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 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.
Note: We will split Chapter Six at the roughly halfway point as follows:
Friday’s post ends with “Thank you. You know, their surrender saved my life.”
Next Wednesday’s post begins with “Far along the western horizon the setting sun had passed beyond low clouds and Nait sat letting the slanting light warm his old bones.”
Thanks for your patience last week!
Book Two, Chapter Five, Part Two
Nait and Hand’s squad sit around the fire discussing rumors and possibilities with regard to the upcoming battle. Heuk, the mage, wakes suddenly and says, “He’s here. I can taste his blood and hunger.” They hear shouts and screams.
The field is chaotic until Temp and Braven Tooth call the troops to assemble in some sort of order. They march and come across torn-apart bodies. Braven Tooth speculates it was a Soletaken. Nait starts to mouth off and Braven Tooth gives him his “real name”: Jumpy.
Korbolo Dom arrives at the head of some cavalry and tells Braven Tooth they should be pursuing the creature. Braven Tooth says that wouldn’t be smart, and when Temp agrees, Dom says that’s why he’s “The Sword” and they are not, then rides off.
On the way back, it becomes clear that Braven Tooth’s name for Nait—Jumpy—is going to stick. The troops splits, Temp leads a smaller group, including Heuk and Jumpy to track the where the creature had come from.
After losing the trail, Temp tells Heuk to use his Warrens to track, but Heuk says he’s a “Blood and Elders” mage, not a Warren one, and that Temp doesn’t want him to open those paths yet. Temp agrees and they head back.
Aboard the ship Forlorn, Ho wakes Blues to deal with Yath, who is “washing the taint” of otataral off a mage by hauling him through the water (nearly killing him). Blues stops him, but Yath says Blues and his squad have to do the same. When Blues asks why the rush, Ho says they can sense something going on at Heng and that Laseen and the Guard are there. Yath says they can perform a ritual that moves the ship through the Warrens, so long as they rid themselves of all the Otataral. Blues agrees.
Ho tells Su if she doesn’t let herself be dunked/cleansed, they’ll just force her in. She makes insinuations about what she suspects with regard to Ho, saying the others are “so much less than you,” and noting that he has his own reason for fearing a return to Heng, and hinting he can have a “reunion.” He tells her she needs to see something on deck.
Fingers gets dunked. Ho tells Su she and Devaleth and a few others can wash behind a partition at the stern.
Shimmer watches Ullen, the Talian League envoy, ride off after being rejected, and she has some bad feelings. She asks Skinner and Cowl if it was a wise decision, and Skinner replies he trusts the League’s offer of land as much as he would trust the same offer from Laseen. Cowl says another force is approaching, and Skinner asks Cowl to make Choss think the force belongs to Laseen (Cowl says he doesn’t know who the force will be loyal to). Cowl disappears, and Shimmer is surprised, as she thought Warren travel had become very dangerous.
Alone, Shimmer thinks Skinner has become inhuman, terrifying. Greymane, Smoky, and Ogilvy appear and guess Skinner turned down the League’s offer. Ogilvy tells her that he was the first one at the site of Stoop’s death and he found tracks wiped away by sorcery, tracks that showed Kyle had never been in the clearing. When asked, he says nobody can corroborate this, and she says he should keep it to himself and dismisses him. She tells Smoky he’s crossing the line and he says he isn’t done; there are lots of folks grumbling about Skinner’s actions and there are factions forming, looking for her or Greymane to do something. She warns Greymane to be careful, and he says his outsider status might lend him better perspective on things. He wonders what Skinner plans after they defeat Laseen and the Talian League. Shimmer says then the Vow would end with the end of the Empire, but Greymane asks what if another force steps in. When Smoky suggests Skinner plans to take the throne himself, she scoffs at the idea, saying the Vow would never allow it. He asks if the Malazan Empire remains an “impossibility” so long as the Avowed are on the throne, if that wouldn’t mean eternal life and power. She thinks he’s biased against Cowl, and he tells her Greymane lacks such bias. He leaves, eventually followed by Greymane, and Shimmer remains, troubled, wondering if they fight to put Skinner on the throne and some power behind him as well.
