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 Seven of House of Chains by Steven Erikson (HoC).
Just a note for today that Amanda has had to deal with a sudden crisis and so may or may not be commenting this week. She sends her apologies.
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.
Tavore is reviewing an assembly of the 14th Army, which isn’t going well. Gamet’s legion arrived late and disordered while the other two legions wait. Nok, meanwhile, has sailed with the fleet. Cuttle arrives with a dozen others, all looking pretty ragged in mismatched armor, and he explains they were in jail and he himself had killed an Untan noble called Lenestro. He tells Gamet he can get the legion under control. Gamet begins to lead him to where Tavore stands, just after Fiddler frees himself of the mob and heads toward her as well. Fiddle and Cuttle (both of whom are unknown to Gamet) make eye contact then communicate via gestures. Cuttle tells Fiddler to “draw us a line” and as Fiddler does that, Cuttle extracts munitions from his bag, telling Gamet and Tavore to withdraw some distance and to warn the Wickans to get off and hold their horses. Tavore begins to object but Cuttle interrupts and tells her to move. Fiddler and Cuttle discuss munitions placement as Gamet shakes his head thinking “sappers.”
The explosion gets the legion’s attention (as well as knocking a third down) and Cuttle and Fiddler gets them in order. Gamet asks if Cuttle’s dead nobleman was on the Chain of Dogs. Cuttle says ye and he was too until he was wounded and put on the Silanda. He said he would have preferred to have killed Pullyk Alar, but he’s run off with Mallick Rel, whom he’d also like to kill. Gamet offers him a command position, but Cuttle says he’s assigned to Fiddler’s squad (he calls him Strings) and prefers to stay there. Gamet asks how he know Fiddler and Cuttle, obviously lying, tells him he’s never met him before.
After reviewing the now ordered 8th legion, Tavore tells Baralta and Blistig to send their legions in a company at a time. She’s interrupted when the 8th suddenly goes quiet, reacting to the appearance of Gamet’s toddler son Grub appears and walks to the exact spot where Tavore had just been reviewing the soldiers. Grub sees Keneb and raises his arms, revealing that he is holding a human bone. Keneb picks him up and explains to Tavore Grub was given him by Duiker, an orphan of the Chain of Dogs. He apologizes and she murmurs, “It is far too late for that.” Gamet thinks she is right: “Soldiers—even recruits—recognized an omen when it arrived. A child in the very boot prints of the woman who would lead this army. Raising high a sun-bleached thighbone. Gods below.”
Fiddler calls a meeting of veterans, including Stormy, Gesler, and Cuttle. They are all depressed: There was no doubt among them concerning the meaning of the omen and Strings was inclined to agree. A child leads us to our deaths. A leg bone to signify our march, withered under the curse of the desert sun . . . this army of recruits now see themselves as already dead.” Fiddler tells them of a similar situation years ago when Nok commanded a half-dozen ships. They were going to meet pirate ships blessed by priests of D’rek, the Worm of Autumn. Nok’s fleet drew water at a river and sailed on with the barrels stored. When they opened the first, a paralt snake came out and bit the sailor that opened the barrel, killing him. Nok “shrugged the whole event off” and then, when he’d heard sailors and marines were dying of thirst because nobody wanted to open the other barrels, he ordered one brought up and opened it himself. It was full of snakes, as were all the others. The fleet never met the pirates and returned with half the crew dead. They sank all the ships in the harbor as an offering to D’rek. Nok had to wait another year to deal with the pirates. Fiddler tells them that was a story of how not to deal with this sort of thing: “You don’t destroy an omen by fighting it. No, you do the opposite. You swallow it whole.” He tells them he’d heard of a nearby cemetery “blown clear, the bones exposed to all” and tells them that’s where they’re heading.
Tavore addresses a meeting of commanders and tells them they march in two days. Gamet thinks to himself they should just disband the 14th; it’s useless after Grub’s action. Tavore tells them, as if she knew what Gamet was thinking, they can’t afford not to march; even if they are “annihilated” at least they’ll reduce Sha’ik’s army. She tells them to tell the officers she’ll be visiting each company tonight, restrict all men to barracks, have the Red Blades confiscate all alcohol, durhang, and the like. She dismisses them and calls for T’amber. Gamet thinks mentioning T’amber publically was a mistake, “That perfumed lover of yours has been kept from the sights of everyone here but me. They know of course. Even so.”
