Feb 22 2013 2:30pm

Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Return of the Crimson Guard, Book Three, Chapter One, Part One

The Malazan Re-read of the Fallen on Return of the Crimson Guard, Book Three, Chapter One, Part One 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 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.

Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for

Darren Kuik
1. djk1978
Interesting, I'm not reading along with the actual book, just posting as I remember it and from reading the blurbs. That little bit about Laseen planning the Claw for the Crimson Guard confrontation just further fits with what I posted in the previous chapter I think.

And Amanda you're right, it has to be Ferrule. He and Temper were the only two of Dassem's Sword that survived.
Tricia Irish
2. Tektonica
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?

I totally concur. I became very frustrated at this book....jumping all over in quick cuts, and a zillion story lines. I've never have felt like I really got to know and feel for a character, and consequently, it makes them hard for me to remember, and then I'm confused and don't care about them.

The writing is improving as we go along, but I do wish we stayed on certain plot lines a bit longer. Color me "old-fashioned", I guess.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
I'll agree with Amanda and Tek. It does seem like a tightening of the storylines would have been good. The velocity of the book keeps going up from here (as I recall).
Dustin Freshly
4. Fresh0130
This is the book where I felt like Esslemont was trying too hard to be Erickson, which he isn't and shouldn't have tried to be. He's just not as great at balancing all of those multiple plotlines as masterfully as Erickson is. The consequence of that is that you'll get all of these POV characters that essentially ammount to thow away scenes instead of shocking moments and revelations like Erickson's multi POV's.

That being said, there are some really great moments in RotCG. Allot of people got turned off of Esslemont because of the book (Which is why you're getting so few comments on this book, allot of Malazan fans simply refuse to read Esslemont's books), but I saw that there was allot to like and that ICE just need to get more experience and refine his style so that his own voice would come through, not just a parody of Erickson's, which in my opinion he has done, each succesive book has been an improvement over what came before.
Bill Capossere
5. Billcap
In my original review for, I'd written "Esslemont’s ambitious undertaking of such a huge book, though, comes with problems in pacing, transitions between scenes, and structure." So yes, I did find the multiple storylines and how they were handled problematic. The very good news, however, as Fresh says is that I think just about each one of his books shows a noticeable improvement, as evidence by the titles of my ensuing two reviews: "Esslemont's best book yet" followed by "Esslemont's Most Enjoyable Malazn Book." I agree there is a lot to like in this one, but this and NoK are definitely his weakest, so don't let them overly color your impressions--there is quite a lot of good work coming our way from him
6. Tufty
I don't recall really having any trouble with the different PoVs and storylines at this point. It was perhaps more tedious earlier, but at this point Ghelel's and Toc's storylines are done and everything is mainly broken up into Laseen's side vs the CrG side, with various peripheral plotlines orbiting around them. We've had hundreds of pages of them now, does anyone really not remember who Rillish, Hurl or Ho are just because they haven't had quite as much screen-time while the Talians and Malazans were fighting?

Storylines at this point that have been more than just one-off scenes are:

-Storo's squad in Li Heng (Hurl PoVs)
-The Talian league forming up, moving and attacking Laseen (Ghelel/Toc/Ullen PoVs)
-The otataral mining pit, now on a boat (Ho's PoV)
-The Crimson Guard (Shimmer's PoV)
-Kyle (Kyle's PoV)
-Laseen and her forces (almost entirely Possum and Nait PoVs)
-Mallick Rel being devious and stuff (Mallick PoVs)

Is that really all that different from the Bonehunters, which had:

-The Hunt for Jade Fingertober (Crokus and Heboric PoVs, later spins off to Felisin the Fatter and her crazy city PoVs, too)
-Icarium and his new buddy (Taralack PoVs)
-Icarium's old buddy (Mappo PoVs)
-Karsa muderizes the world (Karsa and Samar PoVs)
-The Bonehunters traveling around the world with occasional stops for crazy battles (mostly Fiddler, Bottle, Lostara Yil and Keneb PoVs), with side-quests into the Imperial Warren (Kalam PoV) and under a city (numerous BH PoVs)
-Leoman using waaaaay too much oil for his souffle (Corabb PoVs)
-Ganoes Paran, the best Captain Kindly ever (Paran PoVs)
-Apsalar, has a longer list than a mafia player (Apsalar PoVs)

