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 Book Three, Chapter Two 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 Two
Hurl and her group track Ryllandaras’ deadly path, horrified to find he’d attacked the rear camp, made up of women, children, and wounded. A company cutter, hearing they’re from Heng, tells them this is their fault, and when Hurl says they plan to end it, he replies “Do so. Or do not come back.” Hurl rides off, in agreement that they are responsible and will be damned for their actions unless they can put a stop to Ryllandaras. Liss realizes the three brothers have gone missing and Hurl realizes their goal was never Ryllandaras, but something else.
Kyle wearies of this lengthy walk through Shadow, following the “Shadow priest” Hethe to Quon. After “Jan” has an odd moment, Kyle refuses to go on until Jan “comes clean.” Jan cops to being K’azz D’avore, explains that what looks like aging in him is really something else:
“I am toughening up, losing flesh . . . I eat little, hardly sleep . . . I suspect something in the Vow is transforming me, perhaps all of us Avowed, preserving us. Sustaining us so long as it should hold. Until we complete it.”
They continue to follow Hethe until Edgewalker intervenes, grabbing Hethe and revealing him. Edgewalker then sends them on to the battlefield overlooking the bridge where the Avowed are holding off the Kanese. K’azz calls on the Brethren, tells them to spread the news that he has returned, that Skinner is disavowed and to find out if whoever is leading the defense can continue to hold the bridge. Though Cole says they can hold however long K’azz needs, the Brethren say the Avowed are on the edge and so K’azz decides to succor them.
Ullen is shocked at the news of Ryllandaras’s destruction of the field hospital and feels responsible. Reports come of Avowed fighting Avowed and the Guard’s attack breaking down. Despite that, Ullen realizes he has to lead the reserves against the Guard’s phalanx.
Shimmer orders a Brethren to gather the isolated Guard and rally them at a nearby hill. Greymane goes to fight Skinner and then the Claw attack. Shimmer orders the others away and Shadow Dances with her whipsword. She takes out most but is about to be struck by crossbows when Laseen (wrapped so her face is not seen) intervenes, knocking the Claw out and, after confirming the Guard is withdrawing, telling Shimmer to go and never return. Possum joins them and Shimmer, seeing him guard Laseen’s back, realizes whom she is speaking to. Laseen asks what about the other Guard and when Shimmer says Skinner “exceeded his authority,” Laseen mutters “How depressingly familiar.” Laseen and Shimmer agree to cease hostilities and as Laseen and Possum leave, Shimmer wonders if her word will hold or if other voices will overrule her.
Rillish makes a nightmare ride through the Abyss with the Wickans.
Ullen leads his soldiers against the Guard and comes up against an Avowed himself. Ullen is almost killed but is pulled back (Moss tried to help him) and he gives the order to rally at Jumpy’s redoubt. He meets Greymane on his way to battle Skinner and warns him there are too many Avowed. Reluctantly, Greymane agrees, then agrees as well to join them at the redoubt and to abide by any terms Ullen might make with the Guard. Suddenly, Greymane warns them of something coming via Warren. A portal opens and the Wickans ride through, right over the Guard, trampling them beneath the Wickans’ hooves. Ullen watches, appalled, as the Avowed begin to struggle to their feet, but Greymane decides to seize his chance. Ullen decides to lead his soldiers in support.
Ullen watches the Skinner-Greymane fight then goes after Greymane after Skinner tosses him down a ravine. Greymane says Skinner “cheated” by using a poisoned blade, adding he [Greymane] “almost used the sword on him—but not here—too close to the sanctuary it is. Who knows what might’ve happened?” Ullen calls a healer then leads Moss and others after Skinner.
Ullen’s movement toward Skinner is interrupted by Traveller, who takes on Skinner himself while Ferrule and Temp keep other Avowed off him. Traveller is unable to penetrate Skinner’s magical armor and just as Ullen is about to rush forward (Moss pulls him back), Traveller finds an opening and wounds Skinner badly. The Crippled God opens a portal and Skinner and the Avowed retreat through it. Traveller disappears and Temp and Ferrule (who now decides to go by “Sweetgrass”) say it was always only the two of them.