Blistig pulls Gamet and Baralta aside and tells Gamet Tavore is crazy: “We cannot march at all. There will be a mutiny at worst, at best an endless bleeding of desertions. The Fourteenth is finished.” Gamet asks if Blistig and Keneb set up the scene with Grub. Baralta stops Blistig from drawing his sword in indignation, but also tells Blistig he had wondered the same. Blistig says Keneb would never do such a thing. Gamet tells them Tavore asked for two days and when Blistig objects that it was an order, Gamet tells him he wasn’t paying attention: “The Adjunct, young and untested as she is, is not a fool. She sees what you see—what we all see. But she has asked for two days . . . Trust her.” They other two agree. Baralta asks about T’amber: “Why is the Adjunct being so cagey? Women who take women for lovers—the only crime is the loss to men and so it has always been.” Gamet tells him Tavore isn’t being cagey, just private. Baralta wants to know what T’amber is like and if she has “undue influence” and Gamet replies he has no idea. He says he thinks she was a concubine in the Grand Temple of the Queen of Dreams back on Unta, but he’s hardly spoken to her. Before leaving, he tells Blistig he no longer suspects him.
Lostara Yil finishes stowing her Red Blade equipment. She had enjoyed being a Red Blade. She recalls growing up on the streets of Ehrlitan—“It had been common practice—before the Malazans came with their laws for families—among many tribes to cast out their unwanted children once they reached the fifth year of life.” Many were taken up by various temples and cults, though nobody knew what happened next with those children. She was rounded up at seven by the Rashan cult, where she spent two years doing menial labor, then was selected to be taught Shadow Dancing:
You are nothing child. Not a dancer. Your body is in service to Rashan, and Rashan is this realm’s manifestation of Shadow, the drawing of darkness to light. When you dance, it is not you that is watched. IT is the shadow your body paints. The shadow is the dancer, Lostara Yil, not you.” Meanwhile, the Malazan Empire came and purged many Seven Cities cults, but not Rashan, “for it was a recognized religion.” She remembers the night the cult was destroyed.
A High Priest from another city was visiting. Come to speak with Master Bidithal . . . There would be a dance . . . She remembered the stranger . . . Tall, thin, a laughing face, remarkably long-fingered, almost effeminate hands—hands the sight of which awakened in her new emotions . . . that stuttered her mechanical dancing.” Bidithal grew angry she had tainted the dance, drawn attention to herself, but the stranger’s “eyes held Lostara, in fullest recognition of the desire that overwhelmed her . . . Recognition and a certain pleased, but cool acknowledgment. As if flattered, but with no invitation offered in return . . . Of course, Delat had not come to steal the heart of a Caster. He had come to destroy Rashan. Delat, who it proved, was both a High Priest and a Bridgeburner, and whatever the Emperor’s reason for annihilating the cult, his was the hand that delivered the deathblow. Although not alone. The night of the killings . . . there had been another . . . an assassin . . . Lostara had been the only resident spared. OR so she believed for a long time, until the name of Bidithal rose once more.” And she thinks, “I was more than spared that night, wasn’t I? Delat’s lovely long-fingered hands.”
