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 fourteen 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.
Note: In order to best allow for Steven’s participation in the discussion of Chapter 15 (we had to work out some timing issues), we will not be posting on Friday and will instead have two posts on Wednesday (the 26th). In the first, we will summarize and respond to Chapter 15 as usual. In the other (and only in that one please), we will deal specifically with the much-dreaded event that we all find so disturbing. We’d like to have that second discussion within a larger context as well—moving beyond the specific scene and particular character and into the use/portrayal of violence in this series and in the fantasy genre. How wide-ranging we get will depend on you, but we wanted to let you know so you can have some time to think about such a complex topic.
Gall orders Jarabb to stop the raids. Vedith rides up and tells him a Bolkando army is nearby, and Gall wonders what they are thinking, a slow-moving army he could ride easily around to strike the capital. Vedith sees scouts coming their way and guesses they are flanked. Gall orders Vedith to head out and deal with the northern army and Shelemasa the southern. When Vedith wonders, Gall says this is what he’s learned from the Malazans: the side with the most people using their brains is the side that wins.” Vedith says, “Unless they are betrayed,” to which they both says, “Even then the crows give answer.”
Shelemasa, after scorning the Bolkando’s preparations, makes her plans for raids and attacks.
Vedith leads his soldiers, bitter at the knowledge that not all will ride back, knowledge that all soldiers/leaders share. He wonders if the Bolkando King is regretting the war. He thinks nobody every learns; “Each new fool and tyrant to rise up from the mob simply set about repeating the whole fiasco… until the earth drinks deep again.” He hates that he must do this, but he does.
Rava and Conquestor Avalt make it through the pass, the Perish legions far ahead and out of sight. Rava asks why they’ve halted and Avalt tells him the army is exhausted, sore, the equipment is terrible, officers are deserting, the Perish are too far ahead, and the Burned Tears are almost at the capital. In short, they screwed up. Rava dismisses him and his offer to resign and they set camp.
Shield Anvil Tanakalian tells Mortal Sword Krughava they Bolkando army is done, and that a captured scout has confirmed Galt’s march to the capital. She orders a march so as to arrive sooner to help Galt and maybe intimidate the king enough so the Bolkando don’t even fight. He asks if she’s chosen a new Destriant yet and she says no. He thinks she doesn’t want one so she shines all the more. But he plans to bide his time for when, “the Shield Anvil must stride to the fore [and] I shall be judgment’s crucible.” He watches her move among the soldiers deliberately “knitting every strand of her own personal epic… It took a thousand eyes to weave a hero, a thousand tongues to fill out the songs.” He plays his part, he thinks, “because we are all creators of private hangings, depicting our own heroic existences,” though only some are “unafraid of truth” and will go “where the bright light can never reach, where grow the incondite things.” He knows when his time comes; he “shall not be as the ones before me [“who were cursed to embrace all”],… but will scour your souls clean.” He believes he is “witness to the manufacture of delusion, the shaping of a time of heroes. Generations to come will sing of these lies built here… The will hold up the masks of the past… and then bewail their present fallen state. For this is the weapon of history when born of twisted roots… We heroes know when to don our masks.”
Gall is parleying and has been told there are strange Barghast among the Bolkando—with funny “turtle shell” armor.” Seeing the banner, a crown, he assumes he will meet with the Bolkando king.
The Bolkando Queen, Abrastal, prepares to parley with Gall, along with the Gilk Barghast war chief Spax. When she wonders if he’s hoping to get a better offer, he tells her the Gilk are “true to their word.” She says “the one you call Tool” might laugh at that and he replies he’d have her hobbled for that joke were she not a queen. When he tells her what that means, she tells him she’ll have “chop you cock off and feed it my favorite corpse-rat” if he uses that word again in the same sentence as her name. She is impressed by Gall and thinks the Bolkando have “fatally underestimated” these “savages.” She tells him her Evertine Legion has never been defeated, so the Burned Tears are not quite as assured of victory as they might think, and warns them of annihilation. He mentions the Perish and, “the worst you will face”—the Bonehunters. She asks his demands and he lists them (modest to her surprise), adding they have no interest in taking their kingdom. She shows him the bodies of the principal agents involved in extorting the Burned Tears, and Gall says he is reconsidering taking over, “out of compassion for your people.” She says it is “justice,” and is surprised he is so sensitive, given the rumors she’s heard of the torture habits of savages. Gall cuts her off and says they don’t apply to them, unless “we happen to get very angry.” But he tells her she misunderstood anyway, that he meant that the fact that the Bolkando have people who “know no self-constraint” speaks of “self-hatred.” He adds he would outlaw lying, but she says the biggest liars are at the top. He asks why he is meeting with her and not the king, and she says the role of her Legion is both “arbiter of control” in the kingdom and defender of outside threats, the former actually being more important, especially as Gall isn’t trying to conquer Bolkando. She modifies his demands, giving him more and also warns him he will find something “terrible beyond imagining” beyond the Wastelands. He says he will hear more when either Tavore or Krughava arrive. They agree to peace. Before he leaves, she asks if his words about the Malazans being the best soldiers were true and he tells her of Coltaine and the Chain of Dogs delivering 30,000 refugees to safety at the cost of their lives. After Gall leaves, Spax tells her he was right about the Malazans. She says she will escort them to the border and maybe beyond.
