Welcome to the Malazan Reread 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 Stonewielder.
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.
At the Many Isles, a fisherman named Uli sees a strange light in the sky and then watches as it breaks apart with huge shards flying into the sea and striking the island, causing a tsunami.
On the Empty Isles, a group of soldiers and prospective settlers, led by Temal, have been defending themselves against attacking “sea demons (Riders).” The Riders have just retreated, but Temal knows his people are losing. Temal’s war band sees what appears to be a giant atop one of the cliffs. He heads up to investigate.
Temal and a few others reach the crest and find the giant, twice as tall as a Jaghut and reeking of rotten flesh. Beside it was a large block of black stone, like a “chest or an altar.” Temal wonders if this is the rumored goddess that the locals say protect them from the Riders. He and his men kneel and the Goddess tells them “You have come to settle my land. I welcome you and offer my protection… Take this most precious sarcophagus. Within rests flesh of my flesh.” She tells them to take it along the coast and trace a path and then build upon that path a “great wall. A barrier,” that will protect them with her help from the Riders. Temal accepts the gifts and she says their “covenant” is done.
Thousands of years later and 11 years into the Malazan occupation, on the Island of Fist in the Kingdom of Rool, Inspector/Assessor Bakune is led to the body of a young woman near the wharf. The old man who had led them to the body, a Drenn tribesman named Gheven, is surprised Bakune can identify his tribe and equally surprised when Bakune asks his opinion. Gheven says this has become common since the occupation, girls killed by their family members as “honor” slayings after the girls had prostituted themselves to the invaders. This time is different, though, he implies, pointing out a tattoo on the girl’s shoulder, which Bakune recognizes as a new foreign cult—the cult of the Fallen God—one outlawed by the native religion: their Lady of Deliverance. Gheven further points out marks on the victim’s throat and wrists and implies her death was connected to “payment” for the Lady’s protection. Bakune says it looks like a regular honor killing to him, but as he leaves, he thinks there might have been something to what Gheven was saying, though it was best not to say so aloud. He accepts that long ago such acts were done as sacrifices, but “all that had been swept aside by the ascendency of our Saviour, the Blessed Lady.”
Gheven watches Bakune leave, then heads back to his own pilgrimage—“an itinerary of sacred paths to walk and sites to visit… reinscribing and reaffirming… for the land was their Warren and they its practitioners.” As he leaves, he thinks he has at least planted a seed here, though he pities Bakune, for “truth tellers were never welcome.”
Twenty years later, a boar-tattooed (faded) man arrives at the docks of Banith in Rool. He passes by some Malazan soldiers, dismayed by their sloth. The man finds a vacant building and says to a nearby group of mixed bloods that he is consecrating it in the name of his God of the “downtrodden and dispossessed.” He adds that his god’s message is that “We are all flawed... And we must learn to accept this…[but] anyone may achieve deliverance and grace.” His speech catches the attention of a young girl, who says how the Sainted Lady priests turn them all away as “half-bloods” while the Dark Collector ones demand coin.
The next morning a Malazan patrol tries to extort him as they have been doing to the rest of the neighborhood. When he offers no money, the sergeant tries to beat him. When the priest grabs the truncheon from the leader and breaks it in half, the sergeant gives him a warning—pay up next time or else it’s jail, and from there it’s the wall at Korel.
Watching them leave, the priest thinks things are worse here than he’d heard, and that it’s a good thing his old commander isn’t here since he’d toss the soldiers into prison. He considers how “occupation and subjugation of a population—intended or not—is an ugly thing… Brings out the worst in both actors.” He believes he’s found “fertile ground” to do some recruiting for his God, and seems to be formulating a plan.
