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 Twelve 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.
Bugg and Tehol discuss their various plots and make plans for the day, including a visit by Bugg to the Rat Catchers’ guild and a visit to a new quarry where a necromancer disappeared after being called in to deal with something Bugg’s workers found. Bug and Tehol also wonder at just how many undead there are in the city, based on Shurq returning with Harlest.
Brys is shocked by what he finds when he looks into the recent disappearances as Tehol asked him too — somewhere between seven and 11 thousand in the past year. The scribe tells him the Rat Catchers’ Guild has the contract to investigate. Later, Brys wonders what Tehol is up to and thinks it’s best he doesn’t know.
Bugg heads down to the old tomb where Shurq and Harlest have holed up. Shurq asks what Bugg knows about them and he tells her the language on the doors belongs to the Forkrul Assail, who are “collectively personified” by the Errant. The tombs were built for Jaghut and were warded against T’lan Imass, who pursued even those Jaghut who left their flesh behind in tombs while their soul traveled to the Hold of Ice. Shurq wonders how Bugg knows so much arcane knowledge. Bugg heads off to the Rat Catchers’ Guild to offer them a contract and is told he and Tehol can have time at that night’s meeting. The receptionist is shocked when Bugg realizes “he” is an illusion, saying he no one has figured that out in decades. Bugg leaves.
Kura Qan summons Brys and tells him the Dolmen has been “usurped,” showing him the tile with a figure at its base and bound by chains to the menhir. He also informs Brys that the Azath house has died and asks Brys to go investigate. When Brys asks if there is more news, the Ceda gives him a litany of events in the Tiles, adding he is frightened by all he sees. Finally, he tells Brys he hasn’t heard from the delegation to the Edur, all communication having been blocked by a new kind of Edur magic. Brys leaves for the Azath.
Bugg goes to the quarry where some long-imprisoned creature had been released by the digging and had killed several people. Bugg notes the sudden appearance of cold and frost near the cave entrance, then sees a female Jaghut appear and look into the cave. Bugg asks her what kind of demon is inside and she says a hungry, insane, cowardly one. She’s annoyed the humans freed it (she’d been the one to imprison it). She uses her warren to imprison it in ice. Bugg recognizes it as Khalibaral and is happy she came back to deal with it. When she asks is he has any suggestions for a new place to put it, Bugg smiles.
Brys arrives at the Azath and sees many of the barrows have been disturbed, as if from within. Kettle tells him the Azath is dead despite her efforts. Brys asks how many people she has killed and fed to the Azath but she can’t count — it’s clearly a lot however. She tells Brys the prisoner the Azath chose wants to speak to one of Kettle’s grownup friends. As she leads him to the spot, they pass through ancient insects now hatching from eggs. Kettle tells him to clear his mind like he does when he fights and he immediately faces an incredibly strong will within.
Brys finds himself standing on a flat-pyramid structure overlooking a strange landscape with a huge city. Objects are falling from a wound in the sky and the city is being destroyed. Brys realizes someone is beside him. The stranger tells Brys he is witnessing a god coming through the wound, called down by mages trying to fight Kallor, and that the summoning destroyed them and their civilization. Brys suggests then they failed, but the stranger says their helplessness drove them to seek change and they did indeed get that. He adds that the god is infected the world with his poison. He speaks of Brys’ leaders as also poisonous and talks over they cycle of civilization — of the rise of tyranny and conformity. He criticizes Lether and warns Brys of what may happen to it. He tells Brys to seek hope in compassion.
Brys returns to his world and tells Kettle he learned nothing of the stranger. She says the stranger will stop the other prisoners from escaping and hurting people, telling Brys he needs two good swords. Brys agrees but adds he’ll talk to the Ceda about it. He asks if Kettle is still killing people and she says not many; most of the trees are dead already and the others are dying. He agrees to help and tells her to be careful.
Tehol and Bugg go to the Rat Catchers’ Guild and meet with three men and three women in a room swarming with rats. Tehol surprises them by telling them he knows they are actually an assassins’ guild and thieves’ guild, and have also helped tribal refugees flee. The guild calls in Chief Investigator Rucket who calls Bugg the more dangerous one of the two. The guild members are surprised to learn Bugg saw through their earlier illusion. Tehol offers them the contract: he wants tribal refugees moved out to the islands in such fashion as nobody notices, he wants to know the results of their investigation into the disappearances in the city, and he wants himself protected. After Scint (one of the guild members) bites a rat’s head off, Tehol asks Bugg which ones are real and which illusions and Bugg guesses only Ormly, Bubyrd, and Rucket are real.
