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. Today we’re launching into Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Assail, covering the prologue and chapter one.
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.
A lone Jaghut female is pursued and then caught by an T’lan Imass warband. The Bonecaster (Ut’el) tells her their war with the Jaghut is just kill or be killed, but she tells him the Imass wish for the existence of their kind only and refutes his argument that such desire is only nature’s way and common amongst all others. They are attacked, as the Jaghut had planned, by “stone-grey shapes that ran on oddly jointed legs, or all four limbs at a time.” Saying she’s doomed them all, Ut’el moves to kill the Jaghut out of mercy (rather than leave her to their attackers), but the Jaghut hurls herself over the cliff’s edge. All the Imass are killed save for Ut’el, who exits via Telann.
Roughly 25, 000 years later, a group of Ifayle T’lan Imass, led by Shalt Li’gar, rise out of a bay and come to land, which they describe as unknown to them. The humans who live in the fishing village tell them to leave, startling the Imass in that they speak Jaghut. Shalt, and some others, feel a presence that “challenge [d]… her very core.” Another Imass, J’arl, calls it an “abomination,” and moves to kill the human who spoke. Shalt strikes J’arl down, thinking if they start killing humans, “it will lead us to annihilation.” The Imass fall into battle with each other, with Shalt’s outnumbered group defending the humans as she warns them to flee. As she herself is finally struck down, she gives the humans one last warning: “Hide yourselves.”
Kyle sits in a bar in Kevil Mare in South Fist trying to figure out how to get out of Korel. A stranger (First Mate Black Storval) who “speaks for Tulan Orbed, Master of the Lady’s Luck” says his captain is interested in Kyle’s talk of lands east of the Bloodmare Ocean. Kyle goes with him to meet the captain and his nephew Reuth. Asked about the mysterious eastern lands, Kyle tells them the southern lands are known as Bael and the northern ones as Assail, adding he was there in a city on the eastern coast—Kurzan. When Reuth confirms the city’s existence, Kyle asks if he’d been there, but Tulan explains he’s a cartography scholar. Kyle tells them Assail is a fortnight’s sail, wondering if none of the Mare have ever attempted it for some reason or if those that had were never heard from again. Tulan mentions the “rumors” of Assail, and when Kyle is mystified, the captain explains gold has been discovered in northern Assail. He adds it’s been some time since the news came down, and that island villages near Assail have become ghost towns as the villagers went after the gold. When Kyle suggests they’re too late, that most the of the good ground will already have been claimed, Tulan answers that they both know the other rumors of Assail, meaning a) many will not survive the journey across the land and b) there is no state to regulate things, meaning all will be chaos. Tulan’s plan is to lie off the coast for someone who caught a lucky strike and needs to leave. Kyle agrees to join them (despite some concerns about the 10-person Stormguard part of the crew). He wonders if they’ve heard the stories of the two swords from the last campaign: Greymane’s lost grey one and his own white one (“Whiteblade”) that could “cut through anything… A weapon fit for a god.” Which is appropriate as it was given to him by Sky-King Osserc.
SCENES TWO & THREE
Shimmer calls a meeting due to K’azz’s inaction the past few months since their return from Jacuruku, particularly worried that no rescue mission had been organized for Cal-Brinn and the Fourth stranded on Assail. Bars had told them Call-Brinn, one of their most powerful mages, and his thirty or so Avowed had been “fleeing for their lives,” a description that shocks Shimmer. They’re joined by Petal, whom Blues sees only as one loyal to Skinner (Shimmer knows better after Jacuruku), and Tarkhan, whom Shimmer doesn’t trust for his loyalty to Cowl, who is back after having been stuck in an Azath House for years. Cowl himself appears, much to Shimmer’s dismay, and after some arguing she tells them her concerns about K’azz and proposes Blues as acting commander. Blues says he doesn’t want it, but says more importantly it can’t be done because the Vow is binding to K’azz. Despite that, he tells her they should indeed go to Assail. They decide on a group including Shimmer, Blues, Cowl, Petal, and Gwynn, with maybe a dozen or so more.
A strange woman appeared on the Dead Coast a few seasons ago, named so because the day she appeared the dead fought a battle all night and day, and the battle still goes on at times. They call the woman Ghost Woman, the Stranger, and “She Who Speaks to the Wind.” Sumaran, a fisherman of Jirel (to the east), had seen her himself one day and now, as he is shipwrecked on the Dead Coast, he wonders if she had cursed him. As he staggers to land, “the ravaged face of death” appears before him, and he passes out.
Sumaran wakes to find his chest bandages by the Ghost Woman, who asks how he is, adding she will not harm him and that he is free to go if he is strong enough. He thanks her, and as he looks more closely he has “the strange impression… that instead of haunting the coast, this entity was guarding it.” He asks her name, and she replies, “Silverfox.” He leaves and looking back one more time, he sees her joined by the dead (T’lan Imass). He flees.
