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 the Prologue 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 strange, old-fashioned ship from Malaz Island puts in at Kartool City in the morning, an odd time of year for such a journey due to the winds. Later, after receiving a message, nineteen-year-old Sergeant Hellian of the city guard, leads her squad to the Temple of D’rek. On the way, she thinks of old violent celebrations of D’rek that have since been outlawed after the Malazan conquest. She remembers as well how Surly and Dancer, the night before the invasion, had assassinated the cult’s sorcerers and Demidrek (who had taken over from Tayschrenn — the prior Demidrek — in a coup). At the entrance to the Grand Temple of D’rek she meets Banaschar, who had sent her the note. He tells her they have arrived as fast as they could based on a presentiment he had (he is a former priest of D’rek on Malaz) and they need to break in. One of Helian’s squad, Urb, notices lots of dead spiders on the steps (Helian has a fear of spiders). A high priestess of the Queen of Dreams arrives and asks what Banashar is doing. They break down the doors and discover the temple priests have all been slaughtered horribly, torn to pieces. Banaschar tells Hellian the temples will be informed and investigations begun. Hellian turns away for a moment and Banaschar disappears. She and her guard can’t remember what he looked like and realize sorcery was involved. Hellian says she and her squad are about to be sent away.
A large burial mound stands in a desert and in it, a long asleep presence is imprisoned in wards: Dejim Nebrahl, “born on the eve of the death of the First Empire . . . a child with seven souls.” The creature came of seven T’rolbarahl, creatures formed by Dessimbelackis and then hunted and exterminated at his command when things went badly. The seven had escaped, bound their souls into a mortal female, and then Dejim, a D’ivers, was born from her. He was eventually caught by the Dark Hounds and their master, who bound him in this pit. Now, twelve hooded Nameless Ones arrive and begin a ritual to free Dejim. Toward the end of the ritual, they tell Dejim he must perform a task before they complete it. He agrees and relieved at its seeming ease and that the “victims” are nearby. The twelfth Nameless One, once called Sister Spite, casts the final part, knowing the others will be killed by Dejim for food. He rises and begins killing.
A distance away, Taralack Veed, a Gral, hears the sound of the Nameless Ones being killed and notes a dragon rising from where the noise comes from. He watches then says “Bitch . . . I should have known.” He waits until he “sensed that the creature had finished feeding,” then heads off to track it.
At a crossroads, two days west of the Otataral Sea, five strangers arrive at the outskirts of the tiny hamlet. Barathol Mekhar, the blacksmith and de facto head of the town, as well as the only non-native of it, goes out to investigate. He immediately sends a local to get his weapons and armor then tells everyone else to go home and stay there. His gear arrives and Barathol puts it on then stands to meet them, telling the others before they leave that the five are T’lan Imass.
Amanda’s Reaction to the Prologue
Oh my. Contemplate that Dramatis Personae for just one moment. Look at all those familiar and beloved names.
This is a fantastically powerful poem to open with and one I enjoyed reading very much — the cadence, the themes present, the sorrow, the feeling of something passing. It makes me wonder whether this poem speaks about the events we are just about to embark upon.
Hmm, after a couple of novels where we didn’t have any chapter headers indicating the time passing or where we might be along the timeline. I’m not sure I like their return! Just one question: which Sha’ik is being referred to? The original or that which was Felisin?
What a very sinister start to this novel — the idea of spiders lurking waiting for prey, massive nets waiting to capture the unwary, threads all linking together. Can anyone else see within that metaphors for various situations and themes from the Malazan novels or just me?
And also.... fist-sized spiders?! This would totally be me! “Born in the city, cursed with a fear of all manner of spiders, she had lived the entirety of her nineteen years in unrelieved terror.”
A few initial thoughts — I hesitate at thinking that Hellian is just going to be a bit character, since her background has been sketched in some. I can sort of see why she would turn to alcohol, but it automatically makes her a pitiful and less than likable character. But then we open out from Hellian and get to see what Kartool City was like before the Malazan conquest and then, as far as I’m concerned, Hellian is right to turn to drink! Rubbish and maggot-strewn streets; mangy dogs being stoned to death; public flaying — it is not a charming place to live, by any means.
I’m thinking that the Malazans arrival was a blessed relief — the inhabitants of Kartool City think the opposite: “The present sordid condition was the fault of the Malazans, everyone agreed [...] More than the cult of D’rek had been crushed, after all. Slavery was abolished, the execution pits had been scoured clean and permanently sealed.” And the stray dogs are being rescued — yay!
