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 the second part 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.
Note: We’ll be splitting our next chapter as follows at roughly the halfway point:
Friday’s post ends with this paragraph: “Springing up, Kyle grasped hold of a rope...Kyle could not help but raise his legs as tightly as he could from the water.”
Monday’s post begins with: “Impatient strikes on the tunnel wall next to his alcove brought Ho from his meal of stewed vegetables and unleavened bread.”
Book Two, Chapter Three, Part Two
Hurl and Shaky lead Heng’s defenders against a nighttime attack, with Shaky being in charge of The Beast, his own device that hurls clay pots filled with oil. Some of the urban levies turn traitor, one almost killing Hurl (telling her Amaron says “sorry”) before she is saved by Ahl, an old city mage with a “sharp bite of spice” about him. As her group retreats, Ahl and a Malazan healer (Fallow) tell her they’ve lost other sections as well, including where Shaky had been.
Hurl’s group sets up at the River Gate to hold the retreat. Smoky blows his oil, taking out the besiegers in that area and sacrificing himself.
The next morning, Hurl tells Storo they lost Shaky and he tells her they’re giving up the Outer Round (the outer walls), though that’s no great loss as they didn’t have the manpower to really defend them and the besiegers showed their hand early with the urban levies turning. He adds that Rell held the Inner Gate nearly on his own.
Toc thinks how they are fighting themselves, fighting against good Malazan tactics. While Imotan (the Seti Shaman) rejoices at the “victory,” Toc thinks how it was a waste of soldiers and tactics—taking the Outer instead of the Inner and all simply to solidify the alliance rather than for tactical gain. He knows though that this is the deal—the Malazans will give them Heng and then the Seti will march east with them against Laseen.
SCENES FIVE THROUGH NINE
Riding with Jhardin, Ghelel look on Heng after the battle as Jhardin tells her Urko Crust is arriving with reinforcements. She wonders how Laseen must feel, being attacked by former companions. She muses over what she and Laseen have in common—loneliness and perhaps a sense of not being in control of events despite being in an alleged position of control. They come across a religious procession to the nearby Great Sanctuary of Burn (wrecked by an earthquake long ago) and Jhardin also points out the caves where hermits and ascetics live. Ghelel is outraged by what they see at the river—dead bodies and garbage—and then by the blasphemy she hears from an old man they pass. They pass the huge ruins of Burn’s sanctuary and continue on to the crossroads where they see a group of Urko’s army marching, led by Captain Tonley, who asks them to join us, adding Urko is out scouting but will be back at night. Urko arrives and ask for news. Jhardin startles Ghelel by telling Urko that Laseen is right behind him. They discuss tactics.
SCENES TEN AND ELEVEN
Aboard the Kite, Kyle has been bothered by odd dreams for several months. One recent dream had him walking beside an old man who looked similar to the Wind Spirit/Magus. The two walk to a hill of crystals which the old man starts to break off until he is interrupted by the arrival of another. The two speak and identify each other as Anomandaris and Liossercal. Liossercal tells Rake he’s doing “research” and Rake says the subject “is young yet...A child” who may not survive the research. Liossercal objects to referring to it as a child, saying “new, yes, the weakest of these strange invasions into our realms and thus so very appropriate to my purposes.” Rake argues its newness means it is “unformed. Who is to say what is or is not its character or purpose.” When Liossercal tells him that’s why he needs to study it, Rake says he won’t allow it, convincing Liossercal that since “this house is of Emurlahn, and Emurlahn exists as proof the accord between our Realms” that if he “threatens one you threaten all.” Liossercal agrees and Rake asks him of Resuthenal and the two walk off discussing her in good humor. A woman arrives and says his dreams are not his own and are dangerous. As she leads him away, Kyle looks back at the crystal hill to see another there beside it—one “quite ragged and carrying a longsword at his back.” The woman says “some things are best left unnoticed” and he wakes with Stalker above him. They near land, a desert, and begin to row in closer.
Captain Moss is out on the plains looking for the Wildman of the Hills. As they near their goal, he notices that fewer and fewer of the Seti he comes across carry marks of allegiance to the clans. They arrive at a crowd watching a challenge between an old man (the challenger) and a young powerfully built Seti. The old man wins, breaking the arm of the younger. A nearby woman calls him The Boar, saying the old man reminds them of their greatest champion from a generation ago of the same name, one who could not be defeated, until Dassem Ultor arrived. Moss tells the Wildman of Toc’s invitation and the Wildman scorns it, saying his future vision doesn’t include foreigners. He then surprises Moss by telling him that Heng is no longer important as Laseen is sailing this way, adding he has “a few things to pick over with her.” He dismisses Moss (giving him permission to stay the night) and goes to meet with some elders. Moss wonders who he is, recognizing he is a Malazan army veteran. He thinks once he learns the Wildman’s identity he’ll know whether he will “prove a factor in his mission or not.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Three, Part Two
Ha, okay, this is not going to matter to most of you, but right now it feels a little bit odd to pick up a Malazan book because, for the last two weeks, I have been on an intensive Wheel of Time binge. Before then I was re-reading books, but then I reached Crossroads of Twilight and from then on it’s been a brand new read, and I got all caught up! So right now I am forcibly dragging myself from the endgame of the Wheel of Time back to the storylines in Return of the Crimson Guard. I might be a little distracted, and start talking about Perrin and Egwene and characters like that rather than Rillish and Kyle and our characters!
