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 Book Three, Chapter One 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 will split Book 3 Chapter One as follows.
Friday will end with the paragraph starting “At the mid-deck, Yath had sat as well...”
Wednesday will begin with “‘What’re they waiting for?’ Brill asked, an arm over his shovel...”
Book Three, Chapter One, Part One
Skinner, Shimmer, and the mage Mara ride to discuss terms with the Empire. Shimmer thinks how close the Avowed’s goal is and how she no longer thinks Smoky’s suspicions plausible, her skepticism increased by the Brethren’s whispers. They are met by Dom, V’Thell, Anand, and Ullen. Skinner demands Laseen abdicate and Dom demands the Guard give up their arms and agree to be transported away or crucified. Shimmer wonders if Laseen is purposely provoking them and wonders why, as the Empire cannot win. Skinner says it’ll be battle, then, and the two sides ride away from each other.
Nait thinks they’re going to be wiped out by the Guard, though he then thinks about the two Old Guard that held off Ryllandaras and thinks maybe he should stay close to them. He makes May his corporal. Braven Tooth goes over tactics with everyone, including the importance of freeing the bridge so the Kanese army can help. The meeting ends and Braven Tooth keeps the saboteurs behind and assigns them to blow up any Avowed and especially the mages. He dismisses them save for Nait then questions him about Temp and his Seti friend, thrilled to learn they now have “Two of Dassem’s old bodyguard here with us.” He tells Nait to forget what he knows (which isn’t much) then dismisses him. Nait tells May to get one of the siege arbalests and set it up.
Hurl visits Storo before she heads off to fight for the Empress. Storo, horribly wounded (lost an eye, an arm) wishes she’d stay to defend the city and she tells him Silk, Rell, and Liss are staying and the defenders have been reinforced. He says he doesn’t like the three brothers going with her, and the two tell each other (awkwardly, with lots of gaps) to stay alive. She leaves, thinking they were both cowards.
She joins the cavalry company she’s leading and Rell and Liss announce they’re coming with her. They ride out leaving Silk and Sunny to guard the city.
Ullen watches a bonfire of the dead, including Choss, who had died in the night. He mourns the loss and the fact that too many younger soldiers have no idea who Choss was. He notes two old veterans paying their respects and thinks they look a little familiar.
Ullen and his group ride past the noncombatants and then the rear guard and the Empress’ carriage, which he suspects is empty. He scouts out the battlefield and notes the Guard’s supreme confidence. He worries about the Guard mages and realizes suddenly why Laseen had held the Claw back against the Talian, her anticipation stunning him once again. He sees Dom and thinks that, ferocious as he is, he doesn’t instill the same sense of trust and confidence as Dassem, who often came to his soldiers’ aide when needed.
Harbour-Assessor Jenoso watches as the Ragstopper comes in at Cawn. Cartharon Crust, the captain, spars a bit with Jenoso over Cawn’s greed, the Empire’s grasping hand, etc. then pulls away, but only after tossing Jenoso a munition (only a smoker though) as “payment.”
Ho watches as Yath leads many of the mages on ship (but not Ho, Su, or Devaleth) in the Ruse ritual to travel through the warrens. Ho is surprised to realize Blues is also a mage (D’riss). Devaleth uses her Mare magery to smooth their ship’s ride but feels something interfering.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter One, Part One
A very good opening scene here that I greatly enjoyed, as the Sword goes to negotiate with Skinner, of the Guard, on Laseen’s behalf. It’s nice how Esslemont gives us a reminder of Stoop, and shows how Shimmer is now wondering precisely what happened to him. A few questions are brought up here, such as what is the approval that Skinner doesn’t need? And who from? Who are the extraordinary presences in Heng? Would that be Silk and his cronies? Rell? There is a brief mention of the fact that the highest ranks of the Imperium are crowded with Napan—something mentioned in the comments of the last post about the Old Guard. Nice little link.
It’s fantastic seeing the impression of Ullen from Shimmer’s point of view—both the way she reads more into him than into the others, and the fact that he gives them that parting glance, noting something precious that may not be long for this world.
And I do love the fact that Laseen has sent Dom in for this negotiation—how could she possibly piss the Guard off more? He really is like setting off a nuclear bomb. My favourite part is how Dom tells Skinner that he knows nothing of him, and then Skinner regards Dom and says: “I believe I now know all I need know.” So dismissive!
Poor Nait! He really isn’t enjoying this new responsibility, is he? It’s very funny how he thinks about the fact that he has to appoint a new corporal under him—someone to have “the actual authority to sniff at all your commands and dispute all your plans...but he had to select someone to take over when Hood finally managed to pin him down long enough to squash him.”
