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 Two of Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson (MT).
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.
A trade merchant, Buruk the Pale, is traveling to trade with the Edur, accompanied by Nerek tribesman as workers and Seren Pedac as his “Acquitor” — the required official guide. They camp at the pass, marked by an old Edur shrine in the shape of a ship. The obsidian walls have strange shapes in them. As she stands there, Seren thinks of how the Nedrek tribe was destroyed by their submission to Lether, to “civilization.” She sees the shapes in the rock as “the sentinels of futility” and wishes she could sink into the rock and join them.
As Baruk gets drunk yet again, Seren thinks it’s because he is carrying secret instructions whose contents are killing him. They are joined by Hull Beddict, who is mobbed by the revering Nerek. Hull refers to him as the old Sentinel (a former court official) and as a traitor to the Letherii. Hull had been charged with studying the outer tribes and to his dismay his knowledge was used to subjugate them, destroying the tribes and leading to Hull’s resignation and self-exile. He and Seren had once been in a relationship. Hull tells Seren this treaty meeting will be different because the Edur are now unified under the Warlock King. She informs him of who will be in the negotiating party (making clear there are factions in the Letherii court) and the news makes Hull wonder if the Letherii are trying to provoke war. Seren is unsure herself and adds Baruk is carrying secret instructions though she doesn’t know what they are.
Tehol (brother to Hull and Brys Beddict) and Bugg sit atop the roof of Tehol’s house, with a view of King Ezgara’s Eternal Domicile — his grand still-under-construction palace. Bugg surprisingly has a solution seemingly for the construction problem bedeviling the palace. Bugg tells Tehol three strange women came to find him today and Tehol goes to meet them. The three women tell Tehol they know who he is and what he did, and they want him to do it again but “go all the way” this time. They want him to meet them back at their own building to discuss it.
Brys is talking with the First Eunuch, Nifadas about Hull, whom Nifadas thinks might be a problem. Nifadas informs Brys that Hull has joined Baruk, whose instructions Nifadas knows nothing about and which he thinks are not sanctioned by the King. He worries Hull will believe Baruk is acting for the king, though, and try to stop him. Nifadas wants to wreck the plans in his own way. Nifadas asks what Brys knows about Seren, which is little. Before Brys leaves, Nifadas asks if he is doing OK in his new role as King’s Champion, to which Brys answer yes. Brys leaves and thinks of Hull and Tehol that they had both peaked and were now sliding down “paths to dissolution and death.” He enters the chamber of the Ceda, the King’s Sorcerer, who tells him he has a task for him later. Brys enters the throne room. Prince Quillas, the Chancellor Triban Gnol, Queen Janll, First consort Turudal Brizad, and the head of the Prince’s Guard Moroch Nevath all enter. Quillas makes a demand that is rejected (the return of Finadd Gerun Eberict from Nifadas’s entourage to the Edur) and Nevath steps forward as if to use force but stops when he sees Brys there with his sword drawn. The Queen tells the Prince to show patience and he storms out. The Queen apologizes for him and her party leaves.
Brys rejoins the Ceda (Kuru Qan) who brings him to a large chamber floored in huge tiles representing the Holds. Qan asks Brys what he sees first and Brys says Barrow, “among the tiles of the Azath Hold,” adding he senses restlessness from it. Qan agrees, but says he’s visited the actual Azath House and the grounds and tower are unchanged. The next tile is a Dragon’s Gate. Brys references the Seventh Closure, a prophecy when the King shall ascend and assume the old title of First Emperor and the Empire be reborn. Qan is less sanguine about the prophecy, and recalls how the First Emperor/Empire were destroyed in a distant land and Lether is a surviving colony. Moving back to the tiles, Brys says he recognizes Betrayer of the Empty Hold and White Crow of the Fulcra, though the third one is unfamiliar. The Ceda identifies it as Seed, last tile in the Hold of Ice. The fourth tile is blank, which the Ceda says means the divination ceases. Qan says he has told only The First Eunuch, so he can be prepared at the Great Meeting, and Brys because as Champion his job is to protect the King. Changing the subject, Qan asks about what the Queen incited the Prince to do and what Brys’ heart tells him. Brys answers he fears his brother Hull may kill the Prince at the Great Meeting.
Tehol, Shand, Hejun, and Rissarh are at the women’s building. They tell Tehol they want him to take their money, make a lot more of it, and buy the “rest of the islands.” Tehol tries to pretend he had a near-impossible time of making a small percentage of the amount they want “last time,” but they aren’t buying it. They discuss how Tehol almost destroyed the economy/country testing his theory that money is the “promise of power . . . so long as everyone keeps pretending it’s real.” They want him to collapse the economy this time as vengeance for what Lether did to their people (they’re half-bloods — Faraed, Tarthenal). They know he created a refuge for tribefolk on one of the islands as recompense for Hull, but it isn’t enough. He tells them Lether is going to fall soon anyway due to the Edur. They say he can make it easier then and he agrees.
