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 ar ticle, 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.
Book Three, Chapter Two, Part One
Having been told by Nil to “prepare for travel and battle,” Rillish had Chord get everyone ready and now waits on his horse. Nil and Nether arrive and tell Rillish just that he needs to follow. Rillish tells Talia he’ll see her later and follows the twins past at least a thousand Wickans. Nil tells him they are riding out to Laseen’s “deliverance” because they have sensed a major confrontation happening in the West, one which they will tip the balance of in Laseen’s favor and thus demand their sovereignty as payment. Nil adds Rillish is coming to be their negotiator.
SCENES TWO AND THREE
Rillish notes that those Wickans in sight are all the oldest and that they don’t plan on coming back, but are making their last sacrifice for their descendants. He asks Nil which Warren they’ll take and the reply is “The Abyss itself.” They enter a portal.
Hurl, next to Banath, looks over the battlefield thinking the Imperials are doing better than she’d expected. She joins Liss, Rell, and the three brothers and asks if Liss can keep them hidden so they can deal with Ryllandaras. Liss answers yes, though she worries about the mage on the far side (Bala) as well as what worse they might see in the night. Hurl asks Rell why he left his home and he tells her he was exiled, then amends that to “I left of my own choice, for to stay would have been untenable.” He says how he rose quickly for his age up through the ranks of his people and then, “full of myself,” he challenged a ruling not once but twice. For that he was forbidden to carry arms and so he chose exile, though now he thinks he would do otherwise given the same choice. They look on as magery takes the field.
Nait’s group has become targets since taking down the demon, but they’ve so far managed to repel them all, with some help from the Moranth Gold. The mage Heuk, who has been telling Nait constantly “wait until night,” gives him a drink then takes him to meet Bala, who tells him she is exhausted and must withdraw, adding Heuk will take over and she thinks he’ll do fine (in fact, she says she’s happy to be leaving before he starts what he’s going to start). She disappears. Heuk tells him everyone he gave the drink to now has a “touch of the talent,” so they can see anyone actively using magic. Nait heads down to the arbalest to start targeting enemy mages.
Possum watches the Imperial Tent, having been given strict orders not to enter it no matter what. He wonders where Havva Gulen is and thinks if anything happens to Laseen he’ll step in and take charge. An inhuman shriek arises from inside the tent and a demon crawls out and dies horribly. As he wonders what could have done that, he realizes that the rust-red dust he’d just touched with his glove is otataral and he backs away. He imagines Laseen sitting in the center of the tent, the floor covered in otataral negating any magic, leaving her one on one with her attackers, and he wonders how many she’s killed, along with how many she’ll have to kill before Cowl himself makes the attempt. He decides she’s fine and heads off to check the field. He’s shocked by the slaughter and chaos. He sees a Moranth Gold phalanx being decimated by Guard magic. Heuk appears and says it’s time for their “duel.” Possum tells him there are at least a dozen Avowed mages down there but Heuk says, “The boys got maybe three.” When Possum asks who he is (disturbed by his black eyes and what looks like blood at his mouth), Heuk says:
“Your recruiters named me a mage, but I am no mage . . . you’d best fly away little death crow. Keep to your games in the shallows of shadows. As for myself—I plumb the infinite depths of Night Eternal! . . . I am a mere worshipper of Night . . . I am about to call upon my god for he has returned and the time is long overdue for a demonstration of his gathering presence upon this world.”
As Possum starts to leave a group of soldiers with crossbows tell him to lower his Warren, a shock to him that they can see him in his Warren. They realize he’s a Claw and leave him alone and he interrupts an argument between Nait and a Moranth commander. Possum suggests the Moranth rally to this spot and the Gold leader leaves. Nait introduces himself as Sergeant Jumpy, a name Possum recognizes, and when he complains of the Moranth being a big flag to the enemy about their position, Possum tells him the Guard has already noted them as, along with the center, the last Imperial strong-point. Jumpy (at last, I can call him Jumpy in these recaps!) suggest Possum run away then and Possum threatens him, but is threatened right back. He decides to leave “with dignity” by ordering Jumpy to do what he is doing. Possum heads out, calming himself with the pleasant thought that they’re all going to die.
