Welcome to 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 article, we’ll cover the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont (NoK).
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—these posts are not the shortest!
And now some HOUSE-KEEPING:
1) In case you hadn’t seen, Steven Erikson is answering your questions in the comments of this topic, so head on over and see what he has to say. Thanks Steven!
2) Night of Knives does not have the same handy chapter breaks as Gardens of the Moon, so Bill and I have devised the following reading schedule so that you can prepare your re-read each week:
- Prologue and Chapter 1 (this very post!)
- Chapter 2 to “Temper shouldered” (a new section about one-quarter through Chapter 3)
- From “Temper shouldered” to end of Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6 to end (This will include our whole book wrap-up, as well.)
So, all being well, we intend to whip through NoK over the course of six weeks—do join us!
A raider ship, Rheni’s Dream, is sailing the Sea of Storms south of Malaz Isle, fleeing before the sea-demons known as Stormriders. The ship, buffeted by wind, rain, wave, and hail, is becoming encased in ice, slowing the ship and killing the crew. This even though the captain, Murl, has done all the offerings “save the last,” which involves dropping a crew member overboard, something Murl refuses to do. Just before dying himself, Murl sees a rider:
“a dazzling sapphire figure . . . helmeted, armored, a tall lance of jagged ice at the hip. It’s mount . . . half beast and half roiling wave.”
Murl thinks the Riders are “answering some inhuman summons,” throwing themselves against the island of Malaz—”the one thing that had confined them so long to this narrow passage.”
Edgewalker, “an elder inhabitant of the Shadow Realm,” walks across Shadow to a menhir where Jhedel, former King of Shadow, is imprisoned by having his two hands sunk into the rock behind his back. Through their conversation, we learn Jhedel killed someone to take the Throne but was eventually bound in return. Edgewalker tells Jhedel he is also “bound just as tightly” and that he senses a “new” power, possibly eyeing the Throne. After Jhedel is struck down by power (from his attempt to escape), he curses Edgewalker and demands to be released. When Edgewalker walks on, Jhedel swears to destroy him and everyone else. Edgewalker ignores him, thinking that he has long worried about the absence of an occupant on the Throne and sensing that change is perhaps on the way.
Amanda’s Reaction to the Prologue:
So, as we already know, we’re going back in time to before the events of Gardens of the Moon: our dates at the start of the prologue show the “last year of Emperor Kellanved’s reign.”
The tone is immediately more no-nonsense than that of Erikson, in my opinion. It feels more streamlined and less mysterious. For instance, we see the storm rising—in Gardens of the Moon we would have been left uncertain as to its cause; here we see:
But it was not the storm that worried Captain Murl, no matter how unnatural its rising.
I also feel the same reluctance at having to get to know a new set of characters. (Which I know bodes ill for me during the rest of the re-read. *grin*) I was enjoying the Bridgeburners and the Daru lot, but I don’t see a single one of their names in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning! I’m sure I’ll come to love and hate them as I did people like Paran and Fiddler and Rake.
I see mention of Jakatan pilots—we’ve heard of Jakatans before, but I’m damned if I can remember from where in GotM... This lack of memory concerning the little details is also a tad worrying!
I’m intrigued by Rheni—seems to be some sort of weather manipulator who is struggling against the unnatural storm.
Here again I am a little uncertain about Esslemont: on the one hand I love his descriptions of the Rider, on a mount seeming to be “half beast and half roiling wave.” They are so eerie! And yet then Esslemont says:
Were they men or the ancient Jaghut race, as some claimed?
This is clumsy foreshadowing that I haven’t yet seen in the Malazan world. What do you think? Am I just being picky?
Ack, we also immediately see another of my pet hates: Murl is the captain of his ship; he knows her inside out presumably; and yet he suddenly remembers the sternchaser scorpion—all so that Esslemont can let the reader know. I dislike this, and find it remarkably jarring.
I do like the atmospheric ice bearing down on the ship—it is sinister and foreboding, especially with sentences such as:
He pulled his hand free of the searing iron. Blood froze like tatters of red cloth.
So, the Riders are heading to the Isle of Malaz, answering some inhuman summons—who is pulling them forth?
Hmm, in the next scene my immediate thought is that we’re encountering another of the T’lann Imass:
Its naked arms hung desiccated and cured to little more than leather-clad bones.
