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, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. Today we’re continuing Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Assail, covering chapter three.
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.
Assail: Chapter Three
Orman travels to the meet. He’s worried he might have been set up as a means to steal Boarstooth, but all turns out fine when he meets the Reddin brothers, who tell him the Old Bear will join them soon, and maybe Gerrun as well.
The next day a hunting group led by his uncle has tracked Orman to the camp, and his uncle demands he turn over Boarstooth, saying he’ll give him money and safe passage to Mantle Town. After some angry words, Orman impulsively hurls Boarstooth at his uncle (immediately regretting it) and fatally wounds him. After a brief, violent fight, the hunting party retreats and when Orman retrieves his spear, his uncle labels him Kinslayer and Forsworn before dying. When Orman tells Old Bear he didn’t mean to kill him, Old Bear says he knows, but “Boarstooth, once loosed, would have its blood-price… He [Uncle Jal] had no right to lay his hands upon it.” He explains that Orman has the right to Boarstooth because his father took it from Jorgan Bain after a two-day duel. Orman throws up in reaction to the fight and his first kill.
Three days after coming across the ghost ship, the crew of Burl’s ship began slowly disappearing, with no signs of violence, as if they’d simply jumped overboard and quietly sank into the frigid waters. Gaff, the second mate, and a group of men confront the captain with the idea that they are cursed and demand that he kills the first Whellen (who hasn’t yet woken after touching the ice earlier). Burl stands them down, though it’s clear Gaff still has issues. Burl sits with Whellen, noting that the cabin is surprisingly cold.
Two days after he joined the goldseekers (taken in by the Malazans), Fisher’s Andii companion wakes up, but has amnesia, remembering only that at the end he was “fighting for breath.” His demeanor, Fisher thinks, is surprisingly open and “unguarded for an Andii. Or for any adult… It was too much of the honest artlessness of youth.” The Andii asks Fisher to give him a name, and Fisher agrees but says he needs to think about it. Fisher goes to get him some equipment, and after listening to some funny Malazan veteran banter, he speaks to Malle in her tent, joined by her two mages Holden of Cawn (Serc) and Alca of Cat (Telas). Malle, who has maps and travelers’ tales which she dismisses as useless, is interested in Fisher’s knowledge of the area, though he corrects her that he only knows the coastline, as the inland is too dangerous, adding there are rumors of “A monster. A threat. A price to be paid.” He confirms he too has heard one of their stories of a Bone Road (it has other similar names as well). When Holden speaks mockingly of the “legendary ghoulies, ghosties, and giants of Assail,” Fisher warns him they are real and get worse as one heads north. At that, Alca notes that she has sensed Omtose Phellack and suggests (and Fisher confirms stories say it was so) that the land was at one time held by the Jaghut. When Malle brings up the concern about Assail’s namesake, it’s Fisher’s turn to call those “just stories.” After Malle agrees to equip the Andii, Fisher leaves, thinking how he had spotted in her tent cartographic and surveying tools, meaning the Malazans were making their own maps, making him think they were after more than just the gold.
Jute Hernan, captain of the Silver Dawn, has managed to get his ship through the Fear Narrows and the Guardian Rocks and looks for a rumored protected port known as Old Ruse. He’s achieved this thanks to his wife, Ieleen, who is his navigator, a sorceress of Ruse, and blind. Behind them is a group of three other ships that went to school on the Dawn’s passage, including a Malazan galley, a Genebackan ship, and one Jute doesn’t recognize. They all enter Old Ruse’s harbor and make for the docks, passing into a narrow channel and past two tall towers. Ieleen utters a sudden warning and Male sharply swings the ship back around, with the three shadowing ships following suit. Pirate ships make their way toward them while a sea chain is raised to block their exit. The Genabackan ship aims for the pirates and a heavily-armored man yells to them to wait by the channel (his white tabard with a sky-blue shield on it reminds Jute of something though he can’t recall what exactly). While the Genabackans and the mystery ship are surrounded by pirates, the Malazan ship blows up one of the towers using munitions. Jute’s own ship then is engaged then suddenly a shock wave of sorcery rolls out from the mystery ship destroying the wrecker vessels nearby, though more were coming. The Malazans take out the other towers and when the chain falls Jute’s ship exits the harbor, followed by the others. As they all limp along, Jute realizes he could probably lose the other ships, but decides he “could not in good conscience abandon them,” given that they’d saved not only his life but all on the Dawn. Plus, he thinks, they seem like they’d make good allies. They find a landing on a beach with two shipwrecked hulls. The Malazan ship lands and it’s the Ragstopper, captained by Cartheron Crust (yes, as the reader says along with Jute—The Cartheron). Cartheron tells Jute the other ship is from Umryg, that she has a “damned powerful” sorceress aboard, and that’s about the extent of his knowledge.