Gall was impressed by the Queen and thinks they will not soon be quit of her, as she will probably escort all the way to the border at least. He worries about the her vague warnings though and wonders what Tavore knows and is not sharing. He orders the Tears to withdraw from fighting, then meets his pregnant wife in the tent. She still won’t tell him whose child it is, though she makes it clear it is not his. He thinks how important she is to him, how much wiser, stronger, older (though not years) she seems, and he is about to try and tell her this when he is called away. A scout reports that Vedith died due to an accident. He returns to his wife, who reminds him of how Vedith used to play with their son, the one who died before he was seven and whom they had silently agreed to put away the memories of. He tells her he feels alone, and she replies that is why women have children over and over, because “to carry a child is to be not alone. And to lose a child is to be so wretchedly alone that no man can know the same, except perhaps the heart of a ruler… a Warleader.” He tells her tonight they will eat with all their children, as a family.
I found it interesting that way that Gall automatically assumed that the commander doing the attacking of villagers was a man, and had to be gently told it was a woman. This seems to be a nicely pointed way of seeing the way that we automatically react as readers—putting our own casual everyday sexism into novels. It was a tiny aside, but I liked it.
Gall and Vedith are both very sympathetic characters for me—neither are treating this as a game, or revelling in it like some of the other commanders. And I like that Gall very quickly assesses Vedith’s abilities and hands him over the command of fifty raids. It makes him appear a very able war leader.
So this just sounds very foreboding and foreshadowy:
“The side with the most people using their brains is the side that wins.”
“Unless they are betrayed.”
So, uh, anyone else having nightmares at the idea of either of these things?
“She had seen a jet-black, purple-eyed spider as big as her damned foot only the day before. It had been eating a hare. Nekeh had woken to find the skin of one leg, hip to ankle, completely peeled away by huge amber ants—she hadn’t felt a thing, and now she was raving with fever in the loot train.”
I imagine this place is a hard sell by the tourist board…
Shelemasa is intriguing me, because she shows well the way that Erikson keeps us guessing about certain characters. Here she has been given a last chance by her war leader, she shows a lot of impatience, she seems to want to just barrel into the enemy—it will be interesting to see whether she is redeemed in Gall’s eyes, or whether she just lives up to the reputation she’s already established.
Vedith’s character summed up in one line: “A thousand warriors at his back, and Vedith did not want to lose a single one of them.” And then the following words about him just cement the idea of duty and courage and a fierce intelligence about what it means to be a commander.
Ah, Chancellor Rava—the person we all want to be our new bestie, with words like this coming from his thoughts: “Things such as loyalty, consideration, generosity. Those vile details that comprised the pathetic stupidity called reciprocity.”
Huh. This sent me right out of my reading—have we ever seen birthdays mentioned before in this series? Do they even have birthdays? “Of course, he knew that in truth such notions held all the gravity and import of a toddler’s birthday celebration…” Toddler? Birthday? The author speaks through his characters here!
Anyone else feeling pretty happy at the fact that the Bolkando are being stymied in their march by the cheapness of their leaders, and that they gave them substandard equipment?
And there, right there, is part of the theme of this novel writ large: “How many other blithe assumptions we made weeks back are about to turn out fatally askew?”
Ugh, this line here, for me, sums up Tanakalian and why he just cannot be trusted: “Some masks broke in the sun and the heat. But his mask was neither fierce nor hard. It could, in fact, take any shape he pleased, soft as clay, slick and clear as finest of pressed oils.” Who wants to know a person who is willing to shape themselves in this way to actions and events around them. Just slimy.
