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 Twenty-One of Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson (RG).
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 spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Fiddler and Gesler’s squads have gotten separated. Fiddler believes they’re being herded toward a large army. They stop outside a village and Bottle uses a cat to figure out what’s going on. He tells Fiddler marines are holding the town and they can enter.
Hellian’s group is in the tavern, having been joined there earlier by Gesler’s squad (badly wounded). Fiddler’s squad enters. Hellian tells them how they’ve been successful – kill the officials, lawyers, and those with money. The other locals, mostly Indebted, loot, party, then leave.
Fiddler marvels at Hellian’s success. Gesler and Stormy argue over how things are going.
Koryk’s group tries to get Smiles to get rid of her singular trophies (as opposed to the fingers and toes the rest of them carry). They wonder how they’re going to get to Letheras and then besiege it.
Bottle warns the marines hundreds of Edur are coming.
Beak has been exhausting himself using his “candles” to protect his group. The marines have been linking up with Keneb but Sort worries those far ahead may be lost. Sort and Beak meet up with Keneb, who decides it’s time to change tactics and now make a fast, hard push for the capital. Sort tells Beak to sleep/rest, but he tells her he can’t, the “candles, they won’t go out . . . It’s too late.” She tells him it’s okay “to die alongside your comrades.” He agrees, calling them his friends.
Thom Tissy tells Keneb the soldiers are ready for him. Keneb orders the march.
SCENES EIGHT through TWELVE
The marines in the village fight the Edur. Bowl, Lutes, Tavos Pond are killed, Stormy wounded.
SCENES THIRTEEN through EIGHTEEN
Sergeant Primly’s squad arrives at the village, with Badan Gruk, Skulldeath, Nep Furrow, Toothy, and others. They decide to fight rather than go around. The individual soldiers get ready, including Neller, who has a sword that “howls like a wild woman every time I hit something with it.”
SCENES NINETEEN through TWENTY-TWO
The marines continue to fight in the village and are saved by Primly’s group.
The 3rd and 4th get together after the Edur retreat. Sands, Uru Hela, and Hanno are added to the list of dead. Fiddler says they’ll wait a while and see if Keneb catches up.
Smiles tells Koryk she’s going to make Skulldeath hers and needs Koryk to lie as Skulldeath is saving himself for royalty. She adds she’s getting birth control herbs from Bottle. Bottle tells Koryk the herbs are to make change a man who prefers men into one who prefers women and explains the etymological origins of Skulldeath’s name.
Skulldeath overhears Hellian call herself Queen of Kartool.
Quick recaps a bit of what’s been going on with Tavore to Hedge and says he thinks Tavore is going after the Crippled God. Hedge wonders just how much manipulating of things Shadowthrone and Cotillion have done.
Hostille Rator tells Trull the Bentract’s Bonecaster had sacrificed herself to save the “illusion” of the Refugium, but her spirit is now failing. He and the others had turned away from the Gathering, called by her need. Hostille says the Refugium is an illusion, one he and his companions cannot give in to for when it dies they return to what they were. Rud rejects the idea that the Refugium and the Bentract are but memory/illusion. Onrack says he will stand with Rud, but does not answer when Rud asks if he believes. Hostille says Onrack can’t face returning to being T’lan and so will happily die here. Trull says he will stand with Onrack, out of friendship. Hostille, saying he and his companions have been shamed, offers their allegiance to Ulshun Pral and Rud. Onrack tells Trull the world will not die, nor must they if they are careful.
Quick tells Hedge the Finnest of Scabandari is here in the Refugium.
Ruin’s group arrives at a massive gate, wrecked on one side. Thanks to Udinaas, Seren realizes Clip is an assassin. They all enter the gate and see hundreds of dead dragons under a sky with three suns. Clip welcomes them to Starvald Demelain.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Twenty-Two
It’s an interesting decision on Erikson’s part, this collecting of trophies by the Bonehunters, and I’m curious how people react to this and what you think Erikson is doing with it. From my view it “grays” up our “heroes.” It seems to me that this sort of thing should discomfit a reader. In some works (especially film works), I’d think this was meant to show how “tough” these folks are. But in this series, I’m thinking it is meant to make us wonder just a bit about what war does to people, and not in a macho, tough-them-up way.
I think Erikson did a great job with the agony of those in the field and especially those in leadership positions with regard of their mates in the field. In this particular case, I’m talking about Fiddler making the decision to not go after the sounds of fighting surrounding Gesler’s group. Think about what that does to someone – to hear that, to hear the screaming, and to consciously decide (for all the logical reasons) to not go help. And I like how we get the other side at the end – the conscious decision to go in and do what you can rather than taking the safe way around.
From the uncomfortable and wrenching to the comic via our favorite drunk, Hellian. Then some more actual relief, beyond the comic, as we get the news that Gesler’s squad has arrived already and then Fiddler’s group arrives.
And you have to love that it’s Hellian, “our drunk liberator,” who has been the best of them all at figuring out what to do, how to use the economic resentment for the Malazan’s purpose.
This chapter zigs and zags, doesn’t it? From that anguished opening with Fiddler to the comedy of Hellian (including pratfalls) to the mix of comic dialogue and harsh reality amongst the squad as they know death is staring them down to poor Beak’s exhaustion and the description of the three butchered squads he and Sort had found:
The silent howl of death roiling in the air, that cold fire that was the breath of every field of battle. A howl frozen like shock into the trees, the trunks, the branches and the leaves. And in the ground underfoot, oozing like sap, and lily, his sweet bay, didn’t want to take a single step into that clearing and Beak knew why.
