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 half of chapter three 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.
In the capital of the “once sovereign” Kingdom of Rool—the Fortress Paliss, Yeull ‘ul Taith, once a commander of the Malazan Sixth Army, now sits as Overlord of Fist. He meets with his mage Ussu, and with Borun, spokesperson of the Black Moranth. Borun, who was shipwrecked on Fist 15 years ago, has since become Yeull’s second, leader of the “Black Hands.” As he faces Yeull, Ussu, who now seeks power by “other, darker means,” recalls how they’ve gotten to this point: first the ouster of Greymane, then killing the governor, then killing Fist Udara, and now Yeull. Ussu tells Yeull that their prisoner is calling for the Overlord and refusing to speak to anyone else. Yeull clearly dreads this, but eventually agrees.
They walk through many locked doors and deep passages. On their way, Ussu notes how old they’re all getting, and wonders who will carry on once the original Malazan officers pass on. He considers the new generation of non-Malazans a “pampered aristocracy.” Korel, it appears, has decided to just accept that the Malazans now control Rook, and plans to simply wait them out until they fade away. Recalling that it had been Kellanved himself who had tasked Ussu with dominating this region in the first invasion, he feels a pit of anger and frustration at his failure. He remembers the Emperor telling him that is had nothing to do with resources, but it was “about recasting the deck entirely . . . To create true fundamental change you must force a complete reshuffling and recasting of all hands.”
He unlocks a door deep, deep down, thinking of the “immense crater lake” of the island. He remembers how they’d found this prisoner down here when they’d taken power from the Roolian dynasty. They reach a sarcophagus, remove long metal spikes driven into it, then speak to the prisoner, called Cherghem. The prisoner tells the terrified Yeull, “They are coming for you... Your superiors,” adding they are coming from the East and are led by Stonewielder, whose sword he senses. Yeull, Ussu, and the Moranth exit, with Borun saying he and his thousand-plus Black Moranth are pledged to obey Yeull. Ussu says he’ll let Mare know another invasion fleet is coming, and maybe Mare will wipe this one out as they had the other.
We are introduced to Tal, First of the Chase, commander of a Jhek war party; her second in command, Hemtl; and a third, older one named Ruk. They are chasing a group of trespassers on their land, but so far the foreigners have managed to escape each attempted ambush. Ruk says the land senses Tellann and when Hemtl says that’s impossible, Tal replied “The Elders still walk the land. Logros, Kron, Ifayle. The path is still open—we have just lost the way.” Hemtl says the Broken God offers another way, but Ruk scorns him as “not of the land.” Tal decides to take Ruk and try to speak to the invaders.
Tal and Ruk catch up to the four trespassers—three men and one woman—who admit they owe compensation for the caribou they’d killed (they’d thought the land empty). The four introduce themselves as Blues, Fingers, Lazar, and Shell of the Crimson Guard, whom Tal recalls ruled Stratem in her grandfather’s time. Hemtl appears with the war party surrounding the Guardfolk and when Tal says she and Ruk hadn’t planned this betrayal, Blues says he believes her. She tries to rein in Hemtl, but he stabs her.
Tal eventually comes to being dragged on a travois by her people. Ruk tells her he killed Hemtl and that the foreigners had healed her, then left to rescue a friend.
Kiska and Jheval find themselves in the realm of Shadow (the “Kingdom of the Deceiver” to Jheval). As they walk, Kiska asks if she and he are enemies and he says no, though once perhaps, saying he recognizes her as a Claw. She’s impressed when he says he’d been stalked by many, but he says his friend killed most of them; he (Jhevel) is better at living than killing. Kiska admits she’d trained as a Claw and had been offered a Hand, but she refused to serve as a bodyguard. They come across the apparent corpse of a K’Chain Che’Malle Kell hunter, though it turns out not to be fully dead and it manages to knock Kiska out before Jheval drags her away. She tells them they have to get out of there before the Hounds of Shadow return, saying they’d killed the Kell Hunter (she saw a massive paw print).
