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 Twenty-Two of House of Chains by Steven Erikson (HoC).
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.
Fiddler is hanging around the campfire, his marines augmented by several squads of medium infantry, including the Ninth squad (sergeant Balm, also has Deadsmell and Throatslitter. Other squads include Moak, Able, Shortnose, and others). Balm joins Fiddler and says he’s heard “Strings” isn’t his real name. After some banter about names, he asks what Fiddler thinks of moving squads around this late in the game as well as what he thinks of Keneb. Balm himself isn’t sure about Keneb, though he’s pretty sure Ranal, based on being a noble, is likely to get them killed. Gesler joins them, along with two other sergeants: Moak and Thom Tissy. Moak asks if anyone’s heard of “that killer soldier. Heavy infantry, not sure what company. . Neffarias Bredd. I head he killed eighteen raiders all in one night.” There’s some dispute over just how many Bredd killed, so Fiddler calls over another heavy — Flashwit — and she says she’d heard fifty, though she doesn’t know what legion he’s in. The heavy sergeants join and want to know about tomorrow, when Tavore faces the Whirlwind wall “with that sword. Then what? She stabs it? . . . And aren’t we already in Raraku? . . . Why don’t we just wait for them? Or let ‘em stay and rot here . . .Sha’ik wants an empire of sand, let her have it.” Fiddler explains if they leave Sha’ik it will be like a rot that will spread. As for Raraku, he says “If it possesses a power, then that lies in what it does to you, after a while. Maybe not in what it does, but what it gives. Not an easy thing to explain.” Moak repeats some rumors — that they’ll go east and north to wait for Dujek and Tayschrenn. Or that Greymane will be recalled from the Korelri campaign. Fiddler heads off and comes across his squad around Bottle, who is trying a divination using twigs and sticks, something he says he learned from his grandmother, explaining both she and his mother were witches. When asked about his father, he just leaves it at “there were rumors . . . “ Fiddler surprises everyone at his knowledge about this sort of magic. Bottle pulls out a grass doll and says he was trying to have it be “the hand of death . . . but it’s not cooperating. Fiddler asks if he’s using Hood’s warren and Bottle replies “a little,” which makes Fiddler think “There’s more to this lad than I’d first thought.” Fiddler tells him to forget Hood — “He may hover, but won’t stride forward until after the fact” — and try the Patron of Assassins. Bottle flinches at the idea, and Smiles says she’s starting to think he’s just pretending to knowledge, because he’s saying he knows Shadow, Meanas, Hood, and witchery. Bottle performs the spell (with some help from Fiddler) and says he can feel the Rope “close, way too close. There’s power, pouring into or maybe out of that doll, only it’s not moving.” Fiddler points out the doll isn’t moving, but its shadow is. Bottle ends and asks why only the shadow moved and Fiddler says, “Because he isn’t ready yet.” Smiles wants to know if it was the Rope himself, and Bottle says he’s positive it isn’t. Fiddler walks away thinking “No, not the Rope. Someone even better, as far as I’m concerned. As far as every Malazan is concerned . . . He’s here. And he’s on the other side of the Whirlwind Wall. And I know precisely who he’s sharpened his knives for. Now if only that damned singing would stop.”
Gamet stands, feeling that “spirits screamed at him, ghostly hands reaching out through Hood’s Gate. He wants to die to atone for his incompetency that led to the needless deaths of his men: It had driven him mad . . . The voices, the paralyzing uncertainty, the way we was always cold, shivering . . . and the weakness, stealing through his limbs, thinning the blood . . . ‘I have been broken. I failed the Adjunct.’” He thinks Keneb was a good choice as Fist and will do well, especially as he has a family to fight for, to return to. He bemoans his uselessness: “She has certainly never needed me . . . The family tore itself apart and there was nothing I could do . . . Even when a word from me could have changed Felisin’s fate, I just saluted and said ‘Yes, Mistress.’” He believes all his failures and flaws, Tavore has merely seen as acts of loyalty, “the disciplined acceptance of orders no matter how horrendous their outcome. His thoughts are interrupted by Grub (Keneb’s adopted boy) telling him “Loud.” At first Gamet thinks he’s referring to the voices in his head, but Grub then says it’s the sandstorm. Gamet awakens to his surroundings and sees he stands near the Whirlwind Wall, its roar sounding like the voices in his head. He tells himself “I’m not mad.” Grub answers “Me neither,” before saying he likes the new armlet Keneb gets to wear (as Fist): “It’s very shiny. Do you like shiny things? I do, even though they hurt my eyes. Maybe it’s because they hurt my eyes. Grub then tells Gamet that both he and his father feel Gamet thinks too much “about things there’s no point in thinking about,” though he adds he knows why Gamet does this: “The same reason I like shiny things.” Grub leaves to tell Keneb, who has been looking for Gamet, that he found him. Staring at the Whirlwind, Gamet senses it has something new in it, some sense of urgency. He wonders what he was doing there, and then recalls, “He had come looking for death. A raider’s blade across his throat . . . an end to thinking all those thoughts that so hurt my eyes.”
