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 Thirteen 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.
Udinaas watches Rhulad and Mayen have sex. Rhulad tells her he’d long dreamed of this and she replies that he’d hardly hidden those desires. Rhulad’s lust wanes and grows again. Udinaas sees Mayen almost, possibly find a spark that could become desire, then lose it, but thinks perhaps not forever. He believes it was at that moment she became Empress and loses “faith” in her spirit. Next to him, Feather Witch weeps. Rhulad and Mayen begin again and he sees her find the spark again. Rhulad orders Udinaas and Feather Witch out. Feather Witch lashes out at Udinaas, scorning him and he tells her he no longer pursues her. She threatens to tell about what’s inside him, but he tells her that will stop her from getting her freedom, explaining Rhulad plans to conquer Lether and has summoned all the shadow wraiths. She refuses to believe him and leaves. Shadows, demons, and sea creatures gather to Rhulad’s summons.
Hull arrives as Buruk and Seren prepare to leave. He tells her he’s been visiting old ruins and kill sites filled with fossilized bones of Tiste and “reptilian beasts” (he describes a flagstone plaza and city which calls up the battle scene between the K’Chain-Tiste at the start of the book) and says he has seen dragon tracks there. He explains the Edur pantheon, tells her of a shattered dragon skull nearby with Edur tracks near it, and tells her he believes Mosag is leading the Edur into a war of “destiny” in error. Seren catches him up on events and admonishes his use of “destiny.” He admits he is not what he once was and is not as honorable as she. They head off to speak to the First Eunuch.
Hull and Seren enter the delegation’s house as the Prince argues for a pre-emptive strike via the Letherii sorcerers. Nifadas (First Eunuch) doesn’t even deem the idea worthy of response. The Prince then orders Moroch Nevath to arrest the “traitor” Hull, but Seren says he cannot as Hull resides under the protection of the Edur. Nifadas asks Seren to escort him to Rhulad. On the way, Hull and Seren discuss “certainty.” Rhulad welcomes them and asks why Hull arrives in the Letherii party. Hull “disowns” allegiance to the Prince and Rhulad tells him to step aside. Seren informs Rhulad she’ll be leaving with Buruk and steps aside. Nifadas offers to negotiate, but Rhulad rejects it, sparring with the Prince. Rhulad basically declares war and dismisses them, save for Hull and Seren. Rhulad confiscates Buruk’s wagons of iron and tells Seren the Nerek will stay as well. He gives them three days. Hull swears himself to Rhulad’s cause and Seren is dismissed.
Gerun Eberict tells Seren Brys had asked him to speak to Hull. She warns him Hull is under Edur protection and he asks if she’s under the misimpression he wants to kill Hull. When she says she’s going home, he offers her a job working for him back in Lether. When she says he’ll probably be preoccupied soon, he mocks the idea that the Edur are a threat, noting the Letherii had defeated the Nerek and their Eres’al, the Tarthenal and their five Seregahl, warlocks and witches, etc. She tells him it will be different this time and he says the Lether “system” (which she calls “destiny”) makes victory inevitable. They spar over the meaning of freedom and when she continues to argue the Edur might win, he says even if they win, they’ll lose.
Hull offers to tell Rhulad and the Edur everything of Lether’s military for vengeance for betraying him long ago. They discuss tactics a bit then Rhulad dismisses Hull to the Sengar house. Rhulad tells Mosag Hull’s assessments matched Mosag’s exactly. Asked about the delegation, Mosag says the Prince is thrilled with how things turned out, but though equally confident of victory, Nifadas “mourns for us.” Rhulad spasms again and Udinaas muses on its causes and how Rhulad is on the edge of insanity. Udinaas knows, via Wither, that the sword gives Rhulad command of the Andii spirits, though not Wither. Rhulad orders the Nerek be respected and Mosag tells him their hearth and are have been sanctified. Rhulad reminds Mosag their spirits are the “oldest this world has known,” and advises caution with the Nerek to avoid those spirits rising. Mosag points out the Letherii had no difficulty, but Rhulad says the Eres’al wasn’t fully awakened, but now something has changed. They discuss the gathering of the Edur and strategy.
Trull feels an outsider and wonders how he can stop what is happening. Fear warns him not to try and says it is their job to guide Rhulad. Trull says Rhulad is mad, but Fear says he sees pain in Rhulad. Trull asks if Fear doesn’t wonder who is manipulating them, but Fear will have none of it. He warns Trull he walks the knife edge of treason and asks will he fight with his brothers? Trull says he will not show doubt to the others.
