Welcome to the first post in what’s sure to be a long and interesting project: the Malazan Re-read of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda (with Amanda, new to the series, going first), and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this first article, we’ll cover the prologue and first chapter of Gardens of the Moon (GotM).
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, so while the summary of events may be free of spoilers, the commentary and reader comments most definitely will not be. To put it another way: Major Spoilers Next Eight Months.
Another fair warning! Grab a cup of tea before you start reading—this post is not the shortest!
Setting: Malaz City
A 12-year-old noble boy, Ganoes Paran, looks down as below him, in the poorest part of the city, army wizards are brutally “cleaning” the quarter at the orders of Surly, the woman who formed the assassin’s cult The Claw and is apparently placing herself as Empress (and taking the name “Laseen”) now that Emperor Kellanved has gone missing. As Paran watches, he’s joined by Whiskeyjack, a commander of the elite Bridgeburner unit who warns him off from becoming a soldier. Ganoes mentions that he’s heard the First Sword of the Emperor, Dassem Ultor, is dead in Seven Cities after betraying a god. Laseen shows up and after a tense conversation with Whiskeyjack, who questions her legitimacy and orders, tells him he and his “seditious” troops will soon be shipping out.
Amanda's commentary on the Prologue:
I'd been warned. Anyone who has read the Malazan books—and even the author himself—states that these books are a challenge. You have to pay attention. No skimming merrily over blocks of descriptive passage. No glossing over the dialogue between characters. Concentration is the name of the game here, people!
So I paid attention through the mere six pages of the prologue, and I'm a little stunned as to what was packed into so short a space.
We meet the young Ganoes, learning some facts about his father (and Ganoes’ poor relationship with same) and of his life ambition to be a soldier (or, rather, a hero—since those aren't really the same thing!) We hear a little about the formation of the Imperial Army, and encounter two Bridgeburners. Finally, and crucially I sense (as a new reader), we are told of Surly—or, as she now wishes to be known, Laseen—who seems to be staking her claim to the throne while the Emperor is away.
Personally, I was left both intrigued and bewildered by the range of questions raised in those six pages. Questions such as: Why should Ganoes be glad of his pure blood? Who is Dassem, why is he important, and did he really betray a god? How much of a role do gods have in everyday life? Do sorcerers lose control of their magic when they panic? Whose original orders are the cadre of mages following? What is a “cadre” of mages? Who is the other person whose orders they might be following? What is the Claw? Why has Laseen instigated a prohibition of sorcery? Who are the Bridgeburners?
Is it just me going “huh?” Did I miss any questions that the rest of you fresh, young things to this series are asking? How about you jaded, experienced folk—are you saying “dude, she totally missed the most important point of the prologue?”
What I did like is the grim edge to the writing, already giving a martial atmosphere of dread. The volatility of the situation whispers through every word of this prologue.
“One day I'll be a soldier,” Ganoes said.
The man grunted. “Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.”
Bill’s commentary about the Prologue:
Well, as Amanda has said, this is a series that demands full and constant attention. If anybody thought this was going to be one of those books where they could just skip all those silly poems and rhymes and epigrams at the front of chapters, let me just point them to these few lines from the fragment of “Call to Shadow” that opens the prologue:
The Emperor is dead So too his master’d companion, the rope cut clean. But mark this burgeoning return...
Yes, that’s Erikson putting readers on early notice that those little extraneous bits they’ve been skipping in all those other fantasy books are going to give some important info this time. Throw together that “burgeoning return” with the “dying shadows” a few lines earlier and the “seven” chimes of “vengeance” a few lines later, and you the reader should have a pretty good idea who that mysterious duo in chapter one is when you meet and hear them. Sure, you’ll get the Bridgeburners theorizing about this, more than a hundred pages later, but wouldn’t you have felt so much smarter and condescending at that point if you’d just read the damn poem to start with?
There’s so much I like about this prologue. So much of the entire series’ mood (that “grim edge” Amanda refers to) and themes are set up for us here, beginning with those dates that start the chapter, giving you the sense that this is a book and series that will be dealing in some hefty sense of time. Then we get to the first bits of prose describing a weather vane:
The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer-top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.
