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 Three 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.
Chapter Three Part One
Captain Storo, Sunny, Hurly, and Shaky discuss Li Heng’s defenses, with Hurl outlining a plan for the ditch around the city. Captain Harmin Els D’Shil, from Fist Rheena’s staff, arrives and mockingly referring to Storo as the “hero of the noth Genabackis campaign” asks for the story of how Storo supposedly slew a Crimson Guard Avowed. He adds that the D’Avore family were cousins to his own. Storo explains how the Avowed came out of a building his squad had collapsed and he killed her (Sarafa Lenesh) while she was pinned to the ground by nearly a dozen javelins. Harmin is disgusted and before leaving delivers a message from Imperial administration. The message is a coded one, offering Storo a meeting with a friend of his father’s whom Storo had thought long dead.
Mallick Rel calls upon Mael, compelling his presence. Mael tells him the Guard’s ship are nearing and they contain Avowed. When Mael wonders what Rel will do when the Guard comes after him, Rel scoffs, saying the Guard won’t live long enough and adding that Mael doesn’t fully respect Rel’s guardians. Mael says he’s more aware of what Rel’s guardians are and what they might do than Rel himself. Rel commands Mael to speed the Guard’s passage as well as the ships of the secessionists.
The Primogenatrix of Umryg, Timmel Orosenn, is awakened to be told an imprisoned group known as the “Blood Demons,” is near to breaking through their last barrier. Hurrying to the caverns, where an army is amassed and waiting, the Primogenatrix is met there by the leader of Umryg’s thaumaturges—T’enet—who tells her the final barrier will fall tonight. Timmel tells T’enet that the two of them are all that survive from “the entombing,” and that she had agreed back then to his counsel, but now she has doubts. T’enet says that is understandable, but thinks their enemy’s long imprisonment has weakened them enough so they might be destroyed. Timmel, recalling what it had taken to inter the “twenty remaining foreign horrors her sister had hired...to aid her in her bid to usurp the throne”, and how many decades it has taken Umryg to recover, is not so sure.
The granite wall of the prison explodes outward and the prisoners exit, protected by shields they’d crafted of stone and strengthened via magic. Probing the powerful magic, Timmel senses “a dark swirling of Shadow mysteries” coming from elsewhere. At that moment, a “walking corpse . . female, in tattered rags of crimson cloth” attacks Timmel, saying “Jaghut” before disappearing. As she quickly heals, Timmel wonders about “that word, that forbidden word and thinks “Ancient truths remain alive somewhere. One place too many for her and her kind.” T’enet has been killed in the attack and Timmel orders the defense back, telling them to harry the escapees to the river and have an unmanned ship there for them so they, “You invaders. You Crimson Guard,” can get the hell of her island.
Kital E’sh Oll, a new Claw initiate, has found the few-months-old corpse of another Claw inside the Imperial Warren, one of many messengers seemingly lost recently. A man, wearing rags of once-rich clothes, appears, saying he’s surprised Claw keep coming and wondering when “that toad you call your master [will] ever learn.” When Kital says he serves the Empress, the stranger replies “so you think.” Asked his name, the stranger answers he’s been many men, but now “I have decided to become the man I could have been and to test myself against the only one who is my peer.” Kital thinks the stranger crazy, though the man seems to have knowledge of Claw protocols and titles. The two fight and Kital is killed, but not before he recognizes his slayer, who apologizes as he kills him.
Kital’s corpse animates and brings a message from the Crippled God, who says he can ensure the two are alone thanks to the “influence of one of my representatives.” He offers the stranger a position in his House, warning of “forces now arraying themselves against the Throne—and more.” The stranger asks to know more, but the Crippled God realizes he has no intention of accepting the offer, saying it is “a pity. For while you refuse to see wisdom, I’ve no doubt he shall.”
Alone again, the stranger is angered at the idea that someone would “rob him of his satisfaction,” but then thinks the “he” referenced by the Crippled God—Cowl—is no more likely to accept than offer than the stranger had been, as the two of them are “too much alike” and both await their final fight to the death. He is sure, in fact, that Cowl will come to him.