Let’s give this a go....
It must be truly odd to be promoted in the field—to suddenly have people call you Captain, especially wily old soldiers such as Shaky, who are bound to tease you a bit about your new position. Poor Hurl!
I really like the clever way that Hurl, Sunny and Shaky have ensured that the command tent of the Talian army is in the place where the Beast is calibrated to hit. It’s a fairly usual trope in battle fantasy—to show yourself cleverer than the enemy. And it goes one of two ways—either it’s massively successful and helps to destroy those fighting against them, or it fails spectacularly thanks to some super clever scheme in turn by the enemy commanders.
Ahh... Seems like this might be the latter. I hate that Jeck betrayed Hurl—and that is the first time, I think, that Esslemont has made me feel so much so quickly.
Ahl—a D’ivers? That spicy scent is present again....
Now see, sometimes Esslemont really is too cryptic with what he writes, I think. I wasn’t sure if I could make head nor tail of this: “And, a friend of Silk? So, he too... But of course he as much as confessed such to her. Yet it was one thing to hear of it abstractly. Another to see it in action.” It might be me not remembering (yes, my brain is completely full of Wheel of Time facts—sorry, people!) but I have no clue what is being talked about here.
Something that I’m sure many other people have experienced: “So, now they knew what it was like to face the Old Malazans. Terrifying.” Also, it says something about these Old Malazans that they were able to defeat these new Malazans with such ease—oh, and pierce the walls of Li Heng, which have stood for so long.
This must bite in conflicts the world over: “Talk was they were abandoning the entire Outer Round...Hurl grated at the news; all those men dead, Shaky’s sacrifice, and for what? All to hand the wall over to the Talians?”
Yeah, and I guess this is often the case as well: “Betrayal is always the way sieges end.”
Esslemont does well with his action scenes—they’re well-plotted and fantastically described, so that you feel as though you can visualise everything. I find a vague similarity to Brandon Sanderson’s action scenes actually, now that I’ve spent some time reading Sanderson’s work.
Now this section with Toc is fine writing—firstly, the grim respect he shows his opponent, then the fact he’s aware that they were gifted the Outer Round, and finally, the way he realises that this has somehow degenerated into a civil war. “It’s our war, Malazan versus Malazan while you watch us bloody each other—no wonder you’re grinning!”
This, to me, shows Ghelel’s complete innocence when it comes to warfare: “She couldn’t see the north wall where a horrific firestorm had incinerated so many of her men but she’d heard stories of that amoral, almost petulant, act. How destructively childish! They’d lost the battle and so they should have shown the proper grace and simply bowed out.” What, so that those they didn’t kill would come and try to kill them in return? To let the enemy know that they had a weakness. All is fair in love and war, allegedly, and I would say that includes sending a squad of the enemy up in flames if you can get away with it.
On the other hand, if I take that idea away from fiction and apply it to the real world, I know how sickened and horrified I would be by such an atrocity committed in, say, the Iraq War against our troops... I doubt I’d be so sanguine and pragmatic if it happened in real life. So, I don’t know if that says something about how we’re inured to events as long as they take place in a fantasy setting, or if it says something about me being able to divorce myself from the mental pictures of such an event. Would be interested to hear how you deal with atrocities like this in fantasy fiction—something that gives you pause, or something you can deal with with immunity?
It’s nice that Ghelel is able to feel sympathy for Laseen and her position of isolation, where it seems everyone is turning on her.
Ack, and then more naivety from Ghelel about war—I don’t think she’s helping her subterfuge any by expressing such horror at those under siege sending the dead bodies outside the city where they won’t spread disease and other evils. How could any commander not see the pragmatism of this?
And here Molk shows the utmost intelligence: “Perhaps he meant that what we name as Gods have no concern for us.”
Urko Crust is a tremendous character—his arrival here and his quick assessment of Ghelel is done well. But the moment I like the best is when he hands that innocuous rock to Ghelel. She is so childlike and that little smile of his touched me.
Yay, Anomandaris! And yet boo at the same time... This is the first time that a truly beloved character of mine has been penned by both Erikson and Esslemont and I find the characterisation a little off, particularly with things like: “...yet his eyes were bright gold lamps that shone now with a kind of reckless amusement.”
What is this heap of large smoky crystals anyway? Anomandaris calls it a house of Emurlahn—some sort of Azath?