Keneb and Temul arrive and Keneb says they’ve been looking all over for Gamet. When Gamet says Grub had found him and headed off to let Keneb know, Keneb says he doubts it: “He’s yet to say a word to me. Not even in Aren. I’ve heard he talks to others. . But not me. And no, I don’t know why.” He informs Gamet that Tavore is ready to use her otataral sword to breach the Whirlwind and she’s waiting for Gamet. Gamet says she needn’t and when Keneb agrees but says she is anyway and commands his presence, Gamet reluctantly joins them. They ride to where Tavore waits, along with Tene Baralta, Blistig, Nil, and Nether. Gamet warns her there could be an entire army on the other side, but Tavore tells him not to worry: “Besides, can you not hear it? Its shriek is filled with fear. A new sound.” Gamet listens and realizes that is what he had sensed earlier. He asks what will happen when the Whirlwind falls and Nil answers “The Whirlwind Wall encloses a warren. Destroy the Wall and the warren is breached. Making the goddess vulnerable . . . The Army of the Apocalypse will remain strengthened by her power. Those soldiers will never break, will fight on to the bitter end. Especially given the likelihood that that end will be ours, not theirs.” Tavore tells Nil his pessimism isn’t appreciated, then moves with the group to near the wall. Before she can fully unsheathed her sword, the Wall withdraws, leaving the way clear. Tavore asks Nil why and he speculates “She would not willingly take such a wounding . . . She will rely upon her mortal army.” They see Raraku before them and remount, Tavore ordering Temul to send out scouts, though she assumed “they wait for us at a place of their own choosing.” Gamet thinks “and then will come the battle. The death of hundreds, perhaps thousands of soldiers. The Adjunct, as the fist of the Empress. And Sha’ik, Chosen servant of the goddess. A clash of wills, nothing more. Yet it will decide the fate of hundreds of thousands. I want nothing to do with this.” Baralta pulls up next to him and says they need Gamet more than ever, that Tavore needs a “cautious voice.” Gamet rejects the idea and when Baralta brings up the “fog that comes in battle,” Gamet says he’s well aware of it: “I was a soldier once. And I did well enough at that . . . commanding no one but myself . . . I was at my level of competence all those years ago. Baralta replies he should then become simply a solder again, give Tavore that perspective, “realized that whatever weakness you feel is not unique — it is shared, by hundreds or even thousands, there in our legions.” Blistig joins them, adding “She remains too remote from us Gamet. She is without our advice because we have no chance to give it. Worse, we don’t know her strategy . . . Nor her tactics for this upcoming battle . . . It’s dangerous, against Malazan military doctrine. She’s made this war personal.” Gamet looks at Tavore studying the wasteland ahead and thinks “Personal? Yes, she would do that. Because it is what she has always done.” Out loud, he tells them “It is how she is.” Baralta worries they are moving into a trap designed by Dom, but Gamet says Tavore is aware of that possibility but what else can she do but march to meet the enemy? Blistig says they should discuss it, maybe find another path, but Gamet mocks that idea, saying Dom would have foreseen that and destroyed all the waterholes so Raraku could do the killing for him. He says they should just wait, that Tavore will surely call a war council when one is needed. Baralta says she’d better and rides off. Blistig says when she does, Gamet needs to be there, saying “We have enough baggage on this train, with all those nobleborn officers and their endless lists of grievances. Soldiers up from the ranks are rare enough in this army — too rare to see even one throw himself away. I didn’t think much of you at first. You were the Adjunct’s pet. But you managed your legion well enough.” He explains how Gamet erred in putting himself in battle itself, something a Fist should never do — they need to stay back, be “the core . . . If the core wavers or vanishes, the legion falls.” He presses Gamet to take back his command from Keneb, who was only named acting Fist after all, especially as Keneb was a good captain but now there’s a “damned fool” noble in his captain’s place. He continues to push, finally telling Gamet “cease your selfish sulking old man and step back in line.” Gamet backhands Blistig off his horse and breaking his nose, then rides to Tavore and tells him he’s ready to return to duty. Tavore accepts that, but advises him to have those sort of “disagreements” with his fellow Fists in “more private locations in the future.” Gamet looks back at Blistig, who has gotten to his feet smiling. He thinks, “I owe him a free shot,” and leaves Tavore to go “speak” to him.
Fiddler and sergeants climb a hill for a better view of the collapsing Whirlwind wall. Fiddler says “The goddess withdrew . . . I would bet the Adjunct didn’t even draw her sword.” When Borduke wonders why the wall was raised in the first place, Fiddler says he has no idea, “There are other things going on here in Raraku, things we know nothing about.” Gesler guesses it was to keep the Claw out, adding, “Sha’ik and her goddess want this battle. They want it clean. Soldier against soldier. Mage against mage, commander against commander.” But Fiddler says that’s too bad because he has “a hunch . . . they’ve been infiltrated. That’s what I saw from Bottle’s divination. Wish I could be there to see it . . . to help.” Tugg says Moak has heard the Adjunct has something unexpected planned that means they won’t fight at all. Fiddler wants to know where Moak gets all this information and Tugg says he doesn’t know but he “knows things . . . He’s been right plenty of times . . . He says you [Fiddler] were in Onearm’s Host and the Empress wants your head on a spike because you’ve been outlawed . . And he says you [Gesler] and your corporal Stormy are Old Guard . . . serving Dassem Ultor, or maybe Cartheron Crust or his brother Urko . . . And you Borduke, you once threw a nobleborn officer off a cliff.” The others stare at him, then Gesler “drily” says “amazing how wrong he got it all.” When Fiddler worries Moak’s been spreading these stories, Tuggs says Moak only told him and Sobelone and told them not to tell anyone else. Horns sound the march.