Shimmer advances with Greymane, Smoky, Shell and 30 or so Avowed (roughly the same as Skinner), one of whom pulls Shimmer aside to show her an Avowed killed by “the heel of an open hand” that smashed his facial bones into his brain. They realize it was Urko and Shimmer orders three Avowed out to find and kill him. She asks Greymane if he could take Urko and the reply is “no.” She takes that as a refusal to fight, which he rejects and vows to her he would defend her with his life. They’re interrupted by an unveiling of Kurald Galain, which Smoky and Shell call “impossible” as there are no Tiste Andii on the field. A bunch of Avowed mages appear and Smoky says they’re all going to be needed to try and deal with the escalating magery, adding that whoever raised the Kurald Galain is beyond him. They all move forward toward the front.
Liss is shocked by the Galain unveiling and tells Hurl things are getting out of hand out there, so much so that even Ryllandaras will take pause and try to hide or flee, meaning they have to find him first. They head out to do that, with Hurl uneasy at the behavior of the three brothers.
Ullen is recovering from an attack by a Veil that was slowed by a saboteur throwing something that blew up shrapnel, shredding Ullen’s right arm (tendons and nerves as well) and allowing a Claw Hand to take on the Veil. Ullen continues on, hearing reports that Dom is wounded and possibly dead, Urko is retreating to the center, the Kurald Galain belongs to them, and that the Moranth are rallying to the redoubt (where Jumpy is), which is about to be attacked by a group of Avowed led by Skinner. Ullen orders them to assemble all broken groups and concentrate fire on Skinner’s phalanx. Captain Moss appears and says Laseen has assigned him to Ullen’s staff and commends Ullen’s acts as commander. Another report says five Avowed continue to hold the bridge against the 20,000 Kanese, and Ullen thinks there are 30 or 40 more Avowed behind those five.
Possum spots Coil bent over the bodies of a Claw hand. Infuriated that she is eliminating her rivals, he stabs her in the back. Just before dying, she calls him a fool, saying the Claw belonged to Mallick and she “was all that stood between them and her [Laseen].” She dies and her shape reverts to that of High Mage Havva Gulen. Shaken and angered he hadn’t know (“she was running her own game just as he”), he steps into Shadow but is hammered by Edgewalker, who tells him “Your trespassings annoy me . . Shadow is not to be used so lightly . . . Go and do not return.” Edgewalker shakes him and throws him aside, and Possum exits and, wreathed in Mockra, begins to head for the Imperial tent across the field, now being overrun by the Avowed. Suddenly, the Imperial tent goes up in a huge flame and Possum thinks Cowl has taken out Laseen. Fey, giddy, he laughs out loud and walks thinking it’s all over and he’s ready to take on whomever, including Cowl.
Jumpy’s group is holding on at the edge of Heuk’s Darkness. Tinsmith sends Jumpy up to tell Heuk the Avowed are heading their way and Heuk says he’ll do what he can. Temp and Ferrule join Jumpy’s group. A pair of Avowed mages appear in front of them while Skinner to Jumpy’s surprise starts to circle around north with the non-mages (Jumpy assumes several other mages are around the rest of the trench). Ferrule and Temp go after Skinner just before the Mages begin their assault, which begins to kill the defenders horribly. A black “snake” comes from the hill where Heuk is and heads toward one of the Avowed mages. Jumpy and the others are felled by a sudden blast and then they throw their munitions at the mages. Several of his group tell him Heuk’s blackness drove off the mages and Jumpy heads up the hill to find Heuk. Instead, he finds a Tiste standing over Heuk’s unconscious body:
Tall, black as night, almond eyes, long straight shimmering black hair . . . He wore a coat of the finest mail that descended all the way to his ankles, shimmering like night itself. And it seemed to Nait that the figure was not entirely there; he could see through it. Something hung at its side . . . a void hung there yammering terror at him [Jumpy]. It seemed to suck in the night. “Keep them here, soldier,” [the figure] said. “Keep them close. Worse is to come. Much worse.”