Brys reports his Azath visit to the Ceda. Kuru Qan tells Brys he’ll bring him to his private weapons stash where Brys can select the swords for the Azath’s chosen.
The Ceda shows Brys his hoard, telling him the weapons are all invested with sorcery, all of them cursed in fact. They choose two swords and Brys says he’ll deliver them the next day. The scene ends with the revelation that Brys never realized he hadn’t told the Ceda that Kettle was dead and that thus a “crossroads was reached and then, inexorably, a path was taken.”
Tehol and Bugg head home.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Twelve
You know, sometimes those poems that start each chapter are rather unrelentingly grim. I guess it certainly does set the tone of what might happen, but I occasionally hesitate in reading them. The saying at the very start of Chapter Twelve I heartily approve of, on the other hand! That is an amusing saying, and reminds me rather of Tehol and Bugg.
We discussed the saying “five wings will buy you a grovel” after we heard it at an earlier point in the novel. Here we have Tehol providing one interpretation, but it does strike me that sayings (especially one as ambiguous as that) can certainly have multiple interpretations. Tehol does say a grovel at the feet of the Errant, rather than at the feet of any earthly figure, I do note.
I rather love the idea of Tehol providing our three scary ladies with a list of fake names that they can go chasing after while he concerns himself with the actual task of making money. That is almost Eddings-like in its charm and humour. In fact, you know, Tehol and Bugg do remind me somewhat of characters such as Silk from the Belgariad. Sure, the latter is a tad more simplistic, but there are definite echoes. Was Erikson showing some respect to those fantasy authors who went before?
A moot question: “Just how many undead people are prowling around in this city anyway?” I bet not many suspect that Erikson tackled zombie fiction as well!
I will say this about the Tehol and Bugg dialogue — yes, it’s very nice that they complete each other’s sentences; that certainly demonstrates the degree to which they respect and know each other. It is a rather annoying technique on the part of Erikson for creating tension and confusion in the reader. Exchanges such as:
“I want a meeting — clandestine — with the Guild Master. Tomorrow night, if possible.”
Bugg looked troubled. “That guild—”
...simply frustrate me and leave me wondering why we can’t know more upfront.
Here we find Brys obeying his brother’s request to find out the annual numbers of the dead — rather high, aren’t they? And the investigation into why this is occurring is being conducted by the Rat Catchers’ Guild — the very same that Tehol wants to meet with... I doubt it’s just coincidence! I don’t think Kettle is removing 7,000 people per year all on her own. What is going on in Letheras?
I find it amusing — and all too frighteningly real — that the government in Letheras have two sets of data: the set they reveal to the public, and the set that is more accurate, with the latter not being published for fear of anarchy. I honestly wouldn’t put this past the British government... [Bill: Or any government.]
Bugg really does know an awful lot for a servant, doesn’t he? Who is Bugg really? Here he tells Shurq that the tombs beneath Letheras have the language of the Forkrul Assail on them, who, he declares, considered themselves the impartial arbiters in the war between the Jaghut and the T’lan Imass. Is this something that we’ve been told before in this series? Or is this little throwaway explanation of Bugg’s dropping crucial information for the first time?
I think that this is an understatement regarding the collapsed school! “The purchase price had been suitably modest.”
Hmm, first Bugg demonstrates more knowledge than any other scholar in Letheras and then we’re told that he is utilising some very unusual construction techniques...
Ugh, I would not want to live anywhere near Scale House, with that rather particular decor!
And now Bugg manages to see through a sorceror’s illusion! WHO IS THIS MAN?! I’m starting to think god with the amount of talent he has. Or ascendant, at the very least... What interest does he have in current events? Is it him or Tehol who is really in charge? Does Tehol know who or what he really is?
To be honest, with the events that have been rumbling to a head, it is no surprise that the Holds are transforming... I think that the Dolmen has been usurped by the arrival of Rhulad in his new form. The Azath has died and those within now circle as they wait to escape — Kettle has been giving us an indication of this already. The Dragon Hold has awakened — well, we know that both Silchas Ruin and Sheltatha Lore are trapped within, two draconian presences. Or does it mean that the Wyval blood has overtaken Udinaas, and perhaps caused him to become more. Child and Seed stir to life — Menandore? I’m not sure who the Saviour/Betrayer that has coalesced into one might be.