Ullen’s group returns to find Urko and Braven Tooth organizing soldiers. Ullen is shocked when they salute him and when he offers the command to Urko, the veteran refuses it. As he and Moss ride off they are suddenly attacked by a woman with long white hair (perhaps the same Veil who tried to kill him earlier) who stabs Ullen deeply before Moss kills her.
Amanda’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Two, Part Two
There is no doubt about it—Esslemont can definitely write passages that send absolute chills down the spine. Here, the dawning horror about what has happened to those in the Imperial encampment is very powerfully done, particularly the bit where Hurl suddenly thinks about the children: “...and even...no, please not that.” The blank-faced survivors, silent and traumatised, all add to this absolute feeling of foreboding.
The passage following, where the unnamed medic curses those who have come too late, crying that he (Ryllandaras) butchered unarmed and unprotected wounded, is just devastating. Especially since we know Hurl. We’ve been with her through the horror that she felt at the unleashing of such a monster. We know that she doesn’t deserve the title of “damned” or “cursed” and yet, with the type of person she is, she accepts it and takes the Spartan view of things on this night: either come back victorious, or come back dead.
Can’t say the same about the scene in Shadow. I think this is one of the most frustrating parts of this novel actually—for every super cool scene, there is one you end up trudging through, and that brings a novel out to a three star read in my view, if those two perspectives are equally balanced.
I mean, who was really surprised that Jan was... DUN DUN DERRRRRRRRRRR K’azz? Anyone?
I tend to agree with Stalker when he says “not that easy” about K’azz declaring Skinner disavowed. I mean, the chap has already gone against what most of the Avowed believe in and has himself a new benefactor, to boot, so why would he then care about the return of a Prince he didn’t really want to see again?
Ullen has really developed across the course of the novel into a character that I really enjoy reading. Here we see his responsibility, his efforts for those under his command, and his fear when considering the number of Avowed still alive.
I struggle to come to grips with the idea of how much damage the Avowed can take. I mean, sure, they are difficult to kill, but if you slice off the arms and legs, then the remainder—no matter how lively—is going to struggle to do much to you! So how come 20,000 Kanese would struggle with them? Just defies belief, really, and, as far as I am concerned, once the reader starts asking these sorts of questions, the immersion in the story is lost.
Now that fight between Shimmer and the two Hands would be utterly stunning in a visual form. I sort of see River doing the same, at the end of the film Serenity: that same balletic grace and deadly intent. And Laseen’s timely approach is also well-handled. It’s fantastic to see the wary respect between these two dangerous women. “Gods! It’s her! Of course, Mistress of the Claw, once rival of Dancer himself!”
Great visuals again, as the Wickans traverse the Abyss—seeing the land appear before them, and then fall away virtually underneath their horses’ hooves.
I cannot even conceive of how terrifying it must be to come face to face with someone who is damn near immortal, who takes a massive wound and is still able to break your skull. The Avowed are presented in a very effective way during battle. We’re shown their devastating power and the desperation of the ordinary soldiers. I still don’t like the odds, but seeing them fighting one-on-one sort of gives a reason as to why those odds exist. “Great Gods! Will nothing stop these Avowed? They are relentless. Like the Imass.”
Greymane is cool. Love his “cheating bastard” comment. But...I am confused as to his sword? What sword?
The best part for me about the battle between Traveller and Skinner is the loyalty of Temper and Ferrule. The fact that they, despite their injuries, won’t be drawn away from him. Even though he is not now Dassem—not in the same way—they are not willing to see him go to battle alone. That was brilliant. I also loved Traveller’s quiet words to Ullen about Choss, and how proud he would have been—that was very special.
Ha, Temper and Ferrule are a great double act. This bit where Ferrule—or Sweetgrass, as maybe he should be known—tries to guess Temper’s real name is ace.
Oh, now what a nasty cliff-hangery way to end the chapter! Sure, some people come back from what seems to be clear death, but Ullen seems to be a candidate for actual death. I would not like that.
