Welcome back 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 Five of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Blood and Bone.
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.
Blood and Bone Chapter Five
Golan notes how the army is way behind schedule and how the journey is “all very enervating… a strange sort of creeping mental and spiritual malaise.” He wonders what they’re even doing there, trying to gain a land they’ve never understood, one that will not be profitable for generations, if ever. In fact, as he thinks, he realizes Ardata never actually moved against them, and believes the argument for invasion was that someone would final “do something productive with it [the land] instead of leaving it to run wild.” He recalls this line of argument from his Academy days, that “Utility. Order. Service” were prioritized, and that therefore “these jungle leagues were in truth without any prior claim whatsoever. This so-called ‘Queen’… hardly counted as possession in any practical sense at all. These lands lay unspoken for, virgin, open to seizure by responsible conscientious stewards.” And while he thinks their mission to bring light to the dark places deserves a medal, he still has misgivings for some reason unknown to him.
U-Pre arrives to announce trouble at the vanguard. Two companies of men sent into a meadow of white flowers have not returned. Golan decides to investigate himself. He looks for Skinner and finding him still not returned, wonders aloud to Jacinth (one of Skinner’s people) if he may have fallen to one of Ardata’s creatures. She scoffs at the idea, saying nothing ‘that walks in this world can defeat him.” He asks her if Skinner therefore fears nothing (while thinking to himself this “delusion” might be something they can use against Skinner), and she replies that he “fears plenty. There was one blade he was weary of – but it has since been destroyed.” When he announces his intent, she is unsurprised, saying he’s their version of a High Mage, so it’s his job to make sure it’s safe for regular soldiers when facing such mysteries. A notion he finds “backwards.” He discovers the huge meadow is a killing field, tons of bones beneath the flowers, and he recalls mention in the narratives of something called “The White Plague,” which luckily his Thaumaturg treatments against poison have seemingly inoculated him against. He thinks they could have lost hundreds or a thousand there. He orders it all burned.
Skinner’s group is still following the CG’s priest. Mara isn’t a fan of their jobs for the Crippled God, wondering why Skinner wanted/needed to be King of Chains. And thinking even if he’d had at some point a need for it—maybe protection—that point had passed, and she wonders when his tossing the alliance aside will come. Though she has to admit he did eventually move against both Ardata and K’azz, noting he doesn’t seem to like “standing next to power when he himself could hold it.” She figures therefore she’ll just have to give him time. The priest leads them to a Meckros wreck and says they need something inside (another CG fragment). Mara is skeptical it is there, but Skinner says they’ll check it out.
Skinner builds a raft while she and Petal watch. Petal tells her he senses danger out there. When she asks why they’re collecting all these pieces, he suggests that with each one returned to the CG, “he is strengthened and therefore his enemies, our enemies, are correspondingly hampered.” As she strips down to climb aboard the raft, Mara is annoyed at Skinner’s lack of interest in her body, wondering if “it is true as they say that only the prospect of power will get you out of that armor.” She recalls how he seems interested in Shimmer and then Ardata, and thinks how she knows how to deal with that sort of competition, but as for power itself? No idea. She bemoans how her loyalty has seemingly gotten her no notice from him, then ponders if in fact “it was this very dog-like obedience” that led to her reward being apparent “contempt.”
As the priest leads them around the wreck, Mara observes that whatever destroyed the city happened fast, with no time to prepare or evacuate it seems. They come across a Meckros body obviously killed by a “ferocious blow” impossible for “few men.” Then another body whose bones had been crushed by something “possessing extraordinarily strong jaws.” As the day passes, the light from the green Banner/Visitor is highlighted, and she wonders if it is their actions calling it down, as the CG had fallen due to “humanity’s hubris and blindness.” She has doubts as to whether she can be “complicit” in another such act. Petal interrupts to say he can feel many things watching them, but he can’t catch their minds due to their strangeness.
