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 eight.
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: Bill is out of town and so will add his comments below at a later point. I have added my comments in and around the summary.
Assail: Chapter Eight
Orman jogs north without pause, finding it hard to adjust to his missing eye. He reaches a large glacier and climbs it to reach a large plain of snow and ice. Then the ice cracks beneath him and he falls, then knows no more.
Hmm, for me, this whole section was unrealistic. Unless Orman is driven on by magic means, we have someone who has spent most of their life in comfort coming out into the wilds. He’s only just had an eye removed under traumatic circumstances. He then climbs up this huge wall of ice – what is his climbing experience like? Then he sleeps on the field of ice wrapped only in a cloak. I can accept a fair amount in my fantasy fiction, but this seems like rather lazy writing and a way to get Orman from A to B. He should have died so many times over. So what exactly is driving him in this way?
Orman wakes up some time later and simply watches the stars. He thinks about the Realm-Lights being gates to other realms – what gets me is that he is familiar with a number of the races we’ve seen on the Malazan world, which seems odd considering they are so remote from everyone else. Also, why would they know them as Tiste (one race that has been around for such a long time) and yet the Jaghut name has become the Joggen race, a slightly distorted version?
He sleeps again, and is woken by a coil of rope hitting him. He wraps his arm in the rope and is pulled upwards. At the top he flops in the snow and stares upwards at a tall, tall figure, painfully slim and so pale he seemed to glow. He stares at Orman like a “fisherman who’d landed a particularly puzzling catch” (I love this phrasing).
The figure calls him a child of the lowlands and asks what he is doing there. He asks if the figure is called Buri (which throws me a little, because this is a key character from the Tortall novels by Tamora Pierce, and it looks odd in the context of a character who brings winter on Assail).
When Orman wakes next he is in an icy cave, and smells roasting meat. He sees Buri watching him, and the giant asks what he is doing there. Orman explains everything. Buri takes it all in without making a sound, except when Orman refers to Svalthbrul and then says Lotji took it. Orman asks if Buri will come to the aid of his clan. Buri refuses, stating that he is preparing for the enemy – and that this enemy is yet to come. So Buri must be Jaghut-related, and the T’lann Imass is the enemy to which he refers. Buri encourages Orman to see his true path, which is to go back and challenge Lotji.
Buri shows Orman the way back and they say farewells. Orman wonders about Buri’s use of the phrase ‘little brother’, and then thinks again about his connection to Jass, the feeling that is taking him back to face Lotji.
I appreciate Orman’s warmth to Jass, but it seems so strong right from this early beginning. I mean, sure, he can respect the boy and feel happy to meet someone with whom he has blood ties, but is there something more to their bond? I ask because it takes a while for relationships to form, and this one has crystallized so quickly.
Also, disappointed that there has been no mention of ongoing issues from his time in the ice and snow. He slept out wrapped in nothing but a cloak, remember? He was lifted up a cliff by a rope tangled around his arm. And yet now somehow he’s fine? This feels like the usual fantasy trope of little consequences.
The Lost brothers led Fisher and Jethiss north-east. Having grown up in this region, Fisher is surprised to see evidence of people having lived here, since it was uninhabited when he was there. What amuses is that the evidence of habitation has come and gone (overgrown fields, abandoned buildings) – just how long has Fisher been gone from here?
They emerge from a copse to see a standing homestead. Coots goes in and emerges again almost immediately. He tells Fisher he doesn’t need to go in. Fisher does so anyway, and finds the corpses of two boys hacked to death, and their raped and beaten and murdered mother on the bed. Coots says it is raiders and that they’ll push north. Fisher says they can’t be allowed to do so. Coots says those are just stories, that the Forkrul have gone. Fisher quotes a poem that suggests what Coots says is wrong. Coots says they won’t get through their cousins.
A few things confuse about this scene, and one thing troubles me. The thing that troubles me is this casual use of rape. Of course the mother was abused before her death. Of course the sons watched. Because that is all women are good for in fantasy – being raped as a method of steering the plot along. And in this case the character of the woman didn’t even need to be introduced, because she was dead from rape when they met her! Yay for Esslemont. *frowns* Horrible (I mean, truly horrible) as it might be, why not use those boys as the rape trope? Nope, they get hacked to pieces, the woman gets raped.
Then there are the confusing aspects. Jethiss is completely absent from the scene and discussion. Not a single mention. The character might as well have not been there with them. Plus, why is Fisher so disturbed by the raiders going north and finding the Forkrul? Surely that would be a nasty enough death for them in return? Or is he worried they will disturb the Forkrul, who will then go on a rampage? Not clear why Fisher is so horrified. And who are these cousins mentioned by Coots?
As they were ready to stop for the night, flames can be seen higher up the slope and they wonder if it is the same raiders. Coots and Badlands head off to see what is what, while Jethiss first pauses and says: “What if…” to which Fisher replies, “Yes, I know. I know… But we must see.” (I was utterly perplexed by this as well, by the way. Why does this exchange have to be so obscured?