She joined the Red Blades—seen by the Seven Cities people as the “deliverers of Malazan justice” and she was fine with that as these people had betrayed her, had let be cast out at five, be dragged away by Bidithal at seven. She wonders if she now is a betrayer, and wonders as well what caused the Talons to turn against the Empire. “Betrayal was a mystery. Inexplicable to Lostara. She only knew that it delivered the deepest wounds of all.” Cotillion suddenly appears in her room. He tells her he was there that night in Ehrlitan: I was witness to your unexpected performance. Did you know Delat—or rather, the man I would eventually learn was Delat—would have taken you for his own? Not just he one night. You would have joined him as a Bridgeburner, and that would well have pleased him. Or so I believe. No way to test it, alas, since it all went—outwardly—so thoroughly awry . . . Delat, who had a different name for that mission and was my partner’s responsibility besides—Delat let Bidithal go. I suppose it seemed a betrayal, yes? It certainly did to my partner . . . who was not Shadowthrone then, simply a particularly adept and ambitious practitioner of Rashan’s sister warren, Meanas.” He introduces himself as both Cotillion and Dancer and implies a connection between that last name and what she was trained to do, telling her “it was never meant for performance, Lostara. It was, in fact, an art most martial. Assassination.” He calls upon her loyalty to the Empire and she assumes he’s going to say Laseen shouldn’t be the ruler. He, though, replies Laseen is “welcome to it . . . but she could do with some help.” Lostara responds “She supposedly assassinated you . . . She betrayed you.” But Cotillion shrugs it off, saying, “everyone had their appointed tasks. The game being played here is far larger than any mortal empire. Btu the empire . . . its success is crucial to what we seek . . . and the Empress sits on a tottering throne.” When she asks didn’t Cotillion betray Shadowthrone, he tells her “sometimes I see further than my dear companion. Indeed, he remains obsessed with desires to see Laseen suffer—I have other ideas, and while he may see them as party to his own, there is yet no pressing need to disabuse him of that notion . . . I admit to having made grave errors, indeed to knowing the poison of suspicion. Quick Ben. Kalam. Whiskeyjack. Where did their loyalty truly reside? Well, I eventually got my answer but I am not yet decided whether it pleases me or troubles me. There is one danger that plagues ascendants in particular, and that is the tendency to wait too long . . . I would make amends for past, at times fatal, hesitation.” He tells her he’d rather she doesn’t tell Pearl. She asks where Delat is and he answers “I have no hold over him these days . . . He is too powerful. Too mysterious. Too conniving. Too Hood-damned smart . . . Sometimes one must simply trust in fate, Lostara. The future can ever promise but one thing and one thing only: surprises. Btu know this, we would all save the Malazan Empire in our own ways.” She asks if he’s making her a Talon and when he says they no longer exists, she angrily tell shim not to play her for a fool. He reiterates that Surly destroyed them and asks if she has knowledge otherwise and she says she just assumed. She asks what he wants her to do.
Later, Pearl enters and says he senses magic. She tells him she was doing the Shadow Dance moves—keeps her flexible for fighting—and they can sometimes evoke Rashan. He tells her she should avoid that so as not to draw attention.
Pearl and Lostara go to question Gesler, Stormy, and Pella. They find Gesler in the barracks and Stormy asleep. Gesler tells Pearl if he wants to talk to Stormy, he can wake him up. Pearl rips the covers off Stormy, who grabs Pearl and throws him across the room. When he advances on Pearl, Gesler says let him be, he’s a Claw and Lostara is a Red Blade. Lostara tells them Pearl wants to hear their story and then asks where Pella is. She’s told out back and she goes to talk to him, finding him drilling holes into lots of small bones. She asks about his time as guard in the mines and as she tries to be discrete, he figures out she’s asking about Tavore’s sister Felisin: “I was wondering when somebody would find me about that. Am I under arrest?” When she asks why he would be, he answers he helped them escape the night of the Uprising—she and Baudin and Heboric. He describes them and their plan but he doesn’t know if they ever made it to a rendezvous on the other side of the island, but Truth might. She notes that Truth has the same strange skin as Gesler and Stormy and then asks about Felisin’s group. He tells her Kulp, sent by Duiker, was involved in order to help Heboric. Pella warns her against slandering Duiker: “This is Aren after all. The city that watched. That saw Duiker delivering the refugees to safety. He was the last one through the gate they say.” She