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 Sixteen 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.
Feather Witch tells Udinaas Mayen beats her and “Uses me. In ways that hurt.” He says he’s seen the bruises. He adds Rhulad doesn’t do that to Mayen. Feather Witch says she doesn’t care, has no interest in trying to understand Mayen’s perspective. She admits what Rhulad does to Mayen, the non-physical hurting, is what she does to Udinaas. He replies she’d rather bite. She heads off and he thinks of the march on Trate toward vengeance.
Trull’s force has been detected by the Letherii mages. As they wait to see what the Letherii will do, the Jheck arrive, informing Trull the Letherii are retreating to High Fort and that First Maiden Fort has already fallen and that Edur army is marching on Fent Reach. Four major battles are predicted in the next few days.
Seren is trying to get drunk in a tavern, listening to conversations about the impending war, most of it arrogant predictions. A foreigner arrives with an offer of taking her with his group on a boat away from Lether He introduces himself as Iron Bars, Second Blade, Fourth Company Crimson Guard and says his group just got off of Assail and he and his friends have fallen deep into debt just by showing up on the in Lether. Seren suggests he join the army and he tells her Lether is in big trouble in this war. When she rejects his offer, he tells her their boat is in Letheras and they’ll look for her there, warning her to get out of Trate as soon as possible.
The Letherii mage Nekal Bara looks out to sea from the lighthouse, worried the war is already going badly. She thinks she knows where the sea creature that the Edur have bound to their use came from, an old spirit that should have died once its worship had ended. She will try to kill it while Arahathan, another mage, distracts it. She thinks this battle will be hard but isn’t worried about its final result. The fleet and spirit attack and Arahathan is killed, then Nekal, though not before she learns she was wrong about the spirit and within was something utterly surprising against which she has no defense — she calls to the Ceda to “Hear me! See—” before dying.
Seren wakes in a cellar, robbed and raped. There is panic and chaos in the streets. Three of her rapists return to take her, one of them carrying a dead young girl. Before they attack her, Iron Bars shows up and kills them (painfully so until Seren tells him to do it cleanly). He apologizes for leaving her and tells her Trate has fallen and the Edur are killing every soldier in sight, though not non-combatants. He says his group is waiting and Corlo, thanks to the Edur’s arrival and what they brought, can use his warren again, first time since they landed in Lether. He’s about to lead her but says they’ve been cut off.
Rhulad, a dozen Edur warriors, and Udinaas move through the city, Rhulad effortlessly killing right and left and “gibbering” as he does so. Iron Bars arrives, kills the Edur soldiers and Rhulad, then motions Seren forward and they disappear round the corner. Udinaas recognizes Seren, sees she’s been badly used, and thinks that will not happen while the stranger is with her.
Iron Bars says that guy with the sword was good and in a few years would be tough to beat. Seren, in shock, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. They meet his group — two women and four men of the Crimson Guard. He says Corlo is opening a warren to Letheras. His comments about the Edur finally slip in to her consciousness and she realizes he fought Rhulad. She asks if Iron Bars killed him and is dismayed to find he did.
Withal waits on the beach of the Crippled God while Rhulad recovers. The two Nachts, Rind and Pule, are fighting and Withal wonders if the increasing frequency of this is their attempt to tell him something. Withal feels lost. Rhulad says he’s not going to the tent; the CG can keep the sword. Withal denies having anything to do with it and Rhulad accuses him of making the sword. Withal says he’s made tons of them, then muses that this sword came from two shards of another (or an “overlong knife”), “black and brittle.” Rhulad says everything breaks and when Withal agrees, Rhulad suggest he break the sword. Withal says he can’t and then says he thinks the CG is stealing his mind, that the CG had said he’d set him free if he made the sword but hasn’t. He warns Rhulad the god lies. Withal tells Rhulad it’ll be harder for him to die each time he does. Rhulad wonders about Father Shadow and Withal argues if he were alive he’d have stopped the CG from co-opting the Edur. As he speaks, he gets an idea and tries to keep it hidden in his mind from the CG. Rhulad says he is ready and they move toward the tent.