Rhulad dismisses everyone save Udinaas, whom he calls to his side and asks him to remind him of who he (Rhulad) is. As Udinaas realizes Rhulad is “flawed,” Rhulad says “We are imperfect.” Udinaas says he understands as he is a slave. When Udinaas calls him “indebted” (Rhulad owes someone his life and power) Rhulad is angered. Rhulad says the person speaks to him, orders his thoughts and chooses his words, but claims the thoughts are his. When Udinaas orders another slave to get food, he realizes he has also risen along with Rhulad; the other slaves says he has been “elevated.”
Trull and Seren speak and she realizes he wishes things were other than they are. They have a moment of empathy and understanding, then go their separate ways.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Thirteen
I wonder whether the Jheck will prove to have much of a role in the rest of this novel. A whole race of Soletaken arctic wolves is very odd, but very cool as well. Where did they come from? Why are they Soletaken? Damn, if these questions aren’t now answered in Midnight Tides, I shall be disappointed!
I’m not really sure that the tragi-comic moment of those coins popping away from Rhulad’s man-parts really works for me. I’ve been loving the gravitas, the betrayal, the shock, the grim feel to the Edur storyline — and this moment brings a little of the more slapstick Tehol/Bugg plotline into it. I would rather Erikson had merely documented this encounter between Rhulad and Mayen without recourse to the black humour of this.
We already know that this can NEVER be said, and Rhulad is a fool for believing it to be true: “The past is dead.”
I really love the way that Udinaas reflects on that distance between he and the emperor — a few paces, a thousand leagues. The difference between master and slave. What is more poignant is that way he sees the gap between he and Feather Witch, the woman he loves but is coming to realise he will never have, no matter how he once dreamed of it: “Udinaas considered walking over to her, if only to tell her to be quiet. But his eyes fell on the intervening expanse of rugs and their images, and he realized that the distance was too great.” Not just a physical distance, that one.
Okay, so I’ll address the difficult point in this scene: the rape (non-consensual sex) and the way that Mayen seeks to find pleasure in the act. Do we think even less of Mayen for this? Do we share Udinaas’ practicality about the fact that she has to live with the situation and might as well find something to enjoy about it? Do we think the scene is necessary/unnecessary? I believe that it was necessary, to show Rhulad’s dominion and his lack of anything approaching spirit, compassion and heart. I do think much less of Mayen for trying to take pleasure from the act. In this, it seems as though she becomes complicit with Rhulad’s thoughts and actions.
Why does Feather Witch hate Udinaas so much? I mean, I’ve seen some of what has taken her to this place, but it seems very dramatic. I also find her petulant and far from all-knowing, frustrating to read about, in fact: “You cannot know such a thing.”
Hull has seen draconic tracks? We know the Azath has died, but I figured those draconean forms trapped within were still trapped at the moment... So is this some other dragon? Or is the timeline just a little bit mismatched, between the Edur and Letheras? (I really hesitate at saying the word ‘timeline’. *grins*)
Erikson briefly mentions that Hull is shocked, but he doesn’t exactly show much reaction to the idea of Rhulad dying, rising again, wresting power from the only member of the Edur to bring some of the tribes together, and then declaring himself emperor. I mean, if I were Hull, even a quick ‘WTF?’ would have covered it!
Seren seems to be looking at this word ‘destiny’ in very black and white terms — and mostly black, out of the two of them. She speaks of destiny as a ‘lie’ and a way to excuse atrocities. What about when people use the word destiny to imply serendipitous occurrences, and other such positives? Thinking on that, though, neither Seren or Hull are the most positive of people.
Hah! I really like the First Eunuch and his complete slapdown of the prince: “Answering it [...] makes implicit the matter is worth considering. It is not.”
Seren is definitely someone you’d want on your side in a crisis, isn’t she? I really admire the fact that, with shock after shock, she has remained calm and level-headed — even with the imagination to realise what a bad situation here might involve. She’s quick, too — ensuring that the prince doesn’t get his way over Hull’s arrest (just me, or is the prince a complete ass who deserves a quick demise?)
How much did it cost Hull to ask Seren to join him?
The two people are so different, aren’t they, Letherii and Edur? You sort of feel that, at some point, regardless of magic swords and self-proclaimed emperors, there would have been an almighty war between them because they just don’t understand each other at all.
*grins* The prince is really having a bad day! “Certainly more worthy of conversation with ourselves than this strutting fool whose nobility resides only in the fact of his crawling out from between a queen’s legs.”
There is a crack in Rhulad’s demeanour — does this mean that some other ‘entity’, for want of a better word, is controlling him, and that the actual Rhulad still remains within? Or is it more that Seren was observing that some trace of Rhulad’s old character still lies inside?
Another mention of the emotional gulf that can exist between two people: “Seren looked across at Hull, and their eyes met. Although neither moved, it seemed to her that he was retreating before her, growing ever more distant, ever further from her reach. The intervening space had become a vast gulf, a distance that could not be breached.” Exquisitely sad, that passage.
