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 Prologue of Toll the Hounds (TtH).
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.
Two unnamed characters, a male former priest and a formerly-wealthy woman, are in a run-down, dust-filled and equally nameless town. Both believe themselves to be dead and each has a dog. The woman’s dog attacks the other and is killed. The priest says it feels like he has been in this town forever, and the woman feels the same, though it appears she just arrived. They note a storm approaching, one filled with jade rain. Edgewalker, taking no notice of them, walks by and meets a hooded figure and both agree the hooded one called Edgewalker here to “mitigate.” They are joined by Shadowthrone and several Hounds, and then eventually a fourth appears in the distance whom they have apparently been waiting for.
Inside Dragnipur, Ditch, a former wizard of Pale who’d been killed by Rake for betrayal, speaks with a demon who is carrying many of the fallen on his back. The demon tells Ditch the wagon-pullers are failing, which Ditch considers obvious. Ditch complains that Rake should have killed more dragons and then the two discuss the need to find someone who knows what will happen when the storm of chaos that chases the wagon catches up. The demon disappears and Ditch, pondering who might know what would happen or what to do, thinks of Draconus, whom he’d met earlier.
Still inside the sword, Apsal’ara, Lady of Thieves, thinks of how she has spent uncounted years under the wagon trying to use friction to break the chains. She recalls the arrival of a stranger (Paran) and the subsequent escape of the Hounds and Paran, how she’d tried to follow but had been driven back by the cold of “negation. Denial.” She thinks of how she has stolen the moon, stolen fire, walked in Moon’s Spawn, and how there must be a way to break her chains and escape.
In a mountain village of the Teblor, a mangy, limping dog suddenly takes off and is followed by two near-twin girls who noted his departure. They head south toward the lands of the Nathii.
Kruppe sits by a fire and is approached by K’rul, who says he has something to tell him. K’rul notes that Kruppe appears sad and asks if he’d like to talk about it, but Kruppe points out K’rul himself doesn’t look so great and forebears. K’rul tells Kruppe he is “not in this war,” and Kruppe says he knows, but he knows as well that K’rul is the “prize” in it. K’rul agres. They are joined by a third and Kruppe says he will tell them a tale as he “dances” and a tear glistens in his eye.
And. Here. We. Go... Sorry, can never resist a quote from the Joker!
Very excited to be diving back into Erikson’s side of the Malazan world, and it’s thrilling to look down the Dramatis Personae and see some deeply familiar names. Not only some of the ex-Bridgeburners, but Kruppe! And it delights me that his description is merely “a round little man.” Yep, that’s like calling Bugg Tehol’s man-servant....
And I suppose that I had best become accustomed to this slight feeling of confusion as I read. It isn’t helped by the breaks we’ve taken to dip into Esslemont—it seems like a damn long time since I’ve read Erikson. And even damn longer since we’ve been anywhere near Darujhistan and some of the characters we’re going to see.
Also, Erikson uses his Prologues, I think, as a place to deliberately sow a little confusion and make the reader wonder about what is to come.
So here we have two dead people, talking in a ramshackle village and observing without pity the plight of their fighting dogs. My first thought was to wonder who they are and whether we’ve seen them before. Since one is a priest who hasn’t gone to be with his god in the afterlife, I’m thinking we do have some candidates, including Heboric.
We also see immediately the rain of jade statues, which brings them straight to mind at the beginning of this novel—one of the oddest parts of the books so far.
And then this gathering of immortals. Edgewalker and Shadowthrone are definitely amongst them, because they are named. Is the hooded one Hood himself? After all, we are in a place of death. What exactly is Edgewalker to mitigate? And who is the one coming: “One more and the last, yes.”
Ah, I’m falling into the prose and the immediate tumble of ideas: “There were rare thoughts, no more or less unwelcome than any others, mocking him as in their freedom they drifted in and out; and when nowhere close, why, they perhaps floated through alien skies, riding warm winds soft as laughter.”
Here we encounter one of those who fell at Pale to Dragnipur, wielded by Anomander Rake. Apparently Ditch is one who betrayed Anomander—not something advisable, I would have thought. Certainly not when seeing Ditch’s fate—to carry the Burden in Dragnipur with others who also fell to Anomander and Draconus before him.
I love this idea: “Was there comfort in shared fate? . . . No, surely there was no such comfort, beyond the mutual recognition of folly, ill luck and obstinate stupidity, and those traits could not serve camaraderie.” I wonder if this is the way of things between those held in prisons? On death row? In any place where there seems no end to the situation?
What is the Burden? It seems key to the heart of Dragnipur. Especially when the demon says “We fail.” Fail in what?
