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 Chapter 16 of Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (MoI).
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.
Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A forum thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
I hope everyone is keeping up with our new posting schedule! Wednesdays AND Fridays, one chapter each day!
Itkovian and the Grey Swords fight the Tenescowri and Itkovian is horrified by how the Tenescowri rape and feed on the dead, as well as by how he and his own are slaughtering these unarmed, untrained peasants. He is impaled by a pike in the back and a broken-off knife blade in his knee before fighting free and reaching the just-arriving reinforcements led by Brukhalian and Karnadas. Itkovian asks Karnadas to heal his men and horse then slips into unconsciousness.
Gruntle and his squad fight in another part of the city, retreating into a building and filling it with the dead. His forearms have taken on a “strange pattern of blood stains, barbed and striped, the blood blackening and seeming to creep into his skin.” The same stripes “spread away from his eyes and bearded cheeks. Tawny amber streaked the beard itself. His eyes were the colour of sun-withered prairie grass.” His cutlasses have also changed, “were yellowed white—fangs in truth now.” Stonny is fighting with them now, her pain “the debt he had only begun to pay.” His Lestari lieutenant “knew . . . he and the rest of the militia now existed more within the mind of Gruntle than they did in the real world. They fought with skills they had never before possessed. They did not tire.” The Lestari tells Gruntle, “You are Trake’s Mortal Sword.” Gruntle ignores the comment and asks if Stonny is okay. They continue to retreat up floor by floor.
Brukhalian watches as the cutters and Karnadas work to save the wounded, noting Karnadas has gone “too far” and how his body is now showing its “irreversible surrender,” and he knows Karnadas will be dead by dawn. The Grey Swords have been nearly totally destroyed in the defense and he acknowledges that Capustan has fallen. A messenger (the recruit with Itkovian when they met the K’Chain Che’Malle) arrives with a communication from Rath’Fener via an acolyte saying the Thrall is under attack and the priest is invoking the Eighth Command, demanding Brukhalian ride to his succor. Brukhalian is suspicious about how the acolyte managed to get across the city, then asks the messenger if she will join them. He then changes his mind and tells her to stay and guard his horse and then to “inform the Shield Anvil of my disposition when he awakes.” When she wonders what he means, he says she will know soon. He collects 400 soldiers, nearly all that is left of the Gray Swords and they head off, many of them knowing as he does that they are not meant to return, that they have been betrayed by Rath’ Fener. A suspicion Brukhalian confirms with a veteran, who says they should not go. Brukhalian tells him the priest’s crime will be answered, but not by them for if they do not go there is no crime. When the veteran looks forward to when Fener punishes the priest, Brukhalian corrects him, saying “our god shall not be the one . . . this is a betrayal that wounds him deeply, leaves him weakened and vulnerable to fatal consequences . . . our vengeful hand shall be Itkovian.” They enter the Thrall area and are cut down by archers lying in wait.
Itkovian wakes and in his mind sees the scene at the Thrall, as after the archers foot soldiers attack the Grey Swords. Brukhalian’s sword burns with black fire that consumes the Pannion soldiers even as Brukhalian is wounded beyond mortal wounds, until he finally dies and it explodes, killing even more. As Brukhalian’s corpse drops to its knees, Hood appears “to greet this man’s soul. In person.” Then he disappears and it begins to rain. Itkovian feels Rath’Fener’s eyes sharing this same vision and he tells him “You are mine, betrayer. Mine.”
Buke flies over the city, numbed by the horror below. At the necromancers’ estate, the Tenescowri have been repeatedly turned back by the animated corpses and other sorcery. He sees a single building filled and surrounded by the dead, surrounded by fire yet not burning, the walls weeping blood, and Gruntle and his squad on the roof where their child’s tunic standard flies. He thinks of Gruntle: “A terrible transformation . . . one more victim of this siege.”
Itkovian comes fully awake, only partially healed. Karnadas is next to him, dying. The recruit messenger tells him there are 137 Grey Swords left, 96 of them recruits, and their barracks is fallen and burning. Karnadas dies. The messenger requests to be punished for bringing Rath’ Fener’s traitorous message. Itkovian tells her Brukhalian well knew what he was doing. As she leaves, Itkovian says, “I am not yet done.”