Ha, first impression is that I love Queen Abrastal: “Oh, eat my shit.”
This here where the Gilk Warchief and the Queen casually discuss hobbling and her possibly introducing it as a way of keeping her wayward daughters in line is deeply uncomfortable—but also brings to mind how casually the word rape has crept into usage in our world. Like saying: “They raped us” to indicate another sports team beating yours thoroughly. Hobbling here is being treated in the same way, I feel.
It must be awesome for negotiation techniques to be able to say, ‘Hey, you might think us quite formidable, but there is an army coming that puts us to shame. Still wanna fight?’
This scene between Gall and Queen Abrastal is brilliantly done, I think. Lots of clever dialogue, leaving us feeling able to respect both these people and these sides of the war. It is nice to know that not all the Bolkando are as reprehensible as those we’ve already seen.
“Gall is disgusted by your people.”
“So am I, Spax.”
More foreshadowy action: “You will find nothing of worth there. You will, in fact, find something terrible beyond imagining.”
Oh dear, more assumptions on what the future holds that I suspect won’t be true: “The Khundryl, the Perish Grey Helms and the Bonehunters. No army can hope to stand against the three of us combined.”
Damn, how strong my reaction to Vedith’s death! Especially because it wasn’t even in battle. The simple vagaries of fate did for him—a reminder that the simple act of walking down stairs could take any one of us. And I bet Vedith, wherever he ends up, grieves those nineteen dead, despite the fact that they crushed fourteen hundred in his honour.
But how lovely and bittersweet that Vedith’s death is what helps to start healing the rift between Gall and Hanavat.
There is an interesting distinction made between the Burned Tears and their leader Gall and the Barghast and the leaders we’ve seen amongst them, with Gall’s belief (an agreement with Coltaine), that “war is the means, not the end—the goal is not to wage slaughter—it is to achieve domination in the bargaining that follows.” Not so sure the Barghast we’ve seen would agree with that.
You have to like how Gall is characterized here (and I’d say we were already set up to like him in his few lines earlier when he was so upset about the killing of “innocent farmers”), his willingness to learn from others, as evidenced by his quoting of Coltaine and then by what he says they have learned from the Malazans: “A smith’s hammer in the hand or a sword,—it’s all business, and each and every one of us in it. The side with the most people using their brains is the side that wins.” And in this is also another contrast with the Barghast, who don’t seem to learn from others very well.
If you recall, we saw Vedith earlier take part in one of the very first open hostilities between the Burned Tears and the Bolkando. I’m going to reprint what I said about him earlier because I think it bears recalling considering the news we get of him in this chapter:
I find Vedith’s response to the slaughter interesting. He’s a young hothead, but still feels “sick,” after the killing, and finds “the taste of that slaughter left a bitter, toxic stain, inside and out.” And rather than dehumanize the slain, he recalls how earlier the town “had been a peaceful place, life awakening and crawling on to the old familiar trails.” And he uses the word “murder,” rather than “kill” to refer to the killing of the townsfolk.
This characterization of him is continued as he rides to battle, still feeling “his own sense of guilt” over that raid. And then you can’t help but identify with him and sympathize with him as he muses on a soldier’s life (a lonely one), his hatred of what he is being forced into here—leading soldiers to their deaths, his bitterness at how people just won’t learn, just won’t change their behavior. The reluctant leader/fighter embracing life. Oh, you want this to go well for Vedith. But you can’t help but feel, tragically, that it will not. And the way we’ve seen him—that sorrow, that empathy and compassion, that maturity, the sense of potential, makes the news at the end of the chapter hit so surprisingly hard for what is, after all, a minor, minor character. I’ve said before that I know few authors that do this so well, create a character only for a few moments reading time that gets under our skin so that the loss of that character is truly felt. It’s a great bit of craft in a series that deals so much in the idea of empathy. Something extremely tough to do, to make a reader actually feel it, as opposed to just think it—“Somebody died so I should feel bad.” (don’t get me started on this past episode of The Walking Dead which in my mind did just the opposite, in a cheap, lazy, contempt-for-the-audience way of… Wait, didn’t I say don’t get me started?)