The four of them come to the scene of a siege. The raiders are attacking a small settlement: the Keep of the Antlers. A shriek comes from inside and Fisher realises women and children are being burned alive. (Oh, this sort of tickled me: “…a terrified hopeless shriek of someone burning alive” – because people can totally tell the difference between terrified shrieks and what might have caused them!)
Jethiss heads in to join the battle, and shows remarkable combat ability with his sword (*tick against red herrings set to make you think this is Anomander Rake*)
As Fisher joins the battle, he recognises first Genabackans and then Lether raiders, which makes him pause and wonder if this is the work of Teal and Malle. He remembers that they had gone to great lengths to try to remain friendly up until now.
Coots approaches the main gate and tells those within that the raiders have been run off. There are shouts of ‘Bastard Iceblood!’ and then many, many arrows are fired into Coots. A scream sounds from the woods that sends shivers down Fisher’s spine, then he is knocked down by blackest night. He hears someone yelling ‘Iceblood magic!’ Jethiss finds Fisher, who can see nothing. He has collected Coots and says that Badlands ran into the woods howling like a madman.
Fisher and Jethiss walk for a way, carrying Coots. Fisher thinks about the dark night covering them, and wonders about Jethiss’ skill and strength with Kurald Galain to maintain it. (I confess I had no idea that it was Jethiss who had plunged them into night. I believed it when someone screamed ‘Iceblood magic’ – I thought it was Badlands who had done it, actually, which shows how confused I am!)
Jethiss can finally go no further and drops the shadows of night to reveal mid-morning brightness. They tie Coots to a tree, leaving the arrows in his body, and both Fisher and Jethiss offer vows that curse anyone who dares to take the weapons that Coots holds in death.
After a silence Jethiss gestures to the trees, where Badlands emerges and approaches Coots. He falls on hands and knees, grieving intensely. Fisher turns away to provide a measure of privacy for Badlands’ grief. Because Jethiss broke the Wickan knives (what relevance is this, please?), Fisher asks him if the Mane of Chaos means anything to Jethiss, or the name Anomander Rake. Fisher wonders if because Anomander gave himself to Mother Dark, that she has now returned him. Jethiss says he does remember something about a gate, an opening, a battle and pain, suffocating as if drowning, and then finally a sword.
To be honest, to me the only part of that list that says Anomander Rake is the sword. The gate, the battle, the suffocation – none of that seems to fit the death that Anomander suffered.
Fisher and Jethiss head back to Badlands, and offer apology for Coots’ death. Badlands moves to head past them and Fisher asks where he is going; Badlands says to kill them all. Fisher says he can’t, that he needs to remember his duty to his family, to Stalker. When Badlands looks to refuse that, Jethiss holds him while Fisher uses one of Badlands’ own knives to knock him unconscious. Fisher believes Badlands could have won past them if he’d truly wanted, because neither of them is armed. Fisher takes his turn carrying Badlands.
The north coast of the Sea of Gold is a graveyard of ships, with a lot of stranded crews clinging to their ships and calling out to Jute and those aboard the Dawn as they pass, offering cargo in exchange for transport. Jute turns them down, however tempting, because he’s worried about them swamping his ship.
Ieleen asks Jute what he sees now that they have arrived, and Jute thinks ‘blind avarice’. When they left he had filled his hold with food to sell, to be replaced by gold, but now he thinks they are going to be lucky to get out of their alive. He thinks: “I just realized that I’ve risked everything to reach a destination I don’t even want to be at.” Ieleen approves, and states that journeys are to discover where you actually want to be. (I really like this sentiment!)
Ieleen thinks that now he’s realised that, they can head home. He agrees, once he’s sold his food for over-inflated prices and taken aboard stranded gold hunters with their treasures. This confuses me – if he’s realised he doesn’t want to be there, why do this? He says the crew needs something for their travails, which I guess could be an argument, but why doesn’t he listen more to his wife (who has shown herself to be peculiarly prescient in the past) when she says they are entering a dangerous place?
They are followed through the day and night by the Ragstopper (which is now listing dangerously in the water) and the Resolute, while the Supplicant hangs back in deeper waters. Jute wonders why Orosenn is taking this strategy.
Late on the second day they approach a settlement – an immense tent city spreads along the shore, with countless fires burning. At least a hundred vessels are either pulled onto the sand or anchored in the bay. Jute is astounded by the number of ships that have made it here to land, and reflects on the driving force of greed.
They make for one of the central docks, where Jute studies the unplanned chaos of the tent city, where people have dug latrine pits next to open-air kitchens, and the flats have become a rotting graveyard of corpses where the dead are thrown with no dignity.
Jute is a little worried to realise the Resolute and the Supplicant have anchored together out in the bay. Once Buen manages to push back those starving on the docks, Jute meets Cartheron Crust, who seems mostly recovered. Cartheron suggests the two of them go to find out who is in charge of this mess, and Jute is surprised he means just the two of them.
They are welcomed to Wrongway by a group of eight in armour, who insist they have to pay the docking fee, which is an extortionate value of gold dust. When they state they have no gold yet, they offer silver instead, which is subject to an additional 50% surcharge. Cartheron tells Jute to pay it.