In the warren, Corlo says the Edur have Kurald Galain and wonder if they even know it. He explains to Seren the Hold of Darkness is Andii, not Edur — they should be using Shadow. He adds the warren is overrun by Tiste Andii spirits and Seren asks what the relationship is between the Edur and the wraiths. Corlo says the Edur have bound the wraiths and she suggests negotiating with one. A female wraith speaks to them, saying she was one of the first to die in the war and because she was not killed by an Edur, they cannot bind her, though her spirit is trapped. He asks her to guide them and says her assistance isn’t worth being paid for. When they ask what she’d like anyway, she asks they throw a ring she would bind herself to into the sea so she could rejoin her bones. They agree and when the wraith wonder at their honesty Iron Bars says he is an Avowed and she can see the “meaning of that by laying her hand on [his] chest.” The wraith does so and is shocked and horrified by what she senses and then feels pity for him. Iron Bars says, “We all make mistakes.” The wraith gives her name as Sandalath Drukorlat (note the last name).
As they head to the tent, Withal thinks on how Mape makes him nervous due to her strength and seemingly intelligence. Rhulad wonders why he can’t just kill the Crippled God and Withal says his power in his tent is probably absolute. When Rhulad responds “The vastness of his realm,” Withal wonders why those words strike him so hard. Inside, Rhulad tells the CG to pick someone else. The god says Rhulad is lucky it was Iron Bars and not Skinner or Cowl, who would have taken more notice of him. When Rhulad says he doesn’t want the power, the CG says of course he does, though Rhulad complains he hasn’t earned anything. The CG tells Rhulad the truth of Bloodeye’s “betrayal” and says others already know. The CG says perhaps he offers Rhulad the chance to make amends via empire. He tells him to choose. Rhulad grabs the sword and lunges for the CG but disappears. Withal and the CG argue and Withal says he knows the CG’s problem — his lack of a realm and inability to control his own body, warning him the more pain he gives the more he gets. The CG dismisses him, saying he (the god) has figured out a solution for Withal’s problem.
Iron Bars’ group exits the warren far south of Trate on the shore. Seren walks into the ocean to cleanse herself and nearly drowns herself but is saved by Iron Bars (who had just tossed Sandalath’s ring into the ocean), who then asks Corlo to heal her. Corlo says he’s too tired and Iron Bars tells him to put her to sleep.
Sandalath starts to die again, thinking of her husband either dead or grieving, her daughter perhaps a mother or grandmother, having fed on draconic blood. A voice tells her she can’t die because the voice needs her. She arrives on a beach alive.
Hundreds of Edur, including Mosag, Mayen, along with Feather Witch, have gathered where Rhulad was killed by Iron Bars. Rhulad comes back to life and gives his orders. When Midik promises to get the one who “did this” to Rhulad, Rhulad says “he cannot be defeated,” but Udinaas points out Midik meant the one who killed him. Rhulad asks Udinaas to take him out of there. As he does so, Udinaas thinks the Ceda will learn soon about Rhulad and he wonders if he’ll realize he can’t do anything about it.
The CG had told Withal there would be a gift for him on the shore. There he finds Sandalath, which angers him for how the CG just uses people. Despite his hatred of religion, Withal prays to the Meckros’ oldest god — Mael.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Sixteen
So, just before we start on this week’s commentary, I just wanted to say something... Someone caught me out in the comments last week, but not in the way that they thought! Someone asked whether I had read ahead to The Crippled God since I voted for it in the best books of 2011 on Tor.com — no, I can promise hand on heart I have not read ahead. I did the other thing that shouldn’t be done and voted for a book I hadn’t read — but one which I’m absolutely sure does deserve the accolade, considering what Erikson achieves in that novel with the culmination of the Malazan series.
I can swear to you that the first time I cast my eyes on Chapter Sixteen is right now. I read and provide comment as I read along. If you read the chapter and my commentary side by side, you will see it matches exactly — you can see where I am in the chapter according to what I have written in my commentary.
Me and Bill are slightly rueful that we’ve never managed to create and maintain a buffer of chapters, since I know that I, for one, am about to embark on about three hours work as I start reading and commenting on Chapter Sixteen. It takes that long to read, think about how to articulate my thoughts past “wow” or “I like this bit,” and cross-reference previous posts/chapters, if needed. It is possible that Bill takes less time. [Bill: Oh, he wishes!] I certainly need some time to get my head around what is going on.