Hardly a cheery start, but an appropriate one. I like to think of that vane as synonymous with the Bridgeburners: their armor also rusted and stained (albeit with real blood), balancing atop a sharp point (between loyalty to the Empire and defiance towards the Empress), hammered into its current shape by a cruel forging, and buffeted by the winds of war and politics.
In this brief prologue we also get a glimpse of Erikson’s style. He won’t be giving us long info dumps. Instead, backstory will be dripped out here and there in bitten-off conversations. Via the dialogue with Paran and Whiskeyjack, we learn about Dassem Ultor’s death, we know that gods seemingly are real in this world (and don’t like being betrayed), that the Empire is in hot war with someplace called Seven Cities a long ways away, and that knowing too much can be dangerous. Through Whiskeyjack and Fiddler’s discussion, we find out a coup seems to be going on as Surly takes the name Laseen, meaning “thronemaster”—a coup that may threaten the Bridgeburners. We also get some characterization of Whiskeyjack as humane (“protective”) and Laseen as not so much (she considers Whiskeyjack “too” protective). And with just a few words between Laseen and Whiskeyjack, we get notice of the Emperor’s suspicious absence, Laseen’s harshness, and the tension between her and Whiskeyjack’s “seditious” soldiers. That’s a lot conveyed (or not) in just a few words and that’s pretty much how this series is going to go. So no Amanda, you certainly are not the only Erikson rookie to be “bewildered.”
Setting: Itko Kan, a coastal area on the continent of Quon Tali, seven years later
An old woman and a fishergirl watch a troop of soldiers ride by, the girl impressed but the woman cursing that she’s lost three husbands and two sons to the Empire’s wars and reminiscing of when Itko Kan was independent. The old woman, who is a seer, suddenly prophesizes that the girl will travel with the army across the water to the continent of Genabackis and that a “shadow will embrace your soul.” She “links” with the girl just before a soldier riding by hits and kills the seer (thinking, it seems, she was assaulting the girl). Two men then appear—Cotillion (The Rope or Shadow’s Assassin) and Ammanas (Shadowthrone) who agree to use her and her father in some plan of vengeance against Laseen. They send seven Hounds of Shadow after the troop, then disappear.
Adjunct Lorn—personal assistant to the Empress and a mage killer—is sent to examine the slaughter on the coast of Itko Kan, where a mysterious force has killed an entire group of soldiers and a nearby village, save for two huts empty of bodies, one belonging to an old woman, the other to a young girl and her father. Lt. Garoes Paran is already there. After Lorn decides the attack was magical and a diversion, she co-opts Paran to be a commissioned officer on her staff. She then orders a search be made for the missing father and daughter and asks for a list of new army recruits that may fit their description.
The girl from the first scene joins the Malazan Marines under the name “Sorry” and requests to be sent to Genabackis where, according to the recruiter, the campaign is “a mess.”
Paran investigates the town of Gerrom and finds it completely deserted save for the Imperial Constabulary, which is filled with soldier corpses. Records of recent recruits have been destroyed. Paran is met by Topper, head of the Claw, a mage, and part Tiste Andii. Topper takes Paran by magical warren to Unta, the Empire’s capital, where he briefly meets the Empress (who recalls meeting him seven years earlier) and then the Adjunct before heading home. There, he is met by his younger sister Tavore, who tells him that his parents are gone, his father is ailing, and their youngest sister Felisin is at her studies.
Amanda’s commentary about Chapter One:
So, first of all: read the damn extracts! Usually I would just skim over poetry and extracts from historical works to get onto the good stuff, but with Erikson's novels they contain just as much of the good stuff! For instance, in the extract from “Imperial Campaigns” we gain a taste of the events occurring between the prologue and the start of chapter one. We find out that the Malazan Empire has allied with the Moranth and that the Tiste Andii (whoever they are!) have involved themselves in the conflict. At this point that probably raises more questions than are answered. *grin* Also, hands up (honestly now) who else had to look up the term “enfilade”? To start with, I wondered if it was some sort of Mexican dish... (For all you lazy sorts, it describes a military formation's exposure to enemy fire, with regards to a flanking attack!)
The first thing I noted is that we have moved on seven years from the events in the prologue, and Laseen has been Empress during all of that time. I have to confess that I will often skim over the chapter heading information sort of detail in many fantasy novels since it seems superfluous to the plot, but here I am thinking that the chapter headings that Erikson included actually lend weight to the sheer scope of the conflict and timeline we are dealing with here.
