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 Chapter Four 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 Three, Chapter Four
Possum, wreathed in Mockra, worriedly watches Laseen move openly around the field, though nobody seems to recognize her. He thinks she is now the last of the Old Guard left standing, with Tayschrenn gone, the others dead or missing, and wonders if she is leaving herself out as bait for Cowl. Cowl appears, knocking Possum down (with what Cowl had assumed was a killing blow) and going after Laseen with both physical and magical (useless thanks to otataral dust) attacks. Possum watches, stunned by the display of skill, then enters the fray. Topper appears suddenly out of nowhere and then he and Cowl are off fighting through the warrens, disappearing from sight. Possum drops to his knees and Laseen calls for a healer, but then he spots Taya’s feet behind Laseen. He’s too late to warn her though and Taya kills Laseen then disappears into a warren. Possum is crushed by his failure to save Laseen and passes out as healers deal with his injuries.
Shimmer watches nervously as the Guard are encircled by the Kanese. Smoky, now part of the Brethren, appears and reports Laseen’s death, informing them of Topper’s intervention in Cowl’s failed attempt and then her assassination by someone “inhuman . . . of mixed blood descent . . . human and demon.” K’azz is happy it wasn’t one of the Guard who killed her, though he still worries about the impact, as he does with regard to Tayschrenn’s absence, saying his presence “kept so many in line.” He adds though that he doesn’t think Tayschrenn is necessarily gone for good. Watching the Cawnese army arrive, K’azz tells Shimmer the Malazans seem to have actually done a decent job of putting together an empire and realizes the Guard are not liberators but invaders. Rillish says he hopes Dom isn’t in charge now as he’ll want both the Guard and the Wickans wiped out. Shimmer agrees with his assessment. K’azz says perhaps they should “have a look at the Imperial Warren.”
Ho watches the aftermath of Laseen’s death as folks leave to have injuries taken care of or to rejoin/join their respective groups. He and Heuk follow after Laseen’s honor guard, and Ho notices the stunned looks on many of the Malazans’ faces. They stop and Anand, D’Ebbin, Bala, and Rel join the group. Rel starts making pronouncements and Dom interrupts to say they should be wiping out the Guard. Rel orders him arrested for leaving the field. Dom is gagged and led off. Rel then deals with Su and the Wickans with regard to their lands and come to an agreement. Bala, now High Mage, informs Rel that the Guard are employing multiple warrens and he “magnanimously” sends a messenger that the Guard is allowed to leave, which Heuk points out (quietly) is already happening. Heuk and Ho walk away in disgust and Bala appoints Heuk in charge of the Fourth mage cadre and tells Ho to get lost. Heuk asks what Ho will do now, and Ho replies retire in Heng, though Heuk doesn’t quite buy it.
Kyle and the Lost Boys say they won’t rejoin the Guard but asked to be moved along a bit. K’azz says he’ll let Shell do that for them and tells Kyle he can always call on the Guard if he needs to. The last of the Guard go through the portal, and Shell says she has “instructions” on where to take Kyle’s group, which surprises them. She takes them to the Burn Sanctuary where they meet first with Stoop (his shade actually), who tells them K’azz gave him permission to tag along with them, and then with Greymane. They all agree to travel together.
A Cawnese officer comes looking for “Sergeant Jumpy,” but Nait and his group feign ignorance and send him on. Heuk tells Nait he’s heard the Moranth actually cannot take their armor off, which annoys Nait (thinking of Tourmaline).
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Four
Well, that little extract at the start of chapter four brings Laseen front and centre and, actually, seems to verbalise exactly the way that I feel about her. Not knowing her. Desperate to understand her. And, although hate is a pretty strong word, I’ve certainly found no good reason to like her.
It’s a fantastic way to build additional tension, as Possum ponders on the fact that his instincts are telling him it isn’t all over; that he watches as Laseen walks unguarded through the troops. Everything is pointed towards something additional happening, in this uproar of glee after the battle ends.
There is a section here that brings to life Laseen’s anonymity—despite all her actions and what she’s done, this Empress has retained an odd anonymity and failure to connect to anyone: “She’d even approached a common Malazan sergeant for a cloth and been given a dirty rag with which she then wiped her sweaty face and blood-caked hand.”
That moment where Laseen gazes into the sky and Possum realises what she’s thinking is a really powerful one. I mean, we’ve seen the repercussions of Laseen having taken the place of Kellanved and what that has meant for both her and the Empire, so this—as she observes the place where Tayschrenn vanished—is a perfect and terrible moment. “The last survivor; single remaining representative of that generation that had built so grandly. And victor. Now uncontested ruler. Empress.”
Well played, Esslemont—putting the true climax of the novel after the dust was starting to settle. After her presence through the rest of the series, it’s hard to conceive that Laseen is gone. Possum’s reaction is heart-rending, even from someone who hasn’t been the most likeable—his guilt that he failed in the one task he’d been given. “Do not, dear healers, bother to wake me.”
I’m even upset at the fact that Urko is still alive—after that moment where Laseen finally relaxed and believed that she was the sole survivor. It somehow diminishes her moment, which is sadder since she now never has the opportunity to reach that perfect moment.
Aww, poor Smoky. Such dignity.
I am particularly interested in the fact that both Tayschrenn and Laseen are now gone, and the balance of power has most definitely shifted. I mean, it’s expressed about Tayschrenn that his presence has kept people in check. The same can be said about Laseen. It presents an ominous idea about how the series is now going to go—forces unleashed.