Anyway! After that little set of confessions, let’s get started!
We’ve moved from a poem at the start of the chapter to an extract, which means I feel I’m cheating if I don’t read it, while I’m more inclined to skip the poems (as we talked about last week!) I’d love to make sensible comment on it, but I don’t have a clue what is going on! (So I lied, this commentary seems as though it is destined to be littered with confessions...) I do note that it was written by Nameless Fent. Now, does this mean that the Fent is a member of a species or race and this is a nameless one of those? Or is it the name of one of the Nameless Ones? (Which, now that I’ve written it, just sounds daft!)
It strikes me that I could be reading this wrong, but it sounds very much as though Mayen is raping Feather Witch in turn: “She tears my clothes off. Uses me. In ways that hurt. I hurt all the time.” I guess this is out of her feelings of powerlessness and lack of control. Feather Witch is now the only one she can take out her anger, fear and frustration on... But it makes me respect her even less. And then especially when she criticises Udinaas for his desire to try and understand others!
I really enjoy here the breakdown of the military options facing the Letherii as they strive to find out the Edur numbers without giving away their strengths. Erikson presents the options in a manner which even someone without any military nous can comprehend.
This quote here shows how vulnerable and alone Trull really is: “And I can stay here, in this tense cast of my mind’s thoughts, from now on. It will take me through this war. It has to. Please, take me through this war.”
A nice little juxtaposition here that also shows the military tactics going on — first we hear from the Edur “I have news. First Maiden Fort has fallen. No battle...” Then we hear from the Letherii: “Give ‘em First Maiden Fort, aye. Why not? Pull the bastards in and in.” I guess it shows that warfare is as much a guessing game, as well, as plotting and coming up with tactics.
I’m not sure what is meant here: “Twilight’s just waiting for the siege to settle in. What’s that? You saying she surrendered?” Is Twilight a fort? Or a person? Edit — got it, a couple of pages later. See? I read and comment — even when it makes me sound stupid.
Ha! THE CRIMSON GUARD! Nice to see them on screen. I guess these are the people who become the Return of the Crimson Guard? Even if not, it is lovely to get some view of the Crimson Guard. Don’t they feel so familiar, even though we’ve not seen this particular character before? I love it! I feel like shouting “Seren, just GET ON THE DAMN BOAT!”
There is something truly primal in the fear generated by this: “And in the waters beneath those sleek hulls...a thing. Ancient, terrible, eager with hunger.” Hell, I still get the jitters about water after watching Jaws!
Oh! Now here Erikson explicitly asks the same questions that we have asked in our re-read. (I do hope he knows the answers.) “Had the spirit existed before the worship began, and was simply drawn to the gifts offered? Or was it conjured into existence by the very will of those ancient worshippers?”
I simply love the idea that the verge between sea and land is a place of worship, a symbolic transition, and that spirits/gods/ascendants take power from the people who die near the shoreline and the treasure thrown into the sea.
Ah, Erikson still has the capacity to make me sigh over his prose: “Beneath the lead ships, a dark tide surged forward, spreading its midnight bruise into the harbour.”
And he truly has the capacity to shock and horrify me, even after four and a half books: “Layers of withered newborn corpses, each one wrapped in leather, each one with its forehead stove in, above a face twisted with pain and baffled suffering.”
What is within the spirit held together with memory? What new nightmare?
Does Erikson use rape too often? Does it remain shocking? Or do you start thinking “Oh, another one?” Here we are AGAIN: “The ache between her legs told her the worse had happened.” Discuss.
Iron Bars is hard as nails, isn’t he? Those blurs of motion as he attacks the three men are awesome. Found myself a little queasified at the whole tearing-the-bottom-half-of-a-jaw off — I’m not sure that fighting move will catch on. Love him.
And Seren shows just how different she is to Mayen, when she asks Iron Bars to kill the man who raped her clean, rather than taking eye-for-an-eye vengeance.
