Welcome to the Malazan Reread 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 nine of Dust of Dreams.
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.
Tehol, Bugg, Janath, and Shurq meet. Sexual banter somehow breaks out. Janath and Shurq have a verbal catfight. Tehol and Bugg exit. Janath and Shurq, having staged the cat fight, move on to discuss new “guests” Janath met with that may need Shurq’s ship, then Shurq suggests Janath consider an open marriage.
Having pretended not to know the catfight was staged, Tehol and Bugg discuss using the king’s Intelligence Wing to play factions against each other.
Janath introduces Shurq to Princess Felash (14th daughter to King Tarkulf of Bolkando) and her handmaiden. Felash tells them the Malazans are about to march into “a viper’s nest” and war might possibly result, which has prompted her mother the Queen to send her to Lether. She now wants to hire Shurq to transport her home and, displaying a discomfiting knowledge of events in Lether thanks to her spies, tells Shurq she can bring along Ublala Pung. Shurq agrees and the princess and handmaiden leave.
Janath tells Shurq the princess (really their handmaiden, they surmise) seems to have eliminated rival Bolkando spy networks.
Felash suggests to her handmaiden that if Shurq proves a problem they can always kill her, but the handmaiden informs her that Shurq is already dead.
Janath and Shurq pick on Tehol.
We flashback to Deadsmell as a boy in his village north of Li Heng on Quon Tali where, as keeper of the dead, he sits last vigil with a dying priest of Fener. Deadsmell feels a presence and assumed it is Fener, but instead Hood arrives and Deadsmell is surprised by the “deep, almost shapeless sorrow rising like bitter mist from the god’s own soul… the grief one felt… when those doing the dying were unknown, were in effect strangers.” Hood tells Deadsmell the gods don’t come/care: “There is no bargain when only one side pays attention. There is on contract when only one party sets a seal of blood.” And he calls himself a harvester of the “deluded.” Hood takes Deadsmell as one of his own, telling him to “steal their lives—snatch them away from my reach. Curse these hands… Cheat me at every turn… respect the fact that I always win, that you cannot help but fail. In turn, I must give to you my respect. For your courage. For the stubborn refusal that is a mortal’s greatest strength,” adding Deadsmell will also get back “the sigh of acceptance. The end of fear.” Deadsmell agrees, and asks Hood not to be cruel to the priest, to which Hood says it is not in his nature to be willfully cruel. When Deadsmell says Fener should pay for his betrayal of the priest, Hood replies: “One day, even the gods will answer to death.” Back in real time, at the Letheras Azath House, Deadsmell feels Hood in the world again, and “he feared for his god. For Hood, his foe, his friend. The only damn god he respected.” He thinks on Brys, wondering his resurrection didn’t drive him mad, and Shurq, who doesn’t want her curse lifted (a decision he agrees with). Bottle arrives to say the army is marching out and Deadsmell tells him Sinn and Grub went in the House and disappeared, he thinks “the way Kellanved and Dancer learned how to do.” He says he tracked them using Bent and Roach, who went through the portal after the kids. Deadsmell tells him a story about a ram looking over the cemetery and the dying priest and the revelation all come to that “you see it’s empty… The whole Hood forsaken mess, Bottle. All of it.” Bottle says he saw the same in the eyes of the Eres’al: “The animal side of her… as if I was looking into a mirror and seeing my own eyes, but in a way no one else can see them. My eyes… with nobody behind them. Nobody I know.” Deadsmell says he saw the same look in Hood’s eyes: “Me, but not me. Me, but really, nobody. And I think I know what I saw… those eyes, the empty and full, the solid absence in them… It’s our eyes in death. Our eyes when our souls have fled them.” Deadsmell thinks of how the ram was ready to rut and wondered, “Was it the beast’s last season? Does it believe it every spring? No past and no future. Full and empty. Just that. Always that. Forever that.” He ends by telling Bottle he (Deadsmell) is “out of moves.”
