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 ten, part 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, but 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 Ten (Part One)
Orman sees Old Bear being pursued and runs to help him. Which he does, despite being hampered by his new injury (though it’s a bit unclear if Old Bear needed the help). Orman tells him they’re working with the Losts now (and pretending it was Orman’s plan and not Cal’s) to try and herd the Bains together, that Jass is still being held hostage, and Lotji’s whereabouts are unknown. When Orman says he will challenge Lotji, Old Bear says not to, reminding him that Svalthbrul “once loosed, never misses its mark.” Orman, though, thinks he has not choice—it’s do it or “abandon everything he believed about himself.”
After taking care of Old Bear’s wounds, they walk on, but then come across a battle between a number of Lowlanders and the Reddin Brothers/Vala (Jass’ mother). Orman is surprised by Vala’s strength, and then again when she apparently calls down fog and frost and cold. The lowlanders flee, cursing “Iceblood magics.” Orman, though, when struck by the cold, doesn’t feel pain or fear, but instead feels “refreshed, even invigorated.” Vala tells him this was just a scouting party; the main camp (which they plan to attack tomorrow) is to the south. Kasson adds that the Losts have hired mercenaries. Orman apologizes to Vala for Jass’s capture, but she tells him it was not his fault he didn’t understand that Lotji was “old-fashioned… The old blood feud and vendetta remain everything.” He gets then that Lotji is fighting to kill the Sayers, not for the Lowlanders or invaders, but he is shocked when Vala points out Lotji wants to kill him too, that “We are the same you and I. Your people and mine. We share the same ancestors.” They rest up.
The next morning they move toward the enemy in the thickened fog and then engage them in eerie fighting. Orman runs into Jaochim, who is disturbed to hear Buri’s words that “he was readying himself for the true enemy.” He tells Orman if true, they are wasting their time fighting the Lowlanders/foreigners. He tells Orman to speed up and, after telling him that Lotji is there, disappears into the fog. Orman hurries onward, not bothering to fully engage in more fights—just slashing and moving on. In the camp, he yells out for Lotji, but instead gets noticed by a band of invaders. Luckily, Gerrun Shortshanks is amongst them. The two fight together, with Gerrun saving Orman’s life before being killed by Lotji. Orman and Lotji are about to fight, but then Old Bear arrives out of the fog, knocking Lotji away then going off in chase. Orman follows the sounds and signs of their fight and then finds Old Bear dying (though still himself enough to complain that the damn fog meant nobody could see his great fight). Old Bear dies, and Orman calls out to Lotji for them to finish it. Lotji steps out as the fog clears somewhat, and to Orman’s surprise, Lotji doesn’t come to fight him but just hurls Svalthbrul at him. Even more to his shock, the spear doesn’t strike him, landing instead right next to him. As he looks at it, he realizes the spear had not been “taken” from him by Lotji in a duel, but instead he’d given it up himself, meaning it “was still his.” He picks it up, and Lotji, seeing him do so, comes to the same realization. He salutes Orman, then walks off into the mist, knowing what will come. Orman launches Svalthbrul and then follows it. He comes across three soldiers fighting for the Lost (Jup Alat, Laurel, Leena), who tell him the fight is over. He continues on, finding Lotji impaled by the spear. He asks about Jass, but Lotji just says to try the Greathall. Vala arrives and, hearing the news, takes off in despair, telling him the Greathall is more than a day south. Orman goes after her, joined by the Reddin brothers.
The arrive to find the Greathall under attack and burning. Orman attacks in a berserker-like rage, finally reaching the door to see a dead Iceblood elder on the ground and Vala, badly wounded, standing there in shock and agony and total despair. She shrugs away from him and runs into the flames. Orman would have followed but is held back, though not before he sees Jass’ body hanging from the ceiling crossbeam, having clearly been killed by Svalthbrul, a weapon he now knows is cursed. He screams and then is struck unconscious.
Orman tells Keth they need to return to Sayer Hall and tell them what happened. He takes his cursed weapon and they head north, Orman feeling like “His heart had been thrust through as irrevocably as Jass’s. He was done, finished; as burnt and ashen within as the hulk of this Greathall.”