Ullen meets Amaron and Moss and tells them their offer was rejected. Amaron talks with confidence of defeating the Guard (but not the Avowed, who he says will withdraw once their recruits are defeated) and Moss makes it clear Amaron is speaking more for the surrounding soldiers than himself. Amaron asks about Moss’s experience in Genabackis, and Moss says he faced the Guard there when they fought with Brood. Amaron says the Malazans beat the Guard there, and when Moss loudly agrees, Ullen notes his expression gives the lie to his words.
Newly promoted to Fist and Envoy, Tazil Jhern meets with Nil and Nether’s group (which includes Rillish and Chord) at their camp north of Unta. When Rillish asks who empowered Tazil to negotiate, Tazil refuses to speak to a traitor. Rillish offers to go, but Nil and Nether order him to stay and advise them.
Afterward, Rillish and Nil discuss what to do. Nil acknowledges they have little leverage, especially now that Unta has already been sacked/partially destroyed by the Guard. Nil says their fate is actually being decided far to the west at Heng.
Returning to his camp, Rillish meets Chord and Talia. Talia informs him she’s pregnant, and he angers by thinking first of how she’ll have to leave the ranks. They talk it over and she says she’ll switch to a less risky job, find a wet nurse, send the child to her brother to be raised, unless Rillish would rather it went to his family. He realizes he has lost all that, all his family had for him, when he turned against the Empire.
The Marquis, Ghelel, and Prevost Razala are informed by a scout of a large Itko Kan army heading for Heng. The Marquis thinks they’re going to try to take the city to get rid of the Free Cities and to use the city as a negotiating card. When the Marquis says they’ll withdraw to Broke Earth Falls to the west, Ghelel says they should go north to join Choss against Laseen. The Marquis says the only place to possibly cross is at the Falls, though he thinks their numbers would make no difference to the battle.
While Storo recuperates from his wounds from Ryllandaras, Hurl (as acting Fist), Silk, and Sergeant Banath parley with the Kan army’s envoy, Commander Pirim Shall. He tries to convince her Heng’s defenders are overmatched, but she tells him if he doesn’t withdraw the army a day’s march away, they will be considered a fair target. As the Han contingent leaves, a companion of Shall mentions a curse on those who released Ryllandaras. When asked about it, Silk says there “probably” is no curse because neither Kellanved nor Tayschrenn used them. Back in Heng, Hurl notes how the people have taken to Rell for his fight against Ryllandaras and how they now call him the new “Protector.” She meets with Liss, who tells her Storo is OK but has lost an arm and an eye and might still die. When asked, Liss says yes, Ryllandaras will return once the “easy pickings” on the plain are done and yes, the Seti are safe for now, though she adds the worship of Ryllandaras must not be allowed to rise again, calling it a “regression [to] a childlike dependency.” Not for the first time, Hurl thinks maybe they made a wrong decision re Ryllandaras. Liss tells her not to worry, that perhaps it’s time for Liss to finally do something she’s maybe been putting off too long.
After days aboard the Kite, Kyle decides someone has to pull Traveller out of his brooding. He asks why they’re heading for Quon and Traveller tells him he (Kyle) needs to settle things with the Guard, adding he won’t be there as his presence would only complicate things. He tells Kyle he’ll be OK with the Brothers and because of his powerful sword. Kyle asks him where he’ll go and Traveller replies that he is hunting someone “determined to avoid” him, but one day he’ll find him, and then “there will be an accounting long delayed . . . Vengeance . . . but not just for me, for a great deal. For a very great deal.” Kyle offers to help, but Traveller says he must do it on his own, though he thanks him for the offer.
