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 Five 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.
We won’t be splitting the next chapter.
Chapter Five Part Two
Ghelel Rhik Tayliin arrives in the command tent to vent her anger over what she sees as horrible military decisions taken without her input (dividing the army, for instance). She demands an explanation from General Choss and Amaron. Choss tells her Heng’s resistance has changed the timetable and they need to get there quickly so the resistance doesn’t bog down and start turning on itself, adding they’re leaving a big chunk of the army behind to defend Tali against Dal Hon, who might take advantage of the situation to gain territory. When Ghelel mentions honor, Choss angrily tells her there is no such thing with regard to commanders or states—winning is all. Amaron chimes in to say they have only one good mage, a far cry from how things used to be, and that their only advantage with regard to Ghelel is that nobody can identify her. They plan on setting up a façade and having her slip away in a new identity as a cavalry officer in the Marchland Sentries under Marquis Jhardin, who himself will not know her true identity. Molk will go with her as her servant.
Lt. Rillish orders a withdrawal from the walls. He’s appalled by the wounds among his soldiers and is told the healer Fessel was dead. The besiegers attack the walls one more time, setting off the explosives/flammables set by the garrison. Rillish drops down into an underground chamber where the Wickans had been sent and find them all dead and the mud covered in blood. The shaman Clearwater, impaled by spears, speaks to him and says, “a way has been bought,” telling Rillish to bring his soldiers. He says it’s an escape for the garrison and the Wickan children, one bought by the Wickans sacrificing themselves in this once-holy site. Rillish yells for Chord.
Rillish evacuates 32 before the building’s fire is too much and they’re forced into the underground passage. Going last, Rillish bids farewell to Clearwater then steps into a conifer forest in daylight, then into the night west of the fort. The Wickan children have already gone on ahead and the garrison survivors follow.
Shimmer, aboard the Wanderer, watches Cowl’s Ruse ritual with a sense of distrust and wonders why the speed to get to Quon. She thinks how Skinner has changed and wishes he hadn’t found them, wonders what vows he may have sworn to his patron, Ardata of Jacuruku, the Ascendant who had given him the strange armor he seemingly never takes off. She and Smoky discuss the night Kyle ran off and he tells her the Brethren say they saw nothing. When he says Stoop hasn’t shown up she asks if he thinks the Brethren have been suborned. Shocked, he says he didn’t think it possible. Shimmer says the only answer then is that Kyle was a spy with powerful friends, though she clearly suspects those looking for him weren’t really interested in finding him. Smoky says the idea hadn’t occurred to him and she replies it was actually Greymane’s thought. Smokey says it makes sense. They discuss how the Brethren demanded an attack on Quon and how perhaps they don’t share the rest of the Guard’s priorities. Shimmer wishes Blues were around and also wonders what happened to Cal-Brinn. The two tell each other to be careful and Smoky leaves.
Cowl, joined by other mages, continues the ritual, creating a curtain/portal, one which nobody had ever passed through before and lived to tell of. Shimmer wonders again at the urgency to get just three ships—the Wanderer, Gedrand, and Kestrel—to Quon, even if they carry most of the Avowed (2000 soldiers total). They pass through the portal. Shimmer sees the Gedrand listing with a broken mast and notes they are all dead in the water. Smoky points out that they are in the middle of a horde of becalmed ghost ships. Jhep says they must be in the legendary Shoals—a place where the god of the sea sends those who anger him. A lookout marks a glow in the distance “like magery” and they begin to row for it.
Heading south down the coastline with the others, Kyle wonders why Stalker and the rest, not to mention the local shaman, were helping him. Stalker says they’ve left the Guard because the Guard is “stuck in the present, stuck in the past.” He adds that he, Coots, and Badlands are distantly related and all of “the Lost back where we come from...back there it’s all the same. Stuck in the past...Imagine our disgust when we found more of the same in the Guard.” Coots arrives to say they’ve found a village with a new boat in it that they can steal.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Five Part Two
Hmm. On the one hand, I don’t like the way Ghelel is being treated by those who have raised her up as Duchess. On the other hand I do feel as though she brings it on herself with her high-handed manner. After all, it’s not as though she is a military commander who can bring much to discussions about tactics—but they really should have her in the meetings so that she can pretend she is being involved and consulted.