tells him she knows, that Blistig had freed them from jail but after Pormqual led his army out. She has no interest she says in besmirching Duiker or his freeing of Heboric; she’s interested in Felisin. Truth figures she was sent by Tavore and he and Pella say they’ll keep it secret. Truth, though, says they’re all dead; Gesler is just telling Pearl that. Pella gives her one of the bones before she leaves and tells her to wear it prominently, but not why. She and Pearl leave and Pearl says he needs a handler—that Stormy was unnaturally strong and that there is something strange about all three: Stormy, Gesler, and Truth. He adds Gesler merely assumes Felisin’s group died; he doesn’t actually know. He plans to check out the Silanda. He also tells her Stormy was lucky she stepped between him and Pearl and she says Pearl obviously missed the T’lan Imass sword—that “probably weights as much as I do”—under Stormy’s bed, which shuts him up. At the Silanda, Pearl tells her most of the wood is from Drift Avalii, a drifting island filled not with “demons and spectres” as Lostara says is rumored, but with “hardly anything so frightening.” He uncovers a pile of severed heads, mostly Tiste Andii, and tells Lostara the ship is filled with layers and layers of magic: Kurald Galain, Telann, Kurald Emurlahn, Rashan.” Inside he finds the Tiste Edur killed by Karsa and otataral dust on the floor. He tells her Felisin was there and wonders who killed the Edur and what happened to the whistle that animates the rowers. He tells her they’re going to head for where Felisin’s group may have left the Silanda as it journeyed through warrens—across the mainland from the Otataral Sea to Aren Bay. Lostara says they may have ended up in the middle of the rebellion and Pearl says that may have seemed a good thing compared to what they’d been through.
The army forms for Tavore’s review. Ranal notes the bones everyone is wearing and blames Fiddler for it, saying he’ll tell the Adjunct that when she wonders who “is responsible for this last spit in her face over what happened yesterday.” Fiddler calls him an idiot. Eyeing Keneb, Fiddler thinks of what he’d heard of how he’d ended up in Aren and wonders if Keneb is a coward who ran. He’s surprised when Tavore points to something around Keneb’s neck and he realizes Keneb’s wearing a bone. Tavore asks Ranal about the bones and he tells her it’s against his orders. She interrupts and tells him to make them more standardized in how they are worn and that the looted graveyards should be returned to their former state as much as possible. She adds he should get one himself. Fiddler thinks “oh well done lass.”
Gamet thinks whoever came up with the bone idea deserved a kiss: “they’ve turned the omen. Turned it!” He notes the “rekindled fire in Tavore’s eyes” as she orders him to make a standard inspired by the bones. He agrees. A messenger arrives and informs Tavore 300 Wickans with horses and dogs have arrived as volunteers: “Clan of the Crow. The Crow! Coltaine’s own!”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Eight
In a chapter with such a focus on omens, how about the image that begins with Tavore being “engulfed”: “A pernicious wind was seeping the dust cloud directly toward the Adjunct. In moments she was engulfed . . . No commander could be more alone that she was now. Alone and helpless.” A whirlwind of dust swallowing her—foreshadowing the Whirlwind itself? Alone—is this her path? Helpless? We’ll see. And what about a few lines later, when she saved Gamet “the humiliation of trying to impose some order on his troops. She had, instead, taken that humiliation upon herself.” What does this tell us about Tavore’s acts in the future?
Past that we get some nice humor:
You’ve got to love the introduction of Cuttle and the others: showing up late because they were in jail, the sack “thumping” into the ground, half the standard issue armor, a “random” collection of fittings, a “threadbare, stained” uniform, no insignia, a “scarred, pitted” face, the others “decrepit,” wearing “piecemeal” armor, carrying a whole bunch of non-standard, non-Malazan weapons. “Sappers.”
I like too the immediacy with which Fiddler and Cuttle fall into knowing exactly what to do and who will do what. I don’t know many authors, possibly none, who do camaraderie anywhere near as well as Erikson does. He shows us the serious side of it as well at the end of the scene when Cuttle claims, knowing Gamet won’t buy it, he never met Fiddler before.
Gamet’s internal thoughts add some laughs as well. His momentary image of Fiddler killing Tavore in front of the army, his “gulp” when he realizes exactly what was in that big bag that “thumped” down right next to him.
Humor grows as well out of the disconnect between Tavore’s title/position and Cuttle’s language: “lass,” “lady,” “comely hip.”
Lenestro, by the way, is the noble whom Duiker stopped from whipping his servant. No great loss.