Well, that death was rather shocking, wasn’t it? I mean, we knew that Rhulad was destined to die many deaths, but the abruptness of that neck snapping by Iron Bars took me by surprise — sort of like that neck snapping in Buffy season 2. (I know that at least some of you will know what I’m talking about!)
I think that Withal comes closest to the truth here: “It was enough that mortals were capable of appalling evil; he wanted nothing to do with their immortal, immeasurably more powerful counterparts.”
Rhulad’s sword is the battered parts of Silchas Ruin’s two blades? Ye gods, I’m sure we already knew that and I’m just forgetting the small details....
What is the thought that suddenly strikes Withal? Maybe I’m being dense but I can’t put together the hints.
Kurald Galain! The are in the Warren of Darkness — which is what the Tiste Edur are currently using. Now does this mean that they adopted the warren for some reason? Or does it mean that the wraiths are far more in control that they know? Or is it because Silchas Ruin is on the move again?
I love this exchange between the Tiste Andii wraith and Seren (and the Crimson Guard). Avowed sounds incredibly important — and it might be why Iron Bars seems so superhuman? And what could make a Tiste Andii appalled?
Mape and Pule make me giggle. Just sayin’.
You know, it gives me some hope that Rhulad realises the difference between respect forced and respect given freely.
Now this strikes me as very interesting — the fact that it is the Crippled God who comes up with this thought: “The power is yours to shape as you will. The empire shall cast your reflection, no one else’s. Will you flee from that? If that is your choice, then indeed I shall be forced to choose another.” It really doesn’t sound like someone of absolute evil.
Poor Seren. *cries a little*
Eep, who has given the Tiste Andii life again? (I guess I’d better find her name — should have known she would be more than a fleeting character since she was given a name. Although, y’know, Pearl gives the lie to that statement.) And there you are — the Crippled God shows merciless regard as he pulls Sandalath Drukorlat back to life.
And drives Withal to pray to Mael. Might Bugg soon be feeling that?
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Sixteen
I also read Feather Witch’s lines as being about rape, Amanda. I think the way she circles around it, the clothes being ripped off, the way she starts to say how Mayen “pushes” then cuts it off.
It’s interesting that after this reveal (if we’re reading it right) which would seem to lend sympathy to Feather Witch — a character that is very hard to like at any given moment I’d say — she speaks against one of what I’d argue is a major theme/tenet of the series — empathy: “I don’t care about her point of view, I’m not interested in stepping into her shadow, in trying to see the world how she sees it.” While this could be taken as further indictment of Feather Witch — as Amanda (I think is saying): look, she even is anti-empathy! — one could also see it as drawing a line at empathy, that some things shouldn’t be explained away or “understood.” Does her surprisingly self-reflective insight indicate the latter more than the former?
So did that image of the army “swarming the forest floor” remind anyone else of the image of the mice with Silchas?
I like how that “vengeance” at the end is ambiguous — is it the Edur’s vengeance on the Letherii or Udinaas’ vengeance?
I also liked how Erikson laid out the military possibilities, making war a more intellectual process than is usually presented.
Even in the tavern chatter, Erikson keeps up his criticism of Letherii society, as they don’t simply have the arrogant chatter of assumed victory (though they have that of course), but it’s all associated with making money. Big shock there.
How about that intro of Iron Bars — “hair shoulder-length and the hue of polished iron”? I also like how we get immediately his insight: “Jus’ another Letherii? Asked myself that once and once only. No, I think, not this one,” his empathy/compassion: “I think, that ain’t an easy thing,” and his playfulness: “though I’d consider it my fortunes on the upswing if it was to happen the way you think I meant.”
Note another reference to Kolanse, in this case it being a “mess.”
Also the reference to Assail, which the Crimson Guard (The Avowed no less) had to “claw” their way out of. Remember this from the Imass in Memories of Ice: “I am Lanas Tog. Sent to bring word of the fates of the Ifayle T’lan Imass and of my own Kerluhm T’lan Imass . . . I am the last of the Kerluhm. The Ifayle . . . are all but destroyed . . . cannot extricate themselves from the conflict [on] the continent of Assail. Our losses: 29000 Kerluhm. 22,200 Ifayle . . . We have lost this war.” When Envy says “it seems you’ve finally found a Jaghut Tyrant who is more than your match,” Lanas says, “Not Jaghut. Human.