Damn, this chapter is doing EVERYTHING to make me want to know who or what Bugg is. Now he recognises and gives respect to a Jaghut — more importantly, she gives him respect and answers his questions. He is not scared of her. Worryingly, he is scared (actually, that seems the wrong word — it strikes me from the way that he has been written that Bugg is never scared) of the creature within the quarry rift: the Khalibaral.
What a mistaken thought by Brys about the insects! “Since they were all fleeing, he was not unduly concerned.” I would be worried about what they were fleeing from....
I know she’s undead and all, and rather flagrant in her killing habits, but I like Kettle. She’s a wonderful combination of innocent and worldly, a little mystical and very odd. An odd kettle of fish.
*slaps forehead* The Emperor that has been referred to on a frequent basis — this MUST be Rhulad, right?
Brys speaks to Silchas Ruin, does he not? [Bill: Yes.] I think this because of his request for twin swords, although I could be suspecting amiss. Here we see the coming of the Crippled God, and the demise of the world that he entered. Those who brought him brought ruin upon themselves. I start to feel sorry for the Crippled God. I know that he is acting like a poison, but I think this is more because there is currently no one to be his opposite, to oppose what he stands for. Chaos without Order, as it were. In his old world, there was balance because of the enemy he warred with. I could just be issuing garbled nonsense at this point!
Oh, now this is priceless!
“I don’t like being the singular focus of the attention of thousands of rats. What do they know that I don’t?”
“Given the size of their brains, not much.”
Tehol stared for a moment longer, then he slowly blinked and regarded Bugg. Five heartbeats. Ten.
That whole encounter with the members of the Rat Guild (or, rather, the Assassins’ Guild, or Thieves’ Guild?) is ghoulish and very funny. I like the way that the Head of the Guild identifies Bugg as being the more dangerous of the two. Rucket seems a little...Soletaken. I could be wrong, but those feline eyes are emphasised. Also, it creeps me out that Scint chews the head off a rat. Who are these people? And why are they making out there are six of them when it sounds like only three of them are actually there?
Hmm, this last passage is clumsy — for Erikson, at least. This type of “dun-dun-DUUURR” foreshadowing just makes me roll my eyes, rather than become curious and full of foreboding for what might be about to occur:
“Thanks to this omission, and in the last moments before the Finadd parted company with Kuru Qan, a crossroads was reached, and the, inexorably, a path was taken.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Twelve
That’s a good comparison to Eddings with regard to the humor in this section — it does feel a bit similar. And any mention of Silk will always get a smile from me, one of my earliest of such characters in my fantasy reading. While I eventuallly grew tired of Eddings, the Belgariad remains a fond memory.
On the other hand, Amanda, I never find that sort of dialogue you point to annoying. Maybe I did years ago and have just forgotten, and now I don’t mind not “knowing more” because I, um, well, know more!
This first scene is mostly set up for some important points to arise later — such as the Rat Catchers Guild and the reason for so many undead in Lether, not to mention the obvious foreshadowing about something under that rock quarry.
Bugg has, as you’ve noted Amanda, obviously been set up to be more than he appears to be, much like Tehol. A brief list from this chapter:
1.) His surprising detailed knowledge about Jaghut, T’lan Imass, and Forkrul Assail. He doesn’t simply know of them, or of the war between the Jaghut and the Imass, as one might have picked up from legend, but he also knows of a particular rite/action of the Jaghut and of how the Assail were involved. Note as well that none of this is presented as myth or legend; there’s no “it’s thought” or “some say.” It’s all presented very authoritatively: “The language on the door belongs to . . . The tombs were built for . . . The wards were intended for, the Forkrul Assail considered themselves . . .“ Hard to see much uncertainty in any of what he says. One also clearly senses he knows more when he says “that was, most of the time, the extent of their involvement,” implying he knows of some times when it was not.
2.) His ability to see through the illusion of the receptionist at the Rat Catchers’ Guild, something nobody has done for decades.
3.) His seeming recognition of Omtose Phellack, as he seems utterly unsurprised when the Jaghut appears out of sudden cold and ice. Not to mention his matter-of-fact discussion with a member of an allegedly “extinct” race.
4.) His quick identification of the demon type.
5.) His interesting use of “they” when the Jaghut refers to humans:
Damned Humans. Can’t leave things well enough alone.
I doubt they knew, Jaghut. [italics mine]
He could be using “they” to refer to the specific humans that dug up the demon, but it’s interestingly unclear.