What’s a menhir? Oh, and here we have Esslemont joining Erikson in use of words I’ve never even heard of before—this time it’s “nictitated”!
For a time I thought that Jhedel was one of the Jaghut, talking with one of his mortal enemies. But then we hear that Jhedel was actually liege to the Que’tezani, inhabitants of the realm of shadow—I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean Jhedel isn’t a Jaghut.
Anyway, disregarding that, I am guessing this is the Realm of Shadow, or the Shadow Warren—and the throne is empty. The throne of shadow. Shadowthrone, if you will. From our discussions on Gardens of the Moon, I know that Emperor Kellanved is destined to take this position—I guess I’m about to hear how! Although...the empty throne could be reference to the throne of the Malazan Empire, and we will see Laseen’s rise from Surly? One or the other, or both, I’m sure!
Bill’s Reaction to the Prologue:
Your reaction to the new characters will be very interesting to me, Amanda, as I came to this book with a lot behind me from having read the Malazan books. So for me, along with meeting new characters, I also saw characters again, saw them from a different angle, or saw characters for the first time but that I had already heard about. I’ll be curious as to the different effect of coming to them all as brand new.
I agree with your depiction of the writing as more straightforward; there will certainly be a different feel and pace to this book than GotM. Even something as simple as the lack of a poem to start each chapter quickens the pace quite a bit and also cuts down on the “now what did he mean by that?” moments.
I think too we get an author a bit more willing to provide clear and quick explanations. The example you mentioned, of the storm being unnatural, is one such case. We see it again just after when Lack-eye says of the offerings, “We’ve tried them all . . . All save the last.” As a reader, I’m pretty confident I know what is meant by “the last,” but Esslemont ensures we take his meaning by having Murl “flinch” at the thought, then refuse it because “every soul on the Rheni was blood-kin,” then recall the one time he’d seen it done: “the poor lad’s black-haired head bobbing atop the waves . . .” Personally, he had me at “the last.”
I share with you the sense of clunkiness w/ the jaghut line and the scorpion bit and felt a bit the same about the lines concerning the Riders, that “they were here for another reason . . .” which I thought felt a bit stilted, too heavily ominous, and diluted the impact of the prior line, “The riders cared nothing for them.” It will be interesting to see the differing reactions from readers, especially new readers like yourself, coming from GotM’s near absolute refusal to immediately or bluntly “explain” things to this. I can see some finding this a breath of fresh air and others missing the sense of challenge or disorientation. (I fall into the latter camp personally.)
Those small complaints aside, I think this is a great opening scene. We get immediate action, immediate mystery and magic, immediate violence and desperation and death; what more could you ask for? And that’s a great image at the end:
When the spray cleared, Lack-eye remained alone to pilot the frozen tomb northwards. Sails fell, stiff, and shattered to the decks. Ice layered the masts and decking, binding the ship like a dark heart within a frozen crag that rushed on groaning and swelling.
So much a great image that I wished he had stopped there, as the next two paragraphs, while fine in their own right, didn’t quite have the power of this one for me. But still a great opening.
And I loved the shift from water and ice and desperate action to sand and desert and dessication and slow movement when we shift to Edgewalker. He is one of those characters, by the way, some of us will have met before and one of the more intriguing characters in the series I find. I’m hoping we’ll see more of him in The Crippled God.
I can see why you might first think Jhedel a Jag, as he’s seemingly under a rock—the T’lan Imass method of storing Jaghuts. *smile* But the physical qualities (chitinous scales, horned spurs) and lack of tusks are signs he isn’t. I’m not sure we’re supposed to know exactly what he is. Edgewalker thinks of him as “liege to the Que’tezani, inhabitants of the most distant regions of Shadow,” which make me think of demons (we’ll see some Shadow demons eventually), but whether one need be a Que’tezani to also be their liege is unclear.
Temper, a guard at Mock’s Hold and a former veteran of Seven Cities warfare, muses on the sudden arrival of a female Imperial Fist a few days ago. Rumors abound: the garrison commander Pell would be replaced, Mock’s Hold would be activated as a command base for a new campaign against Korel, the old campaign had failed and the ship held the retreat from Korel, the ship held Emperor Kellanved himself, absent for several years now. Temper had watched as hooded figures, familiar to him as Claws (the Empire’s assassin-mages) disembarked. His memory of the Fist’s arrival is interrupted by his relief, Lieutenant Chase. Temper flashes back to the Seven City campaign, when he and Dassem Ultor (the First Sword) had entered the Palace of the Holy One and found three claws torturing her. Ultor infuriated the Claws by immediately and mercifully killing the Holy One.
