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 second 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: This will be our last post until after the holidays. We’ll be back on Friday, January 4th with the first half of Chapter Five. Our splitting point again is roughly at the half-way point and is marked by asterisks. The last line of Part One reads “Don’t know. Steal a fishing boat I s’pose... Take a look at this Stormwall everyone’s goin’ on about.” The first line of Part Two is “Ghelel Rhik Tayliin allowed her fury to grow steadily... ” Enjoy the holidays all and see you next year!
Chapter Four Part Two
Possum arrives early to a meeting of the Imperial Council and thinks of the current state of the Empire: Rel in control of the Assembly (and thus the treasury and bureaucracy), Dom in command of what little is left of the military, Tayschrenn seemingly withdrawn, command of the Imperial Mage Cadre given to a former librarian—Havva Gulen, and the Claw hanging on the knife’s edge. He thinks it’s an incredibly “inefficient” way to run things and that Kellanved must be laughing himself off his throne. The others show: High Fist Anand (who commands the domestic defense), Gulen, Dom, and Rel. Anand reports that the military is in bad shape and advises consolidating at the center of the Empire and securing territory outward; Dom says they should do the opposite and move out fast. Laseen enters. Anand says an army is marching quickly from Tali and gathering forces as it marches east, probably planning to ally with the Seti who aim at independence. He adds that the Seti have an effective warlord. He thinks the Seti will consolidate, taking Li Heng then Cawn, where the Kanese will join and then all will march on Unta. Dom says again that they should march out immediately. Gulen says neither army has much in the way of mages and Laseen interrupts to confirm that Tayschrenn cannot be counted on. Korbolo Dom wants to know why they can’t pull mages from overseas and also why they can’t use Nok. Laseen cuts him off and says Nok is dealing with events overseas and they will have to meet this threat on their own. She orders her forces gathered, Untan noble’s families taken hostage, and rumors sown to create dissension among what she sees as an “uneasy alliance of new rulers jealous of their independence.” Possum informs her of rumors that the Crimson Guard is returning. When she dismisses them, Rel looks at her oddly. Laseen dismisses all of them but Possum. Possum tells her it is the Old Guard against her—Amaron, Toc the Elder, Choss, and Urko—then is dismissed.
On Urko’s flagship, Ullen, once adjutant Choss and now Urko’s staff-chief, watches as Moranth Silver quorls bring in Moranth Gold warriors, who will board the ten contracted Blue Moranth galleys. He thinks how the fleet has to set sail soon if they want to be part of the insurrection. Urko’s mage cadre leader, Bala Jesset, wonders about the motives of Moranth, while in his thoughts, Ullen wonders about Bala’s, thinking she had been earlier removed from the cadre for her ambition. As the fleet starts to head out, Ullen asks Bala if she can make them go faster and she says while she has no sea power, there is a “sympathizer” in Unta who might be able, though she worries about what he might ask for. She adds she’s also picking up some powerful and strange “scent” from Stratem. He dismisses it and tells her to negotiate with the Ruse mage.
Silk and Storo discuss their lack of mages (Silk is the only one) and Silk suggests Liss, telling Storo she was once a Shamaness/Seer of the Seti. Magistrate Ehrlann arrives and Storo tells him the City government needs to start planning for the siege, doing inventory, etc. (not thinking they’ll be any help but just to keep them out of his hair). Ehrlann leaves and Silk says he’s going to find some allies. Storo okays bringing in Liss.
In the Pit (the otataral mine), Ho is worried that the two newcomers Grief and Treat are spies, as is Yath who is keeping an eye on them along with his assassin Sessin. Ho is also concerned with how old regional/nationalistic rivalries, hatreds, and feuds are rearing their heads in the pit. Ho finds the two looking up as if for a way out. He asks that they consider the welfare of all the prisoners and Grief smiles oddly then says “We’ll try to do just that.” Ho wonders what he meant as the two leave. Ho runs into Sessin who tells him Yath has decided if the two “find out anything we will kill them.” Ho decides to talk to Yath about that, and also thinks killing them won’t be easy.
