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 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.
Book Two, Chapter Two
A dice game amongst Nait, Hands, Heuk, Least and others is interrupted by a man who steps into the tavern doorway to announce the end of the world, saying “Hood’s Gates have opened...Run!” They go out to investigate and find two ships in the harbor in terrible shape and glowing. At the wharf they find Sergeant Tinsmith discussing the ships with a stranger whom Nait calls a “dock rat.” When the strangers—the Crimson Guard—come ashore, the dock rat swears, then Nait feels warren magic. A woman “covered in filth...and tangled locks” appears, kills the dock rat (probably a Claw) and tells Tinsmith to order his men to stand aside, saying they won’t be harmed if they do so. He agrees and she leaves. Tinsmith tells Hands to stand down her soldiers and to order people to “ready the chains,” adding that the mage was Cowl’s lieutenant, Isha.
Rel is told by a servant that the Guard have returned and at first he takes it as his own rumor, but is shocked when he’s told they are really there in the harbor, a claim confirmed by his bodyguard Oryan, who tells him “some entities of great potential have entered.” Rel tells Oryan to drop all his magical wards and hide so Cowl doesn’t notice him. Oryan disappears (in a cloud of spice scent perhaps). Rel is furious the Guard have come to Unta and heads to the Palace.
Shimmer steps ashore thinking how hard the trip through the Shoals had been. Smoky tells her magic activity is “negligible [but] he is here,” referring to Tayschrenn. She says leave him to Cowl and/or Skinner and they head to the Palace. Greymane tells her he’ll secure some ships if their return is necessary. Shimmer is dismayed by the size of the city, the way the citizens don’t know who they are. Smoky says Cowl is dealing with the Claws who are mostly holding off.
Cowl enters Tayschrenn’s room and finds Tayschrenn warded and not wholly physically present. Tayschrenn tells Cowl he has stretched himself as far as possible to look into what might be and sees things that both terrify and exult him. He explains that since he cannot determine what path leads to either, he is paralyzed and so “absolute power diffuses into powerlessness.” He says he will not intervene. Cowl leaves, disgusted that “the twisted Gnostic innards of theurgy had claimed” Tayschrenn’s mind.
A woman with a stave (Kiska) is revealed and she tells Tayschrenn he should never have let Cowl get so close. Tayschrenn dismisses the concern and says the Guard will see “nothing can be decided here. It all lies upon Heng’s walls, as before,” referring to when Dancer and Kellanved killed the Protectress. He orders her not to get involved and she leaves, saying she’s just going to keep an eye on things.
Possum watches the Guard enter the Palace area and thinks they seem much diminished from legend. A Hand-commander, Coil, says Anand wants to know if they can be counted on helping with the barricades and Possum says yes, they should seed the crowds but keep their distance from the Guard right now. Coil leaves and Possum thinks how Laseen did the smart thing and just left, and wonders what the Guard expects to happen now.
Skinner and Shimmer burst into the empty throne room to be met by Mallick Rel, who offers them water. Skinner is surprised by how unafraid Rel seems, then orders him out. Smoky tells Skinner the whole thing was a mistake. Skinner says the charade is over and they’ve shown everyone nobody dares stand against them, even Laseen. He orders Shimmer to take the command back to the ships and meet the rest of the forces down the coast, saying he and Cowl will join them later.
On their way out, the Guard are ambushed with munitions. They can hear battle down at the command.
SCENES NINE AND TEN
Possum gets battle reports. He joins a group holding a squad of Guardsmen pinned down. He orders munitions used and joins a Hand in an attack. To his surprise, after the building is collapsed onto the Guard via munitions, when he and the Hand get there to follow-up, the Guard had set their own trap.
