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 eleven.
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.
Trigger warning for sexual violence.
Assail, Chapter Eleven
Still in a state of unconsciousness, Shimmer meets Smoky on a windy plain he tells her they (the Brethren) believe to be where the Vow was made. Shimmer realizes that the Brethren make up the largest part of the Crimson Guard and so the Guard “could in truth more accurately be regarded as an army of the dead.” She wonders what she’s doing there, and Smoky guesses she’s making up her mind about being amongst the dead or the living. Rather than have a lengthy discussion regarding the philosophical and personal complexities of the question, she says she wants to go back of course, and in his best John Cleese voice, Smoky says, “Right, off you go then.” She asks if they’re in Hood’s realm, thinking there has to be more to it, like clicking her heels together three times or dropping K’azz into the fiery pit of Mt. Doom, but Smoky says she just needs to decide. She says “I want to live again Clarence, I want to live again,” and just as she fades away she catches sight of Petal giving her a sad wave goodbye. Shimmer comes to, naked and bound, in a room with two men, one of whom has just raped her. She kills them both and makes her way to the shore where she weeps uncontrollably, numb and thinking how “the coarse physicality of it all nauseated her beyond explanation. She’d come back to this?” Bars finds her his presence makes her feel “as if a death sentence has been reprieved.” He tells her Gwyn, Lean, and Keel are nearby, and that K’azz and others are on the opposite shore. When she says they’ll need to rendezvous and continue, he asks if she thinks they’re really find any answers here. She replies they’ve come too far, “paid too high a price” to stop, and she believes K’azz knows “the truth” and she swears to get it from him. They prepare to leave.
They rendezvous with K’azz, Cowl, Black the Lesser, Turgal, and Blues, who tells her he’s sorry he couldn’t do anything, but she says there was nothing he could have done. She challenges K’azz by noting the ice “targeted” the guard and when he says, yeah, probably the Vow caused that, she tells him such vague statements aren’t good enough anymore; she wants more. He offers up the revelation that the Vow means they aren’t welcome in this area, and somehow Shimmer is still not satisfied, though he for some reason thinks she should be, since he offered up a noun, a verb, a pronoun, and a capitalized “Vow” in his answer. Since he refuses to say anything else, or give her a past participle or a predicate nominative, she says they’ll just have to keep going, and he can either spill the beans completely or get out of the way. They head north.
The setting shifts to “the broad subterranean chamber that was the no-man’s land separating the feuding Sharr and Sheer families of Exile Keep. Orthan Sharr (the Sharr of Sharr) looks at some figures nearing and wonders what “Sheer trickery” is going on. He yells out to the figures (assuming they are Sheers) that there’s no hope of parley or truce. Peering into the gloom, he asks his cousin-wife if they’re wearing costumes.
On the far side, the Sheers look out and decide the Sharr’s are pulling a “full frontal assault,” though looking a bit closer they wonder what kind of trick is being pulled.
Orthan Sharr’s wife tells him she doesn’t think the figures are wearing costumes, which makes Orthan a bit nervous since, “They resemble descriptions of the dread army of bone and dust.” When long swords of stone are pulled, Orthan’s wife unleashes a bolt of sorcery and the Sheers prepare to fight.
A raging battle ensues, with both sides taking losses. When Orthan faces one of the T’lan Imass, he tells it “We will take you with us, you know… We neither can outlive the other.” The Imass replies, “Just so long as you go.” Both die.
Lanas Tog notes how much the attack on the Sharrs/Sheers cost them, but Ut’el Anag responds that the “nest had to be extirpated.” Ut’el knows Silverfox’s group is getting closer, and wonders if they should set a trap for them, but Lanas reminds him that “Once [our task] is completed, there will be no more argument between us.” Ut’el agrees, but warns that he won’t let anything get in his way of finishing the task he “has waited far too long for.” Lanas reminds him that all of them have waited “far too long.” Ut’el exits, and after a long look to the south (where Silverfox and the other Imass are), Lanas follows.
