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 Two, Chapter Six 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.
Book Two, Chapter Six, Part One
Ullen, Urko, V’thell (Moranth Gold commander), and Toc prepare for battle having marched into position and fought off Ryllandaras several times during the night. They discuss tactics and logistics, including the Kanese force to the south of the bridge (who may or may not side with Laseen) and the Marchland Sentries, withdrawn to the west. V’thell and Toc leave. Urko tells Ullen to stay in case things go bad and Urko needs to join the fighting.
Toc watches Laseen’s force moving closer, estimating they’ll arrive around midday. Just as he wonders where his Seti allies are, they arrive, led by Imotan under the White Jackal standard. Imotan says Toc must deal with him now as he leads all the warriors. The two start toward higher ground and Toc is stunned by the Seti numbers.
From that vantage point, Toc watches as Laseen’s “skirmishers” pour into the area and he wonders where she got them all. He notes the Malazan heavies and the Sword of the Empire’s presence as well. Imotan asks about the Kanese and Toc says he thinks they won’t help Laseen and when they see her losing will jump to the rebels’ side. Imotan then inquires about the Guard and Toc replies that they’re happy to watch the Empire tear at each other and besides, Choss thinks they lack the force to do much. Imotan mocks the Empire’s lack of the mages they once had and before Toc can respond, Laseen’s skirmishers charge forward. The Seti get into position and then Imotan tells Toc “Because we Seti remain a free people—free to choose, we choose to go!” and the Seti withdraw. Toc orders his people to join Urko, who will need cavalry, then rides after Imotan.
The Seti escort guard eventually let Toc through after divesting him of his weapons. After Toc accuses him of betrayal, Imotan responds that it was Toc who betrayed the Seti by not giving them Heng as agreed. Imotan orders Toc killed and he’s stabbed badly then left alone. Moss finds him and reveals he is an agent of Laseen’s sent to kill Toc. Moss says he’s sorry as he grew to respect Toc, and he tells him Laseen sends her regrets as well, saying she was willing to leave Toc (and presumably the others) alone had they stayed away. He asks Toc about the Marchland Sentries and what they’re guarding and when Toc doesn’t answer, Moss leaves. Soon a Seti arrives to look down at Toc, then leaves. Toc dies.
Nait and the Malazans cheer at the Seti withdrawal until the Falaran infantry comes charging at them. Nait becomes lost in a series of one on one battles with the soldiers across from him. Eventually the Falarans break off and then Nait notes the head Imperial phalanx had broken. Captain Tinsmith orders Nait and saboteurs to collect the munitions from the fallen Moranth on the field, complaining the idiotic irregulars have been doing that already. Another Imperial column breaks, leaving only Braven Tooth’s holding. On their return, Nait’s group sees some League reserves heading toward the Imperial lines. Nait comes across a group of skirmishers discussing munitions they found. Four young ones join Nait’s group—he’s now being called “Corporal Jumpy”—if he promises to show them how to use the munitions. He tells his soldiers to look for Gold Moranth carrying boxes or packs.
Ullen watches sick as the battle seems to go against them. Told there’s still no news of Toc, he assumes the Seti killed him. As the Imperial cavalry sweeps down, Ullen has Bala tell V’thell it’s time. There’s a huge explosion on the field, Ullen wonders what the Guard will do.
The Wildman of the Seti leads a group of them to where Ullen stands and offers to ride against the Imperial cavalry to make up for his people’s betrayal. Ullen agrees and as they ride off silently thanks whatever grudge led this man into battle.
Nait’s group celebrates how they’ve just blown up half the Gold Moranth by throwing sharpers at a Moranth carrying a box of munitions. They pull out the rest of their munitions and as he looks them over another group comes and asks him to show them what to do. Nait accepts his name now as Jumpy just before a sharpers attack. He orders a retreat and he realizes the Imperial skirmishers are about to get slaughtered. He leads his impromptu saboteurs into battle throwing munitions. Nair barely survives the ensuing fight.