Alright, so these events between Anomandaris and Liossercal are memories. Who is the woman? And who is the man with the broadsword who appears next to the house? I probably should be able to read clues, but it’s not coming to me.
I think it does all show that Kyle has been touched by Liossercal for certain though!
So the Wildman is a Malazan veteran who wants to have words with the Empress, hmm? Very intriguing! I enjoyed this arrogance of youth versus experience of age encounter.
In fact, I enjoyed the whole of this chapter. Seems like Esslemont is now hitting his stride!
Bill’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Three, Part Two
I like how we can get a sense of how these two forces mirror each other early in this scene with the surprise and indignation Shaky and Hurl have at the attack. They both know this attack makes no military sense at all, just as Toc and Choss know that. Of course, what Shaky and Hurl don’t know is that the Seti need this attack to be cemented more into the alliance. But it’s a nice subtle way to presage Toc’s later discussion of Old Malazan vs. New Malazan fighting “themselves.”
As a rereader, of course, getting to this scene was difficult, knowing what happens to Shaky, a character I really liked and would have liked to have seen more of. From the writer’s standpoint, this does a few things: it raises the stakes as now we know that even relatively major characters can be killed off (no surprise by now in this series, but still) and it also has an emotional impact.
I also liked the clever way Shaky and Hurl set up the opposition to be wiped out on that hill. It also does a nice job of setting us up for Shaky’s sacrifice, as we have to get the explanation of all that oil up there.
This whole siege scene I think is well done, the Beast, the reference to mining, the cats, the trebuchets, the oil, use of stones, fire-bombs, siege towers and ladders, the lack of arrows for the defenders. It’s concise, quick-moving, but feels authoritative. I also think the urban levy (or part of it) turning traitor was nicely set up, as we get several mentions of them before they appear as traitors.
I like how Hurl’s thought after being stabbed and just before being killed is feeling she let Storo down.
I’m thinking Amanda that the scene re Ahl and Silk is just Hurl realizing Silk was one of the old city mages fighting Kellanved and Dancer when Heng was conquered by them. Coming after the sole-taken reference, it’s possible she’s thinking Silk is one too, but I don’t recall him intimating as such to her, though perhaps I’m just forgetting.
Note that little aside about Rell holding the gate nearly on his own.
Like you Amanda, I liked Toc’s recognition that this is indeed a civil war when he realizes they were stopped “by acts eerily reminiscent of Old Empire tactics” and his later recognition that “It’s our war, Malazan versus Malazan.” One wonders what justifications he’s been using to not really see this until now.
Hmm, interesting but I didn’t think of Shaky’s act as an “atrocity.” It just seemed to me he was using the sole tools he had to do his job and save his fellow defenders (despite Ghelel’s line, there’s no reason to think Shaky knew the outer walls were lost at that point, if they even were). Sure, burning is a terrible way to go, but I’m not sure having one’s arm cut off, or tripping over one’s own entrails is all that better.
This is clearly a running theme throughout, this idea of Laseen, alone and abandoned, turned on by those once close to her. We’ll have to see if we ever get any true sense of how she feels rather than just speculation from those around her.
You do have to love Burn’s temple being wrecked by an earthquake.
I’m not sure Ghelel is worried about staying “undercover” so much with Jhardin, whom we’ve been told “knows” a great deal, though perhaps I’m wrong on that.
And yep, good for Molk and his bit of insight (though speaking earlier of some writerly issues with ambiguity, I confess it annoyed me a bit that the line felt as if it were coming from Jhardin, based on the back and forth and then it took until the next line to find it was Molk).
Urko is a great character. It seems to me the stone is a bit of a test. Here’s the guy who is into fossils and old bones etc. (remember meeting him as Keeper in his tower) and he sits there looking at one stone after another, then polishes one (all while discussing military tactics) and handsit over. How does she react? Does she toss it aside like he’s crazy? Does she humor him? Does she even notice the fossil? It’s a nice little scene.
That’s an interesting scene with Rake and Osserc. They do refer to it as a house, even using the capitalized version later, which has typically referred to Azaths: “This Shadow House.” But don’t forget as well that House has other meanings besides the Azaths. High House Shadow, for instance. Note that even they are unsure of what it will become. As for the person, we’ve seen lots of people with swords, though “ragged” might be a help here. At this point, I’d say it’s meant to remain purposely ambiguous (though that doesn’t mean commentators can’t discuss) so Amanda you shouldn’t really feel you’re missing clues I’d say.
Yep, that little bit about the Wildman being a vet is a nice little tease (think about all the old vets coming out of the woodwork here). Is he someone famous, like a Toc? Someone we’ve heard of or met before?
And speaking of teases, that’s an interesting closing line from Moss. Ostensibly his “mission” was to find the Wildman and invite him to meet with Toc. So how can determining who he is have any effect on that mission—it’s already done. So what “mission” is Moss referring to here?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.