Helian recalls coming across a dead minnow and remembers, “the deep sorrow she felt. Young ones struggled so. Lot of them died, sometimes for no good reason.” She tries to remember where she grew up, who she is. She blames her “sobriety” on Skulldeath, who tells her he is a prince and she will be his Queen. Helian says the hell with royalty, she accepts an officer having to be in charge—“between that orficer and me—it’s just something we agree between us… to make it work. Highborn, they’re different. They got expectations.”
Fiddler and Cuttle discuss the lack of munitions for the army. Cuttle says there’s a sense of dread about the army he can’t figure out and wonders what they’re doing now. They talk about past battles and squads and Cuttle asks why Fiddler is so anti-Hedge considering all the stories of how close they once were. Fiddler says that when Hedge died Fiddler had to put him behind him. When Cuttle suggests giving up the past and forging something new with Hedge, Fiddler explains it isn’t just that, but how looking at Hedge makes him see all his dead. They discuss a fever going around, blamed on mosquitoes, and when Fiddler notes the Letherii don’t seem to be suffering from it, they go off to find Brys and ask if he has any advice.
Tarr and Smiles spar. Corabb arrives with his new sword and when Smiles mocks him, Tarr gives her duty and then asks Corabb about the new weapon.
Smiles comes across a group looking at a huge footprint—mysteriously one only—which they say belongs to Nefarias Bredd.
Captain Kindly promotes Pores sideways to Master Sergeant and gives them the “valuable recruits” he has, including the two whores that got wrapped up in Pores’ earlier scheme. Pores gives one a new name—Twit—and makes him sergeant, calls the two whores Corporals Rumjugs and Sweetlard, then attaches them to Badan Gruk’s group (includes Sinter, Kisswhere, and Primly).
Pores commandeers a tent in the name of Kindly to do supply lists, adding it would be a surprise if he didn’t “lose” a crate or two. He enters and starts to drink.
Kisswhere tells Rumjugs and Sweetlard they’re all sisters and brothers now—“that’s what being a soldier is all about.” Kisswhere exits to go get Skulldeath.
Twit, upset at his name, tells Ruffle his backstory—how he lost everything and that’s why he joined up. She renames him Sergeant Sunrise—“Fresh. No debts, no disloyal friends, no cut-and-run wives.”
Brys tells Fiddler and Cuttle how to deal with the fever (the “Shivers”). They compare methods of Empire-growing. Brys tells how the Letherii used “creep and crawl… spreading like a slow stain until someone in the beleaguered tribe stood up and took notice… and then there’d be war [which] we justified by claiming we were simply protecting our pioneering citizens, our economic interests, our need for security… the usual lies.” Fiddler tells a story of how the Malazans gave gifts to an island chief, but something in the gifts killed a third of the islanders, including the chief, of whom Fiddler wonders to this day if he thought “he had been betrayed, deliberately poisoned… out intentions didn’t mean a damned thing. Offered no absolution. They rang hollow then and they still do.” When Cuttle groans and says the two are going to make him commit suicide, Fiddler tells him, “I’ve learned that knowing something—seeing it clearly—offers no real excuse for giving up on it… Being optimistic’s worthless if it means ignoring the suffering of this world. Worse than worthless. It’s bloody evil. And being pessimistic, well, that’s just the first stop on the path, and it’s a path that might take you down Hood’s road, or it takes you to a place where you can settle into doing what you can, hold fast in your fight against that suffering.” Brys chimes in, calling it “the place where heroes are found,” but Fiddler says that doesn’t matter, “You do what you do because seeing true doesn’t always arrive in a burst of light. Sometimes what you see is black as a pit, and it just fools you into thinking that you’re blind. You’re not. You’re the opposite of blind.” Brys leaves, thanking Fiddler.