The figure disappears into the darkness and Jumpy wonders how things could possibly get worse.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Two, Part One
So here is one big reason why falling in love and forging a relationship during a war is Not Good. That exchange between Rillish and Talia is beautifully done, particularly Talia’s heartfelt “Come back to me.” Makes me worry sincerely that one or both of them are not going to make it to the end of the book!
I love the goal of Nil and Nether, and the fact that the oldest and grimmest of their people go to try and achieve self-rule for the Wickans. I just hope that a) Laseen survives what is coming (sneaky as she is, I can’t see her falling) and b) she negotiates fairly with these who are coming to deliver her from the Crimson Guard.
I can see exactly why Rillish would be wary about travelling by Warren again, after what happened last time. It amuses me that he chants prayers to multiple gods here: “Fanderay, Soliel, the Queen of Dreams, Dessembrae, and Trake.” I wonder why Togg isn’t one of Rillish’s favoured?
Oh, I absolutely love finding out about Rell, and a little more about the Seguleh and what rules their life. These duels are astonishing. I laughed a little as well at the fact that Rell was exiled because he dared to question a judge’s ruling during a duel. Obviously painful for him, but such a daft reason for him to have to leave his people. Hurl sees straight to the truth here, I think: “Yes, Rell, you have come a long way. But perhaps your only failing was being too headstrong in a society too rigid to accommodate it.”
Esslemont expresses beautifully here the carnage and frightening power of the magic sweeping the battlefield: “Earthquake, firestorm and typhoon all rolled into one. Gods aid the common soldiers in that maelstrom! All they can hope to do is keep their heads down and avoid notice while the Avowed mages flex their muscles to clear the field.”
Ha, Nait’s reaction to Bala is brilliant. And it’s something that, as a larger person, I really appreciate. Not everyone is drawn to the skinny through desire, and it’s brilliant that Esslemont recognizes this. And, y’know something? I think in that moment where Nait meets Bala, this was a Malazan novel, not one written by a particular person. It captured the very essence of what a Malazan novel can be.
I remember the tinges of horror that Esslemont brought to Night of Knives—how chilling some of his scenes were. And here, for the first time in this book, he brings that to bear, as we see Possum encounter Heuk. Who is Heuk? A worshipper of night? “While Possum watched, revolted, the man upended the jug over his head. Thick fluid—clotted blood, he imagined—ran down over the man’s hair, face and shoulders.”
Okay, I admit that I might have doubted my liking for Return of the Crimson Guard as we went through some of those earlier chapters, but now that the action is zipping along, Esslemont is doing a grand job—first, with this exchange between Shimmer and Greymane, and his admiration of Urko, and then as Kurald Galain is unleashed. Heuk, yes? Knowing what we do of Kurald Galain, this is an immense event upon this battlefield and I love that Esslemont shows his characters to be treating it with the respect it is due, such as Smoky knowing that whoever raised it is beyond his power to deal with.
Are we going to see Tayschrenn in this battle?
Ullen is a hero, isn’t he? Standing there and hearing about the way the battle is turning, while his right arm hangs as just so much dead meat.
I’m interested by how many times Laseen has been referenced, with people wondering what she is up to and where she is, and yet we’ve not seen her at all. Just something that might have involved her which Possum witnessed. What is she up to?
I wonder if Moss is just after the Old Guard? I don’t like that he’s attached himself now to Ullen’s company... I worry Ullen might be a target.
Is it Edgewalker that Possum meets in Shadow? This is two people who have believed Edgewalker to be an Imass.
Gods, Possum is so self-centred! Everything is going so badly and all he can think about is how his ambitions have been thwarted, about how his life has been wasted. Not even a shred of remorse over killing High Mage Havva Gulen, only considering how it might affect him. What a nasty piece of work....
So who is this Tiste Andii summoned by Heuk? Since blood and sacrifice has been involved, I’m guessing that it is an ascendant or god? Elder? Because we’ve seen him before in this book, my money is on Draconus!
