Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Reread of the Fallen: Assail, Chapter Twelve

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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 twelve.

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 Twelve

SCENE ONE
Kyle gets wet and cold.

SCENE TWO
Kyle comes across some slaughtered prospectors and is disgusted by the wanton killing:

This lot had nothing to do with burning Greathalls or warring against the Icebloods. Killing them solved nothing. If anything, it invited retaliation. Stupid. Damned Stupid. Such bloodletting only made things worse. The senselessness of vendetta and blood-feud reprisals and vengeance killings impressed itself upon him. Joining the Guard had opened his eyes to how self-defeating and petty these endless cycles of family or clan retribution were.

He’s attacked by Badlands, who doesn’t recognize him until a great and mighty severing doth occur (of both Badland’s sword and the end of his thumb). Badlands tells him of Coots’ loss and Kyle thinks that explains how changed Badlands appears:
The old Badlands he knew would never have murdered a gang of dirt-poor barely-armed prospectors. But then his brother was dead. His land was being stolen from him. And his culture — his people — were being swept from the face of the world. Understandable, one might say.

Badlands leads him north, telling him that with “Whiteblade” and the Crimson Guard’s missing Fourth Company, led by Cal-Brinn, they can hold off the invaders. Kyle says they should tell K’azz, but Badlands answers that Cal says for some reason that K’azz and the others will “have to come.” He adds that the Eithjar don’t like the 4th (made up of 16 Avowed)—“They hate them. Told Stalk to get rid of them.” As they travel, Kyle is further dismayed by how grim and crazy Badlands sounds, and regrets somewhat finding him.

SCENE THREE
After several days travel through the wettest spring Kyle recalls, they reach the Lost Greathall, where he is reunited with Stalker and meets Jethiss and Fisher, who tells him he has sung songs of him. As they talk, Fisher says he’s intrigued by the notion that Rake was once known as “Black-sword” and now that the black sword is broken and Rake gone, “almost immediately what should arise but another blade, a white blade.” Kyle is disturbed by the speculation and asks Fisher to leave it be. Jethiss seems about to say something, but does not and instead asks Badlands of the far north. Fisher tries to cut off discussion by scorning the stories as “just legends,” but Badlands mocks a bard referring so dismissively to such things. He and Badlands tells them that only Buri goes up to the Salt range ice-fields, “forefather of us all seein’ as he’s older even than some clans.” They relate how their uncle Baynar Lost went up there once and “claimed he saw something that resembled a tower of rock. Stones heaped up tall into something of a building.” Prompted by Stalker, Fisher mentions how their legends say that the Icebloods were born there, “that our ancestor guards the heights. Mother of us all.” Kyle recalls how the Silent People’s shamans had told him to go to the mountains to meet the ancestors, and how he’d thought they’d meant the Icebloods, but now thinks this legendary person may be who they really meant. Badlands and Stalker continue, saying the legends claim that Assail is named such because the Forkrul Assail are up there “sleeping hidden in caves at the peaks… And it’s said they will grant the wish of anyone foolish enough to treat with them.” Fisher calls it “pure fiction,” but they note how he’s sung the songs himself. Jethiss asks why it would be “foolish” to treat with the Forkrul, and Stalker replies “Forkrulan justice is a saying for any harsh, but just judgment.” He tells an old tale of how two great swordsmen couldn’t determine who was best so asked the Forkrul to judge, which they did by killing both. Call-Brinn enters with news that the scouts report that the invaders are moving this way. When Badlands says Stalker already beat them once, Kyle informs them that the enemy is “no longer a ragtag mob of fortune-hunters, marauders, and thieves,” but has been joined by a real army from Lether who is “knocking them into shape.” Fisher tries to convince Stalker they’re no use defending the hall, saying the invaders will just surround them and burn the hall down, but Stalker refuses to hear it. Cal-Brinn says a “small desperate group” might have a chance of breaking free, and Badlands says that describes them pretty accurately.