Bill’s Reaction to Book Three, Chapter Two, Part Two
I really like this opening scene with Hurl. It would have been easy to have just left the guilt, the sense of responsibility to an abstraction—“so many killed” sort of thing. But this tracking Ryllandaras through the bloody remnants of the reserve camp and then the encounter with the cutter makes it much more visceral and concrete, and thus much more emotionally effective.
The scene in Shadow I found a less effective. First, certainly the “I am K’azz” moment comes as no surprise. Nor does the “priest” not being what he seemed come as any shock. So I was happy that Edgewalker finally showed up and kicked ‘em out. Granted, Kyle and the others are feeling the whole thing is monotonous and it’s driving them crazy, so I can see the idea of mirroring that feeling in the reader, but it doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it....
I guess it’s a token of the intense loyalty K’azz has, but it does strike me as a little strange that the living Guard can be split about Skinner and his plans but the Brethren acquiesce immediately and without question.
Whip swords are so very cool.
The way this meeting between Shimmer and Laseen is so downplayed makes it so much more enjoyable I think. So very wry at times, as when Shimmer must wonder at the pomposity of “go with my permission,” until she realizes who is in front of her. And then the dry response of Laseen to Skinner exceeding his authority: “How depressingly familiar,” something made even more dry by the fact that one could argue Laseen did the same.
Love the visual of Rillish’s ride through the Abyss, with the land falling away behind them even as they ride on it, then that last image of the collapse catching up to the rearward ranks. And while we’re on the Ride of the Rohirrim, um, Wickans, I have to admit to being of mixed feelings on it. I absolutely love the imagery of it, love the visual of them riding out of thin air and right over whatever happened to be in their way. But I’m also a little disconcerted by the convenience of what happened to be in their way was the last group of hostile Avowed and all those Blades. Sure, one could argue it was “magic,” but that’s some fine steering and predicting going on if so. But it’s a minor complaint and as I say, I still thrill at that picture. Would love to see that on film.
Ok, some more complaints. See, here’s the issue I have with the Avowed and the 20,000 or in other cases (or the Seguleh for that matter, at least in full battles). So here we have a fearsome Avowed with his hand and arm severed, and that done by just a normal guy—Ullen. Now sure, we’re told the Guardsman “ignored the severed limb,” but two issues with that is one, later one we’ve got an Avowed down because of her stomach being opened up, which is bad, yes, but I’m not so sure it’s all that much worse than a severed arm. Second, I can’t quite get why Ullen can sever this guys arm but Moss, with two blades while the Avowed isn’t even looking at him can’t do anything at all. And finally, I just don’t buy that you can really “ignore” a severed arm as a fighter (in general instances where this thing has happened because it has to have happened beside this time), because it by definition is going to have an impact—it’s either going to mean you’ve lost your weapon (it was in your arm) or your defense (because you have to drop your shield) and so forth. And so I multiply Ullen’s act here by a few thousand and I just have a problem with it all. Maybe the arms and legs and intestines, eyes, etc. grow back more quickly than I think, I don’t know. Moving on....
The fight scene with Greymane and Skinner is decent, but I like more as a precursor to the upcoming one with Traveller and Skinner more than in its own right
That’s an intriguing bit of dialogue from Greymane though, about fearing to use his other sword so close to Burn’s sanctuary.
I like that Traveller takes the moment to tell Ullen not only that he’s done all that could be expected, but also that Choss would have been proud. It’s a nice side of Traveller we don’t see very often, as is true of his very obvious affection for his two companions, who later add a nice bit of comic relief to what has been a very tension-filled stretch run here toward the end of the book.
I can’t really complain about the Crippled God’s constant saving of these guys as it’s obviously well within his power and he’d clearly be paying attention and he has good reason to pull them out of the fire. But it does sometimes feel a bit too “get out of jail free” cardish, I admit.
That’s a heck of an ending. Is Ullen done for? Turn the page and we shift to K’azz. Oh, that’s cruel. We’ll have to see if we see next time.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.