It must be strange for Shimmer to have K’azz back, and there must be great relief on both sides that they feel the same about how events have gone, and what position they’re now in.
The only thing is that K’azz seems just a little naive. I mean, hoping for a political solution when an Empress has just been assassinated and the Malazan Empire is in total chaos is showing a slight lack of judgement.
Ah, yes. In connection to the whole keeping other powers in check, people are now also realising what they will miss about Laseen. And it’s similar things to what I will miss about Laseen: “Unflinching. A presence so solid they need not even have considered it.”
“Who was left to take the throne? Who could possibly fill that cold, hard, perilous seat—or would possibly dare?” Mallick Rel, surely not....
Oh my! I really can’t tell whether I dislike Rel or Dom more, but Rel has managed to make me feel sorry for Dom, which is a hell of a feat. Here when he talks down Dom’s feats on the field of battle, I really do understand Dom’s incredulity.
It’s cool to see the instant connection between Heuk and Ho, as they watch Rel take the reins of the Empire:
“I can just see those history books, too,” Ho said as they walked along. “Kellanved the Terrible. Laseen the Bloody. And Mallick the Benevolent.”
“Mallick the Just,” Heuk offered.
And that is a nice little nod to the fact that history is written by the victors.
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Four
For all the impact of Laseen’s death, I found the epigraph to be an interesting choice in that it does seem to very much point to what is going to happen to her in this chapter. It certainly has a strong sense of “after the fact” to it, which makes sense with regard to a history of course, but as we’ve never really had this sort of thing before with regard to her (as far as I can recall), it seems a pretty big hint.
It’s been so long since I first read this, I can’t recall whether or not I was surprised by her death or not. Certainly we’re set up for it—not just by the epigraph, but also by the lack of Taya at the end here with only a very little bit of the book left. Taya is the Chekhov’s Gun in this book and you know something had to have been done with her before the book closes out, and there just isn’t much room left. We’ve also had Possum’s concerns building up as a hint. And finally, stylistically, this would seem the best moment in terms of impact as it’s during the long sigh of relief under the sense that it must all be over now—we’ve had the battles and the rent so “whew!” and then “bam!” Whatever my first response was, I do think it is highly effective and I’m curious what others thought. I think too that one of the things that Esslemont has in his favor in terms of a “shock factor” is that no matter how it’s hinted, my guess is that many readers, while accepting that Esslemont and Erikson work in the same universe, think of Laseen as an “Erikson character” (no matter her obvious importance in Esslemont’s first book) and so nobody expects such a major character in someone else’s work to get killed off in a different series by a different author (albeit a shared world and a partner author).
The description of her dead face—the softened face, the youthfulness—is I think absolutely wonderful and adds to the sense of loss for the reader—not in the death sense as we don’t really see enough of her to care that much, but in the it would have been nice to see/know more of her and now we won’t sense.
One of the things I like about this epigraph is that I think one could argue that Quillian D’Ebrell speaks quite a bit for the readers here. We as readers want to know much more about this inscrutable character who drives so much of what our beloved (and hated) characters do. We may not care about “liking” her, but we do want to “understand” her. We don’t want her to “defy all explanation.” We want to know. We want to know her relationship to the other characters. We want to know what she purposely set in motion. We want to know if she conspired with Tavore. We want to know if she was incompetent or uber-competent. And the list goes on. It’s a real risk for these authors to have such a major player, really an incredibly major character in terms of driving action and events, be so veiled, to be such a mystery. Personally, while it is somewhat maddening, I love that decision and I love the inscrutability. And it stands so much for the whole idea of what/who do we really know. Thoughts on both the character and the way she goes out?
I have to say that the image of Topper and Cowl popping through realms and warrens fighting makes me think of the original Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor” (though this makes a lot more sense, and is so much better, than the Trek) with the two Lazaruses locked in combat between universes, forever. It’s a cool image and I can see a great little cinematic montage of these two popping in and out of worlds and warrens battling if this were done in film.
Poor Smoky. Though his name is perhaps more appropriate now….
That’s got to be a kick-in-the-gut feeling for a second when the Guard hears Laseen has just been killed, especially coming after Isha knifed Tayschrenn—they must be thinking: “Oh man are we in the s—t now.”
It’s actually sort of interesting that K’azz has his epiphany about the Malazan Empire—that they are witnessing “The gathering might of a far-flung Empire in truth . . . The Malazans have pulled together a true political and logistical whole” just as the Empire is possibly on the verge of falling apart, having lost its Empress and having been forced to put down several recent rebellions.
Yes, Rel does in fact slather it on pretty thickly, doesn’t he? I like our point of view as we get his pronouncement, the way Heuk and Ho puncture his stage-playing. Just as I love Su’s sarcastic little “lessons to us all” lines. And it’s certainly a plus in this moment to see Dom get what’s coming to him. The gag was an especially nice touch I thought.
There isn’t a lot to say about the rest of this chapter, as it really is just cleaning up work and setting the stage for future events. Esslemont handles this all very smoothly and efficiently and effectively, given enough info about where people are, who has lived and died, moving pieces off the board and so forth. It’s all very clean and unforced. We’re clearly not done with Greymane and Kyle. Jumpy’s squad is fully itself and who doesn’t want to see what happens with them as they develop. The Guard has unified and is off to do who knows what. Ho says he is going to retire but like Heuk, few readers probably buy that story. It’s a nice wrap up to a large group of people and storylines, leaving us free to focus on a few more storylines and characters that we haven’t resolved yet. Though we will….
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.