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 Two of Return of the Crimson Guard (RotCG), to the point “Jamaer! Umbrella!”
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.
Chapter Two Part One
Possum joins the crowd awaiting the brutal execution of Janul, an Old Guard Mage/High Fist who had declared himself Tyrant of Delanss and been captured and imprisoned. He is spoken to by a head on a pike who says he has a message: “They are returning . . . The death-cheaters. The defiers. All the withholders and arrogators.” When Possum asks who, the head says, “here comes one now,” and then goes quiet as Laseen, in disguise, arrives. She insults Possum who thinks he’ll deal with her “in due time” and she mocks his transparency, then startles him by showing she knows his real name, something he thought he’d left far behind “with the corpse of his father.” Laseen tells Possum to keep an eye out for Janelle, Janul’s mage sister and partner; killing her is his mission. The head starts to do a play by play of the execution for Possum’s benefit and Janelle appears. She gives herself up to be killed and after he does so, Possum asks why. She says so he’ll always know the truth—he’s a fraud—when people talk about how impressed they are he killed her. As he walks away, Laseen joins him again and assigns him to look into recent domestic disturbances—regional issues, border raids, rising nationalism among the conquered. He asks about the recent disappearances in the Imperial Warren and she says no, she’s not sending anybody else in there. He notes her worry and wonder if it is “them” organizing all this. She tells him she and Janelle were once friends and he thinks she wonders why the betrayal. When she admits she didn’t think Possum could take Janelle so “quietly,” he says he surprised Janelle.
Ereko, last of the Thel Akai, and Traveller treat with a group of brigands. Traveller tells the bandits the Malazans are pinned down by mare and the Korelans in Fist. The bandit chief is happy, informing Traveller he and the others are pureblood descendants of the Crimson Guard, adding that the Malazans won’t come to this area because of a prophecy that if they do, the Guardsmen will rise from the dead to destroy them. Traveller says he’s heading to the coast to build himself a ship while Ereko wants to travel farther. They talk of the Korelri, the Stormriders, and the Shieldwall, and Ereko worries the chief knows he and Traveller once were on the Wall and had escaped and now have a bounty on their heads. Traveller and Ereko leave “in peace” but quickly pick up they’re being followed. They expect a night attack.
SCENES THREE AND FOUR
In camp, Ereko suggests just moving on but Traveller doesn’t want to worry about his back the entire trip, which surprises Ereko who had thought Traveller beyond such mundane concerns. The attack comes and Traveler kills them all save two. One got away and the other is captured by Ereko, who refuses to let Traveller kill him too. Traveller accedes, but his face shows pain that Ereko thinks can never be healed.
As they head south, Ereko recalls when he met Traveller on the Wall, when his (Ereko’s) goddess, the Queen of Dreams/Enchantress told him Traveller would “bring deliverance.” Ereko had been there for years and had witnessed how well Malazans had fought. When Traveller was brought in the Korelri called him a Malazan deserter.
SCENES SIX AND SEVEN
Ereko and Traveller come across a burned out fort and Traveller says it was the work of the Crimson Guard over 50 years ago. Ereko asks what happened to them and Traveler offers up a brief history: Kellanved’s decades long invasion met time and again by the Guard until the last of the Guard’s holds—The Citadel, K’azz D’avore’s family fort in the Fenn Mountains—fell to Kellanved’s magic. He brought it down via an earthquake, killing thousands of his own soldiers. K’azz swore eternal opposition which according to Traveller “bound . . . those six hundred men and women . . . with ties greater than even they suspected.” When Kellanved asked the Imass to kill the Guard, the Imass refused for unknown reasons, though Traveller heard the Imass had said it “would be wrong for them to oppose such a vow.” Traveller adds he thinks the Avowed must think the vow a curse by now. They reach a small fishing village and continue on, looking for good trees for Traveller’s boat.
