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 Three 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 Three, Part One
K’azz and the others arrive at the bridge to find a slew of dead Kanese and a single badly wounded Guardsman—Baker. When he tries to rise, K’azz gives him the “assignment” to stay and guard the north.
K’azz’s group reaches the battle at the midpoint where four Avowed are facing the Kanese. They watch a while as the Avowed hold them off and sub in one for the other. Stalker tells Kyle he should use Osserc’s sword but Kyle says it hasn’t enough reach.
Kyle takes his turn in line and as he fights is surprised by the efficacy of the Lost Brothers, wondering how they can be as good as the Avowed. Kyle pulls out his sword and watches amazed as it slices through spear shafts with ease.
Kyle stays in the line while the others rotate out, his sword slicing through spears, shields, swords, and helms. K’azz gets reports from Shimmer that Skinner has left the field and she has negotiated a temporary truce. She asks K’azz to hold off the Kanese as long as possible so she can get better terms.
The commander of the Kanese comes to the bridge and asks Lean what their mages/Brethren sense, his Invigilator saying something huge is disturbing the Warrens and heading their way. The Brethren agree. The Kanese commander doesn’t buy the story and says he’s done with the parley, but as he turns to go the Invigilator announces, “It is here.” There’s a flash and roll of thunderous noise, and the Brethren report that “Something has struck the battlefield . . . Cut a swath through units on the west flank. Left a trail of wreckage.” The Kanese and Guard agree to a temporary truce.
The Forlorn travel the Warrens (they’re currently in Serc) thanks to Yath’s ritual. One of the mages screams and hurls himself overboard. Su says she’s identified “a general contagion that infects almost all of us . . . but which is concentrated mainly in two carriers,” and points to Yath and Blues. Yath uses his power to vaporize one of the Avowed even as Su says they’ve made a “terrible error.” Blues and Yath clash and the backsplash bursts their protective barrier, dropping the ship and causing others to fall off. Fingers steadies the ship while they try to subdue Yath. Blues is surprised when Yath’s bolts pass right through him to no effect, but nobody is able to get to Yath, who lands them on the edge of Chaos. He declares he will soak Quon in Chaos and “bring such a plague upon your continent that you will never rise again.” He begins to open a portal and Ho asks Su what they can do. She replies Yath is too strong for all of them, but Ho is the “expert here. Did you not walk these very shores?" Surprised at her knowledge, Ho calls the others mages to him to plan.
Ho has them form a parallel bit of magery to try and stop Yath even as their ship tilts more and more as it slides down the matter of chaos. Ho sees an opening and stars ahead, then calls upon the others’ shared power, thinking “Such capacity! It approached even his own.” They fall, there’s an explosion and crash, then he blacks out.
Nait is sitting with his group as Heuk’s darkness begins to slowly break up overhead. Dom arrives and orders an attack on the Guard’s strongpoint (Shimmer’s group). Tinsmith tells him the Guard have withdrawn and Dom threatens to arrest and crucify Tinsmith and his entire command if he doesn’t attack. Dom leaves and Tinsmith orders the soldiers out, saying they’re return to the redoubt at the first sign of trouble.
They come across a group of Wickan riders who are enraged to hear Dom is the commander. Dom himself comes out to announce his presence and the Wickan leader asks how he feels to be so indebted for his victory to the Wickans. Dom disputes the claim, saying he commands all the forces and the Wickan responds the Wickans are not Imperial forces, and wonders aloud what the Empire might give to pay off such a debt. Dom shrugs and says that’s up to the Empress. The Wickan agrees, saying she and everyone else witnessed the Wickans' key role, and they ride off. Nait feels this meeting, where the Wickans treated Dom as contemptible and a traitor, confirms his own suspicions that the official story of what happened in the Seven Cities uprising was false. Dom’s forces join those encircling the Guard’s strongpoint. The Forlorn comes screaming out of a portal, taking with it lots of soldiers of both sides. To Nait’s shock, survivors exit the ruins of the ship, a woman and two badly wounded men, all of whom yell out the watchers need to “Stop him . . . Kill him.” Yath uses his magic to wipe out those who try to attack him while the survivors of the wreck gather to figure out what to do. As Nait watches, a “dark mar or bruise” appears in the night sky.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Three, Part One
I do actually like the very low-key reaction to K’azz’s return, especially being as this was part of what makes them Avowed. They’re all, like, “Hey boss, nice to see you, don’t you look a bit old?” kind of thing, and that casualness is way better than falling on his shoulders and weeping. Very militaristic.
It seems odd to me that Kyle would keep the sword from Osserc sheathed. I mean, he knows it is something a bit more special than other swords, and that excuse of “no reach” doesn’t hold any water.
Interesting command structure there among the Crimson Guard—that fact that Lean is in charge of this contingent and so her word overrules that of K’azz. I mean, it does make great sense—especially in the heat of a battle—but it’s quite forward-thinking for a medieval fantasy world!