Temper returns to the barracks where he’s forced to listen to Larkin, a Genabackan veteran whom Temper has been having issues with, regale the troops yet again with stories of his battles, this one involving the Crimson Guard with Larkin claiming to have fought an Avowed, Lazar. Temper doesn’t buy for a moment that Larkin fought Lazar and remembers how Dassem had slain all the Avowed he’d fought save Skinner. Temper puts Larkin in his place, but in doing so caused blood to drip on the Bones (a tile game), specifically Soldier, Maiden, King, and Obelisk, which he takes as a bad omen.
A young girl, Kiska, watches an Imperial message cutter at the docks which obviously denotes someone high up aboard. She longs to join the Imperial army somehow, but has already been rejected by Pell. As she watches Claws disembark, she is grabbed from behind by one who asks what she’s doing. She tells him she’d like to meet the high up official to be hired. The Claw tells her to ask Pell and disappears.
Temper exits Mock’s Hold, but only after being inspected by a Claw at the gate (the gatekeeper Lubben had tried to warn Temper).
Kiska continues to watch the cutter. She recalls being locked away a year ago by her Aunt Agayla when the Malazan army had arrived to deal with the chaos after the Regent (Surly) had outlawed magic and their was mass rioting and slaughter in the Mouse. She knows her aunt probably saved her life but also saw it as a chance to join the army and leave Malaz Isle. She watches as the official leaves the cutter w/ bodyguards, then waits while a mage appears from nowhere and follows the official. Kiska follows the follower.
Temper runs into Rengel, a retired marine and sail-maker, who warns him to stay inside tonight because it’s the night of the Shadow Moon, when the “souls of the dead come out,” demons roam the streets, “damned souls escape and new ones get caught,” and magic-users get “snatched.” Rengel points to a strange mark on his door, then goes inside. Temper continues on to the tavern whose above-rooms he rents: The Hanged Man Inn. He thinks of how Kellanved and Dancer have been missing for years. As he nears the Inn, he sees the Deadhouse, an abandoned stone house (the oldest building in the city), where Kellanved, Dancer, Dassem, Surly/Laseen, and other had done their planning for the Empire’s beginning. Temper enters the tavern and gets a drink from the innkeep, Coop, then asks him about a woman veteran named Corinn, whom he he’d first met a month ago and hasn’t seen for a while. A stranger is in Temper’s usual seat, and Temper notices he’s a Bridgeburner, someone Temper might have met in “earlier days, a different life.” He thinks of how he left that life a year ago, his place in the ranks “taken away from him,” and how he’d gotten false papers so he could be taken on at the local garrison. Heading up to his room above the common room he realizes some of the crowd below are pirates from Jakata, the island’s other major settlement and he thinks the ex-Bridgeburner has probably joined them.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter One:
Chapter One is called “Portents and Arrivals,” which is a nice way to start the novel proper, and here we are at Mock’s Hold where we began our Gardens of the Moon journey. I like the symmetry.
There are scant details about Temper’s appearance on our first encounter with him—I guess we’ll eventually see him through other eyes to get an idea about what he looks like. I find it curious how some authors will detail a character’s appearance down to the underwear they have on, whereas others keep it brief. [Bill’s interjection: Pun intended?]
Already in NoK we have seen examples of superstition and more arcane matters—such as the offerings in the Prologue; and here wondering if it is bad luck to think about death when the sun is setting.
...enforcing the Imperial Regent’s new edict against magery. The riots that followed engulfed a quarter of the town in flames.
Are these the events concerning Lorn and Tattersail we’ve had reference to in GotM?
“A man-of-war. Front-line vessel. Built for naval engagements, convoy escort, blockades.”
Alright, so Temper is talking to a non-military person but a) this sounds like a dictionary definition and b) I’m sure Anji doesn’t need all those details!
Anji’s honest and bitter response to Temper:
“Why bother? For certain it means more of our blood spilled.” She hefted the buckets. “As if we haven’t paid enough.”