SCENE FOUR
They begin digging a ditch and earthenwork defense and making other battle preparations. Two days later they get word that a large force is heading for them. As they work, Fisher sings a sad song, “far too grim for Kyle — though certainly appropriate.” Kyle notices how keenly Fisher was watching Jethiss as he sang, but the Andii betrayed no emotion. As they bed down, Kyle wonders how he could lie so calmly there in the hall with an army arriving tomorrow, then realizes “the answer was obvious and easy: because his friends defended it.”

SCENE FIVE
Kyle wakes to bitter cold, though the others don’t seem to feel it much. Fisher says it’s Omtose Phellack awakened, and when Kyle notes he doesn’t seem much pleased, Fisher replies that “These invaders – people from distant lands — none of them should trouble Omtose. Only… “ Then he cuts himself off and says not to worry about it. Cal-Brinn says the enemy has reached the valley and they all make final preparations. Kyle, seeing everyone looking at him, looks down to notice that his sword is glowing. They’re encircled and then the enemy leader, who turns out to be Teal, says if they leave their weapons and go he’ll be satisfied. Fisher steps forward and he and Teal reacquaint themselves, with Teal happy Fisher escaped the bridge. Fisher tells him he should turn back, pointing out Jethiss saved his life at the bridge with his sacrifice. But Teal says Fisher shouldn’t expect to be spared, and argues that Jethiss’ act “wasn’t a sacrifice. It was a request,” adding he didn’t technically save Teal’s life but a third of his group. Sadly, Fisher asks him again to leave and live, saying at the bridge “I saw revealed the man behind the Letherii calculation of exchange and advantage. It is to that man I give warning.” Teal still refuses, saying he’s claiming this area for King Luthal Canar of Goldland. Stalker mocks the name (Teal says they thought it would entice settlers) and says they should call it “Pompous Ass Land” instead. Teal ends the parley and begins the attack. Kyle uses his spear, but is soon forced to employ the Sword of Severance. The Stormguard from Lady’s Luck appear before him, happy to have found him again with a chance to kill him. Kyle realizes his problem is he’s been too timid with the sword and so “To the Abyss with the limbs. Cripple and finish them!” And veritably there was then a slew of severance and a sudden lack of limbs, until Badland pulls him out of his battle fever and back to the others. Kyle sees that he’s killed all the Stormguard and that the Letherii soldiers are looking at him with “open read.” Another charge ensues, though nobody comes toward Kyle. Call-Brinn uses Rashan to make arrows miss, telling Kyle the Omtose Phellack prevents any other sorcery. Kyle tells Call-Brinn they can’t hold, but Brinn says who knows, maybe the enemy will lose heart. They jump back into battle.

SCENE SIX
The Letherii fire the hall, then have their archers wait to deal with any escape attempt. They hadn’t planned on Andii sorcery though, and after Jethiss performs some, they break out, though Kyle notices they lost four Avowed in the battle. At their first rest stop, Stalker tells them they’re heading for the heights. Fisher tries to convince them not to, but Stalker says “We can’t avoid it any longer. It’s our legacy—and yours too, lad [to Kyle]… it’s coming to a head—isn’t it Fish?” Fisher turns away, and Stalker yells at him to say something or keep quiet going forward. Jethiss tries to calm them, but Fisher turns back and says, “All I have are suspicions, hints lines from old sagas, but what I dread may be very real. I fear both what lies ahead and what lies behind… Omtose Phellack is stirring. And why? What could raise its ire?” He asks Stalker about the “old enemy” and when Stalker scorns the implication, Fisher insists “I fear it! . .. And we are leading them on higher…And what sleeps in the heights?” Stalker says he’s just being dramatic, “jumping at phantasms,” but Kyle thinks he sounds “half convinced.” Changing the subject, Stalker thanks Jethiss for using his magic, and Jethiss replies that doing so helps his memory, and he thinks he knows now why he’s there: “Our people once had a champion who carried a blade that guarded us. Now we are without such a protector. I believe I have been sent to remedy that lack. I believe I have been sent for a sword.” Kyle obviously thinks he means Kyle’s blade, which hurts Jethiss, but the Andii says no, he means to ask the Forkrul. Fisher asks if he “thinks it wise,” and Jethiss responds, “I think it necessary,” then heads off into the forest. Badlands asks if Jethiss is “him” (i.e. Rake), but Fisher says he thinks not because he seems so different, but he adds, Rake was a shapeshifter. They continue on.