As Traveller sleeps, Ereko thinks about the fight between the Edur and Traveller and how it reminds him of millennia ago when violence led to “extreme solutions. Vows of absolute extermination...and answering vows of vengeance.” Looking up, he sees ghosts massing in large numbers, soldiers with terrible wounds, one carrying a dragon banner. They seem attracted to Traveller, but when Ereko bids them leave they do save for the standard bearer, who gives his name as Surat. Surat tells Ereko the Crimson Guard are coming, “the appointed time has come to us, ” and intones that the Malazan will be destroyed, pointing to Traveller. Ereko says he is Malazan no longer; he has given it all up. When Surat replies that “The Vow remains,” Ereko, sick of millennia of hatreds carried over time and even past death, tells him they are fools to not give up their feuds and that they fear to because it is all they have left. Surat responds “He is waiting for you. He is close now. Closer than you think.” When Ereko says there are few he fears, Surat replies, “Such a one you will meet.” Ereko dismisses the threat, saying “that meeting was foretold before humans walked these lands.” Surat disappears, but not before saying Traveller is leading Ereko to that meeting. Ereko simply says, “That was the promise made long ago.”
SCENES SIX THROUGH NINE
At the Unta harbor, Nait tells Sergeant Tinsmith the Ragstopper just tied up. Tinsmith tells Nait to get the squad and they’ll take a look. Nait gets Corporal Hands, Least, and the rest. They troop down to the pier and Tinsmith tells Cartheron Crust some folks might wonder what he’s doing in Unta. Crust says he’s just there for salvage in the harbor. Later, Hands asked what Crust meant by salvage and Tinsmith tell her Crust probably sank most of what’s in the harbor and some might have been “just for such an eventuality,” adding they’ll have to keep an eye on him. He also warns her to keep the name to themselves.
The Guard is gathering at Skinner’s ruined fortress, including Iron Bars’ group and the ships that had been scattered by the Stormriders. One night, Kyle follows Stoop and spies on an argument among three Avowed: Skinner, Cowl, and Stoop. Stoop wants to keep looking for the Duke but Skinner says, “There is no need. The Dolmans remain.” Stoop wants to know why everyone else, even the Brethren, have been barred from the meeting, reminding them he was once siege master to both K’azz and K’azz’s father and thus outranks them both. Skinner stabs Stoop and Cowl tells him to finish off Stoop while he takes care of the spy (Kyle). Stoop grabs Cowl then yells to Kyle to run. Kyle runs.
SCENES ELEVEN THROUGH THIRTEEN
Kyle runs into Greymane and Ogilvy and tells them what happened. Greymane says he’ll look into it and tells Kyle to keep going. As Kyle runs, he sees figures in the woods and flashes of sorcery. After three days of running, he collapses into sleep. He dreams of a strange, surreal battle, then of Stoop warning him to wake before the enemy catches up and saying Cowl “sent me off. But I promise I’ll try to make it back.” He wakes to find one of Skinner’s mages, Mars, standing over him. She wants to know who he is spying for, saying some great power must be helping him since that’s the only explanation for how he’s avoided a dozen mages so long. Stalker, Coots, and Badlands show up and wonder why Mars doesn’t want to find out why Kyle killed Stoop. The three jumps Mars, but she disappears. As they run, the others tell Kyle the story is he killed Stoop, and though Greymane doesn’t buy it, that’s the official story. When Kyle asks why they’re helping him, Stalker says he and the others weren’t cut out to be mercenaries and they plan on getting away and getting some land, he and his “brothers... all descended from one big family. The Lost.” Stalker tells him “welcome to the family.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Four Part Two
I don’t think it’s a good sign that Possum has to struggle to remember that Laseen eradicated the Untan ruling family, but finds it easy to recall Kellanved and Dancer!
I love that the new Imperial High Mage is an ex-librarian—but then, I am pre-disposed to like librarians... And it’s neat that Possum and Havva seems to have this immediate connection and understanding of how things might be going.
Oh Korbolo...Way to make friends and influence people...“Why are you even here? You’re irrelevant.”
Well, things don’t look good for the Malazan Empire, do they? “Entire regiments have fallen back to their roots and come out as Itko Kanese or Grisan. Ugly rumours of ethnic slaughters accompany those reports. Armouries have been confiscated; ships impounded. The shortage of competent mages means communication by the old ways of road and sea.”
This is a fascinating conversation between the rulers of the Malazan Empire, what with the mention of Duchess Ghelel, the fact that Possum is aware of who might be facing them amongst the Seti, Laseen’s quick dismissal of him (I presume Quick Ben?) and that he can’t be counted on, which is what has freed up their opponents to start moving. Hmm, so if Quick Ben hadn’t come down on the side of Tavore, then he might still have been in situ with Laseen and hence prevent whatever events are to follow...These books really do interlink beautifully at times.