This is the first moment I’ve truly felt the Malazan tone—grim and dark.
One old fisherman voiced the opinion that it might be the Emperor himself, returned.
Right, so Kellanved has already been absent from the Throne? And it is interesting that the reaction of the common people to his possible return is one of fear—what has the Emperor done to deserve this?
I just need a bit of help concerning Korel—is it a part of the ongoing Malazan war we’ve seen in GotM already? Or is it unique to NoK? Interesting to note that the Empire is at war even during this novel (and, indeed, half a decade before)—that is a long time for continuing aggressive operations. No wonder we encounter war-weary veterans in GotM!
I like the description of the Imperial orbs on the ship—and the mage use they are clearly put to. Again we see casual reference to magery—it is an innate part of the Malazan Empire.
Oooh, a nice little hint that Temper is much more than what he seems. And those hooded figures? Claws?
I know that one of the regular commentators has mentioned the weathervane from NoK, and here we have it shaking and humming “as if caught in a heavy gale.” Portents, for sure—that chapter name isn’t just for show. *grin*
I don’t know how many of you U.S. readers will have watched Red Dwarf but Chase reminds me a lot of Arnold Rimmer: working to exact procedure, dressed to the nines in best uniform for a turn at watch. I already dislike him (but also suspect that he will provide inadvertent comic relief).
We also get our first look at Dassem Ultor, who was mentioned oh so briefly in GotM with reference to the Emperor’s assassination—will be interesting to see more of him in NoK.
Just feeling a little impatient with the writing style now: Larkin is telling one of his stories that the others have heard many, many times before, but he just happens to be telling it again because I suspect the reader needs to know some pertinent detail. In this case it can be argued that Esslemont is building the garrulous character of Larkin, but it still doesn’t sit entirely easy as I read it.
It is good to learn something of the Crimson Guard—the fear and awe in which they are held by others; some of the personalities within the regiment; their so-called underhanded tactics. Now that we have the name Skinner mentioned in terms of being the only person of the Avowed who has not been slain by Dassem, I can see them going up against each other in this book!
Hmm, the nit-picking between Larkin and Temper reminds me of children clashing...
Are the Bones anything more than just a game? Is this rather like the Deck as used by Fiddler and the Bridgeburners?
Soldier, Maiden, King, and the rune of the Obelisk. For damn sure that meant a boat full of bad luck about to cross his bow.
There are many more nautical references and scenes, aren’t they? Does Esslemont have a background in naval military?
I’m not sure what to think about Kiska—but isn’t she naive? Much like Paran when we first met him in the Prologue of GotM—and strange how they are both from this backwater Mock’s Hold. They are both desperate to become involved with the Imperial Army. Poor Kiska, being mocked by a dark-skinned Napan Claw. Is this Kalam?
The encounter between Temper and the Claw at the gate shows again that Temper was involved in much more than just military campaigns during his active service—that fact that Claws attempted to assassinate him and he is still alive shows that he has some special skills. I still can’t get over the whole Warren of Darkness not necessarily being evil! Usually Darkness can be equated with Great Evil...
And another nice word I’ve had to look up: thalassocracy. I do enjoy being kept on my toes—as long as the given word fits smoothly into the prose and doesn’t just sound like an author has been through their thesaurus! In this case, the idea of Mock’s Hold being a ruler of the sea fits perfectly.
It’s always dangerous to dismiss someone just because they don’t seem as though they can offer anything (in fiction and TV this is used often), and I suspect we are going to see the same with Kiska. Her naive presumption of usefulness to the Claws is likely to lead to being brushed aside once again (probably when she tries to explain about the odd activities on the message cutter) or she is going to head off on her own rather than tell anyone, in an effort to prove herself—as is exactly what happens here.
Well, for someone who is being shown as intelligent and familiar with the ways of Claws, Temper is proving to be rather stupid! Lubben challenged him, something that has never happened before. There was a Claw on the gate checking who entered. And now the streets are empty—but Temper thinks it is due to the weather.... Although, reading on, it seems as though I have been done by the first Esslemont curveball: apparently the presence of a Shadow Moon is the culprit!
“What d’you know of the Return?”
Says Rengel—what does this mean? The return of the Emperor?