Itkovian prepares the surviving Grey Swords for a march to the palace. He gives Brukhalian’s warhorse to the recruit.
As they approach the palace, Itkovian feels some shame that Brukhalian had asked for six weeks and had gotten only three days. They enter into the main hall where Tenescowri are feasting, including Anaster and his mother. Near the throne, the Prince’s skin is stretched out on an x-shaped cross made of pikes. Anaster tells him the Prince was already dead—”we are not consciously cruel”—and says this must be Itkovian. He tells him they have figured out the population is hiding in tunnels and the Pannions are searching for them. Itkovian tells him he sees Anaster’s despair and will take it from him. When Anaster questions him, the Grey Sword captain explains: “Fener knows grief, so much grief that it is beyond his capacity to withstand it. And so he chooses a human heart. Armoured. A mortal soul, to assume the sorrow of the world. The Shield Anvil.” Anaster refuses and Itkovian realizes Anaster has nothing but despair; without it “he is as nothing.” Battle breaks out and the Seerdomin are killed as the Tenescowri flee. Itkovian commands the Prince’s skin be taken down and he will be returned to the throne. He says he will meet Anaster again-”I am his only salvation, sir, and I shall not fail him . . . I am the world’s grief. And I will hold. I will hold it all, for we are not yet done.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Sixteen:
Well, the poem certainly presents the First Child of the Dead Seed as a tragic figure—the victim of circumstance and upbringing. I guess it addresses the whole nature vs. nurture argument. Although we must despise the manner in which the First Child has been conceived, can we immediately despise him? It is, in essence, blaming a child of rape for the circumstances surrounding his being conceived. This makes me think more kindly of the First Child—at least until the point Erikson provides another perspective of the situation!
How ominous the words, “And Capustan drowned.” It really does make the situation very real and desperate.
As we read about the Tenescowri, is anyone else thinking “zombie horde”? That is exactly what is brought to mind for me—a shambling, ill-disciplined horde with food on their mind. I’m also terrified by the fact that they have clearly overrun the city, enough to be surrounding the barracks.
As peasants fell back, tumbled their way down the slope of corpses, women leapt at the men among them, tore at their clothing, pinned them in place with straddled legs and, amidst blood, amidst shrieks and clawing fingers, they raped them.
This really is disgusting– I’m sorry, but this genuinely sickens me and leaves me struggling to read on in this section. Am I being over-sensitive, or are other people as shocked by what Erikson writes? Anyone else struggling?
I guess, for these inhuman harpies, the bodies of the Grey Swords would be greatly desired for the seed they could provide. *sad*
Here we have two perspectives of how to deal war—the Seer, who is willing to throw thousands upon thousands to death to achieve his aim, and Itkovian, who is sickened to the core by having to deal such slaughter. You know how sometimes it is hard to know who to root for in Erikson’s novels? I think I’m good here....
Wow... just. Wow. That whole sequence dealing with Itkovian’s desperate battle against the Tenescowri—the wounds he suffers, his proud and indomitable horse, his ability and his faith—WOW. I feel exhausted having read it, to be honest. And then heartbreak at the end:
“Destriant!” he gasped, weaving on his saddle. “My horse, sir...my soldiers...”
No thought to the horrific wounds he’s sustained, his first thought is for those supporting him. Itkovian is a hero.
More hints as to the path that Gruntle is taking:
No weariness weighed down his arms or dulled his acuity. His breathing remained steady, only slightly deeper than usual. His forearms showed a strange pattern of blood stains, barbed and striped, the blood blackening and seeming to seep into his skin.
Is the Tiger actually riding him right now?
I wonder—will Stonny realise the price that Gruntle has paid and is paying in order to avenge her?
Knew, somehow, that he and the rest of the militia now existed more within the mind of Gruntle than they did in the real world.
Hmm, is Gruntle somehow using a warren?
And here is the final confirmation:
Their eyes locked for a long moment, and the lieutenant was both chilled and warmed by what he saw within the vertical slits of Gruntle’s pupils. A man to fear...a man to follow...a man to love. “You are Trake’s Mortal Sword,” he said.
