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 first part of chapter five 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.
The Malaz fleet has been losing ships to hit and run Mare attacks. Greymane and Nok reveal to Devalath the Blue Moranth will form a skirmish line to engage the Mare fleet while the transport ships punch through to land. Devaleth is horrified by the expected losses and warns them the Mare magery (Ruse) means their ships cannot sink. Greymane asks her why she has joined the Malazans and she replies it is to rid the land of the Lady, telling them the first Malazan invasion failed because Korelri had already been conquered. She realizes somehow they knew or understood and agrees to stay with Nok during the coming battle. Greymane assigns Kyle to the assault and says he’ll be on the last transport.
Nok asks Greymane if Kyle is up to it and Greymane informs him that Kyle is from Assail. Nok replies that’s impossible, but Greymane says he was with the Guard in Assail and that’s where Kyle was recruited, having come down from the northern parts. Nok asks about the Imass, and Greymane says Kyle knows nothing of the wars or fighting in the north, though three friends of his probably knew more.
Goss’ group crosses over to one of the Blue vessels.
Still trapped by the Hounds, Kiska and Leoman discuss his fighting against the Malazans in Seven Cities. He says he was “young, foolish. I thought I was so fast and skilled and smart that nothing could touch men,” but that the war taught him those qualities didn’t matter—it all came down to chance. Kiska objects that the gods must decide, but he says while they might intervene, they are as “bound by happenstance as we,” an idea he finds “endlessly reassuring.” Kiska, made nervous by Leoman and his ideas, puts together her special Moranth-made staff and pops out to see if the Hounds are still out there. They are. Leoman helps her fend one off and he and she retreat back to the cave.
Aboard Nok’s flagship, Devaleth awaits what she assumes will be a slaughter, though she thinks she herself might survive to shore thanks to her Ruse magic. She thinks though “something has to be done.”
Devaleth tells Nok she’ll sense when the Mare order their attack. Nok, realizing she thinks they have no chance, tells here the Malazans and Moranth have been allies for some time and have “achieved great things with what minor alchemies” they’d traded for. She says she’d heard that alliance had soured lately, and Nok admits the Moranth haven’t been offering any more soldiers, which he says may be an internal problem. He then tells the Moranth liaison to give the order.
Suth’s ship starts to move forward and he watches as flashes of light and flame fill the sky. The Moranth employ incendiaries that not only burn the ships when they hit but also sets the water itself aflame.
Devaleth watches the engagement in horror, telling Nok it’s barbaric. They move on, narrowly missing being rammed by a Mare ship. Devaleth calls this response “more than humbling. It was shattering.”
Rillish’s marines board one of the Mare ship when it nears. The Mare mage wreaks havoc until Captain Peles kills him. He notes how the magic didn’t seem to bother her and she says “The Wolves were with me this day.” They take the ship and Rillish suggests taking another.
Suth’s ships gets snared by huge grapples to hold them while Mare warships approach. Kyle cuts the iron chains with his cool sword. They make it past the Mare and they’re told the assault will come tomorrow.
A Mare ship nears Rillish’s captured one and he has the soldiers hide while Sketh lures them closer. The marines board the other ship and take it. They follow the transports closer to land.
It must be so very difficult to force yourself to remain calm in the event of hit and run tactics, to not respond in the way that your enemy wants you to. You could absolutely see why morale would be sinking (haha, pun). I guess this is one way in which sea battles are a ton easier than land battles—you rarely get the same levels of deserting, since everyone is pretty much trapped. Mutiny must be an issue though!
Hearing their strategy is pretty grim—planning to lose so many lives just to achieve getting the fleet through the Marese. Here from Greymane you can absolutely see the conviction we’ve witnessed in many a Malazan commander prior to this: “I am charged to secure this front for the Empire. And I intend to do that. One way. Or another.”
Ruse is pretty damn powerful—and does let us know how these Marese have proved so successful in previous sea battles.
The cult of the Lady bears a lot of similarities to other gods we’ve seen, such as the Dying God and, I guess, the Crippled God. These gods also represent a sickness.
Ah Greymane—he understands the notion of the captain going down with his ship! And proving to the men that he believes they will survive.
Ooh, a little hint about Kyle and a potential mystery surrounding him, coming from Assail as he does. I think Greymane is utterly right when he says that Kyle’s previous companions knew way more than they said.
I like Esslemont’s increasing grasp on military humour: “Call this a storm?”
I sort of see the realm of Shadow very like the places that Frodo went through in Mordor—dark, unearthly, grim but at times oddly beautiful.
Speaking of grim, I’m not fond of Leoman’s view on war—even if it does strike me as being pretty accurate:
“Chance. It all just comes down to dumb chance. Whether you live or die. Chance. The tossed siege boulder crushing the man next to you.”
Presents a futile view, doesn’t it? No matter how skilled you are, it might be worth nothing…
Having seen what has happened to many of the gods in the Malazan world so far, I would agree with Leoman when he says:
“Oh, certainly they intervene occasionally, when it suits their purposes, but otherwise I think they are as bound by happenstance as we.”
Lots of mentions of Kyle’s youth here—I’m guessing deliberately so. I don’t think the reader has many doubts that he can’t achieve what he is being asked to.
Some great build-up to the Blue Moranth and what they are capable of in the conversation between Nok and Devaleth. Also, intrigued by the mention that the alliance between Malazan and Moranth in general has cooled somewhat—what caused this and why?