At the Isle of Skytower, in the middle of the Tower Sea, Marshall Colberant—the commander of the most isolated fortress of the Korelri Chosen—is called in after several bodies are discovered. A young chosen named Javus shows him about a dozen bodes, all strangely desiccated. Javus tells him his homeland—near the Fist Sea—sees similar “things,” but Colberant says these people are simply drowned fishermen and Javus is to keep quiet about it.
As he heads back, Colberant thinks he has to notify Hiam immediately and the “supply launch” readied, thinking how Skytower protects, “the Order’s holiest of relics, including . . . the gift responsible for the founding of our Order, given from the hand of the Blessed Lady herself.”
Ivanr makes camp with the boy, who asks if he (the boy) is evil, saying his father told him he and his brothers and sisters were in “the sight of the Lady and had to die for it.” Ivanr tells him his father was led astray. They are interrupted by scouts from an approaching army, who tell Ivanr he’s been pressed into service in the Army of Reform. He responds he’s a pacifist and the scout leader laughs at the idea of a Thel pacifist.
As they’re escorted to the army’s leader, a man named Beneth, Ivanr wonders if it’s the same old heretic mystic he’d heard tales of for many years. He worries about the rise of an army of religious fanatics. He’s separated from the boy, who is taken to the other refugees, then brought to Beneth’s tent. Inside is Beneth, a Jourilan aristocrat and former army officer (now cavalry commander) named Hegil, and a woman—Martal of Katakan and the army’s commander. Hegil describes Ivanr to the blind Beneth, who guesses his identity immediately, saying he had been forewarned by the Priestess that Ivanr might come to them. Beneth somewhat scarily guesses Ivanr’s exact plan to head off and lose himself and tries to convince him to stay, saying they’ve all been “drawn” here for some unknown reason. Ivanr refutes that idea, and Beneth asks him to at least listen to his story so he might have a sense of what they’re trying to accomplish. He tells Ivanr he was born long before the Malazans came and ever since birth he’d had visions: “Shadows of other things. These things spoke to me, showed me strange visions.” Though his parents tried to beat them out of him, he persisted in using them, and eventually the Lady’s examiners came and blinded him with hot irons when he was fourteen. He was left to die, but he survived with anew kind of vision, “of a land like this but subtly different—a kind of shadow version... I was shown that these lands are in the grip of a great evil, a monstrous deformation of life... that must be rooted out and cleansed.” Ivanr thinks he needs to stop this, talk to the Priestess, before these refugees get slaughtered by the Jourilian army. Beneth tells him they aren’t fighting the Jourilian army/Emperor, adding he believes it is no coincidence Ivanr found his way to them. Ivanr heads off to sleep.
Hegil, Martal, and Beneth discuss that which he left out: that there is a pacifist cult of Ivanr and it is growing. And that hundreds if not more have been imprisoned/tortured/killed in his name for refusing service. Beneth says he thought to spare Ivanr that burden for as long as he can.
Oh man! Talk about a signpost… “Who was to know that he, Ussu, once a mage of little note within the Empire, now pursued power by other, darker, means?” That line could have come directly from a fantasy parody novel. It’s just way too much!
Having said that, it does prompt me into thinking about what those darker means are, so maybe highlighting it so strongly does achieve what it needs to?
Poor Yeull—our introduction to him isn’t too promising. That list of people who have filled the role and then left for various reasons… well, it reads a little bit like the drummers from Spinal Tap.
And then Yeull definitely doesn’t seem completely in his right mind, does he? Lots of wandering from thought to thought, and only really sharpening up when insisting that he’s referred to as Overlord.
Esslemont writes well about this grim and lonely prospect of the Malazan soldiers fading to nothing, soldier by soldier, dying out and leaving behind their sons and daughters as pampered aristocracy.