Hmm, for me four and a half pages of roundabout dialogue and not much seeming to be said seems an utter indulgence at this point. What I’m saying is that I didn’t find much humour in the scenes with Tehol etc, I found it rather unnecessary. I appreciate breaks in the grimness, I always have in this series—I don’t think you could read it without little flashes of humour to break up the horror and tragedy—but sometimes they just seemed to be pitched wrong.
Ah, so this is where the fourteenth daughter of the Bolkando King has ended up! I did wonder at the odd little mentions about her continuing disappearance. Is she a spy here? Or has she run from the Bolkando habits of killing people?
And then we find out that Felash is in Letheras at the bidding of her very mysterious mother—who looks to have entered this game.
This book so far is really examining the nature of prejudices and people under-estimating their rivals/companions. Here we see Shurq saying that Felash is no killer, and then a scene where Felash seems remarkably au fait with the use of knives and brings up swiftly the notion of killing Shurq if she proves troublesome. And then immediately Felash poo-pooing the idea that Shurq is already dead—more evidence of people not keeping an open mind.
Oh, I love this section where we go back into Deadsmell’s past and see how he first started his association with the dead and then with Hood. I have to confess that Hood is one of my favourite characters in this series as well—his quiet, impersonal sorrow for those he reaps, the fact he knows in most cases they’ll be expecting a different god to come and collect them, the respect he shows for certain mortals. Hood is a wonderful, complex and beautifully written character.
I like the way that Deadsmell views Hood as well: “He found that he feared for his god. For Hood, his foe, his friend. The only damned god he respected.”
And, oh, this is a fantastic quote to show how most of us experience our lives:
“Most impatient people I meet are just like that, once you kick through all the attitude. They’re in a lather, in a hurry about nothing. The rush is in their heads, and they expect everyone else to up the pace and get the fuck on with it.”
This conversation between Fiddler and Cuttle about Hedge, and why Fiddler can’t accept him anymore as a friend, is desperately sad, but also so realistic. Imagine if you’d done your mourning for someone who you were once closer to than family, you’d worked through your feelings of grief and managed to get to a place where you can cope with their absence—and then they return. Just how would you cope with that?
I’m interested by the way this chapter is examining the nature of those who come back from death—Shurq, Brys Beddict, Hedge. Very different attitudes from those around them towards them, different reasons for their revival, different ways that they act to their return to life.
A couple of lovely scenes centred around the Malazans as they get ready to march. I particularly enjoyed Ruffle coming up with the new name for Twit—it was very sweet.
I don’t think Cuttle is about to give up his worship of Fiddler. And neither am I.
A nice turn to comedy again after the close of that last chapter (sometimes it’s easy to miss these sorts of things when we go days in between “reading” the chapters). The banter goes on a little long for me here, as does the sexual focus, but I enjoyed the whole double deception with the women staging their fight and then Tehol and Bugg staging their exit.
That is a very lengthy description of Felash and her handmaiden. Perhaps pointing to the fact that they will be more than minor, fleeting characters. Note too how good with knives Felash is and how observant the handmaiden is.
I really like this leisurely introduction to Deadsmell’s past here, that we don’t just begin right away with Hood’s arrival but see the village, the cemetery, get that reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are living “in isolation from the affairs of imperial ambition, form the marching armies of conquest and magic-ravaged battles.” And I love how we spend time with the little dramas—the affairs and murders and thefts and grieving, etc.
And I love this scene with Hood. Actually, I love this whole journey we have taken with Hood (and it isn’t done) and how it so plays against type of the hooded, scythe-wielding Lord of Death. The sorrow, but not just sorrow—that generic emotive word that can at times be wielded to cheap effect—but in the mark of a good writer, a particular sorrow—“the grief one felt of the dying when those doing the dying were unknown.” And his sorrow/anger at the way those he collects are “deluded,” the impact/indifference of the gods, his personal disavowal of “willful cruelty” (and note again that precision—there are perhaps times he might be labeled cruel, but not “willfully” so). And then playing against type again, that when he “claims” Deadsmell as one of his, he exhorts the necromancer to fight him at every turn, to spit in his face. A nice tease too in that departing line: “One day, even the gods will answer to death.” Yep, love this scene, love this character.