And then from Ditch’s perspective—that of endless horror and exhaustion—we skip over to Apsal’ara, who seems to view her sojourn in Dragnipur as merely a temporary inconvenience, and is most frustrated by the fact two Hounds escaped where she has not. I’m guessing this Apsal’ara is who our Apsalar took her name from! Maybe their difference in perspective is due to a matter of mortality?
I love the thought of this pesky thief finding her way to a little resting place beneath the wagon that others are trying so hard to keep moving. She’s quirky, but her self-centred behaviour could be either appealing or unattractive, I guess. Will be interesting to see how you re-readers approach her, knowing what story is to come.
Ah, I think I will love her, when I read things like this:
She had stolen the moon once.
She had stolen fire.
She had padded the silent arching halls of the city within Moon’s Spawn.
She was the Lady of Thieves.
And a sword had stolen her life.
Oh! Are these two girls from the seed of Karsa? “Like the dog, the two girls were fearless and resolute. Though they did not know it, such traits came from their father, whom they had never met.”
And then a beautiful scene to finish. Kruppe on the page again is an absolute joy—not just because of his eccentric speech, but because of those quiet moments of respect between him and K’rul. The recognition of Kruppe that K’rul is the prize in this war is a key one, I think. We saw references to this at the end of Reaper’s Gale, with Icarium. More to come on this matter, for sure.
Who is the grey-haired bard who comes to join Kruppe and K’rul, and has given warning about strangers coming to Darujhistan? He who has “a wan face, an expression of sorrow and pain”?
It might have been short today, but it was very sweet indeed.
Welcome back everyone! Can’t wait to hear what Amanda and folks think about this one.
You’re right Amanda that we start out in some confusion and abstraction, and I think I’ll leave much of that to our commentators as to just what they want to expound on as I think this beginning sets the tone for this novel.
We open with two strangers, seemingly as at sea as the readers, finding themselves in an unnamed town, recalling “very little” of “her life in the time before.” They certainly could in fact be speaking for the readers when they say:
“Aye, it’s all rather confusing, isn’t it?”
And we thought life (substitute any prior Malazan title here) was confusing
So before we get the other characters arriving, there are a few things I note in the scene with just the two.
One is the obvious focus on death: both characters apparently dead, the dogs, Hood’s eventual arrival.
Going along with this, the equally obvious emphasis on decay: the man is “ragged;” his cloak, once “opulent,” is now “frayed;” his coiled leash is “rotting and tattered;” the town, besides being unname,d is “decrepit,” “falling apart,” and “all dust and rot;” the surrounding hills are “denuded;” the woman’s leash, like the man’s, is also “rotted” and “frayed,” while her clothing is described as “rags.”
The ominous overtone of the approaching storm (and its connection to “tears”, not to mention the jade), and the rumble of something large approaching.
A sense of self-delusion or of unmet expectations: the priest has found himself in a place that seems to belie his earlier belief, the woman thought her wealth would purchase her a different ending (I’d also argue, without a lot of hard evidence save tone/mood, that her relief that her “carriage” is coming shows her self-delusion is not over).
The reference to the cyclical nature of things: “We seem to repeat things here,” followed by the priest declaring (based one assumes on this meeting he witnesses) that things just may change, a declaration he makes after looking at the dog, which had attacked the priest’s dog and then been killed.
As for our meeting of powerful folks, it certainly does make one wonder what they are planning, eh? And who, as Amanda says, is that fourth they are waiting on? Someone of power, obviously, to join this group. And power is pointed to as well by the way the Hounds respond, even at a distance.
And now we’re in Dragnipur with Ditch from Pale (and there are some old-time references we’ve not heard in a while).
There’s an interesting image reflection here, moving from the rumble of the carriage wheels to the rumble of the wagon, and from the jade rain coming down like “arrows” to the storm chasing the wagon shot through with “spears of iron.”
As for what is pursuing the wagon, Amanda, here is a lengthy section of our summary from Memories of Ice that is probably good to recall as we move forward:
Draconus agrees and says Paran needs to explain the truth to Rake—that Rake is “too merciful to wield Dragnipur. The situation is growing desperate.” Paran asks what he means and Draconus says: “Dragnipur needs to feed.” Too many that pull the wagon are failing and being thrown into the wagon, which makes the burden heavier and slower: “Tell Rake—he must take souls. Powerful ones, preferably. And he must do so soon.” He tells Paran to use his Master’s vision to see what pursues the wagon. Paran sees “Chaos . . . a storm such as he had never seen before. Rapacious hunger poured from it . . . Lost memories. Power born from rendered souls. Malice, and desire, a presence almost self-aware, with hundreds of thousands of eyes fixed on the wagon . . . so eager to feed.”