Ereko goes to a fisherwoman’s hut for a reading by a young boy of talent. The reading mentions the Queen of Life, Death, Shadow, Obelisk, Kallor, the Soldier of Light. The boy pulls out one last card—King of Night—, whispers “no...it cannot be,” then faints.
At the Otataral mines, Ho, one of the first mage prisoners and once the pit’s “unofficial mayor and spokesman to the Warder,” is awakened by the bell chiming new prisoners arriving. Among the five new prisoners are two whom Ho thinks might be battle mages, which worries him. The current mayor, Yathengar, former Faladan of Ehrlitan, arrives and welcomes them. Yathengar warns the two possible battle mages that the other prisoners are not helpless. When one says they’d heard the Otataral had been all mined out, Yathengar says a few veins remain. The two gives their names as Grief (a Napan) and Treat. Ho thinks the two have been sent to get information.
Ghelel realizes at this point she is just a figurehead, a puppet in the hands of more experienced people, such as General Choss, though she plans on not being so for long. She demands to see a captive Claw. The Claw tells her Amaron was once in charge of the Talons, implying therefore he was involved in killing Ghelel’s family, though Amaron denies it. When Ghelel says she would not allow such acts when she rules, the Claw mocks the idea and then, when Ghelel repeats herself, he tells her she’ll fail unless she chooses to become like Laseen and “pick up the tools of power—the very tools you pretend to scorn.” Ghelel leaves and asks Amaron why he didn’t just have the Claw killed. He replies this way maybe she’ll trust him in that he let her hear the accusations. She orders there be no killings in her name and though he won’t go so far as to guarantee it, Amaron says he’ll ask first, though she sense he thinks things will eventually turn that way.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Three Part One
Oh, I love that snippet that begins chapter three—it asks some of the questions that we have been asking as readers. I just hope that means we might find some answers. I particularly like this bit: “Brutal gods for a depressingly brutal age?” It gives an indication that the lands and peoples are getting the gods they currently deserve.
Once again we see how the Malazans treat those they take over: “...and now, under Malazan administration, re-sanctified to the full pantheon of Quon Talian Gods, Heroes and Guardian Spirits.” A benevolent and light touch.
After seeing the way that Storo said so firmly that they would be digging a moat, it is amusing to see their discussion here about the fact that it can’t be done. This is the Malazan banter that feels so familiar.
Isn’t Harmin a sweetheart? Mind, I did find the story about Storo killing Sarafa Lenesh remarkable. Sure, she’s a soldier and sure, she’s supposedly unkillable, but to hear that she was stabbed to within an inch of her life and then had her head removed is not...right. Ack, I’m all conflicted again. I’m getting quite fond of Storo and his gang, since they seem to be our Marine representatives in this novel. But then I’m assuming I should be finding the Crimson Guard and the Avowed people to be fond about since this novel focuses on them? Bah. Why do these authors do this to me?
I wonder who this old friend of Storo’s father is? One of the Old Guard, I’m guessing?
Ahh, now this brief exchange between Mallick Rel and Mael is exactly what I wanted to see—the indication that Mael has worship being forced upon him, and that he would have never chosen this particular worshipper, nor the manner in which he worships (those rituals of Jhistal, of which I want to know nothing). I’m interested in Mallick’s guardians—Mael seems incredibly dismissive of them and suggests that maybe Rel should be more watchful of them.
How very cynical this is of Rel, as he replies to Mael’s “You and your cult pursued your own interests. Not mine” with “As is true for all worship.”
Okay, so the section with Timmel and T’enet mystified me from start to finish. First, I flicked back through the entire book to see whether we’d met them before. Then I tried to work out where Umryg was. Then I read the section and didn’t understand much more, except the reference to Jaghut. I mean, I’m not averse to starting a new storyline, but at least give the reader a little hand to get them through....
Interesting little skip into the Imperial Warren, with more emphasis that it is a dangerous place to linger as Oll thinks about the people who have vanished. My brain seems to be dead, people, because I can’t think about who this man is that Oll encounters—maybe Topper? I missed Erikson particularly keenly in this scene, because he would have ensured that, in the few pages that we knew him, we would have been made to feel emotions for Oll and mourn his death. As it is, he might as well have been nameless.