SCENES ELEVEN AND TWELVE
Nait’s group watches as the Guard’s two ships back out in the water, leaving one Guard behind. Tinsmith tells them to prepare to attack, though Nait thinks they’re crazy. Tinsmith introduces himself to the single Avowed, Black, and each agrees they have to do what they have to do. The Malazans release volleys of crossbow bolts at Black, which only slows him a little. Just before he gets to them, they release the harbor chain which knocks him into the water, though Tinsmith is unsure it killed him. Tinsmith orders them to prepare to enter the other fighting.
Possum, having played dead, rises, noting the Claw had killed five Guard but not the Avowed who had “killed” Possum and the others. As he watches, he sees a single female Claw whose face is covered in black strips of cloth fighting the wounded Avowed. Possum is about to help when a female mage puts a knife to his neck from behind and says to wait to “see what she’s got.” The Claw kills the Avowed, and the female mage curses and disappears, and then the Claw runs off. Another female Claw appears, this one in grey, and checks the body of the Avowed then leaves. Possum exits via warren.
Heading into the city from the harbor, Nait’s squad passes a very anxious man with a wagon. After they go by, Nait tells Tinsmith he’d seen that man aboard the Ragstopper. They go back to check out the wagon. The drover runs off and they find the wagon is loaded with munitions from the Imperial Arsenal. Tinsmith sets up protection and a way to get them away from the fires but is worried that someone is robbing the Arsenal, especially as he assumes eventually that person is going to make a calamitous, explosive error.
Shimmer wants to make sure the Guard doesn’t respond to the attacks with such force that it pushed Tayschrenn into reacting. As her group moves slowly toward the harbor, a huge explosion rips through the city as the Imperial Arsenal goes up. They gather themselves and head toward the water.
Greymane’s ship is rocked by the pressure wave of the explosion. As he moves the ship toward the wharf, he passes the Ragstopper moving out low in the water. The surviving Guard are waiting on the wharf, the Malazans now seemingly content to let them go. All are shocked by the explosion and covered in the same white dust. All board and Shimmer orders them to head west. The last one is Black, who is waiting to find Hand’s group. When he sees them, Nait moons him. Greymane thinks the populace doesn’t appear interested in being “freed” from their rulers and wonders if the Guard has outlived its “relevance.” He thinks the Guard is planning to join the resistance outside the city and he fears what might replace the Imperial rule.
The next day, Laseen surveys the damage and realizes the Arsenal must have been emptied of a lot of munitions. Havva Gulen tells her Skinner, not K’azz, was seen leading the Guard, adding Greymane was also seen with them. Laseen turns away and Havva thinks the Empress has driven so many away (purposely or not) that she now stands alone. She also thinks that “if I chose...to tell you all I know perhaps we would have a chance—a slim chance—of victory against the conspiracy that has closed itself around us...But I dare not...I know the name Jhistal. And...I do not have the power to oppose it.” High Fist Anand arrives and informs Laseen it was the volunteer city militia, to his surprise, that was so strong against the Guard, apologizing for not taking them seriously before this and adding that they are swelling in numbers to over ten thousand. Rel mocks them as a force. Anand, continuing, says the militia has called for regular soldiers to join and many retired ones have, including Braven Tooth. Laseen tells them when Dom arrives in the city, they will sail from Unta, with her leading the army and leaving Rel in charge of the capital.
Kiska tells Tayschrenn she observed Cowl leaving by Hood’s Warren, Claws fleeing Avowed into the Imperial Warren but never returning, the power of the Avowed, and a female Claw (or someone like a Claw) kill two Avowed, and another female moving “with ease in and out of Warrens.” Tayschrenn tells her she has to be restrained going forward as he foresees a possibility of “chaos arising out of the coming confrontation,” adding he may have to act quickly then and also that there are those who might try to take advantage of his being distracted. Before she leaves to tell Hattar, he asks why she left the Claw and she replies it was because she wanted “to serve something greater than myself...the Claw serve only themselves.” Kiska leaves, thinking she and Hattar will have to do something about Rel and also wondering if the Claw who’d killed the Avowed had been Laseen herself.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Two Book Two
Deathslayer close? Who is Deathslayer in this particular reading? I wonder if it is Traveller, what with him being associated with Hood and Hood being Death-oriented?