Draconus tells him: “Darkness has ever warred against Chaos . . . ever retreated. And each time that Mother Dark relented—to the Coming of Light, to the Birth of Shadow—her power has diminished, the imbalance growing more profound. Such was the state . . . in those early times . . . Chaos approached the very gate to Kurald Galain itself. A defense needed to be fashioned. Souls were required . . . Chaos hungers for the power in those souls—for what Dragnipur has claimed . . . such power will make it stronger . . . sufficient to breach the Gate. Look to your mortal realm . . . civilization-destroying wars, civil wars, pogrom, wounded and dying gods— . . . your kind progress . . . on the path forged by Chaos. Blinded by rage, lusting for vengeance, those darkest of desires . . . Memories—of humanity, of all that is humane—are lost.”
Paran says how can Draconus want Paran to shatter the sword. Draconus answers he has realized over time he spent in the sword that he had made a “grave error.” He says he believed “only in Darkness could the power that is order be manifested. I sought to help Mother Dark—for it seemed she was incapable of helping herself. She would not answer, she would not even acknowledge her children . . . we could not find her . . . Before the Houses, there were Holds. Before Holds, there was wondering . . . but not wandering but migration. A seasonal round—predictable, cyclical. What seemed aimless, random, was in truth fixed, bound to its own laws. A truth—a power—I failed to recognize.” He tells Paran breaking the sword will return the Gate to its migration, to “what gave it strength to resist Chaos.” The sword forced the Gate of Darkness to flight for eternal, but if the souls in the sword weaken/diminish, it cannot flee. He says Rake needs to send more souls to bide time to shatter Dragnipur.
He says he’s learned something else as well since he forged the sword: “Just as Chaos possess the capacity to act in its own defense, to indeed alter its own nature to its own advantage in its eternal war, so too can Order. It is not solely bound to Darkness.” Paran guess he’s referring to the Azath Houses and the Deck an Draconus says “The Houses take souls and bind them in place. Beyond the grasp of Chaos.” When Paran says what’s it matter then if Darkness falls, Draconus replies: “Losses and gains accumulate, shift the tide, but not always in ways that redress the balance. We are in an imbalance that approaches a threshold. This war . . . may come to an end. What awaits us all, shout that happen . . . well, mortal, you have felt its breath, there in our wake.” He says Paran must tell Rake this.
By the way, it’s been a while, but we’ve seen this demon who speaks to Ditch about the sword failing. Recall that he must have been killed by Rake. His last words to Ditch: “Do not pity me, please” are a clue as well, echoing his other “last words.”
In Chekhov’s Gun mode, does anyone think we get a short section of Apsal’ara showing mind-boggling determination and patience in attempting to escape her chains, a section closed by that passage Amanda quotes detailing her past successes and ended with the line “This will not do,” anybody read this and think she’s not going to get out of those chains?
Yes Amanda, these are Karsa’s girls (and his dog as well). One can only assume where they’re off to....
And then this wonderful closing scene, which begins with a poem/song (important I think) and offers up, I believe, a tone of the ephemeral nature of things, an elegiac tone right away, with the reference to the “frail” city followed by such desolate, sad, lonesome imagery: “an empty plain,” “an empty night sky,” “A lone fire, so weak.” It is with fire we beat back the night and cold and darkness, and yes, I’d say we should be reading that on both a literal and metaphorical level (and what is fire—society, civilization, art), but all fires are, relative to what they war against, “weak,” and “flickering”, always on the verge of going out. Though one could also say always ready to be rekindled, I suppose.
And it is with Kruppe and K’rul that we get the reintroduction, very quickly, of perhaps THE theme of this series: the two-sided coin of compassion/empathy, with K’rul noting Kruppe’s sadness and desiring to ease it by listening and Kruppe noting K’rul’s own weariness and wishing not to add to it. Love this moment between the two.
And then a mysterious third to join them (and how many scenes in this prologue involve waiting on an arrival?), someone who knows songs/poetry (we’ll soon get a better hint).
And yes, isn’t this the core of humans—tale-telling round a fire (I’d guess there’s a reason Amazon called it a “Kindle” and a “Fire,” though for all I know those were the two names Bezos had always fantasized about calling his kids until his wife said “No way!” If he’s even married. Or has kids. But I digress...). Some of those stories scare, some thrill, some teach (none are mutually exclusive). But as we can see by that “glisten” in Kruppe’s eye, this one, while it may or may not do all or some of those, will certainly make us cry. Prepare for some tragedy, he’s telling us folks. Who is ready to witness?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.