Ullen watches as the Imperial forces advance versus his skirmishers while the Gold and Talian columns advance against the Imperials, but he knows the day isn’t going their way. The Seti, led by the Wildman, drive off the Imperial cavalry, and the Wildman, bloody but still standing, rides back to Ullen and calls his work the “settling of old debts,” though he agrees with Ullen it wasn’t enough. The Wildman asks if Ullen will yield, as people were dying for no reason. Ullen tells a messenger to raise the surrender flag and orders Bala to tell Choss, Urko, and V’thell to do the same. She asks if she should also inform the Imperial High Mage, telling the surprised Ullen that she (the mage) has been watching and had Bala intervened the Imperial mage would have struck, probably killing Ullen and his men.
Possum has been spending the whole time watching Laseen’s tent, especially worried about Coil and her apparent “parallel command structure.” As late afternoon arrives with nothing, he thinks back on what he’d seen and centers on a strange woman who he now thinks was casing the area. Time passes (it seems the surrender has been noted) and he sees her appear. Wrapped in Mockra, he follows her into a tent where she takes him from behind. He recognizes her as the same female who held him the night the Guard attacked while he watched Laseen. She asks him how he wants her to kill him, but they are interrupted by a woman entering the tent. Possum gets free and the mysterious woman disappears.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Six, Part One
Sometimes the military wisdom in these books just seems so real and valid: “It reassures the soldiers. They don’t like their commander being mounted when they ain’t. Makes ‘em suspect you’re gonna ride off as soon as things get hot.”
I do find it excellent writing that sometimes the Old Guard catch themselves calling Laseen Surly. After all, they knew her for a while before everything went down with Kellanved and must have known a lot about her. It’s good that this is brought forward in the writing.
Huh! Did we know before that Toc the Younger had been raised among the Seti?
It seems ominous that Imotan (for some reason, I do always want to type Imhotep there—but I think I’m not alone in that!) has managed to raise the white jackal standard again, and so very quickly. I’m thinking that the more support Ryllandaras gets, the more powerful he will become. And the reverse... “Seemed the coming of their old foe and totemic animal Ryllandaras might have given Imotan limitless reach.”
This from Toc is poignant—civil war is always a terrible turn of events: “The very forces he’d counted on in the past to anchor his own light cavalry and skirmishers now arrayed against him.”
Oh, I sincerely hope that this does become Korbolo Dom’s fate: “Wait until Urko sees that! He’ll wrap the man’s own sword around his neck.”
I really love this conversation between Toc and Imotan before the battle properly begins, the discussion of mage use and where Laseen will have holed up in the army. It’s curiously hard to reconcile the Laseen who skulks in the rear protected by mages with the Surly we saw on the streets facing down Avowed as an assassin. I wonder which is the true person. And I also wonder if Toc is underestimating her somewhat.
Ouch. That betrayal truly stings. Toc’s sense of futility and his fury and hopelessness are tangible as he watches the Seti ride away.
And then ouch again, as Toc realizes that Moss is either going to watch him die or assist him on the way under the command of Laseen. Wow, it really isn’t worth being called Toc in these novels, is it? They’re sort of gaining a horrible red-shirt inevitability....
Some cool battle sequences featuring Nait. Esslemont really does write a damn fine battle scene. With Nait you can sort of see the start of someone who could become a very effective Sergeant, and I like watching this development. Or, y’know, Corporal Jumpy! And here the start of his very own Bridgeburner sappers, in the form of four pimply skirmishers willing to learn how to use munitions because they want to be the ones to throw them.
I would venture to say that this battle scene, showing the Seti led by the Wildman arriving and plunging into battle, and Nait guiding his budding saboteurs, is some of Esslemont’s very best writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it and ripped through these pages, followed by the fascinating scene between Taya and Possum. Why is it not all like this?!