And the Apocalyptic? I’d say that was just events that are approaching as everything begins to build for the big finish!
Sometimes Esslemont gets the tone exactly right, and he does it here at the beginning of the chapter as the soldiers bicker during the card game. And I confess to a juvenile snigger at the following exchange:
“Can’t find shit down here anyway.”
“I did,” Least said, serious.
Ooh, is the falling god a reference to the jade statue that we saw fall to earth?
I do like the image of this madman coming in and screaming at them to flee, and everyone just sitting around and chatting about strange things they’d seen. It’s sort of like when the fire alarm goes in an office and everyone ignores it for the first couple of minutes until they’re encouraged to leave.
And I love the way the Crimson Guard present themselves to the locals—the listing ship, the swarming aboard the merchantman, the ragged woman gasping and pale. It’s certainly enough to help the legend keep living—and this is just emphasised when Nait thinks: “In fact, no one was left. None who could oppose them.” Scary thought, non?
Ha! Fantastic to see Mallick Rel so utterly flustered by the real return of the Crimson Guard, after putting around the rumours that they would. And, hmm, I noticed that spicy scent around Oryan as he vanished—could it be that this chap is a D’ivers? If so, my immediate guess is our friend Ryllandaras considering he’s been foreshadowed a number of times so far!
With exchanges like that shared between Shimmer and Greymane, it’s so easy to come down on their side, rather than that of Cowl and Skinner. Especially when we know that Cowl has Tayschrenn as his nemesis, and Tayschrenn has shown himself to be rather honourable at times, regardless of the fact that he has been spending too much time closed up in his tower. I’m also not comfortable that Skinner is being guided by Queen Ardata—she doesn’t seem the most trustworthy character, since I’m left thinking about a spider in the centre of its web, controlling others.
It must be something that the Crimson Guard Avowed wonder on many occasions: “Perhaps we have outlived ourselves....”
Umm, not sure about that encounter between Cowl and Tayschrenn. All I can really see from this is that Tayschrenn is either actually paralysed from options, or pretending to Cowl that he is in order to lull him into a false sense of security. Whichever, it wasn’t the best scene, with a lot of mumbo-jumbo chat that didn’t really say anything....
And immediate confirmation then that Tayschrenn isn’t as vacant as he seemed to Cowl! Is this Kiska? [Bill: Yes, this is Kiska.]
Interesting as well that the Crimson Guard sound as though they’ll be following in the footsteps of Kellanved and Dancer to the walls of Li Heng....
The difference between Nait’s attitude to the Guard and Possum’s here (“Was this it then? The much vaunted Guard?”) is marked, isn’t it? The former shows such respect and wonders how they will cope; the latter is mocking. Having said that, I can sort of see Possum’s point of view—imagine being faced with this ragged group (and even Shimmer can see the humour in their appearance!) when you’ve only heard about the legend...It must come as a massive disappointment really—if you don’t see beyond their appearance.
Where is Laseen during all of this? Has she really fled? [Bill: Not quite.]
Hmm, so the Claw have turned the Untan citizen militia into mercenaries with their offer of ten thousand gold pieces for each Avowed. I don’t think that can possibly end well.
I’m conflicted about Possum. Sure, he seems like a bit of a dick with his attitude and such, but, honestly, some of what he’s thinking here is probably the most realistic—like the fact that nothing has been the same since Kellanved and Dancer left the Empire, no matter what has been tried and who has commanded.
I did really enjoy reading this account of the battle within the streets—the way the citizens are panicked and getting in the way; the reactions of the different soldiers, from the mercenaries to the Claw, and then, finally, the fact that Possum has been fooled by the Guard.
I liked even better the ‘battle’ between Black and the harbour guards! Especially the way that they consider themselves victors for sweeping him into the water. Mind, I think if I were faced by someone like Black charging at me and ignoring crossbow bolts in the leg, I’d be keen to dump them somewhere they couldn’t get at me.