It’s a nice pivot, that scene with Grub. We’ve had all this humor, then we get a “happy scene” with the army settled and Tavore having learned a lesson, and now we got this toddler wandering up. What kooky krazy hijinks are going to happen now, we’re wondering. And then we get that human leg bone. And boy does the tone switch. Look at the language used throughout now: froze, hiss, thing, gasps, shiver, struggling, dread, screaming, shaky, snapped, brittle. A bit of a change from “cherubic” that preceded it.
Fiddler’s story about Nok introduces yet more scenes involving snakes, a recurring image I’d mentioned last chapter. We saw in Sha’ik’s camp, and now here in Tavore’s world, lots of references to betrayal, and I think the snake imagery is playing right to that theme, a theme that will run throughout this book. Who will the snakes in the grass be by the end?
We see a quick glimpse of mistrust in Tavore’s camp when both Gamet and Baralta wonder if Blistig and Keneb set up the scene with Grub. And it’s a bit interesting that, indignant as he is, Blistig’s best defense is that Keneb wouldn’t have done such a thing.
Gamet: “The Adjunct is simply a private woman.” Possibly the biggest understatement in all the series.
Nice little bit of suspense and mystery surrounding T’amber as well. Who is she? What, if any, is her influence? Is Gamet right that she was a concubine? Is there significance, if his info is right, to the connection between her and the Queen of Dreams?
So, raise your hands if you think the fact that Lostara Yil is a Shadow Dancer isn’t going to be significant at some point. Thought so.
I like how there is the connection with Bidithal here in Lostara’s flashback coming so soon after we had the discussion of him as a former priest, etc. But it raises the question of whether his “appetites” were going on then as well and whether Lostara Yil ever suffered from them. On the one hand, I’m not sure if that’s the sort of thing one comes to late in life. On the other, assaulting those you’re teaching the Shadow Dance to, which as Cotillion tells us later is an assassination artistry, seems just a tad risky. And of course, Lostara doesn’t mention anything about Bidithal in her recollection. Anyone want to guess?
Related, I have to wonder why Quick Ben lets Bidithal escape, especially if Bidithal is the same kind of guy we see now. I can’t put that together—anybody any ideas?
As for the reason for the purge, I’m going on the assumption that Dancer and Shadowthrone were clearing the road of possible obstacles in their ascension to Shadow, getting rid of folks who might try to prevent them or might have some power to harm them.
So I’m thinking Quick Ben and Lostara slept together that night, going with her obvious attraction, her fond memory of his “long-fingered hands,” and the phrase “I was more than spared that night, wasn’t I?” I can’t figure out what else the “more than spared” would cover. (Also kinda gives another light to Dancer’s pause when he tells her “I was witness to your . . .unexpected performance.” The Shadow Dance yes, but something else?)
Cotillion’s statements about his view toward Laseen and the Empire of course bring up some questions. After all, in GoTM, we have Cotillion telling Shadowthrone: “Laseen remains our target, and the collapse of the Empire she rules but never earned.” So it appears that either this is a contradiction of character/plot or Cotillion and possibly Shadowthrone had planned to take down Laseen but since then they’ve learned other things that make a strong Empire more important (I lean toward the latter). Others?
What do you all think of Cotillion’s lines that he didn’t fully trust Quick Ben, Kalam, or Whiskeyjack (more betrayal theme by the way), then believed he has learned “where their loyalties truly reside,” but the answer wasn’t the fully satisfying one he was hoping for. Questions raised: Why does he mistrust them? When did he mistrust them? When did he learn whom they are loyal to? Who are they loyal to in his mind? Why does that answer not comfort him? As usual in these kinds of areas, I’ve got my own theories, but I like throwing the questions out to spark some discussion before just tossing my ideas out.
A separate question re Cotillion coming up right after these lines is when does he think he screwed up by hesitating, by acting too slowly?
And let’s take a look at an early glimpse into the power of Quick Ben—we have an Ascendant saying he has no hold over Quick because he is “too powerful.” That sets us up for some big things from Quick in the future. (We’re already well aware of his being “too conniving. Too Hood-damned smart.")