Jute’s group enters the harbor of Mantle Town, and something about the Keep’s small size bothers Jute, considering its reputation. Giana Jalaz (the ex-Malazan officer), tosses him her “one good shirt” before putting on her armor, causing Jute to feel more than a little awkward, especially as Ieleen seems to be playing along. Jalaz is surprised to see the Blue Shields’ ship—the Resolute—leaping ahead to charge the brigade, and just as surprised Cartheron is letting them do it. She wants to see them fight and asks Jute if they can follow, which he agrees to. As they move nearer, he asks what she thinks will happen and she points out that since the besiegers “want our blood anyway” they should perhaps become mercenaries. The Blue Shields capture three ships of the “blockade” easily, clearing the way. Jute’s ship docks, followed by Ragstopper. As Jute heads off, the “khall-head” from Wrongway (the Malazan Cartheron had warned him to be wary of) tells him to give his regards to King Jonal. Jute is met by Engulf the Broad, and then Cartheron and Tyvar join them, Cartheron not thrilled at the length or steepness of the stairs leading up to the Keep. As they climb, Jute reappraises his earlier dismissal, noting the Keep is tall and strong, though he wonders how it was built as the stone were huge for any group of men to lift.
They’re escorted by local soldiers to the interior and King Jonal, where Tyvar offers their services. King Jonal (“The Bastard” he corrects them) refuses their service, but then one of the others in the room (Malle of Gris) thinks he should reconsider. Jonal introduces her as an emissary of the Malazan Empire, whose emperor offers support so as “not to see a fellow monarch driven from his lands” (ahh yes, just like Mallick Rel cough cough). He agrees to they can guard the waterfront, with conditions on their numbers, then dismisses them. The three go to the walls to check out the besiegers, which number about three thousand. Jute estimates about 500 soldiers in the keep, and is impressed they’ve held off the siege so long. Malle joins them, and she and Cartheron are clearly old acquaintances. She says she’s happy he made it, thanks him for his assistance, but adds that he isn’t done yet when he asks if he can go, saying he’d been promised he’d be “cut loose after this.” She says he will be. Malle informs them that the besiegers are led by Teal of Lether, and that she has two ex-cadre mages with her. They let her know they have a mage as well, but she wants to stay anonymous. She leaves and when Cartheron starts to warn Jute about not messing with her, Jute replies he’s already figured that out. Tyvar says he thinks if the defenders hold for a while, the attackers will just leave, unless someone gives them “some sort of spine.” Cartheron is more dubious, saying riches make for good motivation. Jute asks what riches, and Cartheron answers it doesn’t matter if they actually exist; it only matters what the mob down there is being told. He asks Tyvar if this is his fight, and the Blue Shield says he isn’t sure: “Here is a battle. Yet, we’ve been forbidden from participating. I feel that his is not it. However, best remain hopeful, eh?” They all head down.
It’s a nice detail (and a sign that our author isn’t lazy or careless) that when Orman charges down to help Old Bear he has a hard time running thanks to his loss of an eye, and then again in the actual fight scene. One of my pet peeves is when injuries seem to have no impact on a character and the last we hear of them is the vivid “Isn’t this suspenseful?!” imagery when they occur. Ankles miraculously no longer buckle, cut muscles respond just as quickly, broken ribs don’t impair arm swings or breathing, etc.
Another nice detail, a more evocative one, is that image of the Lowlander/invader bodies lying in the stream being washed by flecks of gold. I just wish we had been left with the image. The ensuing conversation about the irony of it between Orman and Keth was too “loud” for me—I prefer those sorts of moments not be highlighted so overtly.
Well, if the lines about Orman and ice haven’t made it clear, Vala does the heavy expository lifting and explains how Orman has Iceblood (Jaghut) blood in him, though watered down over the generations. I imagine this comes as little surprise to most readers at this point.