Hmm, so this mysterious chap in the Imperial Warren is being tapped up by a messenger from the Crippled God... And turns him down. Not something that the Crippled God will like, I’ve no doubt.
A distinctly ominous reading for Ereko here—the Soldier of Light and King of Night could well be those mentioned in the conversation Lady Batevari had with Rel. It bodes ill that the King of Night has only just become an active card here.
Is this the same Otataral mine that Felisin was sent to? If so, it certainly sounds much more civilised that when she was down there, with the food sharing and the healing. Grief and Treat’s arrival could see the end to all that...
So Ghelel is to be used as a figurehead and doesn’t want Amaron to kill people in her name. I think that resolve will be in tatters by the end of this book.
And that’s it for this week. I have to confess, it was like wading through treacle. I was either confused or bored. That is not how I expect to be while reading a Malazan novel. It wasn’t even the way I felt during Night of Knives. With Erikson, you can’t see how all the pieces of his story slot together, but you have faith it will all converge. With Esslemont I feel as though I’m having storylines thrown at me with no sense or reason behind it. It’s not smooth. Just me? Or are the rest of you happy with how this went?
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Three Part One
That is a nice little snippet to open with. Just a reminder that we’ve just come from a reference to those First Heroes and Trake in association with someone else....
Amidst that description of Li Heng, it’s probably a good idea to note just why this city might be of importance: “Li Heng stood at the centre of Quon Tali...astride the main trade artery connecting Unta with distant Tali province.”
That “light touch” you reference Amanda is both true and untrue—recall we’ve had several references throughout the series to the Empire outlawing cults, purging cults and their adherents, outlawing national/cultural traditions, some of which we nod our head in agreement with, such as the banning of slavery. But we’ve also had references to how the Malazans, once they’ve rid their conquered countries of those things they deem important to get rid of, do have a relatively light touch—allowing other religions to continue, giving locals lots of administrative leeway, etc. Very Roman in many ways. Though of course, the “light touch” is also always somewhat dependent on just who is being touched.
I mentioned last time how I thought Esslemont did a nice job early on with teases and here’s another one—just what are the sappers, er, saboteurs planning on filling the ditch with?
What I like about the Storos story is that it’s a nice sort of commentary on the word “hero.” Good old Storos is there wailing away on her as she is pinned to the ground by nearly a dozen javelins, hitting her on the side where she has an arm that doesn’t work, whanging away until he pretty much knocks her silly and he can “chop away until her head came away.” Not a particularly aesthetic act, but how much of “heroism truly is?” And it’s easy to picture how in 20 years (or fewer) that story gets magnified so there are no javelins, no dropped tower, no mangled arm—just the “hero of northern Genabackis.”
Old Guard is probably a good guess Amanda—there does seem to be a pattern amongst them after all of incorrectly being thought dead. The Nap reference is also perhaps a clue, as many of them are Napan.
You’ve already seen his two guardians Amanda—one is Taya, of whom Rel does seem to be aware of, but as we’ve seen, she is also apparently playing her own game as well. The other is his mysterious tattooed mage, of which we know very little (and know very little of what Rel knows of him).
So yes, this scene does show that the worshippers can bind the gods, something we’ve heard several times earlier. But let’s not forget a little seemingly throwaway scene we saw last chapter with our friend Nait and what he observes....
Yeah, I’m not so sure the Primogenatrix section had to be quite so oblique. I get the point (I think), which is just how strong the drive is among the Avowed to return now that the Diaspora is over. And also to show just how kick-ass they are (especially coming atop the Storo story). And I do like some of it. But it seemed unnecessarily abrupt. As to what is going on Amanda, here is my take (feel free to add, subtract, sniff scornfully, correct)
- Decades ago Timmel’s sister hired a group of Guard as mercenaries to help usurp the throne.
- Something went wrong and Timmel’s people imprisoned the remaining guard below-ground in a cavern under tons of stone (the granite monoliths).