Good question... “Who were these men seemingly equal to the Avowed in their strength, ferocity and endurance.” It seems Coots, Badlands and Stalker yet have secrets to spill about who they are.
I just don’t...get... how the Avowed thing works. Everytime I spend too long thinking about it, my mind boggles with the details and whether any of it can work. And then I realise again I’m reading a fantasy novel, so I should just believe what I’m told, but it doesn’t help too much. My issue here is when we’re told that Black and Amatt have lost too much blood to stand. How do they get the blood back? I guess it will be a catch-all mage that can fix them?
Heh, I think I am as much of a grumpybum about this section as Bill (who mentions his grumpiness further down)—as soon as Yath decided to reveal his evil intentions, I straight away thought of Wash with those two dinosaurs: “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” It just seemed so damn obvious and fell flat to me for that reason.
Ah, Korbolo Dom! What an ass! “A Guard strongpoint remains! They could attack us at any moment. They must be eradicated. Slain to a man!” Something that really isn’t all that easy, going by things we’ve seen up to now....
And now I’m blisteringly angry: “And I will have you and your entire command crucified. Believe me—I’ve done it before.”
Hey, hang on... It’s Ho that has the length of wood pretty much lanced through him? And Nait assumes he is Avowed. So what in the hell is he, since we know he isn’t that?
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Three, Part One
I’ve had my say re: the Avowed and battle, so I won’t belabor the point. But I do like Kazz’s “tasking” of Baker here to “hold” off any attacks from the north—for the first time I felt it brought a little color to this character.
Not sure why, but I keep hearing “magic sword” to the tune of “Magic Bus” in my head now. It has to go away.
Ok, maybe one more comment. So we saw the Wickans trample the Avowed. Now we see the Kanese ride horses up to the Avowed line. And yes, the other Avowed did get up after their trampling, but there was some time... Just saying. All right, now I’m done.
Ok, two final comments. It seems to me this speech by the Kanese commander is really a bit of a speech from the author: “To those dear readers who have been wondering why this small group of Avowed were not removed by the use of the same magery we’ve been told has been running rampant on the entire rest of the battlefield . . .” It felt a bit jammed in here, a bit of clunky exposition/explanation, which tells me if the author realizes there might be a problem he needs to explain away, well... Ok, now, I’m really done. No, really this time. I mean it.
I also have a hard time with the commander’s skepticism. After all, last night’s “thaumaturgic transgression” wasn’t actually a “few” horsemen; it was a thousand or so (that won the battle for the Empire). Which would make it seem like his Invigilators weren’t the bunch of embellishing idiots he seems to take them for.
All right, while I’m here, I would rather have found the comedy myself rather than have the author give me “Pirim’s brows rose in almost comical surprise and alarm.” (Man, am I in a mood or what here?)
My favorite part of Ho’s trip through Chaos is that image of “figures [that] writhed within, melting and re-forming, gesturing and beckoning only to fall back into the churning stuff from which they arose.” It’s both a great cinematic image and a thought-provoking one as well.
That said, I confess to not being a big fan of this entire storyline. I didn’t find it very compelling or interesting throughout its buildup. I found it too far removed from the rest of the plot. And the arrival at the battlefield added to the sense I had at this end of a “and then and then and then” kind of ending where we’re getting too much piled atop too much. I would rather we had a more streamlined ending to let the individual events have a bit more punch and linger a bit longer in the mind. I felt the author wasn’t quite trusting his own story here. You know, it’s kind of like how on Project Runway when Danny or Lisa craft a really fine dress, maybe a little plain, sure, but with nice sharp lines, good construction, exquisite tailoring, and then they accessorize the hell out of it and go all Lord and Taylor wall on it with bracelets and necklaces and hair ties and oh no you did not put those shoes under that dress did you really and (wait, did I just say all that out loud? I blame the wife.)
Also, sometimes in fantasy I get tired of crazy mages. Hmm, I like that as a band name though.
We’ve had lots of hints that Ho is much more than he is and we’re seeing it clearly here. Not many pages left for the big reveal.
I think Nait has what should be Dom’s heraldry motto on all his standards and armor “Please Don’t Fuck Us Up!” (I’m sure it would sound better in Latin.)
One does have to give him credit for courage though, stepping out to face the Wickans as he does. But really, in general, what an ass. This scene made me recall a M.A.S.H. episode where some general kept getting his soldiers killed and Hawkeye (and can’t remember if this was during or post-Trapper John) agonizes over the ethics of taking him out surgically (not all the way out, just enough to get him off the battlefield).
I do like Nait’s (and why can’t we just call him Jumpy by now?) dry and oh-so-neutral “We happen to be fighting them” response to Ho’s talking about getting the Guard’s help against Yath.
And we have now crossed the 90% done point folks—not much left, but oh, so much left....
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.