When Skinner complains they’re going in circles, the priest says the shard is moving, and Skinner realizes they’ve been led into a trap. They’re surrounded by creatures (former lobster, crabs, etc.) deformed by the shard’s presence, “many possess [ing] huge curving crab-like claws as long as swords.” Skinner kills many, his armor impenetrable (though he does get hurt), and then they back off and a “jerking, walking mechanism of rusted metal bands and wire” wearing a flayed human skin and with a severed head stuck on top of a metal rod appears. He introduces himself as King Veng, and says he knows they were sent by the CG. He explains his origin: how he was an automaton built by the Meckros to guard the city and then when they pulled up an item of great power from the sea (the shard), the mechanicians put it inside of him. He says it made him live: “No more winding or moments of darkness during which I sensed nothing. I lived . .. I am immortal and am thus far superior to you.”
Veng and Skinner fight, each damaging the other, then fall into the water. Stunned, Mara uses her magery to send the creatures fleeing, then she and Petal raft back to shore, assuming Skinner will join them if he survives. The priest is already there and tells them his master will not be pleased they failed to retrieve the shard. When Mara asks why they should care, the priest asks if she didn’t just see his master’s power in the warped forms of the creatures they’d just faced, but she points out then they wouldn’t be of much use to the CG if he did that. They make a fire and decide to wait until morning.
Skinner appears from the water, clearly hurt, dragging Veng’s body with him. Checking him for wounds, Mara is surprised when the “individual scales of the [armor] coat seemed to shift beneath her fingers.” He tells her to leave it and just get him to Red, their best bonesetter. Mara gets the shard out of Veng’s body and tells the priest they have to go. He says fine, adding they have four more pieces (that they know of) to collect. They prepare to leave. As they do so, Mara notices Skinner has apparently lost his sword in the fight with Veng.
Jak leads Pon-lor’s group (tasked earlier with finding the disappeared Yakshaka) into the Fangs. The heat and humidity makes him recall his childhood in the Academy in the capital city—Anditi Pura. He remembered being taken as a child to be an Aspirant and how he’d been faced with a table of objects of all sorts and after paying attention to the observers’ responses, how he’d chosen a plain wooden stick and so had seemingly passed their silly little game of a test. Thinking back, he wonders if it was a test of his own awareness, or if the Thaumaturgs watching had not even known how their reactions betrayed their thoughts. He goes back and forth on if his superiors are truly superior or not. Jak interrupts his thoughts to ask why they’ve stopped, saying they can camp ahead at the Gates of Chanar, the start of the path to the fortress. Pon-lor agrees and they move on as his thoughts return to the past: teachers taking boys, including Pon-lor, at night “for special attention,” how those who complained were left behind to “menial positions.” The more he remembers, the more he finds flaws in the Thaumaturg system though he grants that “perhaps it is the case that no organization or hierarchy can withstand the closest of scrutiny.”
They reach the Gates and looking at Jak, Pon-lor realizes their guide hates them, and he wonders why: “Some past injustice? Or simply that we represent the fist of rulership?… The Circle rules through fear, and that does not cultivate devotion among those ruled.” He observes new magic glyphs on the arch and offerings in front: calls for blessings, calls to turn away, curses… death wishes.” Jak says it’s just superstitious, ignorant peasants. Po-Lor orders camp, and tells Overseer Tun to tie up Jak, noticing how angry this makes Jak and finding it interesting that Jak doesn’t say anything. He tries to contact Golan, but can’t due to Ardata’s power, and he realizes he’s too late; Golan has entered Ardata’s land. He looks to Jak and is surprised and amused to find his eyes filled with both pride and contempt: “our village raider all-in-patches harbors a very high opinion of himself… No mater. Tomorrow we will be rid of him.”