Ho hum—here we have another example of the much more direct prose in Esslemont’s work. I posed my question in the last paragraph, expecting to have to pick through plentiful hints and clues and red herrings. Yet here we have:
He’d reached a few conclusions of his own. Return stank of the cult that worshipped Kellanved, the man who along with his partner Dancer, had founded and built the Imperium. They’d been missing for years.
Of course, these are just Temper’s own conclusions, so it might be deliberate misdirection using the character.
Another thing—I’ve realised that I don’t know whether Dancer is male or female. I’ve always assumed male, for some reason—probably because of Cotillion. The term “partner” could refer to a romantic partnership, which made me assume Dancer was female. And then I checked myself and realised, of course, that Dancer could still be male. Sometimes I wonder if I think too much while reading!
Eek! The Deadhouse! That must, must, must be important! With the title Deadhouse Gates and the references to an Azath called the Deadhouse—well, Mock’s Hold just became much more interesting.
To his mind, the entire Empire was haunted, one way or another.
What a poignant phrase.
This is an interesting start to Night of Knives, and I already feel myself sucked back into the Malazan world. Although I’ve gently chided some of Esslemont’s writing, I am enjoying the generally smooth and direct way of laying out the story. This almost feels like a break from the tough stuff, an opportunity to fill in some back story with a rip-roaring traditional fantasy tale. Temper is an enjoyable protagonist, although Kiska is getting on my nerves somewhat to start with—but then Paran did, so maybe I just dislike cocky precocious kids! Looking forward to seeing what comes of this Shadow Moon.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter One:
I too liked the symmetry of beginning at Mock’s Hold, and even more precisely, with a character looking down on what’s below.... We even get my favorite weather vane again!
Yes, the riots recalled are what ensued after Surly/Laseen’s banning of magic—the same riots as Lorn and Whiskeyjack and Tattersail were involved in and that Paran viewed. One in a series of bad decisions Lasseen makes as Regent, then Emperor.
I thought the fear of Kellanved was also interesting. He is certainly a bit insane (at least to outward appearances) so that level of unpredictability alone might be enough to instill fear. Take that with his many campaigns, magecraft, willingness to kill large numbers, and use of the T’Lan Imass and Talon/Claws, and one can see how fear would be a reasonable reaction to note of his appearance. (Not that things appear to have been all that peaceful while he’s been gone.)
We’ll see a lot more info about Korel as we keep reading, and it appears that will be the primary setting for Stonewielder.
I have to say that Temper’s oh-so-knowledgeable response to Anji’s question about the ship isn’t exactly the best way to hide that you’re a well-traveled, well-schooled veteran. I do like her embittered response though.
I’m also not a bit fan of the Larkin scene; it seems too artificially staged. And here as well I think we see some of that overwriting Esslemont is a bit prone to in this book.
“They attacked at night like plain thieves,” Larkin spat, disgusted by such underhanded tactics.
Temper stopped himself from laughing out loud—well did he remember similar moonlight engagements, but with the Malazans themselves the attackers!
I think the author can trust us to get Larkin’s disgust from both the content of his dialogue and the “spat,” just as he can trust us to get that Temper is laughing because he knows the Malazans used the same tactics. (Plus, I just hate narrator exclamation points!) And the “fight” scene was a bit too pat as precursor to an upcoming scene; I would have preferred a more slanted reference than such a direct parallel.
Mmmmmm, thalassocracy.... (word-lovers unite!)
Kiska is certainly naive (as Esselemont is again perhaps at too much pains to make clear) and I like the contrast between the two points-of-view: one the naïve youth aching to escape this little island and join the “adventurous” world of the army and “be all she can be” and the other—world and war-weary veteran who has seen too much and knows that war is not so glorious and wants nothing but to be left alone on this little island. I do wish Kiska’s interior monologues were less expositional, but I do like her as a character. (Though Temper for me is the true star of the book, at least on my first read.)
Well, we’ve certainly built up the omens for the night: Shadow Moon, Claws a-plenty, mysterious gray-cloaked mages, Temper’s past staring at him like a death’s head in the form of a Bridgeburner at the tavern, Stormriders-a-comin’, rumors of the Return, and of course, a storm a-brewin’. And then the kicker: “this Shadow Moon nonsense.” Nonsense? Never mock the Old Wives’ tales (not to mention, never get involved in a land war in Asia and don’t put baby in the corner). Now the night is bound to turn bad.
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.