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: Our next split, roughly halfway (my page 599) through Chapter 2, will be as follows:
Friday’s post will end with the paragraph beginning “‘Worse! What could possibly—’ But the figure walked off, hands clasped at his back, disappearing into the dark.”
Wednesday’s post will begin with: “Hurl was surprised by the lack of outriders and pickets . . .”
Book Three, Chapter One, Part Two
Nait’s group is digging defensive trenches and wondering what the Guard and/or Laseen is waiting for. Heuk, their mage, tells Nait he’ll be able to help at night. Skirmishing, magery, counter-attacks begin.
Shimmer is shocked at the losses her force is taking but Skinner (via the Brethren) tells her not to “panic.” She orders her mages to attack via fire and then is surprised again when the flames are snuffed out. Her group is attacked by Claws and she manages to kill a Claw shadow mage just before blacking out due to being strangled by shadows.
Mallick Rel pays someone to take him out on the water where he asks out loud what Mael is up to. He notes the flowers and garlands on the water and asks what they are. His boater, Olo, tells him they are offerings to “God of the waters. God of all the seas. God of a Thousand Moods, a Thousand Faces, a Thousand names,” an explanation that enrages Mael. Mael speaks to Rel and tells him the offerings of thousands have freed him from Rel’s bindings, adding he’d kill Rel save he’s been giving in to his anger too often lately. He gives him a “last gift of passage” and Olo rows toward a shore he does not recognize. Rel identifies it as Cawn and says this lesson is meant to teach him “patience, and acceptance of the unalterable,” wondering, “Will I finally learn?”
Ullen stands in the aftermath of an attack by Cowl’s Avowed assassins that left High Fist Anand on the edge of death. Surveying the battlefield, Ullen sees Urko’s Talian heavies ready to engage some Guard Blades, while Dom holds his position in the center. Ullen gives orders regarding V’thell, including trying to cut the Guard from the bridge, but is second-guessed because it is a change from Dom and Anand’s plans. He explains his reasoning then leaves them to accept it or not. A demon appears over Urko’s group and savages them and even as Ullen wonders where their mages are, someone (Ullen thinks Bala) along with some saboteur with munitions brings the demon down. He orders a reserve to defend her position and reminds them all night (Ryllandaras) is coming. When informed the Kanese are merely holding position, Ullen orders a message sent that if they don’t attack the bridge the Empire will march on Kan next. A rolling pink killing mist starts heading toward his position.
A dying Shimmer is turned over by Edgewalker, who tells her “Your engagement is spilling over into Shadow and that I cannot allow,” saying he is sending her back and he wants all of them gone: “You, that murderous trespasser—even the binder of your Vow—though he is being shielded.” Shimmer reaches out mentally and makes contact with K’azz, who tells her he is near and coming, adding he was betrayed by Skinner and Cowl. Edgewalker sends her back.
Shimmer comes back on the battlefield with the healer Twisty over her. The mage Shell tells her Cowl and the Veils have killed Anand, Dom, Urko and Shimmer notes how, despite the Veils’ “dominance,” Shimmer had been found by the Claw and after getting a list realizes all the others similarly discovered were opponents of Skinner. She tells Shell to get Greymane and Smoky. Realizing the Guard can’t fight an internal war at the same time as an external one, she plans a fighting withdrawal but first decides she needs to speak to Skinner, though Shell warns her not to (Shell is aware of Smoky’s suspicions).
Shimmer reaches Skinner and says a Hand broke her guard and the Moranth Gold are breaking through and says they need reinforcements. Skinner replies he’s gathering Blades and he and his Avowed will do just that and then march on the Empress herself and if that doesn’t get her Cowl will. When Shimmer asks what would come next, since their Vow will be achieved, Skinner asks if she’s never thought further than that, pointing out their home no longer exists. As Avowed gather, some loyal to Shimmer some to Skinner, Shimmer worries they’ll fight and so suggests Skinner take the east front and she’ll take the west. He agrees and says they should have the field by midnight, then he and his Avowed leave. Shimmer tells Smoky after the night is won the Guard will have it out with each other and by dawn there will be a “choosing of sides.” They head for the western flank.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter One, Part Two
Once again, I especially like the emphasis that Esslemont gives to the building of this new squad, their development and the way in which they are becoming or will become better soldiers: “Too much armour, in truth. But they were young; if they lived long enough they’d come to find the proper balance between protection and weight.”
Hmm, what is Laseen waiting for? I suspect it’s something sneaky that will swing the battle her way....
This just doesn’t seem like how battles come about, in my view... I always see them as far more regimented: “This was how it would start: some inconsequential move would invite retaliation, would spur a counter-move, would become an escalation in resources and before either side knew it they were committed.”
This is definitely a battle where both sides must seriously wonder if they’re going to lose: “We know there’s Avowed waiting for us; and they’re outnumbered more than four to one.”
Something I just realised while I was typing that last little bit is that in the analysis for this book I have been concentrating on the small view, on the events right in front of me, rather than having to piece together a bigger picture. There is less of a convergence here, it seems, where all the pieces suddenly slot together. Leaves me just analysing what is going on right now, rather than thinking about how it relates to what has been and what it to come.