The Umrygs join them on the beach, their leader Timmel Orosenn, the Primogenitrix of Umryg, a startlingly tall female wrapped in robes and a scarf that covers her face. She tells them the Genebackan’s exited the harbor behind them but they don’t know what happened to them. Cartheron says the Genebackan’s captain is named Tyvar and they agree to wait. Timmel’s companion tells her she should head back to the ship due to “old enemies [she] must be wary of.” The Genebackans eventually show up and introduce themselves as the Blue Shields, “one of the fighting religious cults out of Elingarth. A brother order to the Grey Swords who had fought the Pannion.” Their steward is Haagen Vantall and their commander is Tyvar Gendarian, Mortal Sword of Togg. Though Tyvarr says in name only, that “Togg has withdrawn, as so many of the gods have now.” Tyvar asks if they can accompany Jute, and then, thinking Jute’s stunned wordlessness is due to worry over shares of loot, assures him the Blue Shields have no interest in plunder or gold but only wish to get to the north. He further explains it’s the last mission given them by Togg—to come to northern Assail to “right an ancient wrong and prevent a great tragedy… the death of innocents.” They all agree to set sail in two days (for repairs). The Blue Shields return to their ship, and Cartheron warns Jute not to get caught up in gods and missions—“I’ve seen it before and it only leads to misery and pain.” He then heads to his own ship.
Silverfox walks the beach amidst a bit of an identity crisis, wondering just who she is and what she wants, just a plain old girl surrounded by so many powerful souls inside her. She joins Pran Chole, who looks out to sea and tells her he senses something “different… powerful.” Then another T’lan Imass exits the water and introduces himself as Tobl Bell’al, Bonescaster to the Ifayle T’lan Imass. As he and Pran Chole embrace, much to Silverfox’s shock, she recalls how the Kron had thought the Ifayle lost long ago. He says he has been “long absent,” and then explains that he has not been to Assail before, but the Ifayle are here and he has “searched everywhere to know the answer to their fate. I found it nowhere and despaired.” Though now he says he understands they merely had to wait for her to come to them. He tells her they must travel north to find their answers. When she says she must face “Omtose Phellack unveiled. Something the world has not seen in tens of thousands of years,” the two tell her not her, but they and the other Bonescasters will while she “brings the Kerluhm to heel… deny them their war.” She reminds him it was his war as well, and he replies as with a “great exhalation of repentance”: “A question of interpretation. They choose to fight it. We choose to end it.” When she tells him to gather the others, he warns it that the journey will be long and difficult, as Omtose will not allow them to travel via warren. She replies they better get started then, and after she leaves, Tolb Bell’al tells Pran Chole he “chose well.” Pran Chole answers that it was Silverfox who chose them.
SCENES SEVEN & EIGHT
The Lady’s Luck sights land and two days later Kyle is woken by Reuth just before a group of men, including Storval and the ex-Stormguards appear. Tuval, embarrassed, tells Kyle they have to know the truth, and then Storval demands to see the blade. It’s revealed, someone oohs, “Whiteblade,” and Storval tells Kyle to turn it over. Kyle jumps overboard and swims to shore, with the help of some water-bladders he’d had prepared. He makes it to land and heads out.
Obviously we spend a lot of time discussing plot, theme, and character in this reread. But I’d like to just point out that the opening here is some lovely writing in terms of its vivid sensory detail and conveyance of setting. Just as a few examples: “the trunks of its bed creaked beneath his feet. Frost glimmered over the pale wood as it reflected the stars above… The tall old growth of conifers blocked the stars, plunging him into deep shadow that was broken only by shafts of moonlight that came lancing down like spear-thrusts. Snow and ice were brittle and crusted beneath the battered leather moccasins that climbed to his knees. His breath plumed in the chill air.”
Speaking of detail, one might wonder why so much detail regarding Boarstooth…
The fight scene is well done, and I like how it is used to characterize Orman and how we see the impact of the violence on him: his immediate regret at throwing Boarstooth at his uncle, the shaking of his limbs, the cold feeling, his fear that perhaps his uncle was right—that he is a kinslayer and the he or his weapon (or both) are cursed, and finally his vomiting.