Keneb rides up next to Gamet in the rear guard. When Gamet starts to apologize for reclaiming his title, Keneb says he needn’t as he’s happier where he is and because Ranal’s promotion to captain was revoked, especially as Ranal had rearranged the units, “using Greymane’s arrangements. Of course, Greymane was fighting a protracted war over a huge territory with no defined front. He needed self-contained fighting units, ready for any contingency. Even more irritating, he [Ranal] neglected to inform anyone.” He says he’s waiting for Gamet before putting things back, but Gamet says he’ll inform Tavore they’re going to leave it, saying, “it might prove useful. We are to hold the rear at the battle on a broken landscape. Ranal’s decision, no doubt made in ignorance, is none the less suitable.” When Keneb sighs at the news, Gamet knows why, thinking “I may have returned as Fist with the Adjunct’s confirmation, but her decision on our positioning has made it clear she’s lost confidence in me.” They ride on in uncomfortable silence.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Twenty-Two
Some new characters slide in here that we’ll spend a good amount of time with, such as Throatslitter, among others. I do so enjoy how we get to spend so much time with some of these characters.
I did not remember at all that Neffarias Bredd was mentioned this early. I love this running bit. And it really does run — all the way to very end.
Lots of mention in this section of Greymane — we’ll see him eventually.
A few things on the Bottle spell scene:
Bottle is being built up a bit in this section, showing the ability to use multiple warrens and an “older” kind of magic. Something to keep an eye on.
It’s a little throwaway line, how Fiddler feels a chill looking on the squad around Bottle and thinking it’s like Whiskeyjack’s squad around Quick Ben, but it’s one of those many lines that keep grief before the reader, that do not lot the characters or the reader forget the losses.
I’ve said the last two posts how the pace is quickening; the players are being moved into place, etc. Now we have the characters themselves becoming aware of this as Fiddler learns that Kalam is on the other side of the Wall — secrets are no longer secret, another clue that the end is nigh.
I find the scene with Gamet very moving and like how we see the impact of war beyond the more obvious death or wounding. Here we see a slower, more subtle effect but one no less touching. I’d forgotten the scene where Blistig jolts him out of this, forces him to reclaim his command, and I have to say it was a nice thing to see based on where Blistig goes as the series continues.
Of course, there’s good Blistig and bad Blistig, and while we see good Blistig in him convincing Gamet to reclaim his command, we also get a sense of bad Blistig in his constant questioning and distrust of Tavore. The question is will he ever accept her. And here’s a hint — Tavore’s “remoteness” isn’t going away.
It’s a nice touch amongst Blistig’s comments that he complains about not knowing Tavore’s strategy or tactics, coming after we’ve had an explanation of the difference between those two.
And then we’re onto good Blistig when he sees the worth of Gamet as a man up from the ranks and the lack of use of nobleborn officers like Ranal. I do find it a bit ironic, however, that as he talks of the “core” (i.e. The Fist) needing to stay solid, not wavering, he does a bit of undermining of Tavore, the “core of the core” one would think.
So where does Moak get all his info from? I love picturing the aftermath of Tugg’s recitation, all the men staring, and then Gesler great dry delivery of “Amazing how wrong he got it all.” A classic understated line. And if Moak has all the other things right (save Fiddler being “outlawed” perhaps), might he be right about Tavore having some way to avoid a fight? And if so, what will that be that is so “unexpected”?
A bit of dramatic irony for the reader in the discussion of Tavore making this battle “personal.” As Gamet says, it is her way; it’s just what she does. But we as readers are well aware that it is as “personal” a battle as one can get — two sisters. And we know it’s highly personal on the Sha’ik’s side. Not only do we get to enjoy the irony as readers, but it also reminds us of Tavore’s ignorance and raised for us yet again the important question of will she learn the truth and if so, when? In time? Too late? If the former, in time to do what? If the latter, what will have happened to define it is as “too late”?
More mention of Greymane as Keneb and Gamet speak of Ranal’s rearrangement. Besides giving us another example of the feckless nature of the nobleborn officers and also keeping the important name of Greymane before us, this is also an interesting little description of tactics (or is it strategy?) in that we’ll see this sort of structure being used in just the way described in a later book.
A short chapter in keeping with the quickened pace. I keep saying the players are being put into place, we’ve now got Tavore’s army in the wings about to enter stage left. Time to check in with our other players in the next chapter....