Gerun Eberict sort of epitomises the arrogance of the Letherii when he says: “These savages won’t reach Letheras. They’ll be lucky to make it across the frontier.” He is a really slimy and unpleasant toad of a man — after we saw what he did to his brother, we now hear his perspective on the nature of ‘destiny’ and his mocking words on hearing Seren’s decision not to work for him. A singularly distasteful individual.
I wonder how Rhulad would have treated Hull, had his answers about the Letherii military and their strategy not matched those of Hannan Mosag? I’m not sure he would have been invited to go and chat to Binadas!
Udinaas is a very cold and emotionless observer through this whole passage, particularly the way he muses on the two sides warring within Rhulad — the madness and the rational thought. “The slave registered all this in the span of Rhulad’s momentary spasm, and was unmoved.”
How did Wither avoid the summons of the Tiste Andii wraiths? That ‘somehow’ employed by Erikson doesn’t fool me! I think this will be a matter of import later on.
The Crippled God must be lending Rhulad his new knowledge? “The spirits they worship are the oldest this world has known. Those spirits do not manifest in ways we might easily recognise.” Hmm, could Wither be one of these spirits instead?
Poor Fear... I really feel for him — a man who has had his betrothed taken, who now has to be the warleader of his people. And Trull won’t stop asking his questions, raising his doubts. Not exactly what Fear needs at that point.
Rhulad is flawed and imperfect — surely the perfect tool of the Crippled God? I am starting to feel real sympathy for this member of the Sengar family - not many of them are currently escaping my sympathy, to be honest. They’ve been put through the wringer.
Suddenly that distance between emperor and slave seems to be so small, especially given Rhulad’s plaintive request that Udinaas remind him of who he actually is.
Oh.. Hull and Seren are so tragic. What an achingly sad end to the chapter....
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Thirteen
We will see more of the Jheck, Amanda.
I also liked the mulling over the “distance” between slave and emperor, desirer and desiree. I also liked the use of the rugs in several ways. The grand scenes of victory portrayed on the rugs: “Kings crowned. Champions triumphant.” And what have they become? Memories (if even that) ground literally underfoot, as the Edur tromp over them “indifferent.” Perhaps a lesson in there? I also liked the little throwaway of how the rugs have the “paths worn deep”—those ruts from retracing the same path again and again, one of those themes that comes up repeatedly in the book, usually via dialogue but here very subtly via a background detail.
I’ve got to say, I wasn’t a fan of the “humor” with the coins popping off either. It adds, I suppose, to the grotesqueness of the scene, but I think it also detracts/distracts from it as well; I’m not sure it was worth it. I’d say the latter bit about Rhulad’s lust fading due to the pragmatic nature of having to get out of clothes etc. works much better.
Before getting into the scene proper, I think I’d be remiss to point out that Trull was both right and wrong with regard to his suspicions re Rhulad and Mayen. Rhulad clearly did desire her and clearly was a little too obvious in revealing that. On the other hand, it seems equally clear that he knew quite well and had accepted the fact that he could not ever act on those desires. Which I’d say lends him a bit more sympathy. Sympathy that I’d also say isn’t long-lasting thanks to his arrogance.
I remember the severe discomfort I had with this scene the first time and it never fails to disturb me on rereads. One question as yet not wholly answered I’d say is how much of a “rape” this is. After all, if Rhulad is right and he did see desire in Mayen’s eyes earlier, and she was only betrothed to Fear as the “right” move as opposed to the emotional one, that casts a different light on things. If Rhulad’s observation of Mayen’s desire was wholly the delusion of his youthful arrogance, then the light cast is far more sinister. I give credit to Erikson for wading into some difficult and murky territory here. We’ll get some more sense of Mayen as the book continues. On a more practical level, I’m not sure I find it all that plausible that she’s finding pleasure here this first time. Seems to me the grotesqueness, Feather Witch’s weeping, coins dropping off, etc. would still outweigh the physicality (I’m ignoring the moral/ethical issues) until she gets a bit used to it.
I could have done without the direct statement of the “Letheri raping the Edur” metaphor. I buy that such a thought would be in Udinaas’ head. I absolutely buy he’d be thinking that. But still, I would have preferred a less direct method of conveying it to the reader.
I also find what the scene tells us about Udinaas to be equally as interesting, if less disturbing, in that he gets called out narratively for lacking compassion and empathy for Mayen. This is a pretty cold statement about a major character—it would be so in any book, but considering the context of this series, where (and I know you’ll all get tired of me saying this if you haven’t already) those two traits—compassion and empathy—are held up to be near saviors of “humanity” (in its all-inclusive sense in a fantasy world), this is a particularly harsh observation. And again, is pretty risky on Erikson’s part, having us pointed toward disliking a major character possibly so strongly.