In the city of Delanss on the Falar subcontinent, Greymane (going by his given name of Orjin) has opened a training academy. Coots, Stalker and Badlands had taught for a while, but their methods were a bit “strenuous” and so they’d headed off west by ship. Stoop, the Avowed that had been hanging around Kyle has also faded away. Since Greymane has had to keep his impressive military past a secret so as to avoid being hunted down, his school hasn’t been doing well, and financial issues are starting to take their toll. An aristocrat enters the school and inquires about Greymane’s credentials and what he thinks of the new Emperor—Mallick Rel, telling him Rel is a Falari and those who knew him are not surprised at his rise. Greymane says he was impressed Rel didn’t prosecute the rebellious officers. The aristocrat says he’s looking for a school for his son and thinks Greymane’s might be it, then leaves. Three other strangers, young, arrogant, and armed, enter.
The three newcomers tell Greymane they’re there to see if his instruction could possibly match that of the other famed schools in Delanss and they draw swords. Greymane wins, but Kyle is surprised/worried by how winded he is afterward.
One of the youths meets the nobleman from earlier—his father—and confirms that Greymane must be “the one.” The father says he’ll send word and orders his son to get men to watch the school, warning him he’ll tolerate no retribution.
In the town of Thickton, on the Straten subcontinent, Kuhn Eshen (“The Nose”), brings his ship offshore to see if Straten has reopened for trade after rumors of a group of mercenaries “carving out a private kingdom” long ago. He notes a strange, leather-clad woman watching his crew. Overhearing him stalking about the Stormwall, she introduces herself as an agent of the governor of this province (Haven). He tells her his news—the number of “Chosen” who fight on the wall has decreased, but a new fighter called “Bars” has newly arrived and proven himself a champion. The woman reacts strongly at the name and she takes off. The trade agent tells Kuhn her name is Janeth and she is warder—she and her men enforce the laws, guard the coast, drive off the occasional raider from Mare. The governor, he says, is named “Blues” and lives in the old fort called Haven, though nobody has seen him much recently.
Nice to see you all again! Hope we still see lots of you through this Esslemont read. What have you been up to in the free evenings since finishing Toll the Hounds? Did you read ahead? I mostly knit, started learning crochet and started back at hockey. But now all refreshed and ready to dive back into the Malazan world. So let’s get cracking!
So first we join Eli in the Elder Age, watching as he sees something plummeting to earth. Now, we’ve seen lots of things plummet to earth in the Malazan series—gods, jade statues, shards from the moon. I find it interesting that, immediately after we’ve seen the moon shatter in Toll the Hounds, this is mentioned: “Perhaps it was another of the moons falling, as he’d heard told of in legends.”
It’s funny how real life events can colour reading, since I immediately thought about tsunamis and the hideous damage they cause when I read: “Run, little ‘uns, run! The water comes to reclaim the land!”
Who else now struggles to see references to Walls without thinking about A Song of Fire and Ice? Anyway, BW, so back to the Stormwall before it even came into being…
Hmm, so Temal’s predecessors were the invaders into this land—and they wonder why the sea-demon Riders attack them? They were the ones to see the attractiveness of this land and tried to settle it. Having said that, I don’t know whether the Riders are attacking merely to repel them, or for some other reason. Were we ever told why the Riders attack, and why the Stormwall is so desperately needed? Although we are given this, as to why Temal and his kin would try so hard to hold them back: “...to the meadows and forests and farmland beyond, all of which would soon be dead and withered should the sea-demons be allowed to work their witchery unmolested.”
Ah, Esslemont does write horror so very effectively—the image of this local goddess is dark and well-done, especially when we see her at a distance, waiting for Temal to come to her.
Not so impressed though with the rather perfunctory “here is this gift, it will make a wall, it is my gift to you, do you accept?” sequence. Reminds me of kids’ nativity plays, where God appears to Mary: “you will have a son, you must call him Jesus, this is my gift to you and the world.” Just a little without depth, considering what ramifications this Stormwall has, and the fact that this novel seems to focus on what could be the end of the wall.
And then a jump of many thousands of years, to the civilization that emerged thanks to the protection of the goddess…
This section where Bakune is led to the murdered young girl is of interest thanks to the idea that the Malazans are not the only invaders to this country. And also the idea that there are invaders and invaders, that there is some difference. This Drenn tribe member, Gheven, gives the perspective of those who were there long before the protection of Our Lady was accepted.