OK, interesting language regarding our mysterious Andii:
“His eyes glittered as dark as if the night itself was watching.”
“The man’s night black eyes.”
“With the mention of the word ‘sword,’ the man’s head snapped back to him and for a moment the black eyes held an expression that was far from innocent openness… ‘Yes. I remember a sword. Something about a sword.’”
Ahh, Malazan vets. Gotta love ‘em, eh?
The scene in Malle’s content continues to ratchet up both the mystery and suspense early on. First with the catalog of possible dangers on Assail—the Bone Road (“hardly encouraging, that” as someone once said), the ghosts, the ghouls, the giants, and of course, the Assail. Then there’s the mystery of what the Malazans are really up to here, with their careful mapping/surveying.
The quick and fierce naval battle is a fun little scene with a lot to recommend it. Good action, a nice POV character to see it through (Jute is one of my favorite characters in this novel), a blind sorceress, a mystery ship with powerful sorcery of its own, some semi-mysterious warriors, and of course, good ‘ole Malazan munitions used to full effect. And then it turns out to be Ragstopper and Cartheron! (and I love the dialogue between Jute and Cartheron:
“Are you the Cartheron?”
“How many damned Cartherons do you know?”
“Good. For a moment there you had me worried.”
That’s a lot of clothes on Timmel. Here is a quick little cut and paste from our RotCG summary to remind us of her. This and her description might be a bit of a clue as to the “old enemies”:
The Primogenatrix of Umryg, Timmel Orosenn, is awakened to be told an imprisoned group known as the “Blood Demons,” is near to breaking through their last barrier. Hurrying to the caverns, where an army is amassed and waiting, the Primogenatrix is met there by the leader of Umryg’s thaumaturges—T’enet—who tells her the final barrier will fall tonight. Timmel tells T’enet that the two of them are all that survive from “the entombing,” and that she had agreed back then to his counsel, but now she has doubts. T’enet says that is understandable, but thinks their enemy’s long imprisonment has weakened them enough so they might be destroyed. Timmel, recalling what it had taken to inter the “twenty remaining foreign horrors her sister had hired…to aid her in her bid to usurp the throne”, and how many decades it has taken Umryg to recover, is not so sure.
The prison explodes and the prisoners exit, protected by shields they’d crafted of stone and strengthened via magic. Probing the powerful magic, Timmel senses “a dark swirling of Shadow mysteries” coming from elsewhere. At that moment, a “walking corpse . . female, in tattered rags of crimson cloth” attacks Timmel, saying “Jaghut” before disappearing. As she quickly heals, Timmel wonders about “that word, that forbidden word and thinks “Ancient truths remain alive somewhere. One place too many for her and her kind.” T’enet has been killed in the attack and Timmel orders the defense back, telling them to harry the escapees to the river and have an unmanned ship there for them so they, “You invaders. You Crimson Guard,” can get the hell off her island.
How many of these religious fighting cults are there anyway: The Blue Shields, the Grey Helms, The Grey Swords…
So we’ve already heard of thousands of “innocents” up in the north. And we know who is after them and who is protecting them, or trying to. Seems like we can anticipate some conflict then between the Blue Shields and certain folks.
From our Blood and Bone reread, when the Crimson Guard are repairing their ship on an ice floe on the way to Jacuruku:
An Imass appears, saying their presence drew it from its journey toward the east where the Imass have been summoned. He introduces himself as Tolb Bell’al, bonecaster to the Ifayle T’lan Imass. He says goodbye “until we meet again,” and disappears, leaving them to wonder what he meant by that.
And so we’ve got another group heading north. Convergence, anyone?
Plus, you know, Kyle’s on Assail now.
In the very first paragraph of this chapter, Esslemont provides us with a very clear picture of ice and snow. When you consider the fact that Blood and Bone was predominantly set in the jungle, what I’m shown here is that Esslemont has a great talent for showing settings and bringing them to life.
The one thing I still struggle with in each Malazan novel is the introduction of new characters—I know I will get used to Orman and probably come to enjoy his parts of the story, but right now, after the warmth of old and familiar characters in the previous chapter, it is hard to get as invested.
I feel as though Boarstooth is being mentioned so much that it must be a real plot point later in the novel—maybe it will face against Whiteblade?