I'm sure I probably missed a whole bunch, but it already looks like Esselmont wrote a pretty damn tight book in terms of the number of storylines/PoVs than we are used to. Furthermore, I actually really like that ICE more or less ended the storylines that aren't going to have any effect on his convergence early before things really hit the fan (Ghelel, Toc, Ereko), instead of forcing us to switch over to those unrelated plots when we are right in the middle of a heart-pounding clash of other storylines.
Darren Kuik
7. djk1978
Yeah, I have to agree with Tufty on this one. Whilst it was slow to get going and some of the stories are less interesting or compelling than others it's certainly underway now. I don't find there are all that many PoV's at all to be honest and while I have not read OST yet I have read Stonewielder. I'm of the opinion that well the writing is generally improved in Stonewielder, as a whole RotCG is by far the more entertaining book and he's doing a pretty good job of bringing it all together. The whole notion of disparate stories and convergence should be something Malazan readers are used to now. As Tufty said, I think it's good that the non-convergence ones have wrapped up early. They aren't throw-away provided he comes back to them in a later book same as what Erikson does.
Stefan Sczuka
8. moeb1us
Quick off-topic question if I may:
Could you guys and gals please comment on the behaviour of the or rather this reread section of the website with regard to the ability to post here with the RTF box _on a smartphone_? I have an android device and I tried several browsers and unfortunately, I am unable to post here from it. That sucks frankly because I often read the posts before I sleep, lying in bed. Any thoughts on this? Can you all do it?
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
moebius: IPhone works fine--that's what I'm typing this on.
Bill Capossere
10. Billcap
My issues with the multiple povs isn't that there are multiple povs. I almost always prefer multiple povs, and multiple storylines and often prefer non-linear books as well that play with structure and time. It's just that from my, ahem, pov, the pieces don't fit together quiet organically or seamlessly enough and the balance is off as well in terms of enjoyment (obviously purely subjective). As one example, I've pointed to a lot of times in the earlier books we've discussed how there is a very smooth shift from one section to another, a fluidity that is created because there's a repeated theme, or image, or handful of words or the like. It's often a very small, sometimes not even noticeable bit of language or thematic or character play that nonetheless I'd say creates that sense of wholeness or unity and it's something I find far less often in these early ICE books. I also find that the narrative balance feels off in several of these storylines for me--a drop in intensity or tension, for instance. While Stonewielder may or may not be more enjoyable (I found it so but can see how others might not), I just thought craft-wise the multiple storylines were handled better (as opposed to story-wise): smoother shifts, more threaded connections, better balance, etc.
Paul Boyd
11. GoodOldSatan
(Since it has been brought up ...) I view the 3 "wrapped-up" plotlines differently.

The Toc plotline was a valuable addition to my understanding of the interwoven (SE/ICE) world. It was great to learn about my favorite Toc's dad and a little about the Old Guard psyche. I'm sad that it ended (but I've been sadder in the series).

The introduction of Erek0 (and the brief, but unsatisfying, lead-in to the Thel Akai), seemed merely a cool vehicle to get Traveller and Kyle together and then discarded. I found the tie-in w/ Kallor & CG interesting, but also unclear. On top of it all, I found Ereko much more intriguing than Kyle anyway.

But, Ghelel ... what a mess. Seems like a whole lot of words devoted to someone who's plot contribution ended with her second scene, when she was revealed as an heir to a subjugated empire. Also, she was annoying as a character and reading about her interupted more intersting developments in the story. Worse than the tedious Redmask plotline (which, at least, incorporated my favorite Toc & wiped out an entire people), Ghelel's is, well, seemingly pointless. (Possible minor and major spoilers: Yes, the Ghelel plotline has a tease as to a possible extension at the end of the book, but, as far as I can tell, there is no hint in other books about extending it. And, despite the important reference to Redmask near the end of the series, the number of words devoted to him in RG seemed ... disproportionate. ) I think the story would have been better off without Ghelel.
Tabby Alleman
12. Tabbyfl55
Well, since we're already spoiling the fact that this is the end of Ghelel's story in this book, and I haven't read any further ICE yet, I feel it's not much of a spoiler to say that at this point in my read, I had no problem assuming that the whole point of her story up til then was a set-up for a more important role later, which will probably occur in a future book. In fact, I would say that the MBotF experience up to now has trained me to expect exactly that.

And that assumption only gets reinforced at the end of the book. I am confidently assuming that the unnamed girl that the bounty-hunter/assassin is tracking down is Ghelel. I hope I don't turn out to be wrong about that.

Argh, I can't get the white out to work.. I think my browser isn't new enough; I get a javascript error. If someone thinks the previous paragraph is too spoilant, I'll cut it out.
Paul Boyd
13. GoodOldSatan
Tabby, I think to get the change text color to work, it has to be done as the very last thing you do before you "Post." That is, if you preview the post, you must again change the color to white, then post. At least that seemed to work for me.
Steven Halter
14. stevenhalter
Bill@10:Yes, that's exactly it. Multiple POV's aren't bad but they should all contribute to the whole. When multiple POV's work together the sum is greater than the parts. When they don't you get a lot of parts.
Now, I don't mean to be too harsh as I do like this book and as Bill also says, ICE does keep getting better--every single time.
Tabby Alleman
15. Tabbyfl55
@13, No I did that -- I've seen enough people get the same instruction -- but then when I clicked post, the little script error icon appears in the lower left corner of my browser, and the whiteness doesn't work.

Unfortunately company policy doesn't allow me to update my browser, so I get a lot of this kind of thing. Oh well.
Gerd K
16. Kah-thurak
I think the multiple POVs actually work best in Orb, Scepter and Throne. In Blood and Bone and Stonewielder not so much. I acutall think that ICE uses too many POVs to tell his stories. 80% of what he does would be much better in my opinion.
George A
17. Kulp
The Choss death fell a little flat for me. I think it may be that he was a member of the old guard we saw very little of leading up to this point. There had been a lot of talk (and some cameos) in SE's series about Dassem, Cartheron and Urko, Toc the Elder, Surly, etc., but I don't remember a whole lot of discussion around Choss. Even throughout this book he wasn't the focus of Ullen's PoV chapters. I didn't feel anything for Choss as a result of his death, but I did feel for Ullen because he felt for Choss.

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