Hmm, I wonder if Kellanved has taken his ascribed method of conquering into ascendancy, in terms of the long endgame he and Dancer are currently working towards: “Everywhere, for every region—for every person—hands are dealt from the Dragons deck. To create true fundamental change you must force a complete reshuffling and recasting of all hands.” Is Kellanved doing that as Shadowthrone? (eep, only just read Bill’s commentary and realised he picked out the same thought! This makes me wonder… With Erikson, Bill and I often comment on different things, ideas and quotes in each chapter. In Esslemont we are often taking the same things from chapter—is that an indication of a simpler, more linear story?)
So Cherghem is instantly mysterious, with his manner of speaking that is done in italics and not within speech marks… Is he talking mind to mind?
And this seems to suggest that the Malazan force we saw Greymane take command of is intended to take back control of this part of Rool (rival to Korelri)? It also seems that we may get a chance to see the Moranth in battle, which will be interesting considering that they are deemed so formidable.
Nice little switch of pace to the scene with Tal, Hemtl and Ruk—with a lot of tidbits to pick up, such as Tellann being sensed, the fact that they are possibly tracking Forkrul, and this: “the Broken God beckons.”
So fantastic, this scene where Ruk and Tal catch up with the four strangers crossing their land and discover them to be Crimson Guard. Blues, especially, comes across very well, with his gentle tones but his implacable “You’d better” that had Tal rushing to try and prevent Hemtl from causing more problems. It was a little shock to see Tal almost killed. Looks like these Crimson Guard are going to try and rescue Iron Bars from the Stormwall!
“We are in the Shadow Realm.”
“The Kingdom of the Deceiver.” See, I wonder about this. Who, in the Shadow Realm, would class as the Deceiver? I mean, we’ve seen a number of folks associated with Shadow now, so wondering which of them it might be? Shadowthrone? Edgewalker? Some other?
I like the interplay between Kiska and Leoman—sorry, Jhevel. For me, it’ll be interesting to see these two characters, who I’ve ended up not so fond of in the past. So far, I’m reluctantly liking them.
D’you know something? I would give an awful lot to see a K’Chain Che’Malle Kell Hunter on screen! They sound amazing. And I love this scene where the two of them are hovering over this one as it awakes.
These desiccated people? Are they in that state because of something the Lady has done? I wasn’t quite clear on this part of the chapter.
And then a cool section with Ivanr to round off the chapter. He’s emerging as a character that I enjoy reading about, and I think his story—of being a pacifist Grand Champion—still has a great distance to run...
I always like when we see some Moranth. I’m glad we learn about them in bits and drabs and don’t ever find out too much—I like they stay somewhat mysterious.
On the other hand, I wasn’t a fan of Ussu’s “Who was to know that he... now pursued power by other, darker, means” line. Feels a bit clumsy to me, and forced, with some organ da-da-duh music behind it.
Nice image of Yeull as a man barely hanging on for dear life to that plank amidst a storm.
And you get a pretty quick sense of that, with the shadows, the “I’m so cold” despite the roaring fire, the paranoia (justified it seems based on what happened to the prior fists ’round here), the drinking.
I like the parallel we have between the Stormguard chosen and this renegade 6th army—growing older, fewer soldiers, empty rooms and halls, that sense of kids these days—so entitled, so pampered, and finally that sense of an impending ending: “until they faded away. As surely they would, soldier by soldier, until nothing was left but for mouldering armour and dusty pennants.”
“To create true fundamental change you must force a complete reshuffling and recasting of all hands.” Sure, Kellanved was talking about Korel, but should we perhaps assume this is still his strategy, albeit on a far larger scale, involving gods and more than one or two lands? And if so, what is he planning (along with Cotillion)? How is he going to “reshuffle things”?
This is a nice visual scene, the visit to the prisoner—I like picturing the long walk through emptier and emptier halls, through one locked door after another, always heading downward, then away from lanterns and finished walls into rough rock tunnels lit by sputtering torches, past the torture instruments to end at this sarcophagus with the spikes impaling the prisoner within. Great horror visuals (including the “thick black fluid, blood of a kind, dripp [ing] from their needle tips.” And I also like the mystery of this Cherghem—we’ll have to see if he reappears later, but for now I enjoy not knowing much about him/her/it.