They continue on through the jungle in the morning, Pon-lor a bit nervous of all the animal sounds, particularly the large cat. He thinks how “all such wild animals, the great fanged cat, the lesser fire cat, the man-hunting leopard, the titanic cave bear, the two horned rhinoceros, and all the great river beasts had all been eradicated” from the Thaumaturgs’ land. He observes how the path seems not much used, and decides there must be another way up to the fortress and pass. A sudden scream comes from behind. The last man in the column fell, though no one saw what happened. They continue on, but Pon-lor grows more uneasy by their path. He asks Jak how supplies are brought in on such a rough path/climb, and Jak answers there are others roads. Pon-lor wants to camp, but is convinced to just order a rest, Jak telling him they’ll reach the fortress and warm, dry shelter at nightfall. Another scream and another man lost, this one apparently to a large fanged cat. They move on through dark, rain, and mist until they see Fortress Chanar. On the path—ruins seemingly of a great road—they pass fallen statues, the heads all of the same man in “an armoured helm. Savage, hard staring eyes, a long straight nose, and a slit mouth that looked as if not one word of mercy had ever passed its lips.” Pon-lor recognizes it as the man known now as the God-King, the High King, The Fallen One, the Demon-King, Kell-Vor, though one of his masters had told him none of those are his real name, one his master swore “I shall never speak aloud. For it carries with it a curse. A terrible ageless curse.”
Pon-lor wonders if Chanar was built on the ruins of the God-King’s structures or if it was itself one of rare surviving buildings from that time. He thinks it could be, since they’re so close to Ardata’s realm and it was said that the God King and she ruled together once. Jak leads them into the halls to meet Khun-Sen, explaining it’s so empty of people because Khun-Sen is old and has few followers. The place is a mess, old, dilapidated, seemingly near-abandoned. As they enter the empty main hall, Jak says there must be some problem and he heads off, with an escort, to see what it might be. Overseer Tun tells Pon-lor he thinks they should leave. He doesn’t like the situation and also says Chanar has a bad reputation regarding travelers disappearing. Pon-lor agrees and orders the recall. They hear strange sounds, and then Tun is killed by a figure in the dark. Pon-lor can hear his men fighting enemies, but it sounds like they’re striking stone. He orders a retreat and he and his men end up back in the main hall, all exits blocked. Jak, in an upper terrace, cries out he’s done this for revenge. Pon-lor asks what he’s ever done to Jak and Jak points to how his family probably bought his rank. Pon-lor points out he doesn’t even remember his parents. As his men retreat and die and he is wounded, Pon-lor recognizes the stone warriors as the “cursed soldiers, civilians, and court of Chanar Keep . .. flesh accursed to harden into petrification.” He starts to incant the dismissal and the attacking creatures eventually turn to dust and blow away. Jak is infuriated and stunned, and Pon-lor tells him the curse had come from the Thaumaturg Circle, not Ardata as Jak had assumed. Jak runs and Pon-lor tells his people not to follow, as Jak and his group know the area too well. One of his men pulls the arrow out of Pon-lor.
Triss’ ship travels through storms across the ocean. She senses powers to the west, “all gathered for the potential transfiguration. And who shall it be, and into which state? And will they be pleased with the results? Too many futures now beckoned for any to see the clear path. Even she. And it is the mortals who will choose.” The male part of the Twins shows up to tag team her. The Lad says he’s there to warn her that her current “gambit” might be the end of her. The Lady appears to say “How desperately you must have loved him from afar… Unrequited love is the cruelest they say. And now he is gone…You were as nothing to him in any case.” The Lad, meanwhile, tells her not to waste her life in “some mad plan” T’riss wonders which potential future they’re so worried about it. The Twines then warn that “She will destroy you… She has barred you from her lands… She’s tried to kill you already.” T’riss listened calmly to most, but the last line really gets to her. They fade out, saying at the end, “That is enough from you as there shall be no more from you.” When her Seguleh aide shows up, T’riss tells her, “It was nothing, Ina. Just a chance encounter.”
This epigraph. Because killing a great number of people will definitely ensure that the remainder are ready for ‘friendship’ and will look upon their new ‘friends’ as ‘civilised people’. Sure.
I like the fact that, no matter what order they impose on their world, this new environment they are heading into causes chaos and disruption for the Thaumaturgs, just starting with the whole being off schedule with their invasion. I also like the fact they believe they can schedule an invasion.