SCENES EIGHT THROUGH THIRTEEN
The Guard takes its payment for getting rid of Shen in goods, including slaves. Shimmer frees them with the option of joining the Guard. Those that didn’t were reshackled and led away. The army marches to the coast to camp and train while Shimmer negotiates to hire ships from the harbor city Kurzan. One day Kyle sees Boll kill a kid whom Boll said was a spy. Kyle yells at him and Boll warns him to back off. A week later, Kyle is woken in the middle of the night by Sgt. Trench and told to assemble at the beach where they’ll swim out to the ships (the hiring didn’t go so well). Stoop helps him pick out his armor/weapons, though Kyle refuses the advice to give up his tulwar. Greymane orders Kyle to the fourth ship, adding when Kyle asks that he isn’t going since “water ‘n’ me—we don’t get along.” With some help from an unknown Guardsman, Kyle makes it to a ship, though his helper seems to have disappeared. Smokey uses his fire magic to attack the town, which sends more ships out (the Guard needs more). Cole (an Avowed) orders Kyle up to the foredeck with a bow to work with the mage Lurgman Parsell (called “Twisty” by the Guard). Kyle fights a demon summoned by an opposing mage. When Kyle cuts off the demon’s hand, it tells him “I was not forewarned one of your stature awaited us.” Lurgman kills it with magic, though he was surprised that Kyle was able to wound it. Kyle then kills the mage and those near him using a stone Lurgman gave him.
In a valley, Urko Crust (called Shatterer by the Moranth) meets with a Gold Moranth named V’thell, son of Hunchell. V’thell asks why Urko is doing what he is about to do and the reply is “We can’t stand by idly any longer. Everything’s slipping away bit by bit. Everything we struggled to raise. She [Laseen] doesn’t understand how the machine we built must run.” V’thell informs him the Silver and Green will help, the Red and Black possibly, and the Blue will contract with anyone. Urko tells him to begin moving material and V’thell flies off. A Claw traitor who’d been listening asks Urko if the Moranth can be trusted and Crust replies as long as they are winning. The Claw tells him there are rumors of the Crimson Guard returning but Urko dismisses them. The Claw says he will report his confidence in the Moranth and leaves. Urko feels sorry over what is about to happen, thinking Laseen is caught in her own nightmare, though knowing Laseen would also accept it, “she’s always understood [exigencies]”
SCENES FIFTEEN THROUGH SIXTEEN
Two Malazan marines, Hurl and Sunny, are working on Li Heng’s Dawn Gate, part of the city’s “legendary ten man-heights of near-invincible defences.” One of the city’s magistrates, Ehrlann, complains to their commander, Storo, about the construction delays and demands the Dawn Gate be opened to trade traffic. He adds he’ll go to High Fist Anand with the declaration that Li Heng no longer needs the engineers, that the defences have been fully restored. He also threatens to arrest some of Storo’s people, though Storo warns him against doing so. Storo opens the Gate and tells Ehrlann he has plans to build a moat and take down a nearby hill where the city has been executing its criminals. The Malazans leave.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Two Part One
So another aspect of Return of the Crimson Guard is brought to life in these first few pages of chapter two—the fact that the Empress Laseen is still conducting her purge of those who supported Kellanved. And people are interested to see it happen.
I thought that Possum was a common thief, but with this mention of Mockra I guess he is probably a Claw, especially if Laseen is his immediate superior. Given she’s the Empress that makes him pretty high up in the scheme of things.
So, those spiked heads—including the one talking to Possum... Are they actual spiked heads, as in, people who had their heads removed? Or are they more like stone gargoyles? I couldn’t quite work that out. If the former, who is warning Possum? He’s clearly getting a warning about the Crimson Guard returning (I mean, title of the book, yeah?) but I also got that from the whole “death-cheaters” thing.
I quite liked the whole “let’s get the head jokes out of the way” thing. Gently amusing.
Having said that the “death-cheaters” thing refers to the Crimson Guard, however, the head then says this: “Ah—here comes one now,” but it is Laseen approaching. So this now confuses me. Because she isn’t a member of the Crimson Guard! I can’t see how it references her.