Lostara offers up a bit of surprise news to Cotillion re the Talons. Wonder what he’ll do if he thinks the band is getting together without their lead singer....
And, as one might expect, we get the tease about just what does Cotillion want her to do. He’s doing a lot of delegating in these chapters....
“And have you a name soldier?”
“Well, what is it?”
“I just told you . . . ”
Cue rim shot....
This whole scene is a nice interlude of humor. It’s easy to forget when recalling the reading experience, with all the death and tragedy and warfare, etc. just how many funny lines there really are in the series.
I also enjoyed Lostara’s all hush-hush secret mission tiptoeing around things cut short with Pella’s “Tavore’s sister you mean. Felisin.” You can almost hear the needle go scraping off the record at that point. Well, you could, if any of you damn young’uns knew what a needle was, a record, and what it sounded like when the two were together and then, abruptly, were not.
Kulp. The name still gets me. I’ve said it before; I really respect the way Erikson doesn’t let his reader forget the dead in this series.
And more ripping away of the veil of secrecy surrounding Lostara’s mission (a pretty translucent veil, it seems, one of those that you might see when... never mind) as Truth just assumes Tavore sent her and Pearl.
This scene does another nice job of reminding the reader of what happened two books ago, again in a fashion that makes sense rather than in contrived fashion. And it also reminds us of points that will be important down the road: Stormy, Gesler, and Truth having gone through a warren of fire, the ways in which that journey changed them beyond simple skin color, the T’lan Imass sword Stormy has.
A tiny bit more info on Drift Avalii, where we know Cutter and Apsalar are headed: it does drift, and it does have something on it seemingly, though according to Pearl whatever is on the island isn’t as frightening as “demons and specters.”
Pearl’s listing of warrens on the Silanda is another neat way of reminding us of events there:
- Kurald Galain: the Andii (the dead crew)
- Telann: The Imass that appeared there, both the Seven and their pursuers
- Kurald Emurlahn: The Edur Karsa killed
- Rashan: Kulp when he was on board
Hmm, where’s that whistle?
Ah, Ranal. Good to have a noble to hate again, isn’t it? Love Fiddler: “you are a raging idiot.”
I love too how Tavore yanks the ground underneath Ranal when he’s thinking he’s getting Fiddler in trouble and she’s like—great idea; let’s really make it our thing....
A tiny moment of suspense with the messenger is quite effective. After all, we’ve just enjoyed Ranal being put in his place, a major victory for Fiddler, a positive glimpse of what Tavore is capable of, so when the messenger arrives all a puffing, we’re bound to think, like Gamet, “great—here it comes, the other shoe . . . ” And instead we get that rousing close. Though, now we’re wondering how Erikson’s going to turn this around on us....
Taking a bit of a big picture here, we’ve had some interesting parallels going on
We’ve been shown Sha’ik’s camp: an army with infighting concerns about betrayal, with characters worried about their commander, and then we leave them on a moment of celebration.
Then we’re shown Tavore’s army, brittle, untested, concerns about the commander, concerns about each other (noble officers, Blistig), and we end on a note of celebration with them as well.
And of course, we have the obvious parallel: each one led by a sister. It’s a nice set-up.
We’ve also got a running theme of betrayal now—lots of characters talking about being worried about traitors, lots of characters we have reason to think our traitors, talk of past betrayals, and imagery of betrayal—the snakes.
We’ve got a suspense thread just beginning: the search by Tavore for what happened to her sister running side by side the their movement toward conflict with each other, leaving the reader in suspense as to will Tavore learn Sha’ik is Felisin before actually going to war against Felisin. If yes, how will that change things? If no, what will that mean?
We’ve got characters in chains (literally) and figuratively. Who is in chains? What is chaining them? Will they free themselves? For example:
Karsa’s people chained to their ignorance of their past, to their misguided faith, to their tales and views of glory. Karsa, of course, is literally chained (several times) and literally breaks his chains (several times), which I’d say can be read as him breaking the chains of his people, which we see him doing as he evolves/changes. There is also the idea that freeing yourself is a constant, ongoing process.
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.