The next day Stalker says a storm keeps crossing their path and Traveller says someone is interfering with him who should know not to. They enter the storm then run aground on a mudflat. A man in robes greets Traveller and says he’ll lead them to his master Shadowthrone. As they follow, they note the “man” beginning to change and when Traveller rips off the robe it appears to be a short, winged, monkey-like creature. Stalker tells Kyle they’re most likely in Shadowhold or Shadow Warren or Meanas—different names for the same place. Kyle joins Traveller in meeting Shadowthrone while Stalker and the others wait outside. Shadowthrone forms a long hall and he and Cotillion make themselves more visible. Shadowthrone tells Traveller his goal is impossible, and Traveller asks what Shadowthrone is offering. Shadowthrone says he can help for a small price. Meanwhile, Kyle feels his sword growing uncomfortably hot. Shadowthrone yells to Cotillion he feels an “emergence” and Cotillion’s rope pulls Kyle’s sword free then coils around Kyle’s neck. Traveller cuts the rope and he and Cotillion face off until Shadowthrone tells them to hold. Osserc appears and Kyle (who knows him as the Wind Magus from the Spur earlier) is surprised to see the other three edge away. Osserc marvels at Shadowhall and when Shadowthrone tries to yell at him Osserc reminds him of how many hounds he lost when he did the same to Rake. He also tells Traveller he “knows that weapon better than you and we have no business upstart.” Traveller backs away. A hound appears and then the winged messenger, who mops the floor and manages to get Osserc to move his feet, at which point Shadowthrone, relieved, says, “The House is unconcerned.” Kyle starts to apologize for not knowing, but Osserc interrupts, saying he wasn’t supposed to, nor is he “father to winds.” He gives Kyle the sword and leaves. Kyle joins the others outside, soon followed by Traveller who tells them he isn’t going with them. He adds that they just need to walk to get where they’re going. Traveller looks at Jan, then seems to make a decision or realization. He bids farewell to Kyle and the others, then goes back into Shadowhall. They head out.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Five, Part Two
I really love the bickering relationship between Hands and Nait—it feels like some of the buddy duos we’ve experienced before in this series, and has a comforting element thanks to that. I also like the nature of the scene—soldiers trying to outdo each other with gruesome descriptions of the army that waits for them. A rather dark sort of humour in an effort to downplay what is going to be very dangerous for them.
I enjoyed the moment as Nait realises that even an attack can’t stop Temp from shouting “Close up!”
Eep, it’s not a good sign when your mage spews blood at the idea of what has destroyed and eviscerated these people!
Ah, this moment when Nait also takes on the name Jumpy... I can see echoes of that moment happening all across the Malazan forces, and think that some of these folk we see now and have known in previous books must have had different names as well before being handed their military nickname. And, oh boy, is this true to form! My dad was twenty two years in the military and for all that time he was not known as Paul (his given name) but as Razz. People who visit the house who knew him when he was a soldier still call him Razz now he’s a civilian....
Heh, totally loving the comment: “With his luck and ours? Yes.” I like the sly nod to the fact that Dom probably isn’t going to die a nasty little off-screen death, and I like the fact that Braven Tooth and Temp are so against Dom—makes me like them even more!
I think out of the two parties I would really rather be heading back to camp than tracking the beast that had caused such damage. And I’m also not loving the idea of Heuk opening his blood magic in the vicinity of Ryllandaras!
Ack, so Nait is now jumpy and Grief is now Blues? Damn, the multiple name things can be so difficult to keep straight... I do like the dual meaning of: “To him, he’d always be Grief.” Grief meaning trouble, of course!
I’m interested in how much otataral can affect the use of magic. I mean, here these people are only dusted with it, and yet it would prevent them from using the Warren to travel.
Okay, one thing that frustrates me terribly about Esslemont’s writing is his lack of identifiers when it comes to conversation. When we open into the conversation between Ho and Su in the hold, it is far from clear who is speaking which part. We have to assume that Ho begins the conversation, but only because his name comes first. I don’t like this, when it seems incredibly easy to reduce the confusion through some identifiers.