SCENE SEVEN
Reuth wakes from a nightmare aboard Jute’s ship, then calms as he recalls where he is. Walking the deck he meets Ieleen, who asks if he’s ever felt this sort of cold before, and he likens it to the “false winter of the Stormriders.” Ieleen tells him that ignorant people consider Jaghut and Stormrider cold as the same, but she says they are not—“The Riders are alien. Not of this world.” She tells him this is the cold of Jaghut magic. They’re interrupted by Enguf coming aboard. He and Ieleen discuss the weather, how they’ll have to get ready to leave fast, and the bad luck they’ve had on this trip. He mentions how it’s always smart to listen to a Falaran sea-witch, and Reuth thinks of all the stories of them he’s heard: “Human sacrifices, eating babies, drinking blood.” Ieleen tells him “It’s just a term of affection.”

SCENE EIGHT
Mist is disturbed by the creeping cold coming down from the northern heights, worried the invaders have caused more trouble than she’d thought they would. Plus she senses new arrivals, though she wonders at their approach in the daytime, and at the lack of horns announcing that more ships had landed. She gets her two sons up and prepares herself, calling up her sorcery, a unique combination of Omtose Phellack and locally flavored “portals to power.” She’s dismayed to recognize the Army of Dust and Bone, “the unrelenting, undying hunters…these foretold avengers.” She asks their names, and Ut’el introduces himself and Lanas. She names herself and her sons, though she’s surprised at their usual lack of ferocity and at the seeming indifference of the Imass. A fast fight ensues, with Wrath and Anger quickly overcome. Ut’el tells her she was overconfident, and she replies that “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition the past to reach out and destroy the present — or the future.” To her surprise, Ut’el seems to flinch at her statement, but then he kills her. Before she dies though, she thinks she’ll go on to something else and that these killers will not, that they had “abandoned even their hope for a future for themselves.” But at the last moment, she sees further and realizes there is something to hang onto, and she whispers “Do not despair… There is yet hope for you.”

SCENE NINE
Ut’el asks Lanas what she could have meant by her dying words, but Lanas says, “she knows nothing of us.” She urges Ut’el onward, warning him Silverfox is nearing. When Ut’el says they can deal with her, Lanas says no need; soon it will all be over. Ut’el is a bit “wary” however of Lanas.

 

Bill’s Response

Esslemont, as he has multiple times in this book, shows a nice touch with the natural world details in this opening scene.

The meeting scene with Badlands is actually pretty grim if one ignores the swordfight and reunion and focuses on Badlands’ state of mind, his blood lust, and Kyle’s rumination about what can one expect with someone who is grieving not only the death of his brother, but the extinction of his entire people and way of life

Interesting that Cal-Brinn seems to know enough about the Vow and Assail that he just assumes that K’azz and the other Avowed will “have to” come here.

Maybe I’m just a bit dense today, but while I get the poetic parallels Fisher points to between Kyle and Rake—the surface black vs. white idea etc.—I have a hard time seeing anything particularly deep or meaningful or weighty in a further comparison of the two, either the swords or the swords wielders.

I like how Fisher, a bard after all, keeps trying to stop Jethiss from going up to the Forkrul by putting down the legends as “just stories” or merely “fictions” etc. A bard! And I’m glad he gets called on it multiple times. And what are the odds do you think that they will turn out in fact to be stories only, with nothing to them?

So back in the day I seem to recall that Amok, my trusty bard D & D character, could give my group a To Hit bonus with his singing. I’m not sure Fisher’s song is quite having that effect, though I did like its mournful sense, its “last of last days,” and the feeling of time and the world spinning along no matter the ending of mere mortals in their “urgent and important” endeavors.

Sounds like Fisher is putting two and two together and getting T’lan Imass in his conversation with Kyle.