Heh, always a word to watch for: “...the militia was converging...”
Here, this might be the first real comment on what might happen in the event that a user pulls too much on their warren—Brukhalian’s observations of Karnadas show a man who is literally bleeding to death from within. Or is this because of the poison contaminating the warrens? It sounds very much as thought this is something Brukhalian is familiar with, which suggests that this is the fate of anyone who uses their warren past the limits of their power. Not nice.
Again Erikson uses his characters hard. None of this trio—Itkovian, Brukhalian or Karnadas—are going to emerge from the battle unscathed, even with the magical healing that might be available. Erikson is constantly showing us that life during war is incredibly hard and leads to consequences. Unlike other fantasy novels, some of these characters will die horribly; all of them will be irretrievably changed. This is heart-breaking knowledge on its own, and something we’ve seen from the very first page of the prologue in Gardens of the Moon, where we met a young and naive Paran.
Brukhalian knows instantly that this is the moment of his betrayal, doesn’t he? As he is commanded to bring Fener’s company to the rescue of Rath’Fener. It is interesting that Brukhalian states that Fener will not be able to take revenge on Rath’Fener because the betrayal weakens him—the actions of his representative on the Masked Council make him vulnerable. We are indeed seeing power slanting from one God of War to the other, aren’t we? As one rises and grants power to his newly-appointed Mortal Sword, the other is betrayed and can no longer influence proceedings.
Itkovian is to provide the revenge on Rath’Fener, and Nilbanas pronounces himself “calmed” at the news—what is it about Itkovian that leaves him with this feeling?
Ack, another terribly hard scene to read—this is harrowing stuff. This book reaches further into darkness than those preceding. Here we see the death of Brukhalian through Itkovian’s eyes, as his body is brutally dismembered by the enemy. Really nasty. Dark. Bitter. I hope there is some levity to come, because this chapter has been a trauma so far. I can see no glory in these battles, just pain.
The King of High House Death has come to collect the soul of Brukhalian—I echo Itkovian when I say “Why?” RAFO?
Dear Lord—the Tenescowri have fled in terror from Korbal Broach and Bauchelain! That is some badass wizardry being thrown at them!
We are reminded by Buke’s observations that, although this battle was brutal, the citizens of Capustan have been given a sliver of hope by the actions of the Grey Swords. They still remain below the ground of Capustan. Can you imagine the claustrophobic terror of being trapped beneath the ground, as battle and desecration happens above your head? I’m reminded a little of the people of Rohan hiding within the mountains as their menfolk strive to fend off a terrible threat.
Hmm, we’ve been told a few times that the palace is something “other”—here, Buke observes, “To the southeast, hazy with rain and smoke, rose the prince’s palace towers. Dark, seemingly inviolate.” Are we ever going to have it revealed why Erikson is pointing out the otherworldly aspect of the palace?
The last sequence of Buke’s flight, as he sees the tenement where Gruntle has been battling, is extraordinarily powerful stuff. First, the image of the tenement building—walls weeping blood, “a mass of flesh and bone [...] a giant mausoleum, a monument to this day—and then that image of Gruntle—studying the horror he has committed, barbed in shadows, twin blades like bone.” It is wickedly written, giving me a perfect image of what Erikson intended me to see. Perfect writing.
I will just say—I find it slightly odd that the Grey Swords respond to both men and women as “sir”!
Wow, I can’t believe that Itkovian ends up thinking the following: “Brukhalian had asked for six weeks. Itkovian had given him less than three days. The truth of that gnawed within him...” As though the fault was his that Capustan was devastated by a force the like of which few had seen!
Alright, I’m willing to concede that Anaster might not be worth giving any chance to. Redemption seems beyond him. I’m actually shaking at the fate of Jelarkan, a man I thought it might have been easy to respect. And the horror of realising that the Tenescowri and their mad leader know exactly where the citizens of Capustan are hidden....
The Shield Anvil shook his head, slowly straightened once more. “No, I understand. The First Child—within him there is naught but despair. Without it... He is as nothing.”
Anaster does grieve for his actions.