I don’t like to think of how Shimmer must feel, watching Skinner and Cowl leading the Crimson Guard into darkness. After all, they have been together for so long and now it seems as though something... possibly evil, definitely inhuman... has taken over Skinner. That must be terrifying. “There’s sides drawing up.” I like the fact that Shimmer is not immediately convinced by Skinner’s plan to take over the throne of the Malazan Empire—it would be hard to throw over loyalties that have lasted for decades.
Sometimes Esslemont provides too much detail for the reader i.e. he has to fill in all the blanks (exactly the reverse of when he’s obscure for no good reason!) Has to be said that the balance is a little off in this novel in terms of when Esslemont trusts his reader and when he doesn’t. Here it is obvious what Amaron is up to, but Esslemont has to compound it with this: “Moss flicked his eyes to indicate the fifty troopers walking their mounts along behind and Ullen nodded. Amaron was not speaking to them; he was speaking to the men, fulfilling one of the obligations of command, bolstering morale.”
I really feel for Rillish here—the fact that he is now regarded as a traitor, the way that he has no idea where he will make his home now. He really has cast himself adrift—and is relying on the Wickans to prove his decision correct.
Heh—this is a great, democratic way of making decisions: “We will let them talk, then give our opinions, then let them talk some more, then give our opinions again and let them talk. Once they begin saying our opinions back to us as if they are their own, then we will agree with their wisdom and we will have their unshakable support.”
Rillish’s relationship with Nil and Nether both has made for very entertaining reading—Esslemont has handled the subtlety and humour in style.
The news that Talia is with child is lovely, including Rillish’s rather dumb reaction to how it’s all happened. However, the idea that she’ll just dump the child on a wetnurse and then send it away once it’s weaned to another member of her family makes me sad. Sure, she’s a soldier and it makes for a difficult situation to bring up a child, but she seems quite dismissive about its future.
Ghelel knows nothing, people. She’s so very naive!
Hurl is one of my very favourite characters in this book. We’ve spent long enough with her to really get a grasp of her feelings and motivations, and so her sadness here, her feelings of responsibility are suddenly very real. And the fact she calls herself “Acting-Fist” says everything needed about Hurl. I’m not the only person to admire Hurl—I love when Hurl enquires after the Seti and Liss says: “Thank you, Hurl, my gal. Yes. For the time being. They are safe.”
Hmm, I think that Ryllandaras is bad enough without adding a curse into proceedings!
These actions of the common people venerating Rell and calling him “Protector”—is that the sort of thing that can encourage worship and, therefore, ascension?
Thanks to Ereko’s death falling flat, this section where we discover the boat feels empty without him also falls pretty flat.
I do like the conversation between Traveller and Kyle, especially Kyle’s so-young request as to whether Traveller needs help pursuing his vengeance.
So this bank of cloud is an entrance into a Warren or another part of the world? Ahh, seems Shadowthrone has decided to get involved in Traveller’s quest!
It’s interesting that Traveller shows respect to Cotillion in the form of a bow, but nothing to Ammanas. Not the first person we’ve seen who has regarded Shadowthrone as being less worthy of respect than Cotillion.
Hmm, anyone else think that the “one small service” is probably more than what it seems on the face of things?
Nice! Kyle has carried Osserc along in his sword. Not unexpected after the hints we’ve been provided, but it’s cool to see him emerge and face up against Shadowthrone, Cotillion and Traveller, who shrink before him. Is this the difference in presence between an Ascendant and a God?
Again, I find that Kyle’s farewell to Traveller falls flat. There is little emotion in this storyline for me. It’s interesting enough—particularly seeing Ammanas and Shadowthrone again from Esslemont’s angle—but I can’t really get invested, for some reason.