Seren and Hull await an approaching Edur (Binidas). Hull tells him she weeps at night and that when they were together her crying always woke him. She asks if Hull fears the Great Meeting and he says it will buy peace, but “a deadly peace” for the Edur, as was the case with the other tribes. He tells her he plans to wreck the negotiations and incite the Edur to war.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Two:
Fisher is back again with this poem that talks more about the Holds. I’m intrigued as to who the Mistress is and who her lover is, the ‘he’ who wanders a path between us all. Another of those cryptic little poems to the first-time reader that no doubt holds a wealth of meaning to the re-reader.
More hints about how these new societies work. Seren is Letherii? I notice from the Dramatis Personae at the front of the novel that Seren’s name features under those based in the north, and I can’t work out immediately if that makes them Letherii. They certainly have dealings with the Edur, being permitted to go into Edur lands.
Buruk the Pale: another verbose character in the mould of Kruppe, by the looks of things. It seems as though Erikson has a particular love for this flavour of character. I must admit, they provide a nice counterpoint to the stark nature of soldier’s dialogue that also features heavily.
Here we are told that Father Shadow is one of the Edur gods — but we know he is Scabandari Bloodeye and therefore an ascendant at best, surely? Either way, he’s not someone I would want to claim as a god!
That translucent obsidian, with figures moving behind it, is beautifully mysterious. Trapped souls? People who will feature at a later date? Erikson very rarely includes anything that won’t be used later in the proceedings, which, when you consider the scope of these books, is a rather marvelous and almost scary ability. Just reading them makes my head hurt at times with all the details and foreshadowing, let alone writing about it in the cryptic manner Erikson does!
These obsidian rocks — some relation of otataral? I ask because of their healing properties.
It is a bleak picture presented of how the Letherii have casually destroyed the culture and society of the Nerek. Control over religious practices and beliefs is often the manner by which true domination can be achieved — and here we see the sadness of a race being forced to treat the bodies of their kin in an unfamiliar and painful way. Also, although I felt sorry for the Letherii since they were enslaved by the Edur, now I find they also commit this foul practice. No taking sides here, clearly.
“This impending conjoining of broken hearts...” So, does this relate to Seren and new arrival Hull Beddict? Or does it relate to Seren and Buruk? — unlikely, in my view. Or, finally, does it relate to Buruk and Hull Beddict? I could be barking entirely up the wrong tree and misinterpreting that phrase as being something to do with two of these people having a connection and suffering a broken heart?
We have hints here that Buruk is on a mission, possibly at the behest of the Royal Household, and it is causing him to turn to drink and drugs. I can see this being pivotal to the plot.
What has Hull Benedict done to deserve such adulation from the Nerek? (something to do with betraying the Letherii?)
Such undercurrents in this exchange:
“Parched, Acquitor. Like a drowning man who swallows air.”
“Only it’s not air, it’s water.”
He shrugged. “A momentary surprise.”
“Then you get over it.”
“Aye. And in those last moments, the stars swim unseen currents.”
And now I ask what has happened to Hull Benedict to cause this distraction and distance in him? It is telling that Buruk says that nothing can reach through his hides and furs. It seems as though nothing touches him. What relation has Hull Benedict to the Royal Household? There are hints he has connections to them.
Buruk is the delegate from the Letherii to the Edur for the Treaty Meeting? That seems a little insulting. And it sounds as though Quillas just adds further insult. “Allowing Quillas to flail about, to deliver clumsy insults in the face of Hannan Mosag. Is this plain arrogance? Or do they truly invite war?”
There you go... Hull Beddict was once a favoured member of the King’s Guard and was handed the title of Sentinel by King Ezgara Diskanar. His loyalty and ability in relation to the tribes such as the Nerek was then betrayed by his King — not a pleasant situation at all. “In all, a war so profoundly cynical in its cold, heartless expediting that no honourable soul could survive witness. Especially when that soul was responsible for it. For all of it.” Isn’t that heartbreaking?
I immediately warm to him now hearing that he handed back the role of Sentinel after those events. His distance is explained and I find him deeply honourable.
So the heartbreak is between Seren and Hull Beddict, then... I wonder how Hull Beddict views Seren’s treatment of him, whether he also considers it to be unforgivable and selfish?
Here come Tehol and Bugg.... and I sniggered during their first exchange. Loved this line: “I’m fairly certain my left arm is of a length close to, if not identical with, that of my right.” Is this empty throne referred to the one in the Hold?
And now some toilet humour... I can see why people have mixed opinions about Tehol and Bugg!