Am I reading it right that Possum concealed his actual wound with an illusion of a mortal cut, and then played dead? Heh, like a possum would? Playing Possum? Been a bit slow on the uptake there....
A fine battle between this mysterious female Claw and the Avowed—there have been quite a number of these mysterious female fighting characters so far! I like them, but it would be even better to know a little more about them.
Okay, so, with the scene with the wagon, from Nait smelling something odd, to Tinsmith remembering the look of these boxes from his days with the marines, I think this chapter is shaping up to be my favourite so far of Return of the Crimson Guard. We’ve spent time with some ace characters and there has been some sterling writing and some ace scenes, culminating in this massive explosion. Very entertaining!
I loved the humour of the harbour guard waving their particular brand of farewell to Black as the Guard departed.
Ahh, poor Laseen. I do feel sorry for her, although I’m still wondering where she was while the Guard came to call. There are real echoes here in the way that Laseen is viewed as being remote and alone and living behind walls of her own making, with the way that Tavore is viewed. I found that pretty interesting.
Oh, and then that last paragraph...Just brilliant stuff. I never put together Laseen with that mysterious female Claw. How magnificent.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Two Book Two
I liked how this chapter moves into this whole “invasion.” You’d think it would be a much larger issue, something presented with a lot more sturm and drang. And instead we get this comic opening with the searching for the dice, the slow nonchalant reaction to the “The End is Nigh” Guy, the two ships limping in, the Guard and Claw watching them overwhelm the merchant’s ship and Tinsmith’s “the sorriest ass invasion fleet I’ve ever seen.” And then I like how it closes with a rush—the humor and wryness and “really, this is it?” turning suddenly into the crazed mage, a quickly dead Claw, and Nait’s realization that “But he’d [Cowl] been the long-time rival of...Dancer. And Dancer was…gone…as was Kellanved. And Dassem. In fact, no one was left. None who could oppose them.” Now that’s a big drop off.
Yes, any time Rel is discomfited, even if only momentarily, are moments I treasure.
Certainly the spice scent has always been linked with the Soultaken pretty consistently (well, that and sandworms, but I think we’re okay on that one).
I have to say, I wouldn’t have minded seeing at least a little of that trip through Mael’s Shoals of the Forgotten, especially the “crews driven insane by their torment.”
I’m enjoying the whole “He Who Shall Not Be Named” thing with Tayschrenn.
I like what it says about Shimmer that she (if I’m reading this right) recognizes immediately why Greymane isn’t going to join them on a march to the palace and doesn’t give him grief about it.
And she only gets better with the “This is not the Unta I remember” stroll where she starts to wonder if time perhaps has passed the Guard by, not the first time this notion has been sprung on the reader. And not just with the Guard; we’ve seen it as well with the Andii. This theme is one of my favorite aspects of this universe, that immortality (or near-immortality) isn’t presented as all fun and games all the time. Her recognition of the crowd’s looks makes me think of an old (not necessarily aged, old as in former) celebrity, who would rather have any emotion on a witness other than “confusion”—as in “who is this person?”
I think Tayschrenn’s conversation can actually be a bit of both Amanda. I do think he’s telling the truth about “stretching himself” to see the possibilities and that this narrows his path at the least. Whether it indeed causes complete paralysis, well, we’ll have to wait and see....
Has Laseen fled? Not quite.
I kind of liked Possum’s view on the Guard, this almost childishly cute disappointment at the big bad Guard not looking so big or bad (of course, this will change). And not just disappointed, but “resentful.” It’s a funny sense of entitlement—“Where is the Guard I deserve?”
And that’s a nice transition there, from this “They’d ruined the legend for him and for everyone.” To Shimmer’s “For her part, Shimmer saw the humour.”