Bill’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Five, Part Two
The sitting-around-the-fire scene discussing rumors feels very real to me. And how creepy must it be after discussing some of the rumors to have your mage suddenly wake and talk about blood and hunger? Of course, the screams that follow can’t help matters much.
Honey’s line after Heuk vomits—“I feel so much safer now”—cracks me up every time.
And boy, Nait just doesn’t know when to shut up, does he? I think my favorite part in this section actually is Nait getting his new name from Braven Tooth. Been waiting for that.
Another crack-me-up line: “Think we’ll ever see him again?” “With his luck and ours? Yes.” Though I confess, sometimes I worry that the portrayal now and then of Dom verge on overly absurd. Sometimes he comes across as a little, usually just a little, too close to caricature.
The clues are beginning to pile up about Ho not being simply what he appears to be. We’ve already had Su talk about the “forbidden ritual” and how she can “smell” something on him. Now she talks of a “reunion” for him and how he might fear the Heng area (who/what else has been in that area?) and how he is greater than the others.
So we’ve got Cowl travelling the Warrens and a reminder to us via Shimmer that such travel is dangerous. Hmm, wonder why we’ve been given this reminder?
I think Shimmer’s inability to see what Skinner may be up to makes perfect sense. She’s lived with the Vow for so long, it’s hard for her to break out of seeing things through that prism. She’s basically, by all appearances so far, a “good” person, and so it’s also hard for her to break out of that. The Skinner she knows and remembers is a different sort of Skinner, not a great, altruistic guy, true, but still not this “inhuman, menacing” Skinner. And of course she’s a little leery of not only a stranger but a Malazan involving himself in Guard events. And she doesn’t simply dismiss it; she is in fact troubled by the idea. I think this is all handled quite well in terms of her character.
I really enjoyed the scene between Nil and Rillish. It was a nice little quiet character scene for both of them, but especially Nil, whom I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. And we could use more of these sorts of scene I think. That little blush and duck of the head when Nil apologizes for his reference to this being the former land of his people is so telling—such a brief moment but it carries so much emotional and historical weight.
Then poor Rillish going into that conversation with Talia. Boy, did he not handle that well. But again, it turns into this nice little quiet moment. For me the best part was his interior monologue as he thinks about what no longer awaits him, of what his child could have had and now cannot. These little quiet scenes are starting to pile up, perhaps the lull before the storm?
Ghelel. I have to say, she wears on me as much this reading as the first. Perhaps even more. I confess to a lack of patience with most of her scenes.
This whole long scene just warms me even more toward Hurl. The fact that she’s taken on the responsibility of acting fist. The way she rues the freeing of Ryllandaras. Her interior monologue in the abandoned farm where she wonders just whose side did this. Her no-BS “negotiation.” The way she thinks of everyone else. Her concern even for the Seti and Liss. Her willingness to look hard at herself. Hard to walk away from this section and not hope she survives what’s coming.
And that’s a nice little tease at the end with Liss. What does she have up her sleeve?
Does everyone/anyone else find this arrival at Shadowthrone’s place as funny as I do? I love the humor of this set piece—the mud, the winged monkey in robes, Traveller’s long-suffering “give me patience” look skyward, etc. And later the mop. The mop. C’mon, can’t you just picture this big bad ascendant standing there while the little guy pushes and pushes with the mop until he finally just moves? Boy I love this scene.
And I liked the tension between Cotillion and Traveller—that little moment where Cotillion “ropes” Kyle and Traveller immediately “de-ropes” him and the two face each other. Doesn’t part of you just want to see that?
This is the scene that I think hearkens back to Osserc and the stones, wondering what will come of them. In my view, this—Shadowhall/Shadowrealm—is what came of them.
Though of course mostly what this scene is is one big tease of unknown plans—what is Traveller asking of Shadowthrone? What is Shadowthrone asking of Traveller? How will he help him in his goal? Those are all pretty big questions, one might imagine, considering the power of these folks and what they’ve been up to. But we’ll just have to wait.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.