Burl Tardin, of the south Genabackan coast and Free Confederacy, captain of the Sea Strike, finds himself becalmed in the fog on the Dread Sea, near Assail (where he’d aimed based on the gold rumors). They take some damage from a floating iceberg. The First Mate, who of touched the ice shards said “it burns,” then just collapsed. The next day they board a ghost ship, and the boarders quickly return saying it was like the crew had just walked away with food still fresh on the table. Burl orders them to return, but his Second Mate Gaff refuses, saying the ship is cursed. Burl agrees to leave it, and as he hears his men muttering he worries they’ve been infected by dread.
Orman lives outside the village of Curl beneath the Iceblood Holdings. He and his fellow Lowlanders had fought for generations with the Icebloods, but the last raid, led by their Baron Longarm and joined by many of Orman’s friends had been a disaster, with most killed and Longarm now called Shortarm. Orman, like everyone else, had heard the recent rumors of gold up in the Iceblood Holdings and of groups of foreigners landing and pushing upland, fighting the Icebloods (and so far losing apparently). Gerrun Shortshanks asks if Orman wants to join him and the Reddin brothers (Keth and Kasson) and Old Bear to go after some gold. He agrees to meet with them. Back home his mother tells him to take Boarstooth, his father’s spear made of “some unfamiliar stone.” As he leaves, his uncle’s wife Raina tells him he can’t take it, then yells for Jal to stop his thieving nephew. Orman runs, and she yells after him that he’ll be hunted down.
I like how Esslemont throws us smack dab into the middle with a chase scene. And we continue one of my favorite turns in this series—the way in which the Imass-Jaghut wars begin in one fashion in the readers’ minds and then turn in another, with our sympathies shifting from the Imass to the Jaghut. I think it’s also effective that we’re told there is only one ending to this scene, as our Jaghut tells us she knows all she can hope for is vengeance, not escape. Despite that, the moment she is first wounded is shocking thanks to Esslemont’s skillful work, having her spot the one Imass far away, dodge a blow, and then reach a moment where she can pause and take a breath, making us think we’ve got some time before she is attacked, just before the spear pierces her thigh.
The appearance of the Forkrul Assail was a nice unexpected touch, and interesting how the Bonecaster is horrified by this turn and says her causing this will “doom” them all. Equally unexpected was the Jaghut hurling herself off the cliff. And I loved her line, “We Jaghut are not a judgemental people.”
Finally, it seems pretty implied we’ll see Ut’el Anag again. And maybe something else.
From there it’s to a larger action scene, but one that I think is more impressive for its emotional underpinning as the Imass turn on one another, particularly as Shalt mourns her victims by name. And once again we’re left with wondering if we will see this ripple into our time via these people’s descendants
OK, then it’s into modern time and Kyle. It’s been a while, but some of you may recall he has not been my favorite character in the past, so we’ll just see how things go from here on with him. Luckily it’s been a while, so my gut reaction is tempered by time and distance from last time we were hanging out with him.
The gold rush as impetus is a nice bit of freshness I thought. It’s kind of nice to have basic human greed and wild frontier nature be the driving force of plot rather than the huge cosmic concepts—gods, ancient history etc. That isn’t to say those things won’t pop up in Assail, they still may, but this very grounded starting premise is a nice touch.
I’d be surprise if anyone hears Tulan’s words about just hanging off the coast and grabbing the gold as it swims by in some unfortunate’s hands and doesn’t think “famous last words.” Does anyone really thinks that’s how things are going to go?
Magic swords. I think I’ve noted in my past my feelings about magic swords. We’ll see…
The ensuing quick movement from scene to scene is a nice way of introducing those that will be making their way to (or are already on) Assail.
So we’re off to the Crimson Guard where K’azz still is out of touch, it’s clear this is the next group that will be converging on Assail. And the inner tension promises to make it an interesting journey, especially with Cowl on board.
Of course, some of our players are already there. I liked this introduction of Silverfox, with the bit of myth/folktale theme, such as the names “Ghost Woman,” “The Stranger,” “She Who Speaks With the Wind”; the scattered sightings (probably real and imagined), the place names, the curse. And then the turn to a more sympathetic character—the misunderstood ghost/witch/“other” and then a nice turn back at the very end of the scene as Silverfox gets a new name—Queen of the Dead.
Which is an excellent lead in to the next scene, with its great “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” feel to it and its ominous close. The mood/atmosphere is really well done here.
