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 Chapter Four of House of Chains by Steven Erikson (HoC).
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 spoilers thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
After a few days of travel, Torvald and Karsa enter a village and Torvald purchases a sword, complaining that the merchant spoke Malazan but wouldn’t admit it. Karsa says the Malazans in Genabaris had mentioned that Seven Cities would rebel and says this is why the Teblor way is better—instead of conquering they let the enemy keep their land so the Teblor can raid over and over. Torvald says the imperial way is “Possession and control . . . no doubt the Malazans have thought up countless justifications . . . It’s well known that Seven Cities was a rat’s warren of feuds and civil wars, leaving most of the population suffering and miserable and starving . . . and that with the Malazan conquest, the thugs ended up spiked . . . or on the run. And the wilder tribes no longer sweep down out of the hills . . . And the tyranny of the priesthoods was shattered, putting an end to human sacrifice and extortion. And of course, the merchants have never been richer, or safer on the roads. So, all in all, this land is rife for rebellion.” Karsa stares at him, then replies, “yes, I can see how that would be true,” to which Torvald responds: “you’re learning friend.” When Karsa refers to the “lessons of civilization,” Torvald says “just so. There’s little value in seeking to find reasons for why people do what they do . . . Hatred is a most pernicious weed, finding root in any soil. It feeds on itself.” As they walk through the village, they pick up signs not all is right, then realize they are walking into an ambush. They are caught between two groups (Arak tribesmen) totaling about 50 men with bows. Karsa asks how much damage the bows could do and Torvald says enough: “a year ago and Karsa would have attacked nonetheless. Now he simply reslung his bloodsword.” They are shackled and chained, Karsa so tightly as to cut off the blood to his hands and feet. Silgar appears, leading the men, and says he’s fine with that result. Karsa is knocked out and wakes tied to a sled amidst the Arak camp, his hands and feet numb and already turning blue. Torvald stuffs his and Karsa’s clothes with grass and nudges them against the small campfire sending up easily noticed flames/light. The Arak quickly decamp, muttering “Gral” with fear.
As one of the Arak puts his knife to Torvald’s neck, a group of Gral suddenly attack. The Arak slices Torvald’s neck then is killed. Damisk and Silgar escape via magic with Karsa, leaving the writhing Torvald behind. They arrive in a city and Silgar orders Karsa unshackled as the city is under Malazan control and they don’t abide slavery unless the slave is branded a criminal (which Karsa is not). When they unshackle him, Karsa screams in pain, then continues, throwing off the magic Silgar tries to hit him with. He goes unconscious just as he hears a group of Malazan soldiers confronting Silgar and demanding to see Karsa’s brand when Silgar claims they are just subduing an escaped slave.
As he swims back into consciousness he hears a Malazan healer saying he’d never seen such fast healing before and that any normal person would have needed their limbs amputated. The two Malazans wonder if he is a Fenn due to his size. Karsa pretends to still be unconscious as the Malazans leave, then sits up to find himself sharing a small room with a stranger who speaks a Seven Cities language, then switches to Malazan. The stranger tells him Silgar and Damisk have been arrested and are in the stocks, but had told them Karsa was en route to the Otataral mines and had cursed the ship to destruction. Karsa is being sent to the mines again, as is the stranger. He mentions Silgar has been collared on the ankle with an Otataral anklet, which he explains is a powdery rusty-colored substance that defies magic. Karsa says they use something similar to make their blood-oil, which they use on the swords, armor, and taste before battle. When the stranger asks how well magic works on him, Karsa replies not very well at all. The stranger tells him the Malazans control Otataral production very tightly and believe it to only be found on Otataral island and warns Karsa to not let it slip there is another source or the Empire will try to crush his people. When Karsa says “The Teblor have many enemies,” the stranger laughs at what they call themselves. Before he can say why, though, a group of soldiers enters to transport them. They tell Karsa he’s been tattooed as an escaped prisoner: “‘shattered, the other prisoner said, ‘the brand makes your face look like it’s been shattered.” As they move, the soldiers discuss how their Fist is “cowering in his keep” and how they worry that regiments (such as the Ashok we met earlier) from Seven Cities might join the rebellion if it happens. When they were passing Silgar in the stocks, Karsa asks what will happen to him. When the soldier mentions Silgar’s claim that he is rich back in Genabackis and Karsa mocks a system that would let Silgar buy freedom, the soldier tells him that doesn’t happen under Imperial law if the crimes are serious, but he may be just fined—which for a merchant hurts a lot. Karsa is chained (more humanely) alongside his cellmate, who proposes the two partner to guard each other’s back in the mines. At night, Torvald Nom appears with some Gral and trading agents of the House of Nom. He frees both Karsa and his partner. Torvald tells Karsa the Gral saved him to try and ransom him. He adds his kin have offered him a place, but the Gral won’t take Karsa, as he is too noticeable. The stranger offers Karsa a place of safety and Karsa agrees to go with him. As the alarm rings out, Torvald gives Karsa his bloodsword that he’d saved from before and tells Karsa to come to Darujhistan in a few years to visit. The stranger leads Karsa out of the city, passing through a doorway held by a man named Mebra. Outside, the stranger tells him it will take some days of travel to reach safety. Karsa warns him he will not be taken prisoner again and the stranger says Karsa is free to head off his own way at any time.