I do really like the moment where we see the amusement of a Reddin brother (but which one?!) and Orman’s realisation that the other has him covered. It’s a real ‘clever girl’ moment (get the reference).
Gerrun Shortshanks seems to be a right honorable character, doesn’t he?
I confess that I am struggling a little bit to work out the politics here, with Eusta, the Blood Holdings, the Ice Holdings, Longarm… I’m sure I’ll grasp it, but for now it is another reason this part of the story isn’t gripping me.
Whoops! Orman rather escalates matters here!
So we have another cursed weapon in this novel (and, indeed, in this series)—getting a little crowded with them now! I sort of wonder if carrying a cursed weapon does offer an excuse to the bearer—“it wasn’t me, it was the spear!”
“The first one’s always the hardest!” Well, that’s a nasty little indication there are more deaths to come.
This cursed ship business is written fantastically, it’s so creepy. I genuinely wonder what Esslemont would be able to do with a straight up horror novel.
He does ominous really well: “It had hold of him as well. Perhaps more so, as he wasn’t sure they understood that they were far past turning back. He no longer had any clear idea of their direction, and hadn’t had for some time.”
A feeling of ice and cold coming from Whellan? Jaghut-related? See, that is the main problem with a race having such an association—any time it’s mentioned, that connection is made, even when it shouldn’t be.
An amnesiac Andii? Somehow I feel this mystery is going to play on and on. I didn’t even consider that this might be a resurrected Rake. That would make his death feel so pointless, and take any emotion out of it. Plus, Rake has hair of iron grey, not white or streaked with white, so how could this Andii be him? I’m guessing with phrases like: “his eyes glittered as dark as if the night itself was watching” are supposed to indicate that he is close to Mother Dark. But this so clearly can’t be Rake. So who the hell is it?
Imagine naming an Andii! And people think naming a child who is going to live one hundred years, if they’re very lucky, a difficult choice. Naming someone who will carry that name for eternity is definitely daunting.
Bloody hell. That sword comment. Could it be Anomander Rake? Let me say now I don’t want it to be. For one thing, I thought his last scenes were perfect and I grieved for him. For another, this artless youth is nothing like the Rake it should be. And for a third, Rake is Erikson’s character—I don’t want to see him written by Esslemont.
Lovely Malazan banter.
Did Malle steal the traveller’s account that Fisher refers to? Seems it was obtained through nefarious means, anyway. And that much secrecy can mean that something is true and people don’t want it falling into the wrong hands. Information about the Bone Road (again, with the pleasant names).
So let me get this straight: this land has supernatural dangers, bandits willing to battle to defend their territory, a “price to be paid”, the threat of the Jaghut that are possibly still lurking here—and, after all that, “there lies the threat of the namesake of this region”. Forkrul Assail. I’m not sure gold is worth it!
We then get another little recap of what awaits those who land on the shores of this land: “fortresses constructed from the bones of earlier travellers foolish enough to trespass there; strangling mists; limitless fields of ice taller than any city tower; forests guarded by giants of ice and rime.”
I’ve noticed that Assail isn’t being used with Forkrul—are these different Assail people?
This trap set by the pirates of Old Ruse is well written, because I personally thought the ships shadowing Jute’s vessel were the real threat to him. And then suddenly it’s turned around.
I like the fact that on Jute’s ship, the navigator and master-of-arms are both women. Nice to see equality of roles, especially with the nonsense in a lot of books concerning women being a curse upon ships.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable little battle scene—we haven’t seen masses of naval battles in the series, so it’s always nice. And I loved the image of that power sweeping out from the foreign ship, like some kind of nuclear blast.
I’m enjoying the fact that Jute laughingly refers to his missus as a sorcerer, when it seems she is certainly someone of that nature, and has absolutely helped them survive a difficult situation.
Have we met Timmel before? My memory fails me here.
“Jute had the impression that standards had rather fallen on board the Ragstopper.” I’m tempted to believe they were never there in the first place!
The Blue Shields are new…
Ha, poor Jute. Surrounded by naval royalty and martial ability, and he’s the one who ends up in charge?
It sounds as though Togg sent them to protect the remains of the Jaghut from being murdered by the T’lan Imass?
This is a really emotive scene with Silverfox, and the arrival of Tolb Bell’al. I enjoyed it a lot, even though not all of it was completely clear.
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.