Reuth thinks he’ll take off their first night docked at Wrongway, but then realizes Storval has put a guard on him. He considers his WWWD bracelet and thinks Whiteblade would leap overboard and swim to freedom, which is fine for those who can swim. But then he thinks of everything that floats in water—wood, oars, timbers, very small rocks, a duck, witches—and grabs a pole and jumps. He’s saved from drowning by the laughing crew/guardsmen, who haul him up and warn him Storval won’t be happy. Reuth cries himself to sleep, thinking at least he’d tried.
The next day Storval announces they’re joining the siege of Mantle under the Letheri leader Teal, then chains Reuth near the rudder. After a few days sail they moor just off the shore of Mantle and all the crew heads out save Reuth and his two guards. Reuth manages to trick one enough that he can push him overboard (like Reuth he apparently couldn’t swim), then has to fight the other with one of the old steerer’s dirks. After some trouble, he manages to give the other guard (Jands) a fatal stomach wound. Jands slowly dies as Reuth frees himself, then the ship, then passes out.
The ship is found by the Blue Shields, who offer Reuth sanctuary just before he passes out again.
Orman and the Reddin brothers reach the Sayer Greathall and find Bernal Heavyhand, Jaochim, and Yrain there. Jaochim tells him the Eithjar have informed them of the recent events—the deaths of Vala and Jass, Orman killing Loji with Svalthbrul. When they refer to the news that the Lotji’s clan is done and thus the feud ended, Orman is disturbed that this seems their priority over the loss of life. He starts to warn them of the invading army of foreigners, but Yrain yells at him that they have witnessed that sort of thing for years upon years—“Do not think us unmoved by this creeping valley-by-valley pogrom… You presume to judge us by your standards… It is misguided.” She continues, explaining that “We are the last. We few remaining Holdings. It is up to us how to greet this final nightfall of our kind. We choose to meet it at our hearth’s side, face on. Without running… For truly, there remains nowhere to run.” Orman nods in agreement along with the Reddin brothers, though he is terrified and desires to flee. As they begin to make preparations for siege and battle, Orman tells Heavyhand they have no chance, but Bernal says Iceblood magic is still strong up in the Highlands. When Orman points out it didn’t help Vala, Bernal replies that “she chose her end… chose to pass beyond with Jass.” Orman realizes that was true.
Tyvar brings Reuth to Jute’s ship, and Ieleen takes him to her room to care for him. When Jute asks Tyvar why this one of all the escapees, Tyvar tells him the boy’s hands were those of a scholar, they took him from a Mare war galley, and he had his own navigation instrument. Jute asks Tyvar in for a drink, and to his dismay the Khall-head joins them. When Jute yells at him, Tyvar interrupts and, to Jute’s surprise, speaks “slowly and gently, as if addressing an infant” to the man, telling him it’s polite to ask permission before entering the captain’s chambers and asking him to wait outside, which he does. Tyvar then tells Jute he heard the man’s story from Cartheron and that the Khall-head is “a man worthy of our pity.” They’re interrupted by Tyvar sensing the attack on Mantle has begun. They head on deck where they find Lt. Jalaz looking up at the cliffs. Tyvar says the enemy has charged the walls. Giana notes by the time they climb all those stairs it’ll all be over, and Tyvar agrees, but says they should go anyway. When Jute says he’ll come, Giana and Tyvar smile at each other and tell him Ieleen asked they swore to not encourage his “penchant for rushing in where you shouldn’t.” Annoyed, Jute declares he still going. Tyvar accedes, but wants Jute to be the one to face Ieleen upon their return.
As they climb, Jute asks Tyvar if he isn’t concerned or disturbed by having come all this way at the command of his god and then being kept out of the fighting, but Tyvar says no, he has faith in Togg, “absent though he may be. All shall be as he foretold… Our fate has not come yet but it shall.” Jute responds that many of the gods appear gone from the world—“our offerings no long reach them directly” and wonders if it isn’t “too late.” Tyvar agrees that—“the guardianship of the spirits of our brothers and sisters resided with us, the Shield Anvil and the Sword, but with Hood’s grip upon all of us released, things have changed.” He explains the ancient idea of reincarnation and when Jute asks what’s the point of life then if you keep coming back. Tyvar replies that perhaps each life is “an opportunity… for improvement. Or perfection.” He admits he doesn’t believe it himself, though he does think (as does the Shield Anvil Haagen) that some part of everyone is “non-corporeal, imperishable,” and the same holds true for Togg and the other gods. He calls that “the Divine” and says that is what they will dedicate their prayers and spirit to. Jute responds that he doesn’t know much about these high-falutin ideas, but Tyvar points out as a sailor he should be used to “finding his way upon unfamiliar waters”—and maybe that’s what they all need.
