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 One of The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson (TB).
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 currently nameless woman (Apsalar) enters the city of Ehrlitan and makes her way to a tavern. Asked if she’s with Dujek’s army, she says no, learning that the “tail ends” of it remain in the city. She gets drunk and heads upstairs to sleep it off, discouraging a would-be follower with a quick knife to his face.
Leoman’s army flees under shelter of a massive dust storm, pursued for weeks by Tavore’s army. The news is constant that the rebellion is collapsing as the Empire reoccupies Seven Cities. Corabb wonders at how easily and quickly the people gave back in to the occupiers and thinks that Leoman still has not let go of the dream and might never. He thinks without Leoman he would be lost, just before Leoman asks him “Where in Hood’s name are we?”
Samar Dev believes she is going to die of thirst, sitting beside her broken-down horseless wagon (her own invention) on a little-used road. Sitting inside the wagon is a possible investor who died while they were taking it out for a trail run. Karsa rides up and when he wonders why she hasn’t tried to walk back she tells him she broke her foot kicking her wagon. He tells her he wants to enter the city (Ugarat) without being noticed and says he’ll help her if she can make that happen. She agrees, though she thinks it unlikely given his appearance, especially when she sees the two Deragoth heads he’s dragging behind his horse.
In her room, Apsalar weeps for Cutter/Crokus and how she had to stop him from following her because there “was nothing in her . . . worth the overwhelming gift of love.” She thinks how Cotillion understood and so set her to work that suited her, though she is finding it harder and harder. She heads down and in the barroom two Pardu women tell her some Gral want her to dance for them. She refuses, saying she is a Shadow Dancer which causes them to quickly retreat and the bartender to warn her that dance is forbidden. She heads out to kill someone and slips into the shadows, overhearing the Pardu women (who followed her) say they have to inform their “new master” that Apsalar really does “walk the shadows.” She continues in the Shadow Warren through a “layer” or “manifestation” she thinks even Cotillion doesn’t know of based on his memories within her. She comes across two shackled corpses that appear to be Tiste of some sort. A pair of shades rise and speak Tiste Andii to her, calling themselves Telorast and Curdle and accusing each other of being thieves who tried to break into Shadowkeep and were then imprisoned by a “demon lord” with seven heads. Apsalar agrees to escort them to a gate, freeing them.
Leoman’s army arrives at a well. Corabb eats a toad and Leoman warns him he’ll have odd dreams. Leoman asks what the army wants of him and Corabb tells him Leoman is destined to carry the book and lead the Apocalypse, which is “as much a time as it is anything else.” He adds Leoman isn’t one to “slink away like some creeping meer-rat.” Leoman says he is thinking of disbanding, but maybe one “impossible victory” will suffice. Corabb starts to hallucinate and Leoman thinks on meer-rats.
A guard tries to stop Karsa at the city gate and Karsa throws him into a cart, knocking him out. Samar leads Karsa away and when a crowd follows she scares them off by threatening to curse them. Karsa asks if she is a witch and she says he has no idea, telling him she bargains with spirits rather then binding them so she doesn’t risk being bound in turn. When guards arrive to arrest Karsa, Samar tells them she called him up as a spirit and the Deragoth heads are demons he killed to prevent them from entering the city and massacring everyone. Karsa doesn’t go along and identifies himself as Sha’ik’s bodyguard. The captain, Inashan, recognizes him and tells him there is a Malazan garrison under siege in Moraval keep nearby. Karsa tells them the rebellion is broken and the Malazans are winning and probably on their way. Inashan says Leoman is still alive with an army, but Karsa says Leoman rides “his own path” and is not to be trusted as a leader of the rebellion. Karsa also says he’ll go out to the siege and make a gesture of peace.
Apsalar leads Curdle and Telorast out into the Jen’rahb, the ancient core of the city. Discussing bodies they might use, the two drop hints they know of or are from Starvald Demelain and that they also knew the original Apsalar, Mistress of Thieves (and they say she was Imass or Imass-like). Apsalar tells the two to stay behind, threatening to tell Cotillion of their release otherwise, then heads out to her job. She thinks of how so many places/features in Shadow have chains and bodies shackled to the chains, including three dragons within a stone circle. She nears the setting for her job, which she thinks is more for Shadowthrone than Cotillion, a matter of answering a betrayal. Inside the temple she finds Mebra is already dead and then she is attacked. She kills her attackers and learns he was a priest of the Nameless Ones.