So Riggalai the Seer appears to have linked her soul and herself to the fishergirl who is to be known as Sorry. How important will this prophecy prove to be?
“...The blood now comes in a tide and it'll sweep you under, child, if you're not careful. They'll put a sword in your hand, they'll give you a fine horse, and they'll send you across that sea. But a shadow will embrace your soul...”
I suspect we soon see the shadow that embraces Sorry's soul!
Sometimes when two characters are talking—such as Cotillion and Ammanas—I feel as though I am eavesdropping on a conversation that I joined partway through, where they are discussing people I've never heard of! I am realizing, I think, that Cotillion and Ammanas want to take revenge on Laseen (although I don't know why). I am also realizing—with the appearance of the Hounds—that they are sorcerous in nature. What I am sure I won't be able to figure out for a while is whether these two are good or evil, or some ambiguous version right in the middle. I mean, I am thinking Laseen is not a nice person because of her attitude in the prologue, so I quite like the idea of Cotillion and Ammanas taking revenge on her. However, their cold discussion about the possibility of Sorry's death just because the poor little fishergirl saw them is very chilling.
I like this line:
He raised his voice. “It's not so bad a thing, lass, to be the pawn of a god.”
Once again, in the discussion between the unnamed captain (does he ever get a name?) and the Adjunct it feels very much as though I'm beginning a journey when they are already halfway through. Does this scurrying around trying to find scraps of information never end?
I love the realism inherent in the Captain's misery about being back on horseback. In so many fantasy novels, horses are treated as a rather quaint variety of motorized vehicle that can be switched on and off as the plot demands. Having ridden horses myself, I know just how uncomfortable the captain would feel at going back to it after a break!
Erikson does well using throwaway lines to signify how much of a time of turmoil this is:
In his years of service to the Empire, he'd seen enough to know when to shut everything down inside his skull.
Alright, what was the purge commanded by Empress Laseen? I mean, I'm guessing it has something to do with getting rid of all those people who would be loyal to the old Emperor. But then I have no idea why it is mostly the noble-born who are targeted! Mentions of events such as this make me wonder if we'll ever know the details, or if Erikson will decline to make it clearer. I mean, it is very much like joining English history, say, around when Henry II took the throne and people from that time neglecting to explain how he came to power because everyone would have known. It is ultra realistic and shows that Erikson is not going to spoonfeed his readers. One of my extreme pet hates is where two knowledgeable characters in a series will stop and have a discussion about something they BOTH ALREADY KNOW ABOUT just to catch the reader up—this is definitely the other end of the spectrum and I am left wondering if I can cope!
The description of the massacre is grim and leads us to believe that the Hounds were behind it, which lends credence to the idea that Cotillion and Ammanas are not nice people. Interesting that Lorn (the Adjunct) wants to erase all evidence of the massacre occurring. Why would she do this?
The mention of everything going to hell on Genabackis links straight back to the extract from “Imperial Campaigns” (did I mention you really need to read every word of this book?!); the Free Cities of Genabackis have established contracts with a number of mercenary armies to oppose the Imperium's advance.
We also have here the first mention of the magical Warrens, which seem to be some sort of method of traveling from one point to another. It does sound as though the gods have control over certain of the Warrens, and that the Empire is able to use those that haven't been claimed. Not sure though! There are hints later in the chapter that the Warrens are: “Hardly the secure road he'd have me believe. There're strangers here, and they're not friendly.”
I feel a little bit as though every paragraph is hinting at events to come, or those that have passed, and so I need to pay them mind. Thanks to the reputation garnered by this series as a tough read—especially the first book—I am reading it more intently than I might have done if I'd casually picked it up when it first came out. I can't imagine how readers who weren't aware coped with GoTM; I can certainly see why some people would have jumped ship rather than persist.
The events in Gerrom are genuinely chilling:
The chamber was filled with black pigeons cooing in icy calm.