They arrive and look out over the walls to a motley mob of besiegers sprinkled with more obviously professional soldiers all wearing the heraldry of a tower. Tyvar recognizes it as Letherii, which surprises Jute since they aren’t known to be seafarers, though he supposes given the news of gold, he isn’t all that shocked. King Ronal is just wrapping up a parley, and the younger of the two Letherii commanders tells him “Your silence is answer enough . .. You can watch while we take control of the North [and the] goldfields.” When Ronal answers that the Icebloods will kill them all, the Lether commander replies he’s not even sure any are left. The parley ends and Tyvar once again tries to offer his service to Ronal, but is brushed aside. Jute is shocked by the rudeness and the idiocy, especially, he says, given what everyone has heard about what their companion order the Grey Swords did in the Pannion War. Tyvar though says it is not stupidity but pride, and that he can understand it, seeing as how foreigners have robbed Ronal of his kingdom. Giana calls the two—pride and stupidity—the same thing, but as she talks, Jute realizes she is communicating by hand with the old Malazan woman. Tyvar says maybe when the defenders gets hungrier they’ll be more amenable.
Silverfox looks over the residue of the Sharr/Sheer/Imass battle, with Pran and Tolb watching her. She’d thought herself grown numb to all this murder, but that turns out not to be the case. She worries though that her attempt to become numb might be turning her into what she hated, and she thinks “oblivion would be preferable,” though the fears that “even oblivion” is not for her. The stink of death, she thinks, is a good reminder, but then she halts herself angrily, telling herself that “I should not need reminding. That I would ever need reminding is unforgivable.” Looking at one of the bodies, she thinks how he appeared to have been “strong in his Jaghut blood” (thanks to his ability to fight on despite horrid wounds) though he lacked the physical signs of “pronounced jaws and tusk-like teeth.” Which makes her think of change over time, the evolution of people, and how she walks with her own ancestors and how different they appear from her own body. Suddenly she’s attacked by a young girl, and insider her head Tattersail yells “Protect yourself!” while Bellurdan yells “Destroy her!” Instead, Silverfox asks “why,” and the girl can’t believe the question, answering, “You slew my family.” But Silverfox asks again more precisely, “What I mean is why must we kill each other.” The girl again says her family was attacked, and when Silverfox asks “And who are we?” the girl replies that “You are the enemy we thought would never come. A legend. Stories to scare children. The Army of Dust and Bone.” Silverfox thinks that this—the legacy of the Imass as a “frightening threat from the dark night of the past”— would be preferable to the alternative. She tells the girl no more, that she is in no danger, and the girl starts to speak with a “strained mask-like smile,” but then Pran Chole stabs her from behind. Horrified, Silverfox exits the cavern, deciding, “She was done with it. Done with them all… To think they once held her pity! Chained to a ritual sworn ages ago! Unbending. Immovable. Intractable. They will not change. .. it was up to her to force it upon them.” Back in the cavern, Pran Chole shows Tolb Bell’al the poisoned knife the girl was about to stab Silverfox with, but they decide they won’t convince Silverfox and so it’s best to just leave it.
Silverfox tells Kilava she is done with them and the dry response is, “Strange how all those who meet the T’lan Imass eventually come to that conclusion. Those that survive, in any case.” Silverfox tells her to let Pran and Tolb know they should keep their distance, that she is going on alone to meet Lanas, unless “you wish to witness.” Kilava says she does indeed.
We’ve had many a discussion/comment on how the Guard’s Vow, and Kazz’s appearance, among other things, hint at a connection with the T’lan Imass and their own vow and state of being (or un-being). Shimmer’s epiphany that the Guard could just as accurately be labeled an “army of the dead”—thanks to the Brethren making up a majority of the Guard at this point—is another brick in that wall.