So right from the get-go I’m not really liking Hellian or her city. And that doesn’t improve with the mysterious ex-priest of D’rek who had a “feeling” that compelled him to rush to Kartool City. His mean comments — however warranted — to Hellian make me feel rather sourly towards him as well. Hah! I’m not being too positive about this start to The Bonehunters, am I? At least by this point I can remain entirely open-minded about how the novel will continue and feel trust in Erikson to sort things out.
Oh, and I have noted that the ousted D’rek priest was none other than Tayschrenn. I think I knew that he was involved with D’rek (if I didn’t, I do now!) but it is interesting having a little tidbit from his history. And after feeling so comfortable and happy with that Dramatis Personae and who features in it, I’m now having to adjust to more new characters/places!
Ugh ugh ugh. “The stench was overwhelming, and in the gloom was visible great splashes of blood on the walls, fragments of meat scattered on the polished tiles, and pools of bile, blood and faeces, as well as scraps of clothing and clumps of hair.” I wonder who this was and why they received this fate?
Okay, so here is our first awesome scene of the new book — the freeing of Dejim Nebrahl. We get more hints about the Nameless Ones — and I’m starting to suspect that they might be the bad guys of the piece... Either that or they are being totally manipulated by Sister Spite. Now, am I right in thinking she is the sister of Lady Envy?
Right, let’s try and piece some bits together. Dejim Nebrahl is a D’ivers, formed of seven T’rohlbarahl. These creatures were created by Dessimbelackis, before he created the Deragoth — the Dark Hounds of which two were killed by Karsa. Dessimbelackis then bound Dejim Nebrahl — the binding that these Nameless Ones and Sister Spite are right now unwinding. Am I all square? Following what is going on? Anyway, the scene is awesome. And SCARY.
Does Spite have a dragon form? Is that who Taralack Veed sees flying away? [Bill: Yes.]
Finally we meet the blacksmith Barathol Mekhar. Now that name seems familiar — the surname anyway. Kalam Mekhar? Any relation? [Bill: Yes.]
Whether he is or no, Barathol is definitely more than just a blacksmith, what with those awesome weapons and his knowledge of the T’lan Imass. [Bill: Yes. (Don’t you love such easy replies?)]
Well! That was an intriguing beginning. Looking forward to diving into the main book proper on Friday.
Bill’s Reaction to the Prologue
Just a moment of quiet please among the vets for the silent cheering going on for the arrival on scene of Hellian.
And Amanda, if you can’t tell from the above, I think you’ll find that she does indeed become a “likable” character.
It’s funny, but I don’t recall every having the sense of Hellian being this young. But for some reason on this reread (not my first of this book), her age just leapt off the page at me as a shocker. I’m still readjusting.
Whenever I think of Hellian, one of the things I think of is picturing her as Indiana Jones in the first movie: “Spiders. Why did it have to be spiders?”
Speaking of which, the image of those huge paralt spiders, taking down pigeons and sea gulls is indeed a pretty disturbing image to start off with. And yes, I’d agree those webs make a nice metaphor for the series as a whole.
We’ve seen before these effects of Malazan conquest and the seemingly illogical response by the locals to the consequences: the outlawing of slavery and ending of violent, barbaric rites and then the locals “blaming” the Malazans. Recall the conversations between Torvald and Karsa earlier. Love that mention of the local dog shelter as a funny aside. (Maybe Bent could be taken in?)
That association of Tayschrenn with D’rek is going to be important.
That’s a lot of name-dropping going on with the gods when the temples are mentioned, some of whom we’ve seen (some literally) play major roles and some of whom have been referenced merely as curses. But don’t forget them, especially Soliel and Poliel, who are relatively unfamiliar to us at this point (though good to recall Poliel has already been very briefly mentioned as an ally to the Crippled God).
So who has slaughtered D’rek’s priests? Those spiders and their condition are a clue.
Poor Hellian, into the pan indeed....
Yes Amanda, you’re remembering right about Spite:
Menandore’s eyes fell to the motionless form of Sheltatha Lore. ‘This one. She took a lover from among this world’s gods, did she not?’
“For a time. Begetting two horrid little children.”
“Horrid? Daughters, then.”
Sukul nodded. “And their father saw that clearly enough from the very start, for he named them appropriately.”