I would have liked a bit more conversation between Teal and Fisher—it seemed like it might have been a little in Teal’s character, maybe even a private aside. But I suppose gold in the blood and heart and all. The things folks do for money… I did laugh at the “Goldland” title and his explanation that they thought of it as a good marketing ploy, his seeming need for appreciation of their copywriting bit (he didn’t deserve any—horrible name!). And of course, I loved Stalker suggested alternative.

As for the battle, I don’t have a lot to say about it (severing!) save that as usual, Esslemont displays a deft hand with action scenes and this was well done I thought.

I liked the tension in the confrontation on the road between Stalker and Fisher, though they both seem to yo-yo a bit in this and earlier scenes between accepting the legends/stories as guides to what might be true and dismissing them as simply legends and stories. I suppose part of that can be laid at the feet of denial, part at the grey area of it all, part at cherry picking what best suits their argument at the time.

I loved the tiny, so easy to gloss over, detail of Jethiss feeling hurt/betrayed when he announces his intent to gain a sword to protect his people and Kyle thinks he’s going to take his from him (or at least try). A great moment of characterization and a nice quiet “people” moment amidst all the battle action and the grand mythic talk of sleeping monster, reawakening powers, etc. I did wonder though that if Jethiss had found that performing magic jogged his memory, why he wouldn’t have done it more often…

And just when you think we get a clear hint this is not Rake (Fisher saying he doesn’t think so, it gets yanked back by the shapeshifter line. I don’t care; I know what I think.

Eating babies, drinking blood. How many times have those deeds been ascribed to “the other” in human history?

That’s a surprisingly blunt, straightforward discussion from Ieleen re the Stormriders—they are not related to Jaghut, they are alien, etc. The question is always no matter how assured/authoritative one sounds, can we the readers trust that particular character as actually knowing something, or just thinking they know something?

I love that slow smile of hers on the sea-witch “term of affection.” You can almost see her thinking about smacking her lips and going, “mmmm, babieeeeeees…”

There’s yet another subtle hint at the connection between the Avowed and the T’lan Imass, as Mist senses “something familiar, yet also teasingly recognizable, like something she had sensed recently. Something she hadn’t liked.” Recall how she quickly got rid of Shimmer’s group.

That’s a surprisingly, I don’t want to say “redemptive,” but perhaps compassionate ending for Mist. The ugliness of her killer, the “cold stone” of the blade, the way her breath “eases” from her and how she felt “no panic, no denial,” her faith she was going to a new destination and not oblivion. And then, at the last, her first thought that these Imass had sacrificed all, but then seeing “deeper into the essence of these undying, [she] saw she was mistaken—that there was something. A possibility. And then she tries to tell them that—at the end, a moment of true empathy (seeing into another) and of compassion (trying to give hope to horror and despair). She’s been pretty horribly presented, yet placed side by side with these T’lan Imass, it’s clear which ones are the more monstrous. At least, that’s how I’m reading this moment.

And then we get this interesting conversation between Ut’el and Lanas, with that dissension in the ranks mentioned in the last chapter deepening a bit with Ut’el seeming to not fully trust Lanas. And now Lanas’ argument about not waiting for Silverfox perhaps takes on a different note. All nicely done.

 

Amanda’s Response

Hmm, if the choices to get warm were either starting a fire or jogging, I would probably elect to stay cold. I feel for Kyle here as he wonders if he will ever find the Losts, and includes Coots name in there—painful knowledge for the reader to have.

I always wonder about these characters who snare a rabbit like it’s nothing. First of all, he would need something to use as a snare, and then he would need to find a rabbit track, and then there would be waiting to see if his snare actually caught anything. I prefer the novels that mention a character setting three snares and being disappointed at the first two containing nothing, and feeling lucky that the third managed to catch something—it just feels more real.

We’ve seen a fair few gruesome deaths of various gold prospectors, and here we’re shown another set of bodies. Just goes to show that greed gets you nowhere, really.

I like that Kyle can now identify how silly the blood feuds and endless challenges and killing is. What occurs to me is that all those who have left Assail have now realised how fruitless the manner of killing is amongst the clans, whereas those who remain are blinkered to a different way of life.