Is it just the nature of this land causing the dreaminess and the ‘mental and spiritual malaise’? Or is it rather that Ardata is causing this effect in an effort to keep people out? The same way as having an echo of her forest in the shadow-realm, maybe?
Even though Ardata has done nothing to bring this invasion force towards her, it’s interesting that they know enough of her that they realise they can’t negotiate with her, but would rather have to replace her entirely with their own figurehead. I can’t really see her thinking kindly on that plan.
Horrible echoes here of the real world, and humans’ inability to leave glorious wilderness well alone to the creatures who live there: “It was just that this huge expanse ought to be ruled by someone who would do something productive with it instead of leaving it to run wild, home to sports and oddities that never amounted to anything.”
“Yes, all very laudable and noble,” thinks Golan. And we readers think about the noble lobotomisation of people to use them as biddable slaves. So very noble. So noble it makes me sick.
I enjoyed Golan’s question about making sure his death would be writ gloriously—but it does bring up that thought that it is victors who write history, both in terms of whether U-Pre would actually write that, and the idea that Golan is already preparing what he wants people to know of him after his death.
Heh, Golan would have found Jacinth attractive if it wasn’t for, y’know, her face and her body.
“All creation feared that sword.” That’s a nice little nod back to the main series.
That is a beautiful and sinister scene, as Golan comes to realise what the white flowers hide.
Mara isn’t being treated well by the man she chose to follow, is she? Even the gentlest can snap if treated poorly, and it does feel as though we are being led to think she is considering a new path, especially since it is implied she is a woman spurned in favour of power. “It seemed long-nurtured hopes were no close to their realisation. Despite her support in the coup against Ardata, her unquestioning loyalty during the attempted usurpation of the Guard, and now her continued faithfulness.”
“And why by all the gods had she not considered this before?” A question I am also seeking an answer to. Mara is clever and badass, and this representation of her just hasn’t been consistent with her character to date.
Argh, am snatching time to do this during my lunch break at work and lunch has just ended… No more sneaky book reading and commenting for me—I will complete my thoughts in the comments below this evening!
Not hard at all seeing that epigraph coming out of a European account of an African sojourn during imperial times.
And that parallel continues with the Thaumaturgs’ viewpoint toward the land—this idea that “unused” land, “unproductive” land held by the natives, whether it be in Africa or South America or North America, would be “better used” by those nations that “rescued” it from those lazy, negligent natives. And Esslemont’s use of “virgin” as the descriptor for the lands can’t help but call up the image of rape for what is done to them.
And then you can’t get more European/American sense of Manifest Destiny/White Man’s Burden then the whole “Bringing order, light, and rationalism to where only darkness, ignorance, and superstition ruled.” Or any more Heart of Darkness-y.
Amazing how much can be justified in such fashion, or in the idea that all you do “is for the common good.”
That’s a nice dark play on the Wizard of Oz poppy scene. Also a nice bit of “what looks beautiful on the surface can kill you.”
Did anyone else want to finish off Jacinth’s line about how nothing that walks this land can harm Skinner with something along the lines of “until Birnam Wood… “?
I like (well, not like) how Golan finds it a weird idea that the High Mages would take risks to make sure the way is safe for soldiers.
Interesting that the Thaumaturgs make themselves proof against a host of poisons. Where are all those potential poisonings coming from one has to wonder? Is that the infighting amongst themselves? Something else? Also like how we get a mention here of how they can achieve “complete mastery of their metabolism,” which sets us up for Pon-lor’s actions later in this chapter.
Mara’s doubts and concerns continue to grow regarding their actions, their role as agents of the Crippled God, her relationship to Skinner. Are we being set up here for some change in her role? We do get a mention of another one of their people—Gwynn—who abandoned them for K’azz.
I have to say, I’m not sure why Mara so quickly dismisses the idea that the shard might be amidst the wreckage, unless she doesn’t really think that and this is just a way to show how she doesn’t want to do the CG’s bidding. Though it didn’t feel that way to me.