We’ve not seen Laseen from this perspective before—out on the streets, dressed as a servant, feet bare and dirty. This is a very different Laseen from the one we’ve occasionally viewed in the main series.
Okay, what’s a Talent? Someone able to use Warrens?
Ugh, that isn’t a fun execution, is it? Keeping someone alive while you eviscerate them and then cook their entrails in front of them!
Ah, Laseen wasn’t being referred to as a “death-cheater” but as a “defier” from the sounds of this next exchange and the approach of Janelle.
I like the way that Janelle presents herself for death, especially when we hear Possum’s perspective on it: “Denying one’s killer everything; even the least satisfaction of a professional challenge.” After having seen her brother’s death and the manner in which he was dispatched, I can totally understand Janelle wanting to go out in a more dignified fashion and through her own choosing, especially since she can undermine one of Laseen’s lackeys at the same time!
Disappearances into the Imperial Warren? Don’t we know that the Imperial Warren is actually built from the ashes of Kallor’s destroyed continent over the top of a K’Chain Che’Malle Warren? Is that what is now causing these disappearances? “I believe it’s haunted.” “It’s always been unreliable.”
I think Possum is thinking about Shadowthrone and Cotillion when he contemplates: “Could it be them? After so long? Was it now because she is alone? Or, Possum considered with an internal sneer, could it simply be plain old boredom on their part.” So Possum isn’t fond of the old Emperor, by the sounds of things, but I’m not sure he’s all that fond of the new Empress either.
Tough POV switch from there to Traveller and Ereko. I always find at the start of books that POV switches are by far the roughest, because you are trying to get a grasp on what the book is about and attempting to become invested in characters. Hard to do that if you swap POVs quickly.
So what is Ereko? “Cousins. Those you name and I. We are something of cousins.” That is way too obscure for me to work it out.
A little more about the Crimson Guard here. For some reason, I didn’t even think about there being descendants of the Avowed, but of course there must be, since they’ve been alive for thousands of years, in some cases. Hmm, could this become important? It’s thrown in nice and casually: “And there is an ancient legend, you know. A prophecy. A promise that should the Malazans come again the Guardsmen will rise from the dead to destroy them.”
Heh, references to the Stormwall and then deserters from the Wall just makes me think of GRRM’s very different Wall! So Traveller and Ereko have deserted the Stormwall, have they? Didn’t want to fight any more Stormriders?
Clumsily written section as Ereko contemplates Traveller and wonders at his ability to cut down youths despite his compassion and humanity. Esslemont does suffer from too much tell, not enough show, I’ve found.
What pain is it that Traveller is experiencing? Pain that cannot be healed? Actually, Ereko is growing on me. He is most certainly the compassionate sort—I like that he prevents Traveller from committing this murder.
So Ereko is Thel Akai. Still doesn’t ring any bells for me.
More about the Stormwall, which still remains one of the most mysterious parts of the Malazan world for me. We’ve had some references to it in previous books. We see now that it is being used as a place to exile Malazan traitors. And it has brought out some of Esslemont’s better writing: “The power-charged impact of alien eldritch sorcery countered purely by brute stubbornness, courage and martial ferocity.”
Ack, and then we see a particularly clumsy example of Esslemont’s writing: “...the gaze reminded him of doomed Togg whom he met once in another forested land—or the beast some called Fanderay—whom he saw last so long ago.” It’s just so dropped in.
Why do the Crimson Guard have a banner showing a silver dragon?
Very cool to see a little more of the background of the Crimson Guard and have the reason for the Vow reinforced. Also, it shows one of the themes of this book, I think, when Traveller observes that this Vow must now be more of a curse.
I do feel sorry for Kyle and his first experiences with the ways of the Crimson Guard—the fact they kill young boys who might have been spying, that they force them to swim in waters where there are creatures who might eat them, and, particularly, the fact that they never explain what it going on. Kyle only ever hears from people like Stalker, who joined up in the same induction as him. It must be utterly terrifying to be forced into actions and not have a clue what it is about.
It’s like all the old-timers in the Crimson Guard have been together so long that they have no need to communicate plans and things like that. Instead they just get on with things. No wonder poor Kyle feels such disconnect and doesn’t know what he should be doing!
Ooh, that sword of Kyle’s is pretty effective against demons, isn’t it?
Hmm, I don’t think it’s ever good when a man gets a new name rather than the one he was born with (e.g. Lurgman being called Twisty). For me that shows disrespect and is not a way to integrate people into their new force.
Another of the Old Guard—Urko—is now on screen! It’s nice to finally meet people who have mostly been just names before now. What is he dealing with the Moranth about? Is he working against Laseen? It’s always a bad thing when people dismiss something that the reader *knows* is a threat. “Yeah, those Crimson Guard, no chance of them returning. Wait, the novel is called what?!”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Two Part One
If you recall, we’ve seen Possum before—he was assigned by Laseen to kill Dassem (Traveller) and was instead badly wounded by Traveller. We also saw him in the tower in Night of Knives (he was present or was there immediately afterward when Kellanved and Dancer “died”) and at the Azath House.
So we begin to see another major plot line in the novel here—the divide, which has been mentioned in earlier works we’ve read, between Laseen and the Old Guard, those who had been with Kellanved and Dancer earlier (as had Laseen, remember). We’ve got the seeming secession of Janul, who declared himself Tyrant of Delanss (or leader of it, it’s certainly possible “Tyrant” was Laseen’s word) and his subsequent capture and now his execution, along with the killing of his sister Janelle. And we’ve got rumors via Laseen of domestic unrest, perhaps fomented by the Old Guard, who seem to be turning against her more directly than ever before. So we’ve got Laseen beset from within by Old Guard and we’ve got the Crimson Guard heading back home as well—not an enviable position.
You can see how the issues of a shared universe arise now and then with regard to the execution as well—Janul and Janelle were in Kellanved’s “select” cadre, and yet far as I can recall we’ve never heard the names before. We’ll just have to take the author’s word on this one, unlike other Old Guard we’ve seen/heard of: Urko and Cartheron Crust, Dassem Ultor, Toc the Elder, Tayschrenn, etc.
Interesting to see the immediate dislike/tension between Laseen and Possum, though she seems to disdain the idea of him as any threat while he pompously wonders how much she fears him (until she mentions his real name). We’re not seeing a very likable or loved leader early on in Laseen—one who is seemingly losing her grip on things a bit, is losing the Imperial Warren, is “entertaining” the people with brutal executions. Laseen is going to be a figure of continual debate I think, some of which we’ve had already. I can tell you we’ll have a lot more in this book. Let’s keep a sharp eye on her portrayal. She does get humanized in the scene where she seems to bemoan the betrayal of Janul and Janelle, tries to suss out just what caused it, though she immediately “hardens” herself. It reminded me of an earlier scene where someone evinces some sympathy for her, being abandoned by all the Old Guard, all those folks who “drowned.”
Any guesses on just whom the message via the talking head is from? It’s a neat little twist that when it says “They are returning . . . the death-cheaters” we’re as readers, I’m guessing, pretty sure we know to whom he is referring: the Crimson Guard, obviously; the book is only called the Return of them after all, and they have certainly cheated death via their vow. But then the head goes and refers to Laseen as “one of them” and now we have to figure out just whom he means.
It strikes me as odd that Possum, upon first hearing the head, thinks the message “could only be from one source” (one that unnerves him), but then asks the head who told him Possum wouldn’t tell Laseen about them conversing.
Anybody else have a momentary flash of Janul yelling out “Freeeeeeedoooommmmmm”? No? Huh.
I like the little reminder of how Laseen “killed” Kellanved and Dancer via the otataral dust they used to tame Janul’s sorcery.