- The Guard break out in “turtle” formation—linked stone shields magically hardened.
- An Avowed female (I assume a veil as it’s sneaky and assassin like) that had hung back from the turtle formation attacks Timmel and the others. The Avowed says something to Timmel, but all Timmel catches is “Jaghut.”
- Timmel decides trying to contain these guys is crazy and decides to let them go, which means one can assume they’ll eventually join the other Guard where they can compare “where’d you come from and how bad was it” stories.
- As for where Umryg is, beyond it being an island and very remote (purposely chosen for its remoteness I’d guess) I have no idea and don’t recall if I should. Anyone?
As for the Jaghut reference, I took that to mean Timmel is if not a Jaghut herself a descendant of Jaghut. I base this on the following thin clues:
- She curses to the “Elder gods of ice.” Ice always makes me think Jaghut
- She recognizes the word Jaghut.
- That word—Jaghut—is forbidden and I think it’s implied it is forbidden not out of hatred or fear of Jaghut but out of fear that they might be thought of/recognized as Jaghut—“Ancient truths remain alive somewhere. One place too many for her and her kind.” This says to me the fact that people still know of Jaghut gives Timmel and her people reason to fear that knowledge. We know Jaghut try to keep a low profile now and this fits in with being on a remote island, as well as trying to keep strangers on the island rather than let them off with news of who lives there. I wonder if her title—(which I think means first mother/first bearer) might be reference to some escaped Jaghut female who hid there long ago. But now I’m really going out there on a limb.
As to the stranger Amanda, I’m not going to confirm or deny, but why might Topper pop into your head? We know he’s gone missing and is lost. We know this stranger knows the Claw and its ways (he makes reference to the Claw being an initiate, he makes reference to the Claw’s protocols). We know the Claw initiate recognizes him. We know this person who knows the Claw and is recognized by a Claw is good enough to have been killing lots of Claw (and to feel bad about that) and to be offered a job by the CG.
I agree that so far Esslemont hasn’t shown the ability yet to get us to care quickly about the we-hardly-knew-ya characters, though to be fair, most authors I’d say don’t do that as well as Erikson.
A few other tidbits in here. I’d say the “toad” is pretty clearly Rel (someone toad-like, someone playing against Laseen, someone infiltrating the Claw), so this stranger is no fan of Rel’s. Whether he is killing Claw because he thinks they are doing Rel’s business and he hates Rel, or he is killing them because he thinks they are helping Rel undermine Laseen and so he is working for Laseen, whether he is killing them because he doesn’t like the Claw for some reason, or is working against both Laseen and Rel, we don’t really know.
That representative who has influence in the Imperial Warren? Think of what the Imperial Warren once was....
I do like the stranger’s quick shut down of the CG’s self-importance:
“A new card called into creation for you and you alone...Is that not a singular achievement?”
“It’s been done.”
I’m a little leery of digging too much into Ereko’s reading, so as I usually do in these cases, I’m going to err on the side of caution and let our commentators decide their comfort level in discussing it.
A lot of foreshadowing around these two new mages: the surprise and rarity of new arrivals, the fact they are obviously battle mages, the fact that both Yathengar and Ho are immediately wary of them, the fact they are companions, the fact that this last fact seems to go against protocol. Maybe the fact that one is a Napan? That’s a lot of flag-waving....
I wasn’t a big fan of the Ghelel-Claw scene (in full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of her whole storyline as I recall, but we’ll see if that remains true). It felt forced to me, too abrupt, an in and out scene there not as an organic part of the story but crafted by the author to a purpose and awkwardly so. But it wasn’t long and so not a terrible reading experience.
The whole does-power-rest-on-cruelty question is, however, an interesting one. Someone in our last comments talked about this with regard to Laseen and the Wickans I think. We’ll see....
I’m not sure if I felt so strongly Amanda, but the lack of fluidity? Yes, I’d agree with that. Certainly some of these lines will connect, but that was my overall first reaction to the novel—it had issues of structure and pacing and flow, and we’re starting to see that here. Others’ feelings?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.