So here, if one can trust Cherghem, comes at least one motive for the coming invasion by Rel—to chastise this renegade army who is now serving itself. Certainly, if you’re an empire, you can’t let this sort of thing slide. This seems to be a bit of a theme in the series—this renegade army (even if it’s only pretend, as with Dujek’s Host way, way, way back).
Interesting that Cherghem can sense Greymane’s sword.
That last line of Ussu’s about how maybe Mare will wipe out the Malazan fleet like before, doesn’t seem to bode well for Greymane. But it does perhaps bode well for any reader who might enjoy a naval battle or two (remember that cool word from the prior chapter!)
Well, the end of this scene—what Hemtl does—is set up pretty early, as Tal imagines his “boyish sulk” the very first time he is introduced. Then we see his defensiveness and ambition just a few lines later as Tal thinks “You are second, Hemtl. Ruk did not seek the position. No need to remind anyone—except yourself.” Nice bit of characterization and foreshadowing there.
Not a bad idea as well to give us a reminder of the Forkul—seems likes it’s been a while and we don’t want to forget about them, now do we?
That’s an interesting connection there—that Ruk sense Tellann with regard to the Crimson Guard (they do share a deathless vow of vengeance after all)
I do like the portrayal of the Guard here—the way they don’t turn on the Jhek when they easily could have wiped them out, their willingness to compensate them for their accidental harm to the tribe, their belief in Tal that she hadn’t meant to deceive/trap them (Blues “gentle” belief), how they even then are letting her try to prevent violence, and of course their willingness to heal. Also, I think we can all perhaps guess just who they might be trying to rescue...
“in the name of all the buggering Faladah.” Love that opening line.
A few more hints re Jhevel—he was a “bodyguard” or something akin, he’s been hunted by Claws, he had a more powerful friend who killed a lot of Claws, and he survives.
So who is right about the Hounds of Shadow killing the K’Chain Che’Malle—Jhevel who says it couldn’t have been the Hounds or Kiska who says it was?
This is an excellent bit of theater/structure here with these desiccated bodies—a quick little in and out interruption of main storylines to give us a mystery (what happened to these bodies, how does Colberant recognize them, is this some sort of attack on that chest the Lady gave up early on, and if so, what will happen to the Wall if this attack succeeds? A nice bit of teasing suspense.
Well, that’s a little grim, huh? That whole “Am I evil . . . My father . . . said we were evil in the sight of the Lady and had to die for it.” Will this child be a cast-off kind of character, or will we see him again once he’s taken from Ivanr? And if we do, will he be healed or not?
Anyone else want to know what “fearsome blow” did that to Martal’s nose?
It’s a bit interesting, and perhaps doesn’t bode well for his whole “I don’t want anything to do with war” mindset that Ivanr’s first thought at the introductions is a tactical one with regard to chain of command when he learns Martal is in charge of organizing the forces and Hegil commands the cavalry.
I do get what Ivanr means with the “10 spearmen who knew what they were doing” could stop him from leaving camp, and that the hit squad sent to get him weren’t really supposed to know what they were doing, but it does seem that perhaps one wouldn’t want to mention this so soon after the usual one-guy-takes-one-a-large-number scene (I’m always so skeptical of those anyway, Thel or no Thel).
Boy, we’re really not feeling a lot of the good with regard to the Lady, are we?
I really like how Esslemont gives us this from Ivanr about the Priestess—“this refugee rubble marching to be mowed down... Mass murder. All in her name. Someone had to make her see the her responsibility for all these death”—to this from Beneth about Ivanr—How many more have been imprisoned or tortured to death? All in his name... No, I would spare him that burden.” This is just a great writerly move and it’s one I’m not sure the Night of Knives Esslemont would have made and is one of the reasons I considered this his best book when it came out.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.