Telorast and Curdle discuss whether or not they’ll stay with Apsalar. Telorast says if they don’t Edgwalker will be “very unhappy” with them. They decide to stay with her until they figure out a way to “cheat them all.” Curdle says good because “I want my throne back.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter One
This poem by Fisher — and it’s even nice to see that familiar name in a book which is drawing together so many different stories and people we have already met — first feels as though it is a positive representation. But then we realise that those dancing dogs now lie still on the ground. Is Poliel the Mistress of Plague?
You can see how Duiker got himself into trouble, what with recording statements like Tayschrenn’s on the day of Laseen’s coronation!
It is a rather sinister feel at the start of Chapter One, what with this rust coloured coating of dust. Blood coloured, if you’d prefer.
Now here is something that bothered me. “More problematic had one or both of the guards been female.” You see, Erikson has made it clear that same sex relationships and attractions are, if not commonplace in this world, then sufficiently normal to have no one blinking at the idea. So why would this hooded woman assume that they would have no attraction to her if they are women? I guess if this woman is a little naive and hasn’t experienced it herself, then it might be reason enough for her to believe this.
And an immediate sense of danger from this woman: “Fortunate for the guards, then, that they had been male.” Suggests that this person is the sort to fight first and ask questions never.
This woman is so melancholy and sad: the hood, the drinking, the disregard of casual groping as though that is what she deserves. And yet while drunk she still manages to threaten a “suitor” — anyone else find it desperately worrying that someone so dangerous can be so drunk to forget that they have just bloodied a man?
Next we get an immediate reminder of Raraku and its current state — I do like the way that Erikson is willing to explore the aftermath of events rather than just gloss over them. Here we have Leoman’s army fleeing under a bitter reminder of the Whirlwind and what they were trying to achieve. Instead of a desert, Raraku is now a sea.
This made me giggle a lot: “Prayers, Corabb would answer. Our commander prays to Dryjhna all day.”
And then to immediate seriousness — how very real this point is! How very applicable to the wars we see these days: “Had it all been for nothing, then? How could a pious warrior not experience soul-burning disappointment? How many tens of thousands of people had died? For what?” So far I am enjoying the contrast between Leoman and Corabb — they do present an amusing duo!
How much does this quote represent the series we are reading? “...Samar Dev watched them scrabbling fierce with the insult, the soldiers with their heads lifted and mandibles opened wide as if they would challenge the gods.”
Here is a sentence made by Karsa that makes me a little uncomfortable: “It is blood-oil that drives a Teblor warrior to rape.” I hate the fact that Karsa excuses the behaviour because of a certain substance. I mean, obviously I’m pleased that Karsa’s character development has brought him away from the rape of women but this sentence just made me a little cross.
Samar Dev curses, “Seven Hounds!” How amusing that one set of seven are now five instead thanks to this person she has encountered!
And would you have any immediate ideas about how to keep Karsa beneath notice? Didn’t think so.
Ack, I find Apsalar’s self-pity near unbearable — weeping for a man who loved her despite everything. It’s her inability to see that Cutter would be prepared to stay with her; it’s her misconception of his love — like where she thinks he will shift that love to any other woman. This just makes me shake my head. Apsalar has a LONG way to go on her particular journey, it occurs to me...
Now that I know Apsalar is the hooded woman, that naivety when it comes to love and attraction is very easy to recognise. We see it again here: “Apsalar listened a moment longer, wondering what it was about the sounds that disturbed her so...” Basically, Apsalar has NO idea about love in any of its forms, which is why she has decided to make her own way without Cutter. Let’s just take a moment to observe just how well it is going...
She says she is a Shadow Dancer — from the reactions it sounds like this is no ordinary dance. I’m guessing this is something she has from Cotillion?