And then who thinks about the Lord of Death in this way? — “He feared for his god. For Hood, his foe, his friend. The only damned god he respected.”
I like how this story of the ram presages in tone what comes later from Fiddler, and in how it’s “seeing clearly.” Seeing that look we all have, that revelation
Leaving Hood momentarily (kind of), is this a commentary on Brys’ strength of character or a bad omen, the way Deadsmell wonders how Brys hasn’t gone crazy since his resurrection: “Every step settling awkwardly, as if the imprint of one’s own foot no longer fit it, as if the soul no longer matched the vessel of its flesh and bone and was left jarred, displaced”? Or as he says later (about Shurq, though it would seem to apply equally to Brys): “The dead never come all the way back.”
Death is a running thread here, as we move from Deadsmell to Hellian’s dead minnow and her youthful realization that “Young ones struggled so. Lots of them died, sometimes for no good reason.” A line that might seem mere abstract philosophy were it not coming a few short pages after our time with Badalle and the Snake. And I love, writing-wise, that ying-yang of the water, the pool that wraps the fish “like a coffin or a cocoon”—the only difference being time.
Cuttle’s line about dread falling on them like a “sky of ashes” would be a merely a nicely poetic turn (and may very well be just that), but it certainly does echo louder with the history of the Bonehunters in Y’Ghatan (and all the references to fire/Sinn we’ve seen). And Y’Ghatan, of course, is a similar sort of thing to Blackdog—the way it is a name that “could send chills… could sink into a people, like scars passed from child to child.”
That reaction of Fiddler to Hedge is so realistic—both of the reaction actually. The first that he had done his mourning, had put Hedge “behind” him, and so how could he open himself to those wounds again? And the second, that every time he looks at Hedge he sees all his dead—how could it be otherwise? But you can’t help but be really hoping those two get something back together, can make something “new.”
The next few sections I don’t actually have a lot to say about, save that again, with all the death talk earlier, and Fiddler’s coming up, it’s a good balance bringing in some humor now. But even more than the lighter touch, I like how we see these groups moving into their roles—some firming up, others just starting. For instance, the way Tarr does such a subtle but great job of leadership in the way he knows what is important to Corabb and respects it—asking him about his sword—and how he knows that Smiles’ remark was over the line and thus she needed to be removed and also rebuked. Or how Kisswhere tells Rumjugs they’re all “brothers and sisters,” or when Ruffle gives Twit the shining gift of the name “Sunrise.” And of course, it’s good to learn that Nefarias Bredd will be going along with the army…
I will though say this about a particular moment, coming right after Harold Ramis’ too-early death, I couldn’t help but have a Stripes flashback when Pores gives us the “Same for armies the world over. Indebted, criminal, misfit, pervert… “ and in my head I’m also hearing Bill Murray proclaiming, “We’re all dogfaces. We’re all very, very different… “
And then out of the comedy and into the darker side of things, and also out of “fantasy” and into humanity’s grand history, as both Fiddler and Brys give us tales of Empire that could be torn out of the pages of multiple chapters in the history books—pick an era, pick an empire, and there you go. And let’s also not pretend we’re talking only “ancient” history either.
And I like that complexity offered up here when we have the “good” Empire (the Malazan, with its Emperor who prefers as little bloodshed as possible and gives gifts, and outlaws slavery, etc.) and the “bad” Empire (the Letherii, with its oppressive nature and its extinction and/or near-extinction of population), but the results are not as distinct as we would like to think. Or as Fiddler says, “our intentions didn’t mean a damned thing. Offered no absolution. They rang hollow then and they still do.”
And Fiddler’s speech—boy these moments are coming faster now. Think back to Kalyth’s speech to the K’Chain Che’Malle. And of course, this coming from Fiddler comes as no surprise. But again, to a rereader, oh, how this speech resounds…
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.