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Two, Part One
I agree that’s a bit of an “uh oh” moment, Amanda, with Rillish and Talia. For me my favorite moment is when she steps up and takes his hand in hiding.
I think it’s another quietly moving moment not when Rillish hears Nil speak of sovereignty but when he notes the age of those Wickans riding out and realizes this is a last ride for them in their minds, a final sacrifice for their children and their children’s children. And what will we see of the Abyss?
It’s a subtle little thing but note how the first mention we get of the Imperial tent in this chapter is that it is “advertising” itself. A little clue.
And boy was Liss right about how this was a night for magery and worse to come
I also enjoyed this little moment with Rell and I love picturing the astonishment of the Seguleh when he questions not one judgment but two. And again, it’s a quietly moving moment, his realization that he would not act as he had in his youth, that there is value in things other than fighting, that “Raising something from seed to fruitful crop would, I think, prove very satisfying.” This moment with Rell reminds me of Coll from Lloyd Alexander’s amazingly good Prydain series—the warrior turned farmer who would always rather be tending his plants rather than hewing things down.
This is all handled well and subtly, these scenes in Jumpy’s trench. We’ve got skirmishers coming in, setting us up for how this will become a rallying point. The Gold overhead, setting us up for their later presence. Heuk able to pick Nait up setting us up for his strength in the night. It all develops slowly and really is just wonderfully done I think. As is all the use of the magery in the battle. And that is a great scene with Bala and also a quick little moment of relief from all that is happening and going to happen.
Speaking of foreshadowing, we get a bit with Possum here wondering where Havva Gulen is and thinking he hasn’t seen her in some time. Poor Havva.
Hmm. Laseen. Floor dusted in otataral. Where have we seen this before... “Pure Laseen” indeed.
Love that description of the battlefield as Possum sees it. What horrors it must be for the common grunt. It’s also interesting Possum’s reaction to the slaughter by magic, something we’ve seen before from several characters and something we’ll see again in the future. And a similar reaction both earlier and coming in the same fashion with regard to the use of munitions. Ahh, for the good old days of just hacking a soldier to pieces with a blade....
Possum is getting just a little creeped out by Heuk, eh? I’m sure we’ll discuss in the comments, but I also see this as a reference to and then an appearance by (though not in full form) Draconus, who after all is the Suzerain of Night and who has a void at his side. Which makes one wonder about the whole “For he has returned” line.
I absolutely love the way Jumpy handles Possum, the image of him trying to sound all cold and icy and dangerous only to see a handful of sharper-loaded crossbows aimed at him, and the way Possum tries to retreat with “power” via his order that nobody is paying attention to because they’re so blindingly self-evident.
I’m with you Amanda on the response to Heuk’s Kurald Galain. After all that we’ve seen on this field (and all that we know we haven’t seen), the “oh s—t” response these people have to this gets me all tingly.
Urko. Braven Tooth. Temp. Ferrule. A bunch of old guys you don’t want coming after you. Stay off their lawns.
And speaking of “Get off my lawn,” all Edgewalker needs is a bathrobe. Love the way he keeps popping in and out of these scenes.
While I really like how Esslemont has done most of his setting up, the bits about the three brothers feels a little clumsily obvious to me. Not that I think he’s trying to be subtle here and failing; I just would have preferred a bit less of it.
Lots of rumors about Dom being fallen.
OK, I have to confess I’m not a big fan of the 5 vs. 20,000. Someone talk me down on that one.
Possum just does not do well with the ladies, does he? Amazing that he doesn’t stop to think at all here with Coil/Havva.
Another nice bit of comic relief with Temp and Ferrule. These last few chapters Esslemont is really bringing the juice I think—vivid detail, good sense of action and pacing, great mix of tension, horror, humor, and quieter emotions. I’ve pointed out my issues with this novel, but these last few bits have been excellent I’d say.
And you have to agree with Jumpy here at our split—just how are things going to get worse. And so we leave you with that image of Hood squatting....
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.