. Amaron and Rell are dead, Liss gone; Temp, Braven Tooth, and Urko badly wounded; and Ferrule/Sweetgrass is on the edge of dying. A group of Seti arrive and start to try to heal Ferrule while Hurl grieves over Rell’s body. She decides to return to Heng and build, calling it “home.”
Skinner is met by the Crippled God on the God’s beach. The CG tells him he’s helped Skinner several times (saying Skinner must have sensed his aid), and that Skinner’s people are being held “in abeyance” until they come to an agreement. Skinner says he delivers himself and 40 Avowed to the CG in return for being King. The CG says it’s about time someone took the position and brings Skinner’s people forward.
Dessembrae (Traveller, but in his god aspect, as Hood notes) and Hood talk, with Hood speaking via a skull on the battlefield. Dessembrae says he is here to “bear witness to a death. A soldier’s death,” going on to say that soldier, had he lived, would have risen to become one of the greatest commanders ever in the Empire. He mourns the fact that nobody knows, and when Hood says he (Hood) knows since he took the soldier, Dessembrae says yes, as Hood takes all, and what he’s “come to understand is that there is no why. To ask why is to impose expectations on mute existence—expectations it is in no way obligated to meet . . . And so I make no more, ask no more.” Hood is surprised. Hood leaves and Dessembrae (I believe, though not exactly clear) thinks “We will speak again, I promise you.”
A trio of kids are throwing stones at the Deadhouse in Malaz City when Cowl and Topper suddenly appear—Cowl inside the grounds and Topper outside. Cowl invites Topper to join him and Topper says it’s all the same to him whether Cowl is taken by him or by the House. Cowl replies that this way he remains undefeated. Topper tells him to flee and Cowl yells “I choose defiance!” As he begins to sink into the ground, Topper, horrified, tells him he’s Avowed, “You will never die.” Cowl sinks out of sight and Topper disappears.
Rillish and Talia discuss how Rel has been officially declared the successor to Laseen. Rillish hopes his unborn child grows up in a better world.
Aron Hul, an innkeeper, serves a well-armed and “dangerous” man who tries to buy information about a young woman travelling alone, slim with dark hair. Aron tells him a boatman named Tullen took a young woman up past Heng. The man thanks him and leaves, giving his name as Moss.
Iron Bars’ ship, the Ardent, has entered the Cut where the Stormriders are. Bars is despondent, not talking at all, and Corlo says it’s because the group missed what they came all that way for and a lot of their friends died, for which Bars blames himself.
SCENES SEVEN AND EIGHT
The Ardent is purposely rammed by a ship out of Mare and the surviving crew taken prisoner. One of the Marese tells Jemain they’ll be taken to Korel to man the Stormwall.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Five and Epilogue
Hurl really does present a doomed look at this mission as she and her group head towards Ryllandaras—the idea that only Rell and Liss can truly accomplish anything against him, and the rest of them are just to make up the numbers; and also the fact that Ryllandaras is on the run and it could be a deathly long chase to achieve absolution for releasing him in the first place. It’s a dark place for her to be.
It feels as though Hurl descends a little into hysteria as Amaron requests to join her party. How painful must it feel, to be faced by the person who opposed her at Heng. The person who, in her mind, caused Shaky to be killed. This is a sharp little look at what happens when uneasy allies are forced to come together. “Rell crossed his arms, saying flatly, ‘We could use him.’”
I guess it helps some that the newcomers declare they’re after Ryllandaras because of what happened at the field hospital. I mean, after Hurl’s horror at what happened, she can totally empathise with that reason for joining forces.
Somehow I feel more for Hurl having to face Amaron than when she hears about the death of Storo. It just feels too long since we’ve seen them together, interacting. It’s even longer since we saw them be soldiers together. Somehow this makes Storo’s death have less of an impact. I think the balance in storylines is a little at fault here. Too much time spent with Ghelel and people who didn’t seem to impact the end of the book, and too little spent with those who have prominent roles.