“Oh? And what were those names, sister?”
“Envy and Spite.”
Menandore smiled . . . “Sheltatha’s lover. That god – what is his name?”
Sukul’s reply seemed to come from a vast distance, “Draconus.”
Nice recap of Dejim Nebrahl, Amanda. I’d say you’ve got it. The only thing I find a bit odd is that there is a direct reference to Dessimbelackis, but when there is mention of him eventually getting caught by the Deragoth and a sorcerer, that person is simply referred to as “a clever master” rather than use the name Dessimbelackis. I’m not sure why there’d be such a distinction unless it’s meant to imply that the “master” was not Dessimbelackis, whom earlier we’d been told had made a pact or bargain with the Deragoth, which doesn’t quite imply “master.” I don’t think it’s a big deal, just a bit odd.
Buried things just don’t like to stay buried in this series, do they? The past will out, as they say. A concept given us directly when Erikson writes: “They [the wards] were intended to last forever . . . in the flawed belief that . . . all that was once past would never again be revisited.” Also in that passage is the pretty depressing if accurate statement that other false assumptions included the idea that “mortals would one day be without malice” and that “the futre was a safer place than the brutal present.”
I like how we get little reminders of these side notes such as the Trell Wars that don’t really play a major role but keep giving us this sense of a fully developed world with a history that is three-dimensional, one that ripples throughout events, rather than simply a history simply painted onto a backdrop, like the town at the end of Blazing Saddles.
And there’s yet another interesting take on the T’lan Imass — the idea that rather than simply kill Dejim, they would have instead, had they found it, fed off its power to further their war against the Jaghut. Always good when we get these moments to recall how that war was first presented to us as so just and admirable.
A few interesting tidbits in the Nameless Ones’ ritual:
- Another reference to the theme of the buried/unburied past, as the second NO speaks of the plain in Raraku where the winds reveal “a million broken pots.”
- An interesting line from the third: “As we fashioned this dilemma . . . so we must initiate its resolution.”
- And another: “We have chosen one current, a terrible, unchained force — chosen to guide it, to shape its course unseen and unchallenged. We intend to drive one force upon another, and so effect mutual annihilation.” Think of what great force with a “guide” that we’ve seen, one associated with the Nameless Ones.
- And from the Fourth: “We must acknowledge grief for the impending demise of an honourable servant . . . “ And whom have we met that serves the Nameless Ones? Put that together with “guide” and “terrible force” (not to mention “annihilation”) and I think you can figure out the intended victims of Dejim.
- From the Fifth: “Shadowthrone cannot — must not — be underestimated. He possesses too much knowledge. Of the Azath . . . He is not yet our enemy . . . He perturbs. And I would we negate his existence at the earliest opportunity, although I recognize my view is in the minority within our cult.” I love that understatement about Shadowthrone — “he perturbs.” Yes. Yes he does. I also like how this sets up some tension for the reader — what might happen if this person’s view changes so it is no longer the minority? Just how “minority” a view is it now?
- The Sixth. It’s an interesting word — “otherworldly” — used to describe this one. Tell me that doesn’t pique your interest. We get a clear statement of what the Nameless Ones are — “the hands of the Azath, the shapers of the will of the Azath” — though the question does raise itself: is this true or is this what the Nameless One’s “believe” is true of themselves? Do they act upon “instruction” from the Azath or do they somehow “interpret” or take it upon themselves to decide what the Azath “want”?
- The Seventh gives us a bit of a genealogy lesson: the Barghast, Trell, and Tartheno Toblakai are offshoots of the T’lan Imass. And he also gives us yet another depressing lesson in the way mortals separate themselves into “us” and “other”, and these are the lies that rationalize killing.
- The Eighth: “Frozen worlds hide in darkness . . . and so hold the secret of death.”
I like that tonal/stylistic shift from the High Language of ritual to Veed’s “Bitch, I should’ve guessed.” Not to mention the “phlegm,” “mucus,” and “piss [ing] on the fire.”
And here is the archaeologist/anthropologist again, showing us what happens when people don’t pay attention to the environment, what happens when your industry and your food system don’t use a sustainable process: “The industry died with the last tree [a truffula?]. Low-growth vanished into the gullets of goats, the topsoil blew away and the village shrank within a single generation to its present decrepit state.”
And that’s a nice cliffhanger of a close to the prologue, eh?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.