Who are the two Pardu women? And who is their new master? That implies an old master as well — one they have moved on from.
Hmm, this might be a rusty memory trying to return to the last time we saw Apsalar — but could she use the Warren of Shadow so easily then, or at all? Or is this a new talent thanks to her boss?
Now... Telorast and Curdle — do they really belong to the Tiste corpses? Or are they shades from somewhere else? Because they truly don’t come across as Tiste anything! Far too much bickering and petty talk! And here, “We’ll find others” says Telorast in terms of the bodies they are leaving.
Telorast refers to “warriors of the enclave,” which might give an indication of what race she actually belongs to.
I find myself not believing a single word either of these shades says! I’m sure there is truth to be found in some of their words, but they are rather unreliable. You know what they remind me of? Those two door knockers in Labyrinth: “one of us always lies, and one of us always tells the truth.”
In terms of their capture they reference Hound Baran, who is one of the Hounds of Shadow.
It is funny looking back on when Karsa was a character I dreaded returning to, because here he has provided by far the best beginning. Such as here, when he enters a town by throwing a guard into a wagon. He is a wonderful composition of simplicity, a warrior who knows his path. I am enjoying seeing the way he has become more than he ever could had he stayed with his tribe e.g. “I suggest you make peace with the garrison.” Peace was a dirty word to the Karsa we first met.
Hmm, Telorast and Curdle have been around for a while, if they had contact with the original Apsalar. (Who was Imass!)
This intrigues me a lot: “We were great mages, once [...] Necromancers, Spiritwalkers, Conjurers, Wielders of Fell Holds, Masters of the Thousand Warrens...” Who are they?
And even MORE intrigue: “Are there imbrules here? Stantars? Luthuras...”
“No,” Apsalar said. “None of those creatures.” She frowned. “Those you have mentioned are of Starvald Demelain.”
Oh okay, so I am also loving the start to Apsalar’s tale, especially now she has started to come back to herself. Her observations on the Mistress of Thieves are interesting. I also like her flash of defiance while in service to Cotillion and Shadowthrone.
And look here: the Nameless Ones have decided to kill Mebra. Aren’t they just getting involved a little too much? And they are not nice, as far as I am concerned, after the part they played with Icarium.
And finally — Curdle wants her throne back. And they do not want to displease Edgewalker. Who are they?!
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter One
This is our second mention of Poliel early on. Just saying....
Coming after a poem on plague, it’s a bit interesting that our image that opens the chapter is of lots of people covered in red (dust).
Poor Apsalar — this is not a great introduction to her life since we last saw her, veiled both literally and figuratively, appearing from a wasteland both literal and figurative, alone, isolated, drinking herself into a forgetful stupor. A sad revelation.
There’s a somewhat unsettling mix of humor and anger in these scenes with Corabb and Leoman. How can you not laugh at Corabb telling the men Leoman’s noises is their “pious” leader “praying” even as he’s committing the worst of blasphemies or when Corabb thinks without Leoman he’d be lost just before Leoman asks him where they are. On the other hand, there’s some serious rage in Leoman’s “tirades,” his blasphemy, his leading of an army whose prime relief he himself has no belief in, his litany of ways to destroy the holy book: “fire, horse piss,” his “soul-burning disappointment.”
Another interesting scene-opening image, this time with the ants described as an army of soldiers willing it seems to “challenge the gods.” Hmmm....
And then Samar as a god who “deliver[s] discord into otherwise predictable, truncated, and sordid lives.”
I had to chuckle at Samar’s self-description of herself as one with “ample womanly charms.”
It’s an intriguing introduction to Samar with her invention of the horseless wagon, both in its characterization of her as a woman out of the ordinary and also as what it intimates for the changes eventually coming to this society.
This scene with Apsalar is even sadder than the first in her self-loathing belief that she is unworthy of love and in her tragic sacrifice for Cutter, which would seem to the clearer-eyed to belie that first belief.