Hmm, can the Crimson Guard use those who have died to communicate with each other over a distance? That’s what seems to be implied by Shimmer’s “conversation” with the dead. Now there’s a bit of a magicky deus ex machina method of ensuring everyone can stay in contact.
Bala is worth her weight in gold, isn’t she? “Who in the Queen’s Mysteries was that mage?”
Now we see the Claw engage—I suspect that this is what Laseen has been waiting for. I can’t see that Shimmer has died. I think that “Brethren! I join you” bit at the end of Shimmer’s section is designed to deliberately mislead, but it just feels clumsy and unnecessary.
The interlude with Mallick and Mael is a cool scene, but I’m not sure how it slots into proceedings—except, I guess, to get Mallick into Cawn and have Mael show his uber-awesomeness and the fact that worship from the locals (even though they didn’t know truly who they were offering to) has had the power to release him. Mael is one of my favourites, while under the guise of Bugg or not.
A number of times the standard of the Sword has been mentioned—this does not necessarily mean that the Sword is with it! My suspicion was raised because of this: “The tall standard of the Sword was still pressing in the centre [...] Ullen had to admire the man’s bravery and martial spirit...” This just doesn’t seem to represent the Korbolo Dom we know and (don’t) love.
And again Nait finds himself doing something heroic and spectacular, as his squad and Bala take down that demon. It’s ace seeing all these little moments that contribute to a legend building.
Now we see why Shimmer needed to go to what she believed was death—we could find out that K’azz was arriving. Now that felt pedestrian and clunky, that way of Shimmer discovering who betrayed K’azz and the fact that he is close. It could have been achieved with far more effective scenes.
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter One, Part Two
I don’t know if Esslemont intends it this way, but way, way back I spoke of Erikson’s use of “armor” as metaphor (those walls one puts up between self and others, self and feelings, to get through war) and intentional or not, I like how Nait’s thoughts that Amanda quotes about his squad can be read that way as well, that “proper balance between protection and weight.”
The grasshopper is a nice touch I thought, a little reminder that the world spins on its way regardless of our “big doings” and will continue to do so. Though our “doings” will ripple throughout for a while. It also serves as a nice characterization moment, his soft thought about how “things are about to get far too hot for the likes of you, little fella.”
Actually Amanda, I had the opposite thought with regard to Nait’s lines about how the battle would start. I tend to think we like to think battles are far more regimented and orchestrated, but just as often (at least), they start in just this chaotic bit of back and forth skirmishing and retaliating.
It’s a good bit of setting us up for Bala later, Heuk’s mention of her here. I also like how Nait gives us a sense of how magery is used in the battle and also why it doesn’t dominate—the idea that the mages have to keep hopping around and away as they’re being stalked by those intent on wiping out their magic.
Yes, the dead Brethren is a nice bit of on-the-field communication equipment. Beats the heck out of flag-waving.
While I liked Shimmer’s wry “A more thorough briefing may have been required regarding the Avowed” (in response to the Claw’s disbelief at her persistence), I agree Amanda that the following line about “Brethren, I join you,” was clumsy and that nobody reading this thought for a moment she had bought it.
The interruption with Mallick Rel and Mael does all those things you say Amanda, but I agree its placement here feels strange and awkward, and maybe a bit forced to create more suspense after Shimmer’s “death.” I will say, however, that Rel’s response is quite interesting and not at all what one might have expected, much more reflective and introspective as he sees a lesson in this moment and wonders if he will have the patience and acceptance to heed the lesson.
Hmm, I actually always assumed the Sword did mean Dom was there. I think the line about Dom’s “bravery” is OK as it’s something I’ve never doubted, especially as it’s followed by the line about his lack of imagination, which I’ve also never doubted. I don’t know if he’s ever come across as cowardly though, but it’s more than possible I’m forgetting. I’ll have to try and dredge up what he was like in Raraku.
Another nice small touch that just after we see Ullen’s emotional farewell to Choss at the pyre, we see him employing the lessons his beloved mentor instilled in him (whether he’s heeded or not).
Part of me chuckles at his encounter with Edgewalker, a character so many of us want to know so much more about and one which I love to see (partially for his enigmatic nature), and who is summed up via Shimmer with these lines: “Shimmer had nothing to say to that as the name meant nothing.”
Welcome to the world of “Don’t Trust Skinner,” Shimmer! I like how quickly she puts together the suspiciously one-sided list of names the Claw somehow got to. Also, nice quick little reminders of Iron Bars and Blues.
I love the visual of this scene with Shimmer and Skinner (though I hate the names), crossbows flying all over, whacking into them, and the two of them just conversing. Reminds me of Apocalypse Now and the “Charlie Don’t Surf!” general who walks across the field and doesn’t flinch the tiniest bit at the chaos going on around him. And that is a tense moment as the two Avowed groups near each other. I actually wouldn’t have minded if that moment had been slowed down and played up for a bit more tension.
And which Duke K’azz will she get?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.