And I especially like that Nok talks about the minor alchemies the Moranth were willing to trade—this includes things like cussers, yes? If so, I can’t wait to see what the Moranth held back!
Loving this picture of Wess asleep on Suth’s shoulder, despite the cramped conditions and what is about to happen!
This battle using Moranth incendiary reminds me very much of GRRM’s battle of Blackwater—seeing the green flames jump from ship to ship and burning even on the water.
And then a fine sequence of battle scenes, including Kyle unleashing the formidable power of the sword he bears, and people realising that he might well be able to cut it after all (pun, ha!) I think Esslemont shows increasing maturity and finesse with his writing, particularly in battle scenes. I’ve always found sea battles a little bit of a washout (pun, ha!) but this one was done in a manner that kept me gripped throughout.
The Mare hit and run are a nice parallel to the times we’ve seen the same tactics on land—swift in-and-out raids to bleed a large enemy. And we see Nok, like a good land commander, isn’t doing what the enemy wants these raids to do—lure out the defenders or force them to mass together so either way they can be killed more easily.
I like too how we don’t get this reveal until now about just why the Mare are such a fearsome sea power—literally unsinkable ships I hear might be a pretty big advantage in naval warfare.
I’m sure they have backup plans, but since “Ever board and rope is bound by ward and ritual to the will of the captain,” I wonder what happens when the captain takes a stray arrow through the throat or heart.
That’s an interesting little throwaway line—that the Warren of Ruse is a “forgotten mystery” to the Malazans. I wonder why that is.
The Lady, it seems, is not making a lot of friends. We’ve got several folks now who have mentioned her (justifiably it would seem) as a kind of blight on this land. While Greymane and Nok have said they are there to deal with the Sixth, their knowledge and perhaps more importantly their “understanding” of Devaleth’s sorrow over the Lady’s power might intimate a mission beyond reining in a mutinous army. The Lady has several fronts she’ll be fighting on perhaps—can she survive that?
Nok’s reaction to the news that Kyle is from Assail is a nice tease for the next book, due out sometime (a shifting time) within next year. But as Nok says, “one mystery at a time.”
I like how Esslemont gives us the tension and danger of simply crossing from one ship to another here, rather than relying solely on the easy excitement of battle. I actually could have had that scene last a little longer, had it play up the danger a bit more. But it’s a nice reminder that anything in the ocean can become fraught with risk.
A nice contrast—from heaving seas and “I hate all this fucking water” to Kiska watching a dust storm crossing a plain.
Have to chuckle at Leoman’s startled “Oh no, I haven’t met anyone smarter or more skilled than I,” a complete opposite of the usual cliché here of how someone learns the lesson that there is always someone bigger and meaner and more dangerous than you. I also like how that arrogance reinforces her view of him as “like a cat.”
Well, having known Corabb, it’s easy to see how Leoman might think “chance” plays such a large role in what happens in war. I thought we’d seen some discussion of this before—skill versus chance in battle. Am I remembering rightly or am I vaguely recalling some other book? Anyone remember a similar dialogue in this series? I certainly see his point and agree with it to some extent. But it’s also hard for me to believe skill (or, you know, magic swords) don’t help. I do see (and would have the same reaction were I in his place) his feeling of being reassured by the idea that the gods themselves are hindered/bound by happenstance.
Another nice contrast between scenes—the wide open seas in the fleet scenes and this cramped, confining cave in this one. The huge numbers of opposing forces in the former and the two on one (or is it two?) in this one.
Lot of questioning of whether or not Kyle is “up to it” I don’t remember my first read, but I’m thinking I’d have guessed we were being set up for proof that he was.
That tiny word Noz uses—“minor” in “We’ve achieved great things with what minor alchemies they were willing to trade with us.” Makes one think we might see something “not minor” coming up. Their brazier and alchemy signaling is also a nice bit of foreshadowing.
And then we get it. Poor Devaleth, to see her people not just killed, not just in numbers, but burned to death. That has to be a horrible sight (not to mention sound and scent). Is it any more “barbaric” than regular killing, as Devaleth and Nok debate? This is not the first time the Moranth munitions have been looked at askance and it will not be the last. Is there such a thing as “uncivilized” war? Perhaps we should ask the resident of Dresden or Tokyo? Nagasaki and Hiroshima? The group now in Syria dismantling chemical weapons responsible for killing 1% of those who lost their life in that war?
We’ve talked a lot about how cinematic this series can be in places and I’d say this is absolutely one of those. The two fleets facing off, the flash and flare and flame (colored flame) of the munitions, the ramming, the grapnels shooting out, the wreathing smoke. That great moment of Nok’s flagship narrowly passing by the Mare war galley and Nok saluting the Mare tillerman (love that moment!). The pirate-movie-like boarding party. The Ruse magic killing the marine.
I wonder how often one of the Malazans opponents had felt not just “humbled” but “shattered.”
It’s hard to believe nobody had thought about boarding a ramming Mare ship, to be honest, but nonetheless, I do like this scene with Rillish. Even more so, I like his “let’s get another.”
Captain Peles: The Wolves are strong with this one…
Well, Kyle so far is up to the job. Or at least, his magic sword is. I have to say that Kyle has never been my favorite character, so my “is he up to it” is different than the characters’. We’ll have to see…
Amongst all the warfare and horror and tension, the moments with Sketh and the Mare are a nice bit of comic relief.
It’s nice to see a different sort of battle, and I thought this was handled quite well. Other reactions?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.