That’s a nice hint as to the trouble to come when Petal says he senses danger and when Mara says basically of course you do—the shard is there (doesn’t that contradict what she just said?)—Petal says oh yeah, that too.
It’s hard to imagine that the idea that returning the pieces to the CG makes him stronger and thus hurts their enemies is an idea Mara hasn’t already come to on her own.
This attack here is nicely prepared for, both in setting us up for what they’re fighting and for misdirecting us a bit. The building of suspense is ably handled. Petal’s sense of danger, the wreck’s isolation, the recognition that the destruction happened quickly, then that it was not natural, the bit of a red herring that the killing was done by a sword or jaws, the sudden realization they’ve been led by the noses, the growing twilight, and then finally it seems the description of the malformed bodies. But then comes the capper and those deformed bodies aren’t the real focus, but instead it’s the automaton’s arrival. I’d add the whole falling into the sea out of sight too, but really, did anyone think that was it for Skinner?
One of my favorite aspects of this whole series, as we’ve mentioned many times, is the way we get glimpses of so many stories that we’re not hearing or are barely glimpsing. King Venga is one such. Can’t you imagine reading a long short story or novella relating just his story? His awakening, his role on the ship, the ship’s destruction, his role as “king” of his subjects, even his fight with Skinner from his POV? That’s absolutely a story I’d read. And yet here, he’s just a minor character in a minor scene.
So Skinner’s suit of armor remains impenetrable, but one thing this scene does is show us that he can be hurt in it, that there is a way to get to him. And of course we do get a bit of oddity about it, the way its individual scales seemed to move under Mara’s brushing fingers.
Will we see the attempt at the other four shards? And is it important that Skinner lost his sword?
So we’ve had Golan with some misgivings about the invasion, Mara with some misgivings about what they’re doing with the CG, and now Pon-lor with some misgivings or doubts about things at the core of the Thaumaturgs way of doing things. Lots of people seem ripe for some changes in behavior or belief it seems.
And of course, just when you think the Thaumaturgs can’t fall any lower, we get more information about what they’re like, with the whole taking the young kids for “special attention.”
While it’s obviously not on the same level (believe me, I know it’s not), and while obviously there’s something to be said for wanting to remove dangerous animals from inhabited lands, I have to say they don’t win any points from me for invading a land that’s the last refuge for a host of animals they’ve already absolutely eradicated in their own area.
While I like the actual ambush scene, and the slow one at a time soldiers being lost that leads up to it, you’d think that Pon-lor would be a little more suspicious of Jak than he appears to be, especially once he notes the hatred in his eyes.
Just a quick note yet again, because I’ve said it several times already, but I continue to enjoy the setting description of the jungle throughout—a whole panoply of senses rather than simply a visual description of “lush green” and “climbing vines.”
Huh, a whole bunch of statues with the head of Kallor. Who’d have thought?
Too bad for poor Tun that the realization that this was a trap came so late. And while Pon-lor did seem a bit thick-headed on all the hints, he does come off pretty well in the actual fight—keeping calm, recognizing what/who the foes were, remembering the counter-spell, and performing it after taking a major injury. And that was a good decision to not pursue Jak, though it would have been easy to have fallen prey to doing so out of vengeance and anger.
Those pesky uppity mortals helping choose the future. And might be nice to pause for a moment to recall what those mortals (and OK, some non-mortals) did at the end of The Crippled God to help affect the future.
Not very nice of those Twins, to play so cruelly on T’riss’ love.
And what a bad pun to end the chapter on…
After training and working as an accountant for over a decade, Amanda Rutter became an editor with Angry Robot, helping to sign books and authors for the Strange Chemistry imprint. Since leaving Angry Robot, she has been a freelance editor—through her own company AR Editorial Solutions, BubbleCow and Wise Ink—and a literary agent for Red Sofa Literary Agency. In her free time, she is a yarn fiend, knitting and crocheting a storm.
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.