Bill’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Six, Part One
So I’m going to start with the battle scenes themselves, since they take up so much space. I agree with Amanda that I think these are quite well done. The only quibbling issue I had, and it’s quite possible it’s just me or my misreading, is that I thought sometimes it was a little confusing as to who the skirmishers/skirmish-line/skirmishing was describing. Outside of that small point, I thought this battle scene was very nicely handled for several reasons. One is that Esslemont gives us both the microscopic and macroscopic. So we have the tunnel vision of Nait in the phalanx, setting his shield and going one on one with whomever happens to be across from him. And that’s his world. That’s it. Nothing else. And that makes perfect sense to me. I never understand those battle scenes where some character in the midst of fighting is also telling me what is happening with the battle writ large. I just couldn’t see how they’d know. So I appreciate how Esslemont gives us Nait in his bubble—just a series of blurred-together moments within a span of a few feet only. On the other hand, we also get Ullen giving us the commander’s point of view, telling us what’s happening on the flanks and across the plain, what’s happening with the cavalry and the infantry and skirmishers and the and so on. I think this dual perspective is a great way to present a battle.
Along those same lines, I liked how he uses Imotan to ask questions many fantasy readers might ask, such as, why don’t the mages just fireball everyone to death. And Toc’s response is the obvious one—you might be able to win ground that way, but you can’t hold ground that way.
Beyond the logistics perspective, I loved the scenes where we see a group of saboteurs under “Corporal Jumpy” forming before our very eyes, these “pimply” kids as Amanda calls them. My favorite moment is when he asks what they have and they immediately pull the sapper “I ain’t telling.” Cracked me up. Amidst all this praise though, I will say that, especially because of their youth, I wish Esslemont, via Nait, would have given us a bit more seriousness/depth to this moment at well, the tragedy that these pimply kids are learning to blow people to bits, that they themselves might be blown to bits. I thought that was a bit of an opportunity missed. A moment like he gives us with Ullen at the very start of the chapter, when he wonders on how many generations of birds came and went until they learned to follow people in armor, because that meant feasting was on its way. That’s a great and sad question and a gift of thoughtful sadness from Esslemont amidst all the logistics and humor of this chapter.
I also liked how Esslemont gave us those lines from Toc about facing the same military elements he’d once led/fought with. I wouldn’t have minded more of those sorts of lines from these characters, especially at the onset of this.
In that same paragraph, I absolutely love that Toc can’t even recall Dom’s name. Too perfect.
From the moment Toc rode off to see to the Seti, I was dreading this moment when Imotan walks away. What a horrible feeling that must have been to Toc. I can’t even imagine the hollowed out gut punch it must have felt like in so many ways—both the military aspect of it and the personal betrayal aspect of it. When Imotan does head off, I’m curious—when I read about Imotan’s standard spattering blood on Toc’s head, I thought—“that’s a little too obvious foreshadowing for me.” But honestly, I can’t recall if I thought that my first time through and this was just knowing what’s coming. Any first-time readers want to chime in?
Re Moss: a few reminders from earlier moments
- The leader introduces himself as Toc the Elder, which stuns Genist and causes Moss to get the “hardest face Genist had ever seen on the man.”
- He [Moss] thinks once he learns the Wildman’s identity he’ll know whether he will “prove a factor in his mission or not.”
- Toc says Moss appears to know a lot
I like how Toc takes this scene and especially his “Try Urko.” And while I can’t feel a lot of sorrow here as I don’t think we got particularly close to him as a character, I like his ending. The little gallows humor with Moss, the happiness to die on the plains, the beauty of the light on the prairie. I think it’s all well done and quietly moving if not filled with heavy emotion. I also find his somewhat anti-climactic ending fits in with one of the running patterns in this series, which is the passing of the old, and in many ways a passing with a surprising whimper rather than the expected bang. We’ve seen it with old ascendants (I’m thinking of Ruin for instance facing a surprising cusser) and we see it here with the fearsome “Old Guard.”
So who is this masked Wildman? And why does he have a grudge against the Imperial cavalry? I will say, I know he has a grudge, but I find it kind of oddly funny that he tells Ullen he should surrender as good people are dying for no reason literally moments after he’s just been killing people. But as he says, he had “old debts” to settle. Will Esslemont clue us in by the book’s end?
Ahh Possum, so sure of himself. So suave and cool and in command. And so getting his butt repeatedly kicked by these girls. So we know this is the same female from before and we had some speculation in the comments then. The “inhuman” strength and lusty-husky voice are two more clues here, as well as the interest in Laseen, that this is Taya.
A good chapter in many ways.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.