The scene with Smoky felt a bit forced to me, as I didn’t get a sense that Shimmer was really struggling with the “would I rather be alive or dead” question. Struggling with what she feels is happening to her, yes, but that didn’t feel quite the same thing. Plus, if she was “deciding” so much that her will pulled into that dream world with Smoky, then it seems there’d be more to just “deciding” as she seems to so quickly and cavalierly do.
I also didn’t care for her waking up having been raped (or in the process of being raped—it being interrupted by her awakening). It seemed both unnecessary and too nonchalantly dealt with. Yes, she weeps at the shore for a while, but the line about “the coarse physicality of it all” seems to muddy what she’s weeping for—is it the rape itself or the earthiness and heaviness of being corporeal and the inherent pain of being able to feel? If the latter, again, I’m not sure I’ve felt that strongly enough for her at this point, plus it seems to trivialize the rape itself. And then her roughly normal conversation with Bars makes it appear as if the rape didn’t even occur.
More of K’azz’s “skull-like mien”. And his perpetual vagueness, which if you can’t tell by now has worn thin on me more than a little, though I’m willing to grant that response very well might be distorted by our reading pace and that I’d be less tired of it had I read all these Crimson Guard books in a couple of weeks rather than over a few years (my memory is that I felt the same way in my original reads, but those too were over a few years as I waited for each book to come out).
I have mixed feelings about the Sheer/Sharr scene. Part of me likes just the humor of it—Sheer/Sharr feud, the no-man’s land, the dinner, the “are those costumes,” the “Sheer” trickery, etc. And I like that little bit of dialogue between the two camps—the unnamed T’lan Imass willing to suffer annihilation “Just so long as you go.” Showing the lengths the Imass will go to (these Imass at least) and the depths they’ve sunk to. But then part of me wonders did I really need a whole new group of people added in here for this sort of thing?
I did, however, like the ensuing conversation between Lanas and Ut’el and the contrast between them. Ut’el upset over their losses, that cold de-humanizing line from Ut’el that the “nest had to be extirpated”—the language one uses of insects or vermin. The way Lanas almost reaches out a hand as a human contact but pulls back and how she tries to turn Ut’el from violent thoughts toward Silverfox’s group—her hope that they will be united once again after all this genocide. And the biggest hint at a contrast—that “lingering” (one can almost read “longing”?) look to the south where Silverfox is. Dissension in the ranks perhaps?
Reuth is one of my favorite characters in Assail. I like that his first attempt was such a colossal failure, and how he takes from it not the failure but the fact that he made the attempt (despite not knowing how to swim). And his perseverance in escaping on his next try. I thought having “poor Jands” talking away was a nice touch (plus, it was nice to see a stomach wound actually take as long to die as they really take, rather than the movie version where a stab or shot in the stomach leads to death in 1-3 seconds). I will say as a minor nit that the dirks (oversized ones at that) seem to have been pretty conveniently placed and overlooked
What better place for Reuth to end up than in the care of Ieleen on her and Jute’s ship? If this were a Hollywood movie, he’ll be adopted in two days. But is this is Hollywood movie?
More mystery about the Khall-head, and a hint of information, though to be sure, saying someone has a “sad story” hardly narrows things down in this universe. One has to presume this person has a role to play though (and a big reveal coming up. Maybe he’s Rake! Classic red herring with that other guy… ).
I love Ieleen’s demand that those two swear to try and not “encourage” Jute in his recklessness, how they don’t put up much of a fight at all when he says the hell with that, and how these two tough soldiers don’t want to face her when they return.
I wasn’t quite clear where Tyvar was going with the whole reincarnation speech, especially with him saying he didn’t believe in it. I get the whole still think we’re going somewhere, destiny to come, etc. but the reincarnation aspect just felt a bit out of place to me for some reason.
So will there are no Ice-bloods left and scorning their magic fall into the “famous last words” category for our young Letherii?