And then we get this sense of foreboding from Beak:
“It’s hot,” he muttered. And now, all at once, he could suddenly see where all this was going, and what he would need to do.
“I’d dampen it down Beak, lest you burn right up.”
“I want you on a stretcher Beak . . . sleeping . . .”
“I can’t sir . . . I really can’t. The candles, they won’t go out. Not any more. They won’t go out.” Not ever Captain, and it isn’t that I don’t love you because I do and I’d do anything you asked. But I just can’t and I can’t even explain. Only, it’s too late.
He wasn’t sure what she saw in his eyes . . . but the grip of her hand on his arm loosened, became almost a caress.
“It’s all right, Beak, to die alongside your comrades. It’s all right. Do you understand me?”
“Yes sir, I do. It is all right, because they’re my friends . . . And that’s why no one needs to worry, Captain.”
And from the quiet, aching, heartbreaking Beak to the quietly moving and inspiring conversation between Thom Tissy and Keneb and then into the action itself, fierce and disgusting and consequential, as we lose several characters, including Tavos Pond, who has been with us for several books. And by the end we have several others lost as well. And this is just the skirmishing....
As mentioned earlier, I like how we’ve done a bit of a 180 from the start of this chapter, with a squad having to be abandoned to whatever fight they’re in to a squad hearing fighting and deciding to enter the fray.
Something to file away – swords that howl.
I like how Erikson takes his time with Pravalak here, makes this character come alive for us so it matters to us what happens to him. And it also increases our suspense a bit, as we’ve seen Erikson introduce characters with this sort of lengthy background and internal thought before just to kill them off in a page or two – is this in store for Pravalak? And how much more moving is it to get the loss of Kisswhere in this fashion – the aftereffect and regret and the “almost could have been” rather than in the moment itself?
We get a similar lengthy intro of Skulldeath and note the focus on his youth at the end. Once again, as readers, we have to fear for what’s to come.
Along with the suspense of what will happen to the new folks, based on prior experience, these cutaways serve to increase the suspense with our old friends. Don’t give me new people, we yell, tell us what’s going on at the village!
And then we zig again, after the fierce action and the suspense and the listing of the lost, back to some more relief via Smiles and Koryk and Bottle and Skulldeath.
I don’t have a lot of “insight” into this chapter thanks to the fact that so much is action/plot oriented, but I do like the structure of it – the back and forth in characters and settings and emotions is highly effective I thought.
Meanwhile, back in the Refugium, some things clear up while others, well, not so much. The not so much would be just what Shadowthrone, Cotillion, and Tavore are planning, and just how much those first two are manipulating events and with just how much foresight. I don’t think this conversation between Hedge and Quick clears anything up, nor do I think it is supposed to. I think it mostly gives the reader a few items to think about amidst past, present, and perhaps future chaos – was there ever a plan, is there a plan, and if yes to either, is it on track or not? Just a file away moment I’d say at this point.
What does become a bit more clear are the sides, at least to the characters themselves. Trull and Onrack align themselves firmly, and, once again, heartbreakingly, with each other. That isn’t news to us but it clears up some things with those in the Refugium. And Rud clearly has some staunch allies in whatever his plans are to protect the Bentract and their home. He seems to have picked up some via the other three T’lan Imass as well, but at this point, perhaps we should just say “seems,” since who knows how sincere this is.
And is anyone else not looking forward to that moment, should it come, of Onrack walking out of this place and returning to T’lan? The longer this goes on, the more wrenching the anticipation of that becomes I’d say. Who can blame him for being happy to die there?
I should keep a running list and then actually see how my “favorite lines” stack up one against the other, but this back and forth is certainly one of my favorites:
“You surrender your life to defend an illusion?”
“That, Bonecaster, is what we mortals delight in doing.”
Talk about a succinct yet sharp evocation of what it means to be human... I absolutely love that line.
Sadly, this is also all too often a truism:
“You bind yourself to a clan, to a tribe, to a nation or an empire, but to give force to the illusion of a common bond, you must feed its opposite—that all those not of your clan, or tribe, or empire, do not share that bond.”
I like how we don’t know how funny Clip’s line is: “That doesn’t mean we’re about to jump into a pit of dragons” is until the end. When, of course, all those corpses make it not so much “funny.”
No, not funny at all. But still, a great chapter ending. Kind of a mean one, too.
The pawns are being moved into place. Easy to miss in all the action, but we get a sense of how near the end we are: the marines are only a day from the capital. Not a lot of room left for movement. That sense of an ending is increased by Keneb’s gathering of the squads and the quick march (leaving us to wonder where Tavore is at this point geographically and time-wise), the marines’ sense that they are being herded toward a final showdown, the relatively large battle scene in the village, and Beak’s ominous thoughts. Meanwhile, we’ve got alliances forming in the Refugium and Ruin’s group taking one large step on the way there, something Rud has told us will not be long in coming. And let’s not forget Menandore and her sisters. And back in Lether, Rhulad is quickly moving down the line of champions toward Karsa and Icarium. While out in the Empire, things are falling apart quickly. The end, as they say, is nigh. Or, as my Kindle says, the end is 20% farther along....