6.) The observation of Chief Investigator Rucket (from the Rat Catchers’ Guild) that between Tehol and Bugg, Bugg appears to be “the more dangerous one.”
Some interesting hints in the Ceda’s recap of the Tiles, some of which mirrors Feather Witch’s reading. The Errant is clearly becoming more important in things, something we’ve been well set up for by all the prior mentions of this mysterious figure. “Ice Hold’s Huntress” seems to reference a female Jaghut (nicely coming after Bugg’s little mini-lesson and before his actual encounter with a female Jaghut). A bit of an ominous note with the “Pack” coming closer — some thinking on where we’ve seen something/someone as a “pack” would give a clue as to what this might imply. Wyval we’ve seen, but is this the only Dragon-ish aspect of the Dragon Hold awakening? Or might there be more? Actual dragons? Sole-taken dragons? Blood-drinker — we’ve had several ideas tossed about as to who that might be in the comments. As with Consort. And “Saviour and Betrayer” have coalesced — at this point, there are lots of interesting possibilities I’d say, some of which might get narrowed down. One could argue Rhulad is both savior of his people (saving them from conquest) and betrayer (corrupting them, allying them with the CG). One could argue Trull is betrayer (argues against Rhulad) and savior (trying to save his people by keeping them from heading down wrong path). One could argue Hull could be both — betraying his people to save another people (or, conversely, betraying his people to save his people from their own flaw). Is Tehol betraying his people to save them as well? What about Silchas? He’s called Betrayer, yet it appears he’s going to arrive on the scene as savior (or so he says).
A little throwaway line about a two-headed bug. Wait for it.
That’s a great scene showing the fall of the Crippled God and the destruction of the city/civilization. A few things I personally liked about it:
The details of the civilization offered up: the ziggurat-like structure Brys and Silchas stand on, the stone carving of the of the part-man, part-bull idol, the clay tablets. It conveys a sense of ancient history, as well as of course calling up images of some of our own past great ancient civilizations.
The lightning described as “like chains.”
The obvious pain and agony of the Chained God, making him a bit more understandable/complex.
The way Erikson has me wondering just what they “tempted” the Chained God with, those mages.
The description of the fall of the God himself and how it reminded me of the old footage of the A-bomb tests.
The urgency and desire of “change.” This is one of the seemingly bi-polar long-running thematic wars in the series: change vs. stagnation. How many times have we heard characters bemoan tracing the same steps or paths again and again? Changing the game, or the rules of the game, would appear so far to be one of the goals of Shadowthrone and Cotillion, and, on a lesser scale, Tehol and Bugg.
Silchas’ description of how the “world falls to tyranny with a whisper. The frightened are ever keen to bow to a perceived necessity . . ." Hard to read that paragraph and not see its echoes all around us.
Silchas’ description of Lether: “Stacked bones become the foundation for your roads of commerce and you see nothing untoward in that . . . You claim that each circumstance is different, unique, but it is neither.” It’d be nice to argue this is not the history of so much of human civilization, one after the other. Yes, it’d be nice....
Silchas talking about how greed can only be killed by itself, how the only recourse is “annihilation,” while Tehol plots an economic firestorm.
Then, finally, as always for me, the focus on “compassion.”
I don’t have a lot to say about the Rat Catchers’ Guild meeting (though it was fun), save to point out yet another seemingly throwaway line that references the setting of Kolanse and the prior mention of Rucket’s observation regarding Bugg.
I’m trying to remember if we ever get such a direct omniscient narrator sense of foreboding like we do at the end of the scene where Brys and the Ceda pick out the swords — with the narrator telling us: “It did not occur to him [Brys] that he had not informed the Ceda of one particular detail . . . Kettle was more than just a child. She was also dead. Thanks to this careless omission, the Ceda’s measure of fear was not as great as it should have been. Indeed, as it needed to be. Thanks to this omission . . . a crossroads was reached, and then, inexorably, a path was taken.” Anyone else? I’m glad you pointed it out Amanda, as it jarred me as well. Did this strike anybody else as just a little off?
Lots of set-up in this chapter:
- New characters entering the stage: the Rat Catchers’ Guild, Rucket, a female Jaghut, a powerful once-imprisoned demon
- The Azath dead and its prisoners on the verge of escaping
- Introduction of a two-headed bug
- Silchas on his way out and now allied somewhat with Brys
- More mention of the Errant, the Forkrul Assail, Kolanse
- The “Pack” on its way
Things are moving along....
Hope you all had a great holiday and welcome back to a new year reading along!
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.