I wanted the scene with Silverfox to end with her rumination about the Imass legacy having become a tale to frighten children, a nightmare from the past (this sounded familiar to me—anyone recall a similar thought in an earlier book?). I thought that was powerful. Even the scene with the girl could have worked for me with a bit more to it, but I didn’t like how it ended because it felt a bit contrived to get Silverfox off on her own. I’m never a fan of the “Oh, if only I could have gotten the words out” plot device, where lack of communication (where really there’s no reason for it) causes whatever major event. Or of people being so quick to believe the worst of someone they know even if it completely contradicts most of what they think of that person. I even wonder if this scene wouldn’t have played out even more strongly had Pran told/shown Silverfox the knife (which after all was right there, seriously, right there) and she didn’t care. Or failing that, finding a different reason to send her off alone. Or kind of alone. I’m glad Kilava will be there, if only because we might get more of those great lines so wonderfully delivered like, “Strange how all those who meet the T’lan Imass eventually come to that conclusion. Those that survive, in any case.” And “I would witness”, a phrase that by now echoes like thunder in our collective heads.
I like this moment where Shimmer has her epiphany, where she realises that the Brethren outnumber the living Crimson Guard, that they are becoming an army of the dead. It definitely brings home the fact that the Vow is making them into something incredibly different.
She just… decides? That is a daft way to put it: “off you go then.” There just doesn’t seem to be enough gravitas in this scene. I also don’t like the way that Petal is shown to be dead in such an abrupt manner. I’ve grown pretty fond of Petal, especially during the last novel, and this seems like such a poor way to say goodbye.
This rape scene is just AWFUL. Why on earth is this needed? It is a terrible casual way of introducing it happening and there are no consequences. Poor form.
I read her thought about coarse physicality as the second of Bill’s options—that she has returned from death, and finds the adjustment back to her physical body as hard. There doesn’t seem any particular reference to the fact she’s just been raped. She doesn’t even mention it to Bars.
I’m glad to see Shimmer finally getting truly pissed at K’azz, and his refusal to answer anything about the Vow. Her insistence that they have to proceed to find out more information themselves seems a reasonable response to K’azz at this point. I know he’s had to bear this knowledge for a little while alone, but surely he could have trusted his closest with the secret.
So the Sharrs and the Sheers all live in Exile Keep, but stay completely separate and take part in this ongoing feud? Amusing, but this feels like another of those random RPG encounters—something that makes the creators laugh, but doesn’t have a lot of relevance to anyone else. Also, there are already a lot of characters in this novel—do we need the extra six names given to us here?
This moment is incredibly dark and poignant, as it describes mutual genocide:
“We will take you with us, you know,” he promised. “We neither can outlive the other.”
“Just so long as you go,” the creature’s answer came.
Well, isn’t Ut’el a joy, with his talk of extirpation? It does look as though Lanas is becoming very aware of what Ut’el is—she doesn’t seem to be completely on board with Ut’el’s plans.
How scary is this idea that we learn Reuth can’t swim, with what he has been through and the dangerous channels they have travelled? And also he can’t swim, ‘like most’—most of these people sail knowing that they will drown if they go overboard.
I love reading about Reuth—he really is such a plucky young lad. What I particularly love is how we’re seeing him grow. When we first met him, he was scholarly and very naive, but he is gradually developing in new ways, being forced to grow stronger and braver and more knowledgeable about the basest human beings.
It is also so hard on him that his first kill is a stomach wound, so that Jands is able to still talk and cause him additional trauma. “He felt diminished as a person as he limped away.”
I feel a tiny bit as though the humanity is being lost from the Icebloods, that the ongoing feuds are everything and they no longer care about what is being lost. That seems the case with Jaochim and Yrain. Maybe this gives some insight into why they are losing their will: “Every disappearance witnessed by us. Do not think us unmoved by this creeping valley-by-valley pogrom we have been forced to endure.”
I’m not completely sure why Orman feels as though he needs to make a final stand alongside the last of the Sayers. He has no real need to stay now that he’s done his duty by Jass.
Aww, I’m so pleased to see Reuth be taken in by Jute and Ieleen.
I’m curious about this khall-head, and who he might be. We know too many sad tales for us to begin to be able to guess who is might be.
Heh, I’m not sure I would like to take part in a whole conversation about reincarnation and the nature of gods while trying to march up a whole heap of steps. But then I’m not the fittest and would spend the whole of those stairs whispering under my breath: ‘Dear God, will this never end?’
I confess I am still not certain what this whole section with Mantle and King Ronal means, and where Tyvar really fits into the story.
This scene with Silverfox is harrowing, and the part where she realises that the T’lan Imass will never change is so poignant.
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.