Stepping over what appear to be dead bodies (or possibly dead drunk), Cartheron heads for the largest tent, which seems to be a tavern of sorts. Cartheron steps up onto a table and emits a piercing whistle that silences everyone within, then performs a specific gesture. Once done, he exits and tells Jute that they now wait.
Three men exit and approach Cartheron. The first two are clearly ex-soldiers – name of Red and Rusty. When asked by Cartheron if they’re in, they say yes and he tells them to spread the word that he is in town. They almost salute in response. The third looks like a starving itinerant, twitching and subject to an addiction to khall leaf. He makes a deal with Cartheron Crust – gold dust for showing them around. Cartheron tells Jute to steer clear of this one – Claw, you reckon? Assassin?
Cartheron continues to make the rounds and gather Malazan vets, telling them to meet at Anna’s Alehouse. They arrive there at dusk and take a table with a number of scarred and threatening individuals. Jute reflects that he’s glad Ieleen can’t see him, that she’d be mad at him. When Cartheron pays for a round of ale with a gold Malazan crown, Jute scowls at him, having emptied his purse of silver for the docking fee.
This show of gold gets the attention of Anna, who comes to him and asks what he’s after. He gives her a raw diamond and asks for a private party. Once she agrees, the Malazans clear the place. Anna is offended, but is soon persuaded to clear out.
Cartheron asks for information about the set-up with Baron Lying Gell, and what locals there are. Jute keeps trying to second guess what Cartheron is going to do. Cartheron finally confesses he hasn’t been completely honest with Jute, that he’s been asked to recruit and assist with some old acquaintances (the Crimson Guard?? He’s certainly offended when Jute asks Cartheron if he’s working for the Malazan Empire, so it isn’t them.)
Jute is escorted back to the ship by a Malazan veteran, who he questions. She says that she didn’t serve with Cartheron Crust, but of course knows of him, that she came to this place overland, that there isn’t any gold left. She asks about his cargo, and when Jute tells her it’s all staples in the form of food, she says ‘goddamn’ in a tone of awe.
Alright, so that was a bitching long scene, but what a good one! I found myself racing through it, and I absolutely loved the way that Cartheron Crust started bringing his force of Malazan veterans together. It was just beautifully written, and made me see the place and feel the emotions of those who are excited about being recruited by the famous sea captain.
Jute and the woman make it back to the docks without incident, probably because of their escort. They head onto the ship, and Ieleen is introduced to Giana Jalaz, who says they are there to help guard the ship.
When Jute suddenly remembers that he has to go to the Ragstopper to tell them to make ready to cast off, he is prevented from leaving by Jalaz, and he starts thinking about Malazan soldiers and the fact that Cartheron Crust was of the old guard and therefore known for his treachery. Turns out Jalaz has just been told to guard Jute by Cartheron and needs to know where he is going.
This bit surprised me a bit. Jute has spent a fair amount of time with Cartheron by now – I guess he has just learnt that the man has lied to him about his actual reason for coming to Assail, but why would he suddenly get so anti-Malazan?
When he climbs aboard the Ragstopper, he finds the first mate asleep, holding what looks suspiciously like a munition. He wakes the first mate abruptly, and the man tells him to never do that again (no doubt based on the fact that he might drop said munition and blow them all to Kingdom Come). When Jute tells the first mate to get ready to cast off, the man grabs hold of Jute and starts weeping about having to sell the cargo, about being turned away from every port, about being cursed and Jute having to talk sense into Cartheron. Jute starts believing the Ragstopper is a floating asylum.
Jute returns to his ship and watches the tent city from the bow. Suddenly he flinches as he realises that the skinny guide that Cartheron warned him about is stood right next to him. He asks what the man is doing there, and the skinny man says he is just there to keep an eye on things.
Just then fires start in a couple of locations within the tent city and quickly start spreading. The guide nods to himself. Jute asks what is happening and the man says that Cartheron has fired the hidden caches of food that Lying Gell had stashed. Jute realises with horror that they will have the only food within a large range and starts to get the ship ready to leave in rising panic.
Chaos spreads on the dock, and Jalaz takes her troop to clear the docks and then hold them in preparation for Cartheron returning. Jute gets Letita to arm the archers ready to assist. As they start firing, Jute realises that the Ragstopper is bringing the springals to bear on the crowd of civilians and he is sickened, knowing what they are capable of.
A running battle continues, which Jute watches, wondering why there seem to be way more than three hundred facing off against them when this was given as the number of soldiers that Lying Gell commanded. He wonders why the whole of Wrongway has turned against them. This is soon revealed when a massive iron trunk is carried aboard the Ragstopper, and Jute realises that they have stolen all of the gold amassed by Lying Gell. It dawns on Jute what Cartheron Crust is actually up to (and my apologies – I would love to reveal what that grand plan is involving the mercenaries etc, but I wasn’t sure myself).
Another very good scene, with lots happening and the presence of the Malazans adding humour even in the midst of chaos. Again, it is really telling how much less interested I was in the chapter when we were loitering with Orman compared to this explosive ending featuring the Malazans.
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.