This broken circle tattoo—sign of the Crippled God?
“He tried to recall which one among the bewildering members of all those foreign faiths, then he remembered: a minor one, the cult of the ‘Fallen God’.”
Why is the Lieutenant Karien’el so very angry at Gheven? Prejudice at those who aren’t under the protection of Our Lady (and, I guess, therefore not required to pay her price) but still receive the safety of the Stormwall? Although this quote might shed some light:
“And in their histories it is plain that that man’s ancestors practiced it, not ours! Thus the long antipathy between us and these swamp- and wasteland-skulking tribals with their bastardised blood.”
It is rather gruesome to think that daughters who associate with the Malazans are at risk of being killed by wrathful fathers/brothers…
This is an interesting reveal about Gheven and his relationship to the land:
“For the land was their Warren and they its practitioners. Something all these foreign invaders, mortal and immortal, seemed incapable of apprehending.”
I wonder what roots he’s sown?
Amused thoroughly by the arrival of this lateen-rigged launch, and the occupant’s little exchange with the dock master. It may be me, but so far the writing in this book is smooth and entertaining.
This is a distinctly different view of a lot of Malazans we’ve seen so far:
“...where his gaze lingered on the Malazan soldiers lounging in the shade of the porch. He took in the opened leather jerkin of one, loosened to accommodate a bulging stomach; the other dozing, chair tipped back, helmet forward over his eyes.”
No wonder this newcomer loses his smile.
This newcomer… I like him. Or I thought I did. And now it seems he is a priest of the Crippled God, is that right?
“Let me tell you about my God. His domain is the downtrodden and dispossessed. The poor and the sick. To him social standing, riches and prestige are meaningless empty veils.”
Am I allowed to like him? Or is this someone who my opinion of will change over time?
Ah, so this man was a priest of Fener—I wonder why he changed allegiance? It sounds very much as though he is also Malazan, from the way he reacts to the extortion and despairs at the behaviour of the soldiers. This is an intriguing passage, that gives hints of the priest and his background:
“Damn bad. Worse than he’d imagined. It’s a good thing the old commander isn’t here to see this. Otherwise it would be the garrison itself in the gaol.”
And a swift reminder in the next section that we saw Mallick Rel step up to Emperor of the Malazan Empire in the last Esslemont book. Mallick Rel the Merciful? Okay then!
Another name change? Greymane to Orjin. It is one of my least favourite parts of the series, I have to confess. Sure, I understand the power conveyed by names, and that a new name can change the nature of a character. But, equally, this series is absolutely littered with names already, without adding to them by giving characters multiple names!
I am deeply impressed with how much Esslemont is conveying in short passages here—the section where we learn about what has happened to Stalker, Coots, Badlands and Stoop since we last saw them is pretty poignant, especially:
“Kyle had thought he saw a kind of disappointment in the haunt’s eyes when it appeared that last time to say farewell.”
The scene setting with the new school and this chap who wants instruction for his son is solid and enjoyable—not much more to say, so, if I missed any subtleties, please point them out!
The fight between Orjin and the three men, where he takes them down using a stave, is done incredibly well. I could absolutely see this in a movie, with the way that Orjin describes the lessons as he performs the moves, and Kyle’s aside: “They’re using knives.”
So, in a slightly heavy-handed manner, Esslemont tells us a couple of times in that scene that Orjin is struggling with fitness. I wonder if that will become an important plot point…
And it seems that certain people are after Orjin and want to bring him in alive. Dun dun dun.
And this look at the town of Thickton, where news of someone on the wall called Bars (Iron Bars, perchance?) is revealed to the warden of the town, one Janath, who works for a governor called Blues. Nice to see the gang again, isn’t it?
Welcome back all! OK, onward and upward…
We have had a lot of things fall. I think the age of this, the “unnatural green” light, the “baleful eye of some god,” “the alien light,” and the “ember thrown from a god’s fire,” lead us down the path toward the Fallen/Crippled God. But we’ll see if that is confirmed or not.