Again I do feel sorry for Laseen here. Although she is a character it is hard to identify with and we never get very much about her, it still must be so painful for names to come from her past to haunt her anew, such as Toc, Choss and Urko. And that ellipsis before Possum mentions Urko here? Is that to mean that his name would be the most painful of those for Laseen to hear?
I feel like I ask the obvious question when I ask: who is the mage of Ruse?
Then we have a few scenes which, while entertaining, don’t seem to advance the plot much at all but keep us up to date with the doings of people like Silk and Grief, Treat and Ho. Don’t have too many comments to make on them—oh, except that they were very easy reading. While Esslemont doesn’t have the same touch that Erikson has, his skill with writing seems to lie in nice, pacy scenes. I read them through very easily, with not too much pondering or waiting to jot down notes.
Hmm, I think there’s been mention before of the Moon being mottled, or discoloured....
So who is Ereko fated to meet, this one he will fear? The one that Traveller will lead him to?
And here we have another Old Guard Malazan, as Cartheron sails into view. I wonder what salvage he is looking for? Especially since he was the one that allegedly sunk most of what is in the Untan harbour.
Finally, we have the final confirmation of a rift within the Avowed of the Crimson Guard. Cowl is a true snake in the grass, isn’t he? That sorts of implies he isn’t the side I want to be siding with!
And that wind ascendant—still protecting Kyle? Or is it through that sword he has?
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Four Part Two
I do like Havva in this scene. Of course, Esslemont pretty much had me at “librarian.” And Anand appears likeably stolid and blunt. Dom, on the other hand, comes off as one would expect—an idiot. Maybe overplayed just a little.
I can’t recall where we read this, but we have heard about the Empire’s dwindling numbers of mages, so it’s good to see that fact come into play here
Okay, here is an example of where I think Esslemont is overdoing the ocean work a bit : “A hand like a blind fish drawn up from the depths.” Then a page or so later, “Mallick’s mouth snapped shut like a fish.” I mentioned earlier I sort of liked Rel’s speech patterns that centered on water. That’s because for me it makes sense that the character himself will be water-focused. But when the author throws that perspective into other characters’ minds, that crosses the line for me. Subjective, I know.
More oblique references to Tayschrenn being out of touch for some reason.
It will be interesting to see if Laseen’s intentional sowing of dissension among the insurrection will reap any benefits.
As much as I have issues with Laseen, it is hard not to feel some pity for her, as even Possum does, to learn how the Old Guard has turned on her.
I like the tension Esslemont sets up with this scene between Ullen and Bala. The implications that the Moranth might have their own agenda, might not be fully their allies or at least not for the full time (I confess too I’m always a sucker for more info about the Moranth, whom I find utterly intriguing). And then the idea that Bala also might have her own agenda, is known for her ambitions.
Hmm, who is this mystery mage of Ruse in Unta willing to help Urko’s fleet?
So obviously last time we saw Silk perform that huge bit of sorcery and wipe out the bad guys. So this is a nice job of Esslemont in setting us up for not expecting the same thing to happen again: “All I did was summon the power of the old city temple and it responded with one last glow of its old reflected glory.” That “one last” is a nice way to warn us that while Silk still has his powers, he can’t punch at that same level.
Considering our other chapters, Storo’s “And I’m Dessembrae the Lord of Tragedy” is actually kind of funny.
A nice little tease about Liss as well—just why is she a former shamaness/seer? What makes the Seti so afraid of her? Why does she enjoy scaring them so much?
And more teasing—about those two mages showing up at the Pit, who are clearly planning something. And then about Ereko, who is heading toward a long-promised confrontation that seemingly will not end well for him (that scene also encapsulates a major theme of the entire series—the way the past refuses to stay past and old hatreds never die—even when their adherents are dead themselves—this cycle of violence and hate and death and slaughter.). Then the tease about Crust—what exactly is he planning on pulling up out of that harbor? Why is he there at this time?
Once we’re at the end of this storyline—just before we get back to Kyle’s—you have the sense that not a lot is actually happening in this section but a lot of pieces are being moved into place and a lot of future events are being set up. It’s really a “more to come” chapter.
In Kyle’s segment, we certainly get a big act—the betrayal of Stoop and the all-along-hinted-at split among the Avowed/Guard playing out in fact rather than implication. But even here, it’s mostly just that single moment of plot and then it’s more set up for the future, with Kyle heading out for we don’t know where with his three companions with a hint that he’s more than he seems (the way he avoided the mages for so long) and Greymane being set up to tag along with Skinner but never trusting him.
So we’re about a third of the way through and if people are not yet in place, they are heading there.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.