And then things slow down a bit as we spend more time than usual in this opening with a character. I recall Orman as one of my favorites in this book, and I’m not surprised then to find him introduced with a fullness of context and history—the lowlander/highlander conflict, his lost father, his apparently dying mother, the talisman of the spear Boarstooth that comes down to him via his father, the obvious conflict within his family. This scene could have ended, as many of the other ones did, with an ominous tone—that promise to hunt him down for taking the spear (another nice bit of added suspense). But instead we get a surprisingly cheery, optimistic close to the chapter. The spear feeling “light as willow branch” and “seem [ing] to sing as it sliced the cold night air.” The sense of freedom and possibility of youth and new land and potential wealth: “This wild country beckoned to him now—a near infinity of possibilities, it seemed, his for the taking.”
And though we’re not hitting chapter two until next post, I can’t help but note the greatness of the contrast between that close of chapter one and the opening line of chapter two: “Her life, she decided, had been nothing more than a string of failures.”
So we’re off into another Malazan book, one that has some of my very favorite set scenes in the series. Thanks for your patience ‘til now!
I confess that a little part of me feels it has been too long since an Erikson book, and I tried to sneak Forge of Darkness in ahead of Assail – but when I cracked open the first page, I found I was glad to spend more time with Esslemont and the Crimson Guard, after all. And that is a marked change from how I have felt in the past going into his novels.
Plus, as Bill notes, we are thrown right into the middle of some action. What occurred to me with the two different scenes in the prologue is how we are being shown the duration of the war between Jaghut and Imass, the fact that it has been going for tens of thousands of years. Even down to the first scene, where the Imass is still somewhat rotting, whereas in the second, they are dry and desiccated.
That quick snatched glance at the Forkrul Assail and the menace it afforded the scene made me shudder, knowing what I know now of them.
So, the second of the two prologue scenes made me wonder a little. What was this sense that they had from the humans? I know they spoke Jaghut, but did they feel ice? Are they descended in some way from the Jaghut? It confused me a little, although I’m prepared to admit that might have been more my quick reading than anything underdeveloped about it. It was difficult seeing these two different tribes developing from the Imass, one that wanted to protect these humans and one that wanted to destroy them at all costs. Esslemont managed to inject some real emotion in just a couple of pages – always helped, as Bill points out, by putting names to faces and making us feel as though we half knew the characters being felled.
This first scene with Kyle reminds me of an early scene from The Mummy film – where the experienced traveler is faced by someone who only knows the area he wishes to go to from books. It’s a lovely hark back to adventure novels and films. And, indeed, the gold rush element feels as though we have briefly stepped into a Wilbur Smith novel!
I love the place names for Assail and its surroundings – they just reek of terror and hate and bitterness, and yet you pause to wonder if they are actually like that or if, as suggested, they were named that way to ensure the eyes of the gods do not dwell for long upon them.
It has been so long since we last encountered Kyle that my memory of him and his sword are incredibly sketchy (age will do that to a person!), so it’s nice that Esslemont gives us a little bit of handholding here and reminds us that he is bearing a rather god-like weapon that he wants to keep as secret as possible.
Oh, it is lovely to be back with the Crimson Guard, especially having seen these disparate elements coming back together so recently. You can really feel the tensions simmering beneath this encounter, especially with Cowl’s return. After all, how would it affect someone being stuck in an Azath House for such a period of time? Cowl does seem pretty unhinged.
What I like best about this scene is that the reader is privy to some insights that the characters don’t have – such as knowing better what Petal is like, and having become close to him in the previous novel, but seeing Blues regarding him with such suspicion.
It surprises me that Shimmer wouldn’t be aware that the Vow is binding to K’azz, considering that when Skinner challenged for leadership, him and his splinter group became Disavowed. Or wasn’t she aware of that? It is a horrible thought – that until the Vow has been fulfilled, or until the death of all of them, they are bound to someone who doesn’t seem to really give two hoots about anything at the current time.
I like the level of loyalty here to the Fourth as well – the determination that, despite the knowledge that the Fourth were fleeing for their lives from something on Assail, and despite the distance of their leader, they will not leave comrades behind.
I love the imagery of the Dead Coast, the almost folkloric manner in which the locals ascribe actions and attitudes to Silverfox with none of them ever having met her. Of course, her appearance and the subsequent spooky arrival of other deathly figures is not going to help her reputation as the Ghost Woman.
Seeing this imagery, and then a couple of scenes later seeing reference to the Iceblood Holdings and people who dwell in the icy mountains, doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence as to the peacefulness that these people will share. Death and ice have never been a good combination in the Malazan novels, and we’re being shown both converging on Assail.
I wonder what Silverfox is guarding Assail from?
Like you, Bill, I got real Rime of the Ancient Mariner vibes from the ghostly ship and the icebergs looming out of the mist. It’s beautifully written. I could almost hear the Iron Maiden power chords.
The chapter feels a little unbalanced with how long we then spend with Orman, especially given that the scene with the Crimson Guard flashed past in comparison. But if, as Bill says, we are looking at someone who is going to be key to this novel, it is nice to have some background and context.
Good to be back, folks!
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.