Once upon a time, in a more happy world, most of us would probably have been a little lost on what was being described when Uli notes the signs of the impending tsunami. Now it’s just a horrific “wait for it” recollection of real-life disaster.
Granted, I don’t know that Temal’s people named the “Empty Isles. But if so (and I’m leaning that way just to make my damn point), how telling is it of colonizers to refer to an already settled land as “Empty”? We see this all-too-common attitude as well when Temal thinks it’s a great place save for the “few ignorant native tribals.” We’ll have to see if this is just an opportunistic moment of social criticism or if this will play out as a major theme throughout.
It’s an interesting jump from the fall to the Stormriders’ attacks. There’s no sense of the existence of Stormriders in Uli’s mind and you’d think there’d be some thought of them in a fisherman’s head. Are we just in a wholly different setting? Time? Or is there some connection between the fall in the first scene and the Stormriders?
Small aside, but note the familiarity of some of those places Temal namedrops: Dark Avallithal (Drift Avalii?), Dhal-Horn (Dal Hon Plains—Dal Honese?), Isles of Malassa (Malaz?)
You know, I read this scene with Temal and the giant and I think of what my old gram used to tell me: “Beware of giant, smelly female zombie-goddesses bearing gifts of black stone.”
So we’re clearly getting the origin story of the Stormwall we’ve heard of several times by now. Just who is this giantess? Is she the local goddess Temal thinks of? If so, and she has been protecting the locals (you know, the ignorant tribals), then why welcome invaders? Is she not the local goddess? Or are the locals not strong enough on their own to fight off the Stormriders?
What is the “flesh of her flesh”? (and is it equally repulsive?)
The arrival of Bakune reminds me of the Inspector from Reaper’s Gale. Will we be getting a Malazan noir novel?
I also like the invaders within invaders line from Gheven. There are indeed lots of invaders in this tale, and one might also count the shards of the Fallen God as well in that lineup
It’s an interesting line from Gheven—“the one who you claim protects you.” If Gheven is one of the aboriginals, then that would seem to imply the “Lady” is not the local goddess Temal thought she was. Though later, as Amanda points out, Bakune thinks it was the tribals who practiced the blood rites. Interesting…
Honor killings. Hardly the realm of fantasy, sad to say.
Bakune is presented relatively positively in this scene—he notices things, he stops the overly-aggressive soldier, protects Gheven, has a sense of discretion. Bodes well if we see him as a recurring character. Save for a big bit of bigotry (“swamp and wasteland skulking tribals with their bastardized blood”) and a possibly poisonous bit of ambition that is revealed: “a positive review here could lead to promotion…” Will he follow leads as they go if there is a conflict, or go for the cushier job/allow prejudice to blind him? Will he in fact be a “truth-teller”?
Anybody else think of Australian aboriginals and their dreamtime/songlines when they got to Gheven’s “dreamscape”?
A former Fener priest turned Crippled God priest. We have had a mention of other Fener priests besides Heboric. Could this be someone we’ve heard of? As for changing allegiance? It is possible he did. But don’t forget as well it’s also possible he was left without a god (remember, poor old Fener is earthbound and, well, “fallen”)
Yes, one does want to know who this “old commander is,” along with who this priest is/was.
Not the finest examples of Malazan soldiery we’re seeing so far here, are they? And thus, we see perhaps already the effects of occupation on the occupiers.
Early on and we’ve already got two folks (Gheven and this priest) considering how they’re planting seeds…
All Hail Ming the Merci—I mean, Mallick the Merciful
Yes. Sigh. Greymane. Orjin. Greymane. Orjin.
Esslemont does very efficiently get rid of those extraneous folks we’d last seen Kyle with. Smoothly done.
I also thought the fight scene well done, and agree the out-of-shape a bit overdone.
Mercenaries gone in for themselves and establishing their own kingdom? Is it me, or do these sorts of things seldom go smoothly? ‘Course, it doesn’t take long for us to realize these are not just any mercenaries, since we get the names “Blues” and “Bars” (Bars being on the Wall).
And off we go…
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.