I'm not sure what relevance the birds are, but mention is made of them a couple more times so I assume it is important at a later stage. I like the way that sorcery is imbuing each page, and yet it fits so naturally into the world created—there is no sense of self-conscious usage at this point. Paran's thoughts about the dark sorcery he has seen are exactly as I would have considered it:
The land around him, once familiar and safe, had become something else, a place stirred with the dark currents of sorcery. He was not looking forward to a night camped in the open.
I'm definitely curious as to the mention of Tiste Andii, especially when we meet Topper, Commander of the Claw. And it seems we are filling in some gaps, since there is mention made of the nobility again and the fact that nobles should feel enmity towards Topper. (I feel as though I am adding together two and two and getting five, which, as an accountant, is a little disconcerting to say the least!)
All of the exchanges between various characters seem to be fraught with a lack of trust. There is also evidence from Paran that he is arrogant and willing to antagonize everyone up to, and including, the Empress. In fact, I don't like him much and therefore found it inordinately funny when he humiliates himself in the throne room! Although certainly Paran's contempt for the merchant class of nobility that spawned him is interesting and could prove to be a weakness in the future:
An ancient nobility of the blade, now a nobility of hoarded gold, trade agreements, subtle maneuverings and hidden corruptions in gilded rooms and oil-lit corridors.
Bill’s commentary about Chapter One:
You’re absolutely right about the necessity of reading the excerpts Amanda. That “Imperial Campaigns” excerpt, for instance, is one of the few times we get a nice, neat, clear explanation of what is happening, in this case telling us who the Crimson Guard and Caladan Brood are. Revel in the clarity while you can! Though as I write that, I’m also beginning to wonder if there are more of these moments of startling clarity than I’d thought—maybe I’ve been over-hyping in my own head just how difficult this book was (“and the fish was this, no wait, this big!”). It’ll be interesting to see it from your perspective.
Well, so far I'd say that you were not over-hyping, from the perspective of a new reader! I'm certainly finding this pretty tough going!
I like how the poem “Mother’s Lament” continues the prologue’s tone of bleakness with regard to soldiery and leads us so smoothly into Rigga lamenting her dead men folk and whacking Sorry upside the head for glorifying the soldiers passing (the same “don’t be fooled” warning about soldiering you mentioned we got from Whiskeyjack to young Paran). I enjoy the way this all holds together thematically and tonally with the prologue/poem/opening scene: the sorrow and permanence of war as viewed by those who have witnessed it, set against war’s exterior shine as seen by the young especially.
We also get a sense of war from the fact that the army are trying to recruit from the fishing villages because the people there will still have a glorious view of war, whereas those in the cities have heard about the darkness of events and would not want to join up.
It’s funny what you react to differently upon re-reading. I vaguely recall finding the introduction of Shadowthrone and Cotillion somewhat pleasantly mysterious—I liked their byplay, their sense of oddness. It was ambiguous, as you said, but a more positive ambiguity. This time around, though, I responded more strongly to the menace in them for the same reasons you mention—setting the Hounds on the unsuspecting soldiers and villagers (including children) as mere distraction, the way they argue over Sorry, the quickness with which Shadowthrone offers up the option of just killing her and her father.
Ah yes, warrens. We’ll have a lot more to say on those as we progress. In my first read, I felt pretty smug about “getting them”: oh, wizardly travel portals. Easy enough. Boy, did they turn out to be a whole lot more complex than I’d thought. Wait for it Amanda, Wait for it...
My favorite part of this chapter involving Paran is actually more of a side note. It occurs when he’s returned home and we get the description of the Noble District:
Families traced their lines back seven centuries to those tribal horsemen who had first come to this land from the east. In blood and fire, as was always the way, they had conquered and subdued the cousins of the Kanese who’d built villages along this coast. From warrior horsemen to horse-breeders to merchants of wine, beer and cloth.
I’ve already mentioned how those dates that head these chapters give us a sense of deep time, and this passage did the same for me. In a few quick, almost throwaway lines we get a sense of history, of cycles, of social evolution that adds a feeling of true weight to the story, as well as solid reality to the world the story is set in. Which is why I thought your reference to English history as an analogy was spot on.
As for trust issues, oh, you are so right.
Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.
Amanda Rutter contributes reviews and a regular World Wide Wednesday post to fantasyliterature.com, as well as reviews for her own site floortoceilingbooks.com (covering more genres than just speculative), Vector Reviews and Hub magazine.