And now a little bit of lecherous regard towards women with high, fine breasts... Yeah, I’m not sure.
What baffles me is that Tehol must be some sort of relative to Hull, going back that same name of Beddict! They are so different on first impression! I wonder whether Tehol’s rather spartan living situation is as a result of Hull Beddict’s response to the King?
Well, I’m not rightly sure what is going on between Tehol and these three Amazonian women, but I liked the exchange. And so far I’m liking the tone of levity in this storyline. I have a feeling that it is going to become one of the few areas of lightness and laughter in Midnight Tides.
Politics, politics, politics... I feel like I am grasping at shadows, trying to work out all the factions. Brys/Finadd is interesting on this first look — again, entirely different from his brothers. Three brothers, so TOTALLY different, in fact.
There is an echo of the Hand and the Spider from GRRM’s classic epic, as I read this scene between Brys and Nifadas. The latter is sly, with secrets and plans. The former seems to have sense and I automatically like him more. Very much like Eddard Stark.
Oh, I do like Ceda! He’s just wonderful!
Here evidence that women can rise to positions of power in the militia within the Letherii — very different from the Edur. I wonder if that difference is one of the causes of their lack of understanding and rising levels of conflict.
The Queen and her son are not liked by many, are they?
“We are nearing Seventh Closure. It is momentous. The First Empire shall be reborn. King Diskanar shall be transformed — he shall ascend and assume the ancient title of First Emperor.” Surely this is Kellanved and his use of the T’lan Imass being referred to instead?
Confused... Tolls, peaks, thirds... Guessing they’re all forms of currency, but I have no idea what it is that Tehol is able to do. Is he some sort of alchemist? Okay, so the basic plan is to bring down the Letherii economy thanks to vengeful feelings from half-bloods?
Okay, so the plot is beginning to open out, with more of the major players stepping into place. You’ll all be relieved to know that, despite my confusion over some plot points, I am enjoying it so far more than House of Chains. Long may it continue. See you Friday!
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Two:
I like how we meet Seren and the others in a pass, a threshold between two places, as this is the pause before swift and sweeping change, the pause between two eras. I also like it because these characters are caught between two cultures — their own that they feel a personal sense of duty to (the Letherii) and the one they feel a moral sense of duty to (the Edur). For me, the setting mirrors these ideas nicely.
I also like how we get a quick sense of relationships between Lether and the outer tribes before we get Seren’s more direct exposition. We see it on how Lether strictly controls exports, how the Nerek are near-slave labor.
Then of course we do get Seren’s harsh judgment of what bowing to Lether had done to the Nerek, and of course while this is “fantasy,” it’s impossible not to read this via our real-world analogues, the long sad list of natives overrun by “civilizing” powers — done in by force perhaps at first if necessary (though it was not always so), but then by more insidious means: language, ritual, religion, economics, alcohol, urbanization, etc. Remember we heard something similar in Memories of Icewhen Karsa was briefly enslaved, when one of the Sunyd spoke of the destruction of their clan, saying they lost the old ways “long ago. Our own children slipping away in the night to wander south into the lowland, eager for the cursed lowland coins — the bits of metal around which life itself seems to revolve . . . some even returned to our valleys as scouts for the hunters . . . To be betrayed by our own children, this is what broke the Sunyd.”
Another common series refrain in Seren’s theory as to what lies in the obsidian cliffs: “Sentinels of futility . . . Reflections of ourselves forever trapped in aimless repetition.” Little does she know the expected repetition is about to break.
We end the scene with her desire to remove herself from the world, to be an observer only, and only of the wind. We’ll have to see what will tether her more fully to the world.
As Amanda says, we have some pretty clear foreshadowing of something ominous in Buruk’s mysterious instructions.
How it must eat at Hull, to be “worshipped” by the very ones he feels he betrayed to utter destruction (oh, those tattoos kill me). It’s not hard to see why he is “lost.” And why he not only resigned, but might turn against his king and country. Though one has to say, based on the slow manner in which he has to be led to understanding of the politics going on, it’s hard to imagine him being effective at all. We’re introduced to Hull as a tool of the king and Chancellor, then to Seren herself who “made sore use of him” as she thinks. Is there any reason to think he will not be made a tool again?
What a great trio we’ve got — each haunted by their own source of guilt.
Then an echo of Seren’s lines from before: “This is the curse then, that we are so inclined to look ahead, ever ahead. As if the path before us should be any different than the one behind us.”
And from the humorless three grouseketeers to Tehol and Bugg. I know people vary greatly in their reactions to these two. I fall down on mostly greatly enjoying them, though I do think there are lots of times where Erikson tries too hard with them, forces the humor a bit much. But overall, I’m a big fan. And we certainly could use some comic relief after the prior scene.