It’s rarely a good thing in fantasy books to, on the night before a big battle, have someone point out that another character is “the last” of their kind. Just sayin’
Esslemont does a nice job of varying this fight scene from others by setting it in the fog. I wouldn’t actually have minded spending more time in this scene because of its atmosphere/setting/suspense. It’s also a great scene to slow down and visualize beyond the words on the page, trying to really imagine it in front of you (or better yet, you in it).
I also liked the scene with Shortshanks turning his double agent bit in to help Orman (especially with how Orman had thought of him earlier in the novel) and even save his life. I was a little thrown by his death logistically. When he dropped, I thought he’d been already badly wounded but had managed to fight off the inevitable an extra moment to save Orman, though his tone/language didn’t seem to match that (the first of my confusion). Then Orman lowers him assuming he’ll look up to see Lotji—which he does. But I didn’t quite get how Lotji killed him (which I’m at this point assuming he did), since it seems he’d have to have been close enough for Orman to both see/hear him when he killed Shortshanks, so I’m wondering if he threw the “can’t miss” Svalthbrul,” but then I’m wondering how he got it back (since it isn’t like Mjolnir). And then I’m just thinking it’s a kind of screwy logistical thing and time to move on.
It also didn’t quite feel right to me that Orman would argue with Lotji that they should work together to fight the invaders. Once upon a time, yes, but not here, not now.
Did I mention it’s never a good thing to be pointed out as the last of your kind before a big battle? A moment of silence for Old Bear, an excellent character whom we didn’t spend enough time with. Poor guy couldn’t even have an audience for the fight of his great life. Even telegraphed as it was (I would have preferred that little bit of info about him came earlier in the book so it wasn’t so clear what would happen), this was both moving and funny. Small nitpick—I’m not sure we needed the interruption with the three soldiers, who only served to offer up some to me unnecessarily cryptic bit of dialogue about how they hadn’t seen anyone go by.
No silence, however, for Lotji, who also dies in the expected manner (although I admit much more slowly and graphically than I’d expected). And you have to hate him all the more for the news about Jass (“Try the Greathall), which at this point you have to assume doesn’t mean, “I gave him my Netflix password, left him with a full fridge, and a whole box of hot chocolate packs.”
And so Svalthbrul joins the ranks of the “cursed hated weapon” of which there are too many to list. My own head goes first to Turin’s sword, which itself came out of the old Finnish mythology, quite fitting for this novel. Anyone have favorites of their own?
Esslemont has shown a deft hand I think balancing the book’s action moments and more tragic scenes with a bit of humor, and here he offers us some sharp relief from a series of deaths (the Guard, Shortshanks, Old Bear, Jass and Vala) with a few good moments:
- The scene with Jalaz. Admittedly, while I like the way she torments Jute, and then even better how Ieleen plays along and tortures her poor husband even more, I could have done without the detailed staring at the naked breasts. Just having him get her in her armor knowing she was naked underneath would have sufficed. But, oh, how I like Ieleen.
- The absurd ease with which the Blue Shields “battle” the blockade ships. One assumes they could have taken them all had they enough to crew them.
- Enguf the Broad
- Cartheron and the “fucking stairs.”
- The way Ronal insists on being called not just “King Ronal” but “King Ronal the Bastard.”
- Rel’s alleged concern for a fellow monarch
- Tyvar being cut off by Ronal as he launches into a stirring bit of “We will defend the harbor to the death… “ (reminded me a bit in this moment of Lancelot in Holy Grail)
- Cartheron’s comment, “For this I quit drinking?”
- The “old friends” reunion of Malle and Cartheron out of the blue, so matter of factly done
- Jute picking up not to mess with Malle before Cartheron warns him
All a much needed turn to the lighter.