Speaking of disliking. Feather Witch. I’ve never been a big fan of hers. I’m not sure why the utter antipathy toward Udinaas. I supposed in this context, she sees a rape—a complete mismatch of power and then a total surrender to the stronger power—and can relate this to her own existence, as a slave and also perhaps as one desired by the slave of the most powerful figure in their world. But really, I’m just trying to justify what I don’t quite get myself.
Once again, in the denunciation by Seren of “destiny” we can hear echoes of similar denunciations out of our actual history. What was “Manifest Destiny” if not a “justification” for the atrocities of what was done to the Native Americans? What was it if not “the means by which murderers armor themselves against reprimand”? And one needn’t limit oneself to historical analogues that share the exact word “destiny.” Nor necessarily limit oneself to long ago history. As for Seren having a limited view of the word, Amanda, I think she’s merely discussing it in the context of how the Letherii use it with regard to culture and empire.
That has to be a killer admission by Hull—that he knows what she means, that he does in fact see the horrors inherent in “destiny” and that is the “best [he] can do.”
Note the title reference in Seren’s thoughts; “This tide is rising, and there are scant few who would stand before it.”
I truly enjoy the utter disdain with which Nifadas treats the Prince. And I love as well how the Prince’s alliteration and grand pronouncements subtly mock him via style: “this treacherous tyranny!” “Arrest him!” Suffering Succotash!
If anyone was unsure how to take Hull’s actions, I think the conversation he has with Seren clarifies things: “If it is certainty you want, Seren, then join me.” Just as compassion and empathy have been repeatedly held up as positives, certainty has been repeatedly held up as nearly almost always a negative in this series. When Seren replies “certainty is the one thing I fear the most,” and Hull responds “I expected that sort of answer,” I hear in that a reaffirmation of his earlier line to her that she eclipses him in honor and goodness.
One can see that kind of “certainty” immediately in the Prince’s words: “Natural and undeniable laws guide our endeavours.” Can’t get much more certain than that.
That little tremor of the “young Rhulad” appearing in the facade of Emperor Rhulad is interesting. Another little tiny bit of sympathy offered up I’d say. It’s also hard not to like Rhulad’s broadening (for whatever reason) of the Edur cause to include the other tribes, to call Lether to account for its myriad of “crimes.”
Nice echo there of Udinaas’ musing on space and distance when Seren finally realizes that Hull, by his actions, is not pretty irretrievably gone from her life (much as his brothers realized earlier): “he was retreating before her, growing ever more distant, ever further from her reach. The intervening space had become a vast gulf, a distance that could not be bridged.” That’s one impactful “goodbye” I’d say.
Yep, Eberict definitely displays the Lether arrogance. Which is even better coming after we know he’s been robbed and so his veneer of untouchability has already been marred, though he doesn’t know it (I often enjoy knowing more than the characters).
As a little aside while we’re here, note his reference to the Tarthenal spirits—the five Seregahl—they’ve been noted earlier in the book. Five powerful creatures.
Who knew Gerun Eberict is Gordon Gecko? “The commercial core . . . The Tolls are the roots of our civilization . . . . feeds on the best and the worst in human nature . . . We win because our system appeals to the best and worst within all people.” Or, you know, “Greed is good.” If I’m hearing him right. What I find interesting is in his analysis of how Lether’s form of capitalism is inevitably victorious, how he uses words with negative connotations as well: it “infests”, it is “all-devouring,” it “will smother or starve.” He extolls its power, but he isn’t a romantic about it. And he is particularly insightful when he implies that even if the Edur win and conquer Lether, they will lose as the heart will “find new flesh.”
And aside from capitalism, it’s hard not to wince at his description of freedom being wielded like a sword to compel conformity to a particular standard.
More reason to like Nifadas—his sorrow (albeit misplaced) over the impending destruction as he sees it of the Edur.
Once again, while I can appreciate Udinaas having the thought regarding how Rhulad’s surface is the opposite of what lies beneath (gilt versus a “necrotic soul”), I would have preferred a more gentle prod in that direction.
Poor Mosag—talk about a dragon by the tail, as Hull had mentioned earlier. How scary to see Rhulad tottering on the edge of utter insanity. And consider, this is after he’s died once. Remember what was implied earlier—he’s got lots of deaths to go.
Hmm, with Udinaas’ “elevation” among his fellow slaves (and perhaps even the Edur though they might chafe at the thought) and Rhulad’s “madness”, is that “distance between emperor and slave” what it was? Or are the roles played by the same actors?
Poor Trull. He’s pretty much locked in to the Trull we saw earlier at this point—isolated, shunned, an outside observer. It seems now to only be formalized.
A sad end yes, as the two walk away from each other and Trull thinks himself a coward. And certainly some more foreboding on the path taken, the choices taken. But also maybe a glimpse of hope? Maybe Trull won’t always have to be alone?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.