It’s awesome that Nait and his squad are growing legends around their actions, when those same actions are totally as a result of Nait trying to keep them out of trouble. That recurring joke is just as cool as the idea that saboteurs are just looking for munitions, all over the place, and are terribly jealous about those who might be hoarding them.
Aha! Lightbulb moment! The sword brother of Temp is one of Dassem’s First Sword, and my bet is on Ferrule! Finally got there. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I do get there!
May is a great new character as well. Enjoying the way she’s begrudgingly coming round to Nait.
Poor Hurl and Storo. They really have more to say than this very restrained scene, where the only true words said are from Storo, as he wishes fervently for Hurl to return. Some classy writing here.
And then we’re hit by this heartfelt section with Choss: “The Empire was marching to face its oldest—possibly its most dangerous—foe and it had lost one of its most gifted commanders of men in what now seemed to him useless internal squabbling.” Civil war truly is one of the most heinous situations.
Again, a real sense that Laseen has been planning ahead all of this time—husbanding her resources of the Claw to face against a foe that would otherwise prove to be deadly.
I have a thought that RotCG would have been a much stronger book with some of these storylines moved out and into a different book. There are so many viewpoints, so much switching around. I would have liked to spend more time with some of these characters and really become invested in them. Anyone agree?
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter One, Part One
This opening scene I think shows a nice light touch on Esslemont’s part as several things are alluded to in glancing fashion without being fully explored/explained. First is Shimmer’s shifting attitudes with regard to Skinner: her first thought that she is now skeptical about Smoky’s suspicions, a thought quickly undermined when he says they don’t need the Untan’s “approval” for anything. Second is Mara’s one-line reference to “extraordinary presences” in Li Heng. Third is the idea that Laseen might be intentionally provoking a confrontation with the Guard. All merely glanced upon, leaving the reader to carry the ideas going forward. I have to say, the demands themselves aside, it’s kind of hard to imagine that anyone would think sending Dom to “negotiate” wouldn’t spark a confrontation.
I enjoyed Nait’s reasoning about why he should choose May as his corporal—the because she’s so smart and can see right through him he needs to shut her up by co-opting her into the officer structure. One wonders how many corporals, and then higher, are made this way in this army.
I think I’ve said it before, but this whole Nait becoming Jumpy, young’uns becoming a new squad of saboteurs, is one of my favorite storylines in this novel. I like how we watch a kind of “origin story” of what we’ve seen the very late stages of in Erikson’s book—the sapper squad. We get the nicknames, the mythmaking (“can’t believe those guys went out after Ryllandaras”), the hoarding of munitions, etc. It has an even better effect I think seeing it after the fact rather than having it be our introduction to the sapper/saboteur squadrons.
Love the “you know nothing” bit between Braven Tooth and Nait as a little aside.
That scene between Storo and Hurl is a nice little emotional real-person scene and I’m glad Esslemont took the time to insert it amidst the battle planning and battle scenes. The awkwardness and the way what isn’t said/done is more important than what was is quite nicely handled.
Another nice little brief teasing thing to wonder—just why are those Ahl brothers so eager to be out on the field today? Is there a particular reason? And why do Liss and Rell want to be out there when Ryllandaras comes?
And coming just a little bit after the Hurl/Storo scene is another quietly human one, another emotional one as Ullen makes his farewell to Choss at the bonfire. I found it quite moving not simply for Ullen’s mourning of Choss’ death but even more so for the mourning over what time does to people—it makes them forgotten, as he realizes when he thinks of how few of the young soldiers have any true idea of who/what Choss was. And then Esslemont makes a great move I thought in having this concept mirrored and made concrete as Ullen sees those Old Guard vets who look “a little familiar” making their own farewells. As he says, Choss would appreciate the irony.
Hmmm, is Laseen’s carriage empty?
Nice little foreshadowing re the Claw. And once again we get the uber-competent version of Laseen here, the way she seemingly has anticipated and planned for everything as it has worked out. We’ll have to see if this continues, even as we continue to discuss her portrayal (I figure we’ll have a real good back and forth at the very end).
We even get another mention of Dom’s good qualities as well, though he’s also compared unfavorably to Dassem (which in itself is probably a bit unfair of a comparison). But it is hard to picture Dom driving in again and again to defend his soldiers and risk his own life. But perhaps I misjudge.
Ragstopper doesn’t add much to plot here, but it’s a nice mix in of humor to lighten things up a bit between battles and mourning scenes.
And just when will this boatload of mages arrive on Quon? And to what effect?
4/5ths of the way through folks—things are about to heat up...literally at times.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.