The passage where she thinks of how Cotillion feels the same about her and then views Cotillion as “so far removed from humanity as to find amorality a thing of comfort” adds to the sadness in that, in my mind at lest, this is a complete misreading of Cotillion, who does not see her as unworthy of love and is not removed from humanity, in fact is fighting hard to avoid that sense of aloofness. Further compounding her blindness (to herself, to Cotillion), she thinks Cutter won’t miss her for long. Yeah, we’ll seee....
I always enjoy the rich complexity of the Shadow Realm — the way things are never quite what they seem, the layers upon layers, the image of all those chained creatures, the ways it moves across the world. I always want to see more of it.
And speaking of chained creatures, here are two that we’ll end up spending some time with: Telorast and Curdle. Funny, but when I read this introduction to them I hear them in the voices of Billy Crystal and Carol Cane as Miracle Max and his wife. Don’t know why.
They are perfect creatures to be found in Shadow as they are so mysterious and we get so many tantalizing tidbits of information about them here, some of which of course we have no idea if we can trust as it comes from them:
- They speak Tiste Andii and have that appearance, but then they take over bodies — so are the Andii-like ones their own bodies or not?
- They were trying to steal something from Shadowkeep
- They know and dislike Edgewalker
- They know and dislike both Shadowthrone and Cotillion
- They were imprisoned they say by a seven-headed lord (Dessimbelackis?)
Here we go with a new scene and yet more intriguing imagery: a swarm of capemoths flitting over the riders (never a good omen I’d say), a feeding frenzy with the rhizan crunching through the “armor” of the capemoths, and the rhizan themselves described as “miniature dragons.”
We should pay attention to the subtext of this conversation between Corabb and Leoman and the differing paths the two take despite conversing together. What for instance does Corabb mean or think when he says they are the Apocalypse and will show the truth of that to the world and what does Leoman mean when he says it? What does Leoman mean when he says “we ride towards our Apocalypse do we” and what does Corabb hear when Leoman says that? Why does Corabb think of “many impossible victories” while Leoman thinks of only one? Does it matter at all that when Corabb says Leoman will lead them to victory he is hallucinating? What does it mean that Corabb sees the camp filled with vultures? What is it about meer-rats that Leoman must think of?
So this is a somewhat different Karsa (although obviously in some ways the same): willing to offer mercy, more patient, arguing that “gestures of peace must be made.” The world has changed Karsa it seems, as we saw happening last we spent time with him Our little Toblakai is growing up....
And if Karsa has grown wise, perhaps we would be wise as well to heed his warning regarding Leoman.
And then we’re back to Telorast and Curdle. You have to enjoy the irony of Curdle talking about the problems with possession (“memories seep back and forth, yielding confusion”) to Apsalar.
- And then we get a bit more info (again, not always necessarily reliable) about/from them
- They knew the original Apsalar, Mistress of Thieves (and thought she looked like T’lan Imass)
- The stole from Apsalar
- They claim to have been “great mages”
- They allege “even Kallor quailed” before them
- They’re seemingly quite familiar with Starvald Demelain (dragon warren)
- Telorast hisses in a “strange reptilian manner” (I have to say, this one seems a bit clumsily blunt for Erikson to me)
It goes without saying I’m sure, but, well, my job after all is to say it. So let’s file away those three chained dragons Cotillion visits — you know we’ll be hearing more about that.
And some pretty clear foreshadowing: “mutterings of another convergence of powers. Vaster than any that had occurred before.” And we’ve certainly seen some big ones.
Mebra, as a reminder, was the one who gave Kalam the Holy Book and was involved, as Apsalar says, in betrayal.
So it appears the Nameless Ones are becoming pretty active, the question here of course being why are they going after Mebra?
And then it’s back to Telorast and Curdle, who now seem to imply that Edgewalker would want them to stay with Apsalar or he will be unhappy with them. Which raises the issue of why — do they think Edgewalker wants them to spy on Apsalar for them? Guard Apsalar for him? Report on Cotillion and Shadowthrone’s plans as Apsalar becomes involved with them? Does Apsalar have a specific task which will lead her to something Edgewalker wants? Is it important to Edgewalker that Telorast and Curdle are thieves? And what throne do they want back? Curiouser and curiouser....
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.