On the other hand, just as we’re predisposed to identify with and like Vedith and Gall for their thoughts/actions, we’re equally predisposed to loathe Chancellor Rava. The man for whom ten thousand slaves would not suffice to rid him of the discomfort of sweating, the man being carried about in his palanquin with his “ornate gilt edging” and “plush padding,” and his slave “desperate to please.” Not to mention of course his rejection of “old-fashioned affection,” along with “loyalty, consideration, generosity.” And his lovely view of his fellow humans: “smelly, crab-faced masses of ignorant humanity…local savages… miserable hill tribes.” And beyond his view toward people, in this series especially, anyone who looks forward to cutting down trees is rarely going to be a good guy.
You have to love how the Bolkando have been screwed over by their own merchants/manufacturers here—the poor quality boots and breastplates, etc.
Avalt, though, despite living in that same world, you have to at least like his clearer vision of the world, his declaration that they have perhaps done enough “affecting matters.”
I like how we see this growing potential for a schism between Tankalian and Krughava and how we are unsure how to take it at this point. Is Tankalian truly this insightful? Is he right in his views on Krughava? If so, do we care? Is this potentially dangerous? If he is wrong, what might that lead him to do and what impact might that have? Can we trust someone he sees himself as one of the few, the proud, who are “unafraid of truth.” As I said recently, it’s hard for me to cotton much to anyone who sees himself as bearer of “The” truth. Nor am I generally a fan of those who look forward to “scouring” clean the souls of those he deems deserving of it.
But to give him some credit, I do like the way he sees this as:
“the manufacture of delusion, the shaping of a time of heroes. Generations to come will sing of these lies built here… They will hold up the masks of the past with dramatic fervor and then bewail their present fallen state. For this is the weapon of history when born of twisted roots. These are the lies that we are living, and they are all we will give to our children, to be passed down the generations… In the lie, this moment of history is pure, caged in the language of heroes. There is nothing to doubt here.”
How many times have we seen this theme in the series? The way the past can trap the future, the idea that the “golden” past seldom was. Think about the way we look back ourselves to our own “golden ages.” Our founding fathers (we’ll just ignore that whole slave thing). Those good old days of the ’50s where everything was limned in a golden light (for white men at least; we’ll just ignore everyone else).
So, White Face Barghast (the Gilk) fighting with the Bolkando. Also believe in hobbling. Wear funny turtle armor. Are they going to be like the other Barghast we’ve seen?
I know I shouldn’t get all goosed up over whose soldiers are best at hacking folks to pieces, but I gotta confess, this is the second time someone has basically said, “You think we’re bad? Wait ‘till you meet the Malazans, you silly, silly, people…” and both times it give me a little hyena “Mufasa” moment. As did his later recapitulation of the Chain of Dogs. It’s good to be reminded of those amazing scenes that this series has provided us, as we move farther and farther away from them in reading time.
I thoroughly enjoyed this interaction between Gall and Abrastal. Gall we’ve already met and as mentioned, have been predisposed to like, though I think this solidifies that liking. Abrastal we’ve only heard of in formidable terms, and this introduction I’d say makes us, at least at this point, want to be on her side. It’s hard not to like her clear eyes, her willingness to acknowledge defeat, the way she sees how the Tears have been underestimated, her own disdain for the merchants, her recognition (which is so hard for many) that the world is bigger than they ever thought, even the way she tries to warn Gall of what he’ll find in Kolanse (and how many such warnings have we had about that place?).
We really are seeing quite the convergence aren’t we? We had the three armies already heading to Kolanse (Malazans, Perish, Tears) and then we added Brys and the Letherii, and now we’re adding the Evertine Legion and the Gilk clan, as well. Them’s a lot of fighters…
Another mention of betrayal. That word keeps popping up, doesn’t it?
And here’s that moment with Vedith’s news, which hits so hard, as I mentioned above. And hits hard not only because Erikson has created a character we can mourn in Vedith, but also because he’s created a character in Gall whose mourning we can mourn. And note how we do not get the news until we’re given even more reason to feel for Gall—his love for his wife, his desire to tell her that, the sense that maybe there is a change that can happen to them, and then, and only then, do we get this news, making us even more vulnerable to it, just as he is (and you have to like as well the contrast between the new life—the expected baby—and the death). And how much better (in a reading/writing sense) that it be such a random death—a snake hole. An accident.
And then sorrow atop of sorrow—the death of Kyth, their first-born. And on top of that sorrow—the silence that followed. Though the scene moves from sorrow into bittersweet possibility. A lovely, moving scene. Makes you worry for the future, doesn’t it?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.