Rell’s death, however, is a real blow. I mean, sure, his was a tragic story and you sort of expected him to not last the book, but I still feel an ache for his life. Cut off from his people, and then cut down by a monster. I guess there is the fact that he saved countless people through the honour of his death, but it feels like such a waste. Poor Rell.
You know something? I would rather this encounter with Ryllandaras had been a bigger event in the course of the story. Here, after the rent and the death of Laseen, it feels like an afterthought.
So the Crippled God now has his King in place—more power to his House, then.
The tale of that not-so-commonplace soldier is Dessembrae to the core—absolute tragedy and sorrow in all that potential lost. That paragraph packed quite a punch.
I am glad that thus far Rillish and Talia have found their happy ending, and that life emerges from a time of death. I do confess that I believed these two would find a more tragic end.
Hmm, this epilogue is all over the place, isn’t it? I’m not sure I like it that much—the unresolved threads dangling into future novels. I prefer my epilogues to set more closure.
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Five and Epilogue
While I like this scene for the most part with Hurl’s group, this for me was an example of things piling up a bit too much at the close. This felt too disconnected for me—I thought this storyline and these characters deserved more attention, more page time, and more direct involvement. It’s been too long since we’ve really been involved with these characters in any significant sense, it feels a little bit too anti-climactic, and feels somewhat too much on tie-things-up-autopilot. It’s not badly written or anything; I just feel it suffers from what’s already gone on.
That said, I do like the sort of Magnificent Seven feel to this as the we pick up folks along the way until Hurl finally feels they may have a chance. Wouldn’t have minded actually having that stretched out a little more, maybe seeing Urko hook up with Braven Tooth, then them hooking up with Hurl, and then finally adding Temp and Ferrule. And the battle scene itself is nicely tense, and thankfully has some permanent consequences. I would have been a bit miffed if this small handful knocked off Ryllandaras at no cost to themselves.
As for the Epilogue, it’s interesting in that rather than tie up loose ends (I suppose one could argue it does that with Cowl), it really sets the stage for future stories, which is actually the kind of epilogue I tend to prefer.
So we’ve got Skinner and the Crippled God as allies now, along with 40 Avowed, which ain’t a bad force to work with as we’ve seen. What mischief will they be up to? It does give us a rare wholly positive moment with Skinner, who almost immediately is concerned for his people.
And we’ve got Cowl, who gives himself to the Deadhouse rather than “lose” to Topper (now that is one big competitive streak). But as we know he won’t die (which Topper conveniently reminds us of), and as we’ve seen others exit Deadhouse grounds, I’m not sure we should get too comfortable in assuming this is it for Cowl. But beyond that, it also leaves us with a freed and seemingly lucid Topper, which has to make the reader wonder in terms of what will Topper do with Rel on the throne? I also like the sincere anguish conveyed in Topper’s pleading to Cowl to step away and at least face an actual death rather than what he assumes will be eternal life buried in the grounds.
Which we are reminded of via Rillish and Talia, which makes us wonder what Rel will do now that he has that position. And it also gives us a bit of a happy ending amidst all this death. Admit it though, lots of you were thinking Esslemont was going to whack us with this tragic relationship, weren’t you?
Speaking of “tragedy,” we’ve got Traveller finally having a face to face (well, face to skull) chit-chat with Hood. Though he’s not Traveller here but Dessembrae, Lord of Tragedy, here to mark the tragic loss of potential via one soldier’s death. I’m assuming that unnamed soldier is Ullen—anyone have other theories? And do we have Traveller having learned something here? And Hood as well? I like that bit of “surprise” we get from Hood after this talk, and Traveller’s sense of learned resignation. But like the other scenes in this epilogue, we get a look ahead as (I think) Dessembrae predicts he and Hood will speak again.
And then of course we’ve got Moss going after Ghelel, leaving that storyline wide open (I confess my own lack of interest in that particular path).
And finally we’ve got Iron Bars and the others captured to be brought to the Stormwall.
As I said, I actually like these sort of opening-up epilogues more that the closing-down/wrapping-up kind. How do you all feel about this zipping around at the end?
OK, whole book wrap on Friday!
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.