I’ve complained about Esslemont’s unnecessarily or overly vague/ambiguous language in this novel, but here is an example of where I think it works. The Avowed have just entered the throne room and are looking at the throne itself and Shimmer says “Empty.” To which Skinner replies “Almost.” Now, Skinner means the room, which seemed empty until one notices Rel. But I think there’s a bit of chilling ambiguity in that one could easily read that “Almost” referring to the throne, and having that connection made between Rel and the Throne. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but I like it.
More concise characterization of Shimmer’s insight (and, from our perspective, good taste) in her reactions to Mallick Rel. It’s very hard not to like her in this chapter.
I’m with you Amanda on enjoying the “fight” with Black. And his reappearance and getting mooned at the end. Though I confess I do wish this had been Black the Lesser. Would have been funny to do all that and still not kill a “Lesser.” But I do like the civil introduction. And the fact that Black’s surcoat has been bleached white.
I would have liked to have seen more of the Collunus Bourse—would have been nice to get a little more local color there.
This is a nice wry bit of humor: “What the barrage lacked in accuracy it more than made up for in enthusiasm.”
I say, I have to side with Possum as well on the whole “why aren’t we using munitions” question. We’ve already seen with the Li Heng story that the general idea with the Avowed was always don’t make a fair fight out of it and try your best to not make it a fight at all. So it seems a little strange to me that this isn’t happening at all in these encounters (we do see it happen with the first ambush and with the chain on the wharf), though I guess we can rack this particular one up to incompetence or fear of reprimand for wrecking the capital. Or, you know, the home crowd. But still, one would think orders would have been “Use munitions as often as possible and as much as possible” since a) the Arsenal is right there b) this is the chance to really wipe out the Guard and damage the Avowed.
Yep, Possum played possum. Cute. But I wonder why he didn’t just leave via Warren. Too slow?
I did like the woman upon woman upon woman series. Poor Possum, surrounded by uber-competent, uber-confident women. We do have some possibilities for who these may be Amanda. And in fact, I’m surprised Possum doesn’t make some guesses, even if they’re wrong ones.
The scene with the wagon is quite well done, I agree. I like how they let him go at first, then slowly figure out to come back, then the conversation with the overly-anxious drover, and especially the reason Tinsmith tells Nait what’s inside the boxes. And really, does anyone doubt that Nait might have gotten them all killed?
The scene with Shimmer is also quite strong. The characterization again is favorable to Shimmer as she wants to ensure that Smoky is not responsible for all the fires, as she’s smart enough to know that too much destruction just might bring Tayschrenn into the fray (I confess, I also like to think she prefers as little death and destruction as possible anyway as a point of character, but I can’t necessarily point to anything specific). The fighting itself is handled well, and the moment the Arsenal goes up is a great bit of cinema I’d like to see on screen, both this moment with Shimmer and then the shockwave where Greymane sits.
This line of Havva’s about Laseen could just as easily be spoken by the reader: “You say nothing and so we who would help you cannot know for certain.” And yes, that is a good parallel to Tavore there—cold, aloof, inscrutable, refusing to open up. Oh, will we have speculation aplenty on Laseen. Perhaps beginning with leaving Rel in charge?
So, who is playing weak like the plant? Inviting in the flies and scavengers? Is it Laseen? Inviting in the Guard? Or is it Laseen inviting in Rel? Or is it Tayschrenn, inviting in? Or is he looking ahead in time?
I wonder a bit if Esslemont was having some fun with us when Tayschrenn asks whose Warren Cowl left by, expecting us to think “The Crippled God!”
Ragman appears to still be haunting the Imperial Warren.
So, based on her report to Tayschrenn, Kiska appears to have been one of our mysterious trio of women (I’d say the one who checks the Avowed corpse afterward). And Kiska certainly points us toward Laseen as the one who killed the Avowed at the end. Which means we have one mystery woman left, the one who sneaks up and holds a knife to Possum. I know who it is, having read the book, but I think the clues are here (I’m pretty sure I knew who it was my first time through) anyway for those new readers who want to take a stab at it.
Overall a very strong chapter I’d say.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.