The next day Karsa and the stranger are pursued by horsemen; the stranger suspects Mebra betrayed him. When they can’t lose them, the stranger concludes they have a mage. Karsa decides he will attack them at dark.
Night falls and the stranger and Karsa spy on the pursuers, which include Silgar and Damisk. Karsa attacks, killing several and driving others off. He cuts off Silgar’s hands and feet, then binds them so Silgar doesn’t die: “he has not earned swift death. He is as a mad dog, to be driven into a hut and killed . . . once I have driven him mad.”
Eight days later they cross a path and look over the desert Raraku. Karsa asks why his people’s name—Teblor—continually amuses the stranger. The stranger tells him: “Your kind walked this earth when the T’lan Imass were still flesh. From your blood came the Barghast and the Trell. You are Thelomen Toblakai.” He then names himself Leoman, and says he serves Sha’ik.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Four:
Hmm, a pointed jibe at Keeper from Laseen, I think: “Has a drowned Napan’s body ever surfaced?” I’m glad people said in the comments that it was merely a minor aside and not really something I should have been picking up because I was really worried I’d missed something major, since I couldn’t identify anyone who might have been masquerading as Keeper!
The start of Chapter Four only reminds me more clearly (on top of our other visit to Seven Cities and Raraku) of Arabian culture—dark skin, tribes, rebellion, admired horses, etc. I like to see Erikson exploring multiple cultures. He certainly can’t be accused of just sticking with the faux medieval setting that many fantasy novels suffer from.
The point: “Oh, no doubt the Malazans have thought up countless justifications for their wars of expansion” really does push home the question of why exactly the Malazans are constantly invading and setting out their rules on everyone. Warfare tends to occur because of either greed (more land), control (over a people, culture) or religion. The Malazans don’t seem to follow any of these—except maybe control, and creating a world where every country fits the mould of zero slavery, just government, etc. But even that seems a bit daft!
Torvald’s sense of humour and gentle teaching of Karsa in the ways of “civilization” really tickles me. I love it where he says, “So, all in all, this land is rife for rebellion” after listing all the ways that the Malazans have benefited Seven Cities.
The Daru people really do have a very distinctive character, don’t they? And we’ve seen Torvald’s predictions come to pass, concerning how the Darujhistans dealt with the threat of invasion—lots of talking, lots of politicking and, eventually, causing the Malazans no end of trouble.
Karsa is growing as a person, isn’t he? By not taking on stupid odds in a fight simply because he believes himself to be better than the lowlanders?
Poor Karsa and Torvald, with the latter’s muttered “Beru forfend, not again” when it comes to chains. They really have suffered, haven’t they? Although if they hadn’t been through everything that they have, I think Karsa would have charged into those conducting the ambush regardless of odds. The constant captivity has allowed him the freedom of thought.
Ah, Silgar, how I hate you. Let me count the ways….
Erikson puts his character through the wringer: “Karsa’s face was a mass of bruises, his eyes almost swollen shut, his tongue and the inside of his mouth cut and nicked by his own teeth. He looked down at his hands. They were blue, the finger-tips darkening to black.” Ugh!
Heh, Gral brings back terrible memories of Graal from the Sword of Truth series….
Oh my God! Torvald! Dead? I mean, I know Erikson and it is a case of ”wait until you see the body,“ but he also likes his shocking sudden deaths. I don’t want Torvald to die!
This is the second time that Karsa has been questioned about being a Fenn. Is that going to be another name for the Teblor? Or is there another offshoot of the Teblor people that are called Fenns? For Erikson to say it once could be just part of the flavour of the novel. I feel that when something is said twice, we are meant to take note. “Giants no-one’s seen for decades at that.”
He thought back to Torvald Nom’s death. There was a coldness surrounding the memory, but he could sense all that it held at bay.
Karsa really does feel liking and compassion for Torvald, doesn’t he?
Hah, nice to feel, for once, waaaay ahead for the game where Erikson’s hints and tips are concerned. I am pretty smug about the fact I spotted the Otataral/blood-oil link from the first chapter. *grins*
Hmm, I’m struck with some foreboding and foreshadowing when I read the line, “Reveal nothing of this to the Malazans. If they discover there is another source of otataral, a source they do not control, well, they will send into your homeland—wherever that is—every regiment they possess. They will crush your people. Utterly.”
Is he laughing because he knows that Teblor = Toblakai?
A shattered face… A tattooed face… That is tickling something in my memory, but I have no clue what it is!
I have to confess to a great deal of pleasure at seeing Silgar and one of his minions in the stocks. Something he definitely deserves, after the very nasty treatment of Karsa! Who… hang on… rapes and murders. