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 first half of Chapter Four of Return of the Crimson Guard (RotCG).
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.
A note: Amanda is sick in bed and so won’t be posting today. As always, she’ll be the good trooper and post in comments eventually.
Chapter 4 Part One
Greymane apologizes to Kyle for the attack on the wind spirit at the Spire, then tells him he’s considered a renegade/traitor for trying to make peace with the Stormriders and survived the ensuing hunt for him and other like-minded ones because he “ran the farthest of all of them, was the most thorough coward of the lot.” When Kyle says maybe he’s not the one to talk to, Greymane replies he’s the only one who might understand since he isn’t from around here.
Shimmer addresses the crew and tells them Skinner is supposed to meet them just up the coast at Fortress Haven. She assigns the Ninth Blade to the job of contacting him. If he’s there, the entire Guard will reunite under him as agreed to when the Diaspora started. Kyle heads out with Stoop, Trench, Meek, Harman, Greere, Twisty, and Stalker.
Stoop recalls the Malazan invasion: the Guard outnumbered, the Duke disappearing, Skinner fighting Dassem to a draw, the Guard breaking and the Diaspora ordered to preserve the Guard for later. He notes they’ve returned with ten times more soldiers. Stoop explains the geography to Kyle: Stratem is the southern part of the continent, Korel the northern, a few islands and the southern shore of Quon Tali. He adds the Malazans had to cross the Sea of Storms where the Korelri fight the Stormriders. Stalker says he thinks there had been a pre-arrangement for the Riders to let their two ships through but not the other so Greymane and Shimmer could beat Cowl to Skinner. He’s also heard Skinner is “one nasty fellow” and that some worry he’s gone a bit nuts. He warns Kyle to stay away from him.
Mallick Rel meets with some Untan nobles: Quall, Illata and others—who tell him Imry has withdrawn from the Assembly (Rel had manipulated this) after having been threatened by a strange visitor. They blame the Laseen’s Claw. The nobles say they need soldiers and arms to guard their lands and since Laseen is not giving them, they will take them. They tell Rel their plan (of which he is supposedly a part) to take the Imperial Arsenal is in motion and they will have it by dawn. Rel says as planned he will speak to Laseen “as spokesman and beg our case.” The nobles leave.
Rel orders Coil, one of his Hand (his own assassins or corrupted Claw) that “corrupt officials will be attempting to steal munitions from the arsenal...Assassinate them all, enslave their families, confiscate their assets...All in the name of the Empress,” whom he says needn’t be informed. He also tells her to have the Hand kill any Claw still loyal to Laseen. Coil names Possum, but Rel orders him to stay. She grudgingly accepts, then says they (the Hand) have noted that Rel now controls the Imperial Assembly and the Claw and are wondering when he will act. He replies that he’s learned from his past failures due to impatience, though he also wonders since he already controls everything, why act. When Coil says Laseen wouldn’t be so restrained, he responds Laseen missed her chance.
The Ardent, a slave ship, comes across a raft with 11 survivors (Iron Bars and his group) in terrible shape. Iron Bars demands to see the captain but is refused. Bad idea. When he sees the captain, the slaver shoots him with a crossbow. Bad idea. Iron Bars orders the tillerman to sail for Stratem. The tillerman, passing the pretty easy intelligence test, does so. Good idea.
At the Malazan fort, Sergeant Chord’s garrison, led by Lt. Rillish, has been surrounded by a group of settlers and thugs. Their leaders, saying he speaks for North Unta, offer him and his men free passage to go west (but not the 100+ Wickan refugees inside the fort). Rillish refuses the offer, then orders Chord to get ready for an attack and a siege (the fort is very low on provisions, especially water). Rillish thinks he should have stayed in Korel.
Ereko and Traveller see two ships heading in toward the village. Traveller says he knows them and Ereko notes the hatred in his voice as he says so. Traveller tells the villagers to run into the forest; he’ll meet the raiders. Ereko refuses to do the same when Traveller says he should.
The two Edur ships land some short distance from one another, one met by Ereko and one by Traveller. A young witch tells Ereko to stand aside. They hear battle sounds and when the war leader orders his group to kill Ereko then go help the other ship, the witch forbids it, calling Ereko “sacrosanct” and “Ancient One.” Traveller kills all the Edur while the witch, seeing him, is “appalled, stunned, fascinated, and horrified...as one faith held as immutable truth met the incarnation of another.” Later, she calls Traveller “Revealed One,” and asks for guidance. He tells her what she needs is inside her and she responds all she knew was a lie. Traveller tells her to spread the word of what she’s seen, and suggests north rather than back home where she’d probably be killed. Ereko is surprised when she gives her name as Sorrow. After she goes, Ereko asks what people like her see in Traveller that so transforms them and Traveller responds that he doesn’t really know—“They see what they must see...[it is] already there within them. It was always there. I believe I merely show them the Path. They must choose to walk it.” When Ereko asks where the path leads, Traveller replies he doesn’t know yet, but “it leads to a meeting and a choice. A confrontation that I cannot see beyond.” Ereko muses that it all remains a mystery to him, thinking how his kind is “born of Mother Earth, their flesh remained of the Earth, and when they faltered so they returned to Her embrace.
SCENES TEN AND ELEVEN
Kyle’s group finds an abandoned settlement. They plan to grab anybody who comes by. That night Twisty and Kyle share watch and Twisty tells him the land is filled with spirits and they seem interested in Kyle for some reason. Kyle asks him how the warrens work (Twisty’s is Denul) and Twisty says nobody really knows as they all seem to work in their own way. When Kyle asks about gods, Twisty replies his thought is they’re simply beings with more power, adding they should also have “the connection” but few seem willing to accept that idea.
The next day they take an old man who comes ashore via rowboat to the settlement. He tells them there are no Malazans, just traders, and while they used to have issues with Korelan raiders, the ghosts “run them all off.” That night Kyle goes for a walk into the clifftop fort. There he encounters what seems to be a ghost who tells him “Kellanved and his lackeys are close. We are agreed on the Diaspora...Dancer has taken too many of our mages, though Cowl has made him pay for it. We can counter Tayschrenn no longer. Flee while you may.” When he asks which group Kyle is with, Kyle answers “the Ninth” and the ghost calls him a liar and is about to kill him. Stoop arrives and calls to Skinner (the “ghost”) and recalls him to the present. He sheaths his sword (Kyle notes it is “mottled black in corrosion...its slightest touch would be unhealthy) and tells them he would have had Kellanved had it not been for Dassem. But now he has returned “far more than I was then.” When Stoop notes he seems different, Skinner replies “More than you imagine.” He adds that he is wearing the heraldry of his patron, Queen Ardata, who has been “very generous” to his group of 50-plus Avowed and thousands of regular soldiers.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Four Part One
While I’ve complained a bit about how I think Esslemont sometimes withholds information unnecessarily, I do like how we get dribs and drabs with regard to Greymane, making him an always intriguing character of whom we learn just enough to make us want to know more. Here, we get some more hard plot background as he tells us he tried to make peace and was hunted but ran like a coward. But what I like more than the plot is the characterization and the complexity that comes with this—the characterization shown by the fact that the conversation begins because he wants to apologize to Kyle. The characterization implied by his willingness to attempt peace rather than simply fight. %His willingness to run rather than stand. And the complexity that must be part of him now via the guilt over having caused lots of deaths and the guilt that comes from being the sole survivor, guilt exacerbated by the fact that he survived not by any heroic last stand but simply by running (or so he says). No wonder he seeks out a confessor.
We’ve had several hints as to some internal dissension within the Guard and now we see it has taken the form of actual action, as, if Stoop is right, Greymane and Shimmer somehow arranged to have the Stormriders (via Greymane’s connection to them?) let only their two ships through, thus ensuring they’d be the ones to get to Skinner first and not Cowl. One can only assume this dissension will continue to play out. And wonder as well if it might be something Laseen can take advantage of.
Let’s not forget that Rel not only “predicted” that Councilman Imry would withdraw from the Assembly; he arranged it earlier with Taya. Thus it should come as little surprise that Rel is going to turn on these Untan nobles who come to him with the news. The scene also lets us know there is such a thing as the Imperial Arsenal.
As a quick aside, so far it hasn’t become overly done for me (we’ll see if that continues) the way Rel’s speech is so often water-related. I kind of like that little touch.
So, from the Talon to the Claw to the Hands? What’s next—The Palm? The Finger? The Cuticle?
Smart move to have Iron Bars and his group get picked up by slavers. Not a lot of sympathy for the slavers when Iron Bars has to kill a bunch of them to get the ship he needs. Much better than having to commandeer Our Lady’s Ship of Ye Innocent Orphans or something.
OK, now here is an example of where I think Esslemont is withholding information for absolutely no reason at all. We meet Lt. Rillish and we’re told his “sergeant” is standing there with him. Now, is there any reason at all not to just say Sergeant Chord? It’s not until the sixth reference to “sergeant” that we get the name. I find that just annoying (and that’s knowing already it’s Chord).
That said, I do like Rillish in this scene.
Then, again, I think the scene with Traveller and Ereko and the Edur is a bit too vague in several ways. I would have preferred the logistics of distance, the fighting, etc. were a bit more clear. I didn’t get the need to have that aspect be so condensed and lacking in any detail at all. And the scene with Sorrow is also a bit too abstract for me. I like the idea, but again, I’m not sure it needed to be so vague about what once-held-truths she now thinks are all lies, or what she sees in Traveller, or what new truths she’ll proselytize about. I can piece together a few theories, but I just don’t understand making the reader in this case jump through those frustrating hoops. As for what I’d piece together, I’d say she recognizes the godhood in Traveller—his Dessembrae aspect, God/Lord of Tragedy (thus Ereko’s shock that she is named “Sorrow”—what a co-ink-a-dink! He must be thinking: Sorrow—Tragedy). I think that is the thing that fascinates and appalls her. As to how that connects to what is inside of her—that I’m less clear on. Do we all carry tragedy in us? Certainly most of us once we’ve reached a certain age do. Do we all carry the seeds of tragedy in us? Yes. She has killed lots of people, so she has also sown tragedy herself. Perhaps she sees this in Traveller? Maybe she sees the tragedy of her sowing such tragedy? As for the “path,” well, we know he’s hunting someone to confront. And we know he’s ticked off at Hood i.e. Death. So perhaps she sees her (and our) inevitable confrontation with Death—the ultimate absurd tragedy? Though I’m not sure how any of that conflicts with what she might have been told of as truth out in Lether/Edur land. Unless it be that in Lether Death has no Hold and now she sees Death has one? Or she thought the Edur were all-powerful and now having seen Traveller kill a bunch in a nanosecond she’s seen that as a lie? Don’t know. Nor am I clear on just what Ereko thinks Traveller is “bringing forth upon the world,” even with Ereko being “awestruck by its implications.” That sort of grand vague pronouncement drives me crazy as a reader. I also don’t get how Ereko can be so sure about what Traveller brings the world, or so sure about the “message” Traveller is sending but then has to ask Traveller what these people see in him. Or how after saying he’s awed by what Traveller is doing and sends the girl off to bring Traveller’s message, at the end of the scene he can still say “it remained a closed mystery to him.” That doesn’t compute for me. Anyone?
I will say to file that bit about him and Mother Earth though.
Pacing continues to be an issue for me now and then in this novel. The whole sit and wait stuff with Kyle’s group doesn’t make much narrative sense to me. I’m not sure what is served by any of the scenes save the one where they actually meet Skinner. I just don’t see much done in terms of narrative advancement, characterization, or emphasis of theme.
Skinner, now. Yes, a bit “round the bend” perhaps as some worried about. Lost in the past. And tell me you don’t hear the mad scientist kind of laugh when he tells Stoop regarding his changes, “Different? More than you imagine, Stoop.”
That’s a lotta Crimson Guard to be going after the Empire. And we’ve heard/seen what a single Avowed can do—now Skinner is bringing more than 50 to add to the others? Plus the frontier rising? Plus Rel’s internal manipulations? I wouldn’t want to be Laseen now or in the near future.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.