And what a breathless sequence to end the chapter:
“I am Fener’s grief. I am the world’s grief. And I will hold. I will hold it all, for we are not yet done.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Sixteen:
It says a lot about Itkovian, as you point out Amanda, that he is horrified and sickened not simply by the obvious—the raping of the corpses and the feeding on human flesh—but by the slaughter he and his people are delivering upon those committing the horror, and how it leaves him hating not the Tenescowri, but the Pannion Seer who has “done such a thing to his own people” as well as the Septarch Kulpath for sending these untrained, unarmored, sometimes unweaponed peasants against the defenders.
Once again, I have little to say about the battle scenes themselves, save that I enjoy how sharply detailed and rich they are. We rarely, I’d say, get a true sense of a battle from horseback for instance—usually just someone leaning over and “swinging.” Here you get a true sense of the difference between battle between two ground soldiers and battle from horseback, as well as a sense of the partnership between man and horse. Which makes one understand why Itkovian asks Karnadas it be healed; it is not just a beast to him.
Itkovian’s horror at what he is forced to do is in sharp contrast to what we see happen with Gruntle: “Gruntle cut down peasants in order to close with them [Seerdomin]. It was his only desire. To close with them. To kill them. The rest was chaff, irritating, getting in the way. Impediments to what he wanted.” Is this merely a difference in temperament, that Gruntle fights for vengeance while Itkovian fights for defense, or is it related to the gods as well? Trake more of the “hunter” aspect of god of war—colder, more unfeeling? Or is it the contrast of a war god fallen (Fener) and one risen (Trake)?
I think in a lot of works, the transformation of Gruntle into Trake’s Mortal Sword would be portrayed in more heroic terms. After all, he’s getting faster, stronger; he has more endurance, heals faster. His people are affected around him. And with this added power he is killing lots of bad guys. But coming after Itkovian’s POV, we react differently as readers, I’d say, than we might have to the bad guys that are mere “chaff” to Gruntle. Then we see Stonny’s reaction to him—“whatever had rattled her upon their meeting”—as well as Buke’s characterization of him as another “victim” of the war. And this transformation into a being of great power seems a lot less glorious and heroic and positive than it might have seemed on the surface. I mentioned to Amanda last time to think about how Gruntle may react to being “claimed” by Trake and we start to get a hint here when his Lestari tells him what he is and he simply ignores him.
What a nightmare as well is the building? We’ve talked about the cinematic nature of much of Erikson’s writing; I’m not sure this is a setting I want to see on film. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is not.
Remember how Quick Ben first thought of the Grey Swords—mere “mercenaries”? We’ve seen a lot to turn that upside down obviously and so much more here: Karnadas healing until it literally kills him. And Brukhalian accepting Rath’Fener’s treachery and riding to certain death to ensure punishment. Boy was that first impression wrong.
With regard to Brukhalian, I think it makes this so much more poignant and tragic—the riding with full knowledge of what awaits rather than just being surprised by an ambush. I also like how Brukhalian gets it immediately. And I love their reaction to the Seerdomin pretending to be dead:
“Pathetic . . .
The Septarch deems himself clever, sir.”
File this line away about Fener: “this . . . leaves him weakened and vulnerable to fatal consequence.”
I like how when Itkovian first sees the recruit he had taken out earlier (when they met the K’Chain), he thinks he had seen her younger sister earlier, not seeing how she has aged in such brief time. Such a small, easily missed line that carries so much in it. Erikson doesn’t miss many opportunities.
That’s a nice concise explanation of a Shield Anvil we get and that power/role of Itkovian’s will play a huge part in the events of this book. The concept of a god overwhelmed by grief and needing a mortal heart to contain it, to bear the “sorrow of the world” is just a great concept and again, not how one expects “gods” to be used. And note that word “armoured” which we’ve seen again and again throughout.
As we’ve seen so many times before, Erikson overturns our expectations. And so here, with Anaster, who is after all leading an army of cannibals, but not only is he not a ravening monster as would be so easy to portray, but we get Itkovian’s actual sympathy for him, for being filled with nothing but despair.
And no, Itkovian is not yet done . . . boy will that line echo!
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.