It never actually said that Badlands killed those prospectors. He just said that Kyle should have run when he saw the bodies. Doesn’t mean he did it. I guess it implies it though. Which makes me sad—Badlands wouldn’t have killed them if Coots had been around.

Sometimes Esslemont produces prose that really lifts from the page. Here I loved: “Before, the man’s laughter had been of the most innocent, teasing sort. Now, it sounded as dark as a hangman’s welcome.”

Kyle feels as though Badlands is signing him up for something he doesn’t want—it strikes me that it wouldn’t be the first time Kyle has ended up in a situation that he didn’t want. And I think that is what grates about the character. He really is incredibly passive, and the plot drives his actions, rather than him making decisions about his own life.

Funny that the Eithjar don’t like the Crimson Guard—it’s probably because they brought their own dead along with them, which makes the woods pretty crowded with ghosts.

When Fisher introduces Kyle to Jethiss, is he expecting Kyle to think that this is Anomander, because of the streaks of white in his hair?

I’m not quite sure why Kyle gets angry at Fisher’s observation about the white sword following the black sword. What troubles would it bring him if other people had the same thought? It isn’t completely clear to me what is happening with that exchange.

It’s clear Fisher is trying to dissuade Jethiss from heading to the far north to the Forkrul Assail, but it seems daft for him to keep dismissing them as stories and fables, when he sings of such all the time. I do like how the others keep reminding him of his role, because it’s sort of what the reader is feeling as well.

Ha, I love how Badlands requests a song from Fisher to try to cheer up Kyle, and it ends up being the most depressing song ever.

Must be a pain in the arse for any non-Icebloods to be fighting alongside them, what with their use of ice to freeze the enemy. Although Fisher’s talk to Kyle suggests that Omtose Phellack is only waking this much due to the presence of T’lan Imass, even if he doesn’t go so far as to name them.

We see both sides of Teal in this exchange—the man who breathes his words in wonder as he recognises that Fisher survived the bridge, and then the man who is Lether through and through as he references gold and the fact they will try to attract other settlers there (to Goldland *snickers*).

It feels as though Kyle finally accepts the sword in this encounter, with everything it can do. All the severing!

I agree with Bill—Esslemont can sure write these fight scenes. Unlike a fair few other writers, I can visualise exactly what is happening, because of his clean action prose.

The Crimson Guard are falling like flies in this novel, with four of the 4th Company joining those we’ve already seen perish. They really are now more of an army of the dead, since the Brethren far outnumber those still living.

Stalker and Fisher really do change positions on what is in the far north, with Fisher here describing the old enemy and that which sleeps in the heights, and now Stalker being the one to dismiss it all as phantasms and maybes. Slightly inconsistent characterisation there.

Kyle seems rather attached to his white blade—he certainly didn’t want to give it away—and that seems odd considering how much he’s hated the name Whiteblade. It reinforces the idea that he has finally accepted the weapon (and name) are his.

Pft, Jethiss is not Anomander Rake.

I like the way we’re shown that Reuth feels immediately comfortable with Ieleen and Jute with the image of his uncle that he sees as he awakes.

Huh, so the Stormriders are alien creatures? Didn’t expect that. I always thought they were somehow Jaghut related.

Ieleen really is a delightful character—her sea-witch exchange with Reuth is well done.

In this scene with Mist and the Army of Dust and Bone, Esslemont brings his horror writer back to the fore, as he portrays the dessicated characters lining up, feet clacking on the floor, empty eye sockets staring at Mist. It’s particularly creepy, and worth noting that the T’lan Imass are really not being given any humanity in this novel. They are being presented as cold invaders, which goes against some of what we’ve seen in the past.

It’s also well done the way that Anger and Wrath are presented as acting very differently when faced with their age-old enemy.

And, finally, although I haven’t felt that Mist added a great deal to the overall novel, her ending is written well. That moment where she recognises what the Army of Dust and Bone have given up is incredibly poignant, that they have no future. And I like the tiny spark of hope she offers, that perhaps they could go another way instead.

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.

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