Also, though we don’t know these people, it’s hard not to like Iron Bars immediately and thus equally hard not to condemn Lether for its system that took Iron Bars and his group and ground them into debt and degradation.
I mentioned how last chapter felt a little like old home week and someone mentioned this would as well (correctly) and I have to say, it’s a pleasure just to get back some of our old vocabulary: dhenrabi, Hood, enkar’al, rhizan . . .
Always the question, isn’t it, as Amanda points out, always the chicken and the egg — the god or the worshipers? (And I’m not sure he knows the answer, Amanda.) We see this effect of the worshipers on maybe what seems a “dumb” god here, but is there anything that says the “smart” gods don’t also get forced down paths by their worshipers?
I’ve mentioned this idea of shore before and it will play a large role as the series continues. It is after all a built-in symbol, this boundary between water and land.
Who doesn’t love a reference now and then to the good ol’ “trebuchet”?
I love that scene with Nekal Bara — the image of her falling, the description of the layers of the spirit, her horror at humanity, and the two teases we get about the sorcerers’ shock at what they find before dying — all highly effective I’d say.
Actually, I’d say Erikson’s use of rape multiple times is the right way to use it. I’d argue when one focuses on a single rape it is less effective for several reasons. One is it could be seen as pretending it happened just that once, which is just not real. Or if we’re supposed to take it as a “representative rape,” then it trivializes the act by reducing it to the abstraction of symbol. Or, a singular use makes it stick out and it becomes a “big thing” to manipulate us for characterization. The way it raises its ugly head again and again in this series makes it more real, less abstract, less “symbolic,” harder to see as a crafted plot/character point. That’s how I take it.
I’m not sure there is anything more disturbing in this series to me (though there may — I’m not promising I’m remembering it all) than the young girl in this scene. Hate to say it, but Seren is a better person than I; I’m with Iron Bars on this one. At least for a while.
It’s a pretty stark contrast — that image of Iron Bars ripping off the mandible of the Letherii, the rape, the young girl, then Rhulad’s mad killing, the corpses, the “writing, weeping figures,” — and then Udinaas, reaching down to the ones calling out for their mothers comforting them in their last moments: “I’m here, my boy. It’s all right. You can go now.” What a lovely quiet moment of humanity and compassion amid a storm of horror. Yes, as Amanda points out via Withal: “mortals were capable of appalling evil” but also moment of such great compassion.
Love the way Rhulad is killed so surprisingly — I remember I didn’t see this coming the first time and even knowing it’s coming now, it still doesn’t exactly surprise me but has a feel of pleasant surprise somehow.
- The Nachts sending a message via “destruction,” destroying their nests or “homes”
- The nests having “sloped walls”
- The tent as “the vastness of his realm”
- The way the physical surroundings change as they approach the tent — the grass, the air, the earth.
- “You sit there, alone in your tent, and that is the extent of your realm”
We’ve had glimpses of some sympathy for the Crippled God and here we get more references to his “eternal pain,” but our sympathy is lessened by his need to share that misery. The question is, will he learn to do differently? Will he come to “understand” what Withal tries to tell him?
Is the weaponsmith responsible for the use of his weapon?
The Avowed are definitely something special. And this is not the only time we will see someone shocked by what lies at the heart of the Avowed.
Note that name by the way — Sandalath Drukorlat. Look at that last name closely and think of how names work in our own world....
Note how Rhulad doesn’t reject any of the Crippled God’s descriptions of what Rhulad wanted: Mayen, the throne, power over his brothers.
We know the Crippled God lies. But we also know he tells the truth. Which is it when he tells Rhulad the shape and form of his empire will be up to him? It will be a reflection of Rhulad?
Nice parallels here: the suicide of Buruk and the near-suicide of Seren. The “drowning” of Sandathal’s ring and Seren going underwater. The beach and the beach. How many people have we seen weeping on a beach in this book?
Okay, Sandalath Drukorlat (note that name again) has a daughter who fed on draconic blood — is a Soletaken dragon Andii. And no, that daughter isn’t living free of sorrow. Not at all. Just saying....
Oh yes, Bugg just might....
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.