That’s a lot of detail about a palace construction job. Perhaps a clue it’s going to be somewhat important?
Bit of a surprise, that seemingly knowledgeable explanation by Bugg of what to do with regard to the palace’s construction issues. You’ll find he’s full of those sorts of things so it’s not spoiler to say Bugg is more than he appears and one should watch him carefully.
You’re right Amanda, that Tehol is quite different from his other brothers. In some ways. In other ways, they’re quite similar. It’s good to note as well at this point that we’ve been introduced to a pair of integral sibling groups now: Tehol-Hull-Brys and Trull-Fear-Binidas-Rhulad and we see some large differences/conflicts/lack of understanding amongst them.
We get an early hint of Tehol in his conversation with Chalas — note how he steps up to protect the Nerek mother and her two children. There is more to Tehol than meets the eye, and this is some good foreshadowing for what we learn later about his setting up a refuge on the island for tribesfolk. Note how one of his very first steps when he agrees to act for the three women is to have them hire the Nerek family.
And then we get Lether. Tell me these words don’t strike a contemporary nerve: “A more decrepit collection of useless items for sale Tehol had yet to see. And the people bought in a frenzy, day after blessed day.”
We can see already a clear difference between Brys and Hull in how quickly Brys picks up on the political maneuvering.
Though what he may know of politics, how he may read the court people, he seems to not really see his brothers, despite his statement to the contrary. It’s a bit ironic that his statement to the First Eunuch, that he did not understand his brothers, a statement he considers untruthful, is in fact true.
I, too, like the Ceda, Amanda.
Well, we’re certainly set up for some fine swordsmanship from both Moroch and Brys. One has to imagine that will come into play down the line. And we’re being set up for the two to face off as well — question is will that also happen down the line?
“Balance” — another theme throughout the series. Speaks well of the Ceda I’d say that he is an adherent of it.
And now we get our second reading of the tiles, akin to a Deck reading. (I keep meaning to pop back into last post to check out the theories . . . ) So we’ve got a restless Azath (never a good thing one would think, considering what an Azath does and what we’ve seen of what lies imprisoned there), though the Ceda tells Brys he’s checked and the “tower and grounds” are fine. I’ll point out that we’ve seen a reference to an Azath with a tower prior to this . . . Next we’ve got a Gate in Dragon Hold. Well, we’ve certainly seen dragons. Then we get interrupted by mention of the approaching Seventh Closure and the prophecy. Even on my first read, I was with the Ceda on this whole just-a-little-suspicious-of-vaguely-worded-prophecies way of thinking. Don’t these guys ever read the old stories? I give you Croesus as exhibit A.
Note that kernel of history in the Ceda’s lines though: Lether is a former colony of the First Empire.
Back to the tiles, we get a Betrayer of the Empty Hold, and yet another White Crow reference. Once again, I’ll point out we’ve seen something white beyond that crow. Then Seed in the Hold of Ice — an interesting juxtaposition. Ice has usually meant Jaghut — is that the case here?
And a little suspense at the end for the reader — will Hull kill the Prince?
Yes, the currency can get a little confusing, but it will make sense. Really. Even here we get that a “third” is a lot less than a “peak.” In fact, we’re told that one peak equals one million thirds, so we do have a scale. Then we get a dock is less than a third. He’s not an alchemist though Amanda. When he says he “made” a peak, he doesn’t mean literally; he’s an economic/market wizard, a master manipulator. So we can translate their conversation to roughly (and I mean roughly, this isn’t meant to be literal): in less than a year, working only a few days a month (to all appearances, which is quickly becoming clear are not what they seem to be with regard to Tehol), Tehol took a hundred dollars and turned it into a million dollars and then, again “apparently” lost it, though the trio know better.
Then we get some basic economics — money is not real; it’s a shared illusion. And so long as everyone shares in the illusion, it has power. If that illusion is broken, it loses that power.
Tehol came very close once to toppling the Lether economy, basically proved he could do it if he wanted to, and you’re absolutely right, Amanda, the plan (part of it at least) is now to go all the way.
And now we get a fuller view of Tehol that was hinted at with the Nerek family in the alley; he used some of his money to buy islands as refuges for remnants of those tribes destroyed by Lether.
And we get two more echoes of themes: walking down the same path (at least the third time we’ve gotten that one in these early pages) and the theme of “blindness.”
So we’ve seen Brys totally misread his brothers. Now we see Tehol apparently doing the same, thinking Hull will fight for Lether. Does he really believe this or is he dissembling?
“I’m not convinced a host of barbaric Edur overlords will do any better.” File.
There’s that sinking problem at the palace rearing up — told you....
Hmmm, crossing and recrossing a river called “Blood”. Nothing ominous there....
And now we find out where Binidas was going when he met Trull.
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.