I have to say, I don’t quite get Janelle’s act. I know what she says it is, and I know we’re supposed to assume she succeeds in her goal by Possum’s fury. But I just can’t wrap my head around it. Is it just me? She isn’t captured. Seemingly, she isn’t close to being captured. She certainly doesn’t seem beaten or full of despair. Wouldn’t a better, more logical vengeance have been to stay alive and undermine Laseen, to join the rumored domestic disturbances? The Old Guard conspiracy, if there is one? At the least, it seems to me she could have swallowed some slow poison, showed up, wreaked major havoc amongst the Claw, even try for Laseen (or at least her “right arm”), and still have cheated her “killers.” Am I alone in having a hard time with this?
A bit of a mystery—what is going on in the Imperial Warren?
Ereko and Traveller. There are parts here I like and parts that bug me (this may be a refrain throughout). I like the character of Ereko—his point of view, his thought process. I like how the story of his and Traveller’s escape from the Shieldwall comes out in bits and pieces rather than all at once. I like his sadness over his people, the way it is only hinted at at first when Traveller physically winces when Ereko is asked about his people. I like how Ereko refuses to let Traveller kill the youth. I do wish his flashbacks were a bit more organically introduced, rather than the “as he waited he thought back . . . ” kind of thing—I start to see the shimmery-wavy TV screen and hear the weird music of the clichéd television flashback scene. It seems if you really want to protect the youth, you wouldn’t simply hold him as Traveller pushes his sword into him. You’re huge; maybe you’d stick the kid behind you while you tried to talk Traveller down. For someone who spent hours with the bandit chief in a vain attempt to forestall an attack, seemingly so he wouldn’t have to kill anybody, Traveller doesn’t seem to seek a lot of ways beyond that afternoon visit to avoid the killing.
Traveller’s exposition on the Crimson Guard did seem to come out naturally. With Kyle and Ereko, Esslemont takes some good advantage of ignorant characters in order to have someone more knowledgeable explain things to them in a way that generally (though not always) doesn’t feel artificial. The bit about Kellanved wiping out thousands of his own people was just a little disturbing, I thought. It also reminded me a bit of the to-do over what happened at Pale. And I do like the parallel between the T’lan Imass and the Crimson Guard—this whole “maybe eternal vengeance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” of idea.
I will say that the pacing and POV shifts, at least early on, are more rough than our other novels. This scene with Kyle I found particularly troublesome—it just didn’t seem to flow very well to me. I kept wanting it to be a flashback to Kyle being taken from a slaver and going through his training, for one thing. And the jumps were a bit rough and the scenes themselves didn’t seem to really add much, either to plot or character development. I also found the “mystery” moments to be more annoying than intriguing as they seemed not important enough tojustify withholding information—for instance, Kyle’s helper when he swam to the boat, the “missing” crew of the ship, etc. There are a few such instances where this sort of thing occurs (such as when Urko isn’t Urko for several pages) where I just want the author to be more selective in his withholding moments. Anybody else have any of these reactions?
When we hear Urko complain about Laseen letting the Empire go to hell, I can’t help but wonder wouldn’t it have helped had you stuck around? He thinks the situation is of her making, but isn’t it a bit of his/the Old Guard’s as well? But we’ll hear/see more of this sort of talk as we go on.
Now, the traitor Claw not being revealed—that seems to me to be a good selective choice of withholding information. That one I like not knowing as a reader.
The Li Heng storyline, or at least the characters in it, is one of my favorite parts of this novel, which as I’ve said I had mixed reactions to the first time around. I immediately enjoyed the soldier banter we get and the attitudes of Sunny, Storo, and Hurl. What are they preparing defenses for? We’ll have to wait on that. It was a nice breath of fresh air though, for me, catching up with some grunts and while I’m sorry it was so short, I’m even sorrier we go from them to (internal growl) Mallick Rel. But more on him next time....
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.