On a more serious note, a few things I liked about this scene occurred more under the surface a bit:
- The mystery about who built this keep and how (though perhaps not too mysterious given what we now know about Assail)
- The machinations of the Malazan Empire and its far reach, the mystery of Malle, the contract Cartheron is to fulfill, who has power over him, the intimidating power of Malle (one of so, so, so many strong women in this universe rather than a token one or two, even the side characters)
- The fact that Teal leads the siege (and don’t forget who else is there with him—Shieldmaiden) and the tension between characters this might lead to
- Jute’s somewhat surprising knowledge about siege tactics and how this shows him to be more than just an old softie sea captain in love with his blind wife
- And yet, his basic goodness in that it never crossed his mind to lie to one’s own to motivate them to do what you want
- The mystery of the Blue Shields and what they are doing here, what battle they seek
- The emphasis on the khall-head former Malazan. I think Cartheron’s warnings point us in a general direction at least if not a specific identifying one
I agree with Bill, that it is good to see Orman adjusting to life with just one eye rather than there being no effect. My dad essentially became blind in one eye a few years back and one of the things he suffers now is something that Esslemont makes clear here—things coming out of nowhere on the blind side, no peripheral vision to speak of. In a fight that must be truly terrifying, especially when you have to try to anticipate your opponent’s moves.
Old Bear provides levity in his scenes, which I appreciate. I like Orman’s dry response to him as well, when he says: “Yes—how will they ever tell us apart?”
The way of doing battle in the Holdings is relatively ridiculous, with all of this running around and trying to start fights. It’s almost a form of gang warfare. You have to wonder how they keep track of who is loyal to who, who is holding who hostage etc.
Knowing how many people have come seeking the gold of Assail, we’re really starting to see the many gruesome and anonymous deaths that this has caused—this one is particularly poetic, with the stream flecked with gold flowing over them.
We have both Orman and Kyle now feeling reinvigorated after encountering frost. These Icebloods still have rather a strong influence, however diluted it has become over the years.
Poor Old Bear, we barely knew you—I refer to the stiff game, of course. “He is the last of his kind…” whispered by one of his allies before a battle. A battle that is certain to see his death. A game best played while watching old WWII films. It’s a little obvious by Esslemont.
Because we’d sort of worked out the Iceblood connection with Orman already, it doesn’t feel like as much of a revelation as it could have been. This is one thing I wonder about the Malazan series—are we noticing these things quicker and easier because we are now sixteen books into the series? If a revelation like this had been in one of the first books, would we have struggled to see it until it was revealed? Are we more critical readers?
Are we positive that fog and ice are the best weather conditions to summon up for a battle? I mean, we’re talking slippery surfaces and obscured vision here…
A flurry of events happen here, what with the Old Bear’s death, Lotji’s attempt to kill Orman with the spear that he had given freely and so still remained his, and then his hefting of the spear to kill Lotji at a remarkable distance. This is a good illustration of the whole ‘once it’s released, it kills’ aspect of the weapon, considering Lotji couldn’t even be seen and then Orman had to track him a while before finding him. And then the revelation that Jass was in the Greathall that is a day to the south—I presume the heartbreak from Vala is because the invaders have already passed the Greathall and so Jass’ death is pretty clear.
But it is a terrible death. A death caused by the weapon carried by his own half-brother, a death that Orman might have been able to avoid if not for his naivety. It’s a pretty painful one.
Oh God, why the close examination of breasts again? Why do we need to know what they look like? If this scene was reversed, we would certainly not be given a loving description of Jute’s nipples, would we? I hate this, readers, I really hate it, and I think Esslemont’s writing is all the poorer for taking moments like these.
I love the ease with which the Blue Shields take all these vessels and begin dragging them along with them.
I’m not sure I understand why Jute is so confused about Mantle and its appearance? I wouldn’t have thought by now that anything would surprise on Assail, anyway.
I confess some of the exchanges here don’t make the most sense to me: the way Tyvar reacts to Enguf’s name, why is it known to the Southern Confederacy, why is it acceptable to drop crew along the shore—are they also the remains of the Mantle navy?
I love the: “fucking stairs” moment.
Was Mantle built by the Forkrul Assail? It seems very oddly constructed.
Okay, I really don’t understand this scene. I sort of understand the fact that Cartheron Crust is being commanded by someone in the Malazan Empire—if not Malle, then someone Malle is working for. But I don’t understand why they are particularly joining this weird scene. And what happened that Malle and the Malazans are now on the opposing side to the Letherii that they were originally allied with? And what role have the Blue Shields in all of this? It seems rather random and I’m not managing to put together the pieces.
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.