This quote stood out to me: “Honour? Glory? All that horseshit those moon-eyed minstrels sing on about—none of that matters here in the field!” It just goes against what we’ve seen from many commanders over the course of the Malazan novels already read. We’ve seen honour on a number of occasions, so I don’t like the sweeping nature of this quote. It really turns me against Choss.
This makes my feelings towards Choss even worse: “Winning! Plenty of time afterwards to rewrite the history to make yourself look good.” Having said that, this is something that we’re very familiar with from our own history. I’m sure some of the losers in each war we’ve experienced would have a very different story to tell from that which is commonly accepted.
I confess I still haven’t got much of a handle on the Ghelel storyline and how it relates to everything else. As with Erikson, I think Esslemont will always have storylines that leave me colder than the others and this one is a good candidate.
What happened to Fessel and why wouldn’t he use his Denul? Just old, or something more sinister?
It’s a little odd to me that Rillish automatically assumes that all the Wickans have killed themselves. I mean, sure, they don’t like being prisoners and such, but it’s a massive leap to assume they’ve done a mass suicide. Even so, it looks like Rillish was right where the elders were concerned—sacrificing themselves for the good of their people. What is damn cool (in this nasty little bit) is that they’re also sacrificing themselves for the Malazans, who they’ve seen can protect their future. That’s a really nice touch.
Also, this is a complete and neat reverse of Choss’ attitude, where Rillish’s last act on evacuating is to help the wounded soldiers carry out those who are unable to walk. No honour in commanders, Choss? Really?
Now that image of the three ships floating in a dead sea of ghost ships is absolutely chilling. Fine writing here, by Esslemont.
Poor Kyle—I’m not even sure what Stalker is trying to make clear, when he talks about the Crimson Guard walking backwards into the future. I mean, I know he’s saying that they’re not adjusting and hence will stagnate if nothing forces them to change, but it’s not incredibly clear.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Five Part Two
This opening scene doesn’t seem to much advance the plot save to give us a chunk of exposition on what the army is doing and on the political concerns. Which I suppose we need, but it just feels a bit clunky and static to me. Especially when we get lines like “The Marchland Sentries...Under the Marquis Jhardin...They’re all veterans—the raiding is constant on the Nom Purge frontier...” A string of names and places that have no meaning to us and that don’t feel like they’re really fleshing out the world; they just feel tossed in. It’s interesting. I don’t know if I have such impatience for this Ghelel storyline because of what is going on (or, as I feel, what isn’t) or because I know where it’s going. What do our first-timers think of it so far? I’m curious, Amanda, how you feel about it at this point.
I find the bit about the Talian army going back to pre-Malazan ways with servants and all that interesting and a bit incongruous with what one might expect. After all, the pre-Malazan ways didn’t fare so well against the last Malazans. Seems Choss and Amaron would be a bit more displeased about this move.
Back to a much preferred storyline—Rillish and the others. Already the urgency and emotive impact is kicked up several notches—the last defense of the walls, the marines staying back to set the retreat, Rillish’s thought of what he could do with more of them. Then we get that pile of legs and arms and the news the healer is dead. And then the tension is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable point when Rillish’s fears that the Wickans have killed themselves, including all the children. Now this is concise, powerful stuff.
One part bothers me here though and that is that so much seems to be made of the healer’s death and I just can’t figure out why here or remember anything from down the road that would explain why (though that of course doesn’t mean there isn’t something down the road). Anyone else feel that way—that more seems to be made of the death here?
The schism amongst the Guard continues to get emphasized, and now we’re seeing a more concrete and precise conflict being set up between Shimmer and Skinner (I confess, I hate that those are the two names in the conflict).
An interesting line from Shimmer that seems to imply a lot “Hood, look on you who can never have us!”
It’s also interesting hearing Shimmer’s thoughts on the effect of having all the time in the world because of their Vow and think of her relatively mayfly-like life in comparison to some of our characters.
This is an awkward transition, going from the Guard rowing to a vague “They turned south.”
A few hints as to the oddity of Stalker and the others here—will we learn more about the “Lost” and how they are similar to the Avowed? Stay tuned.
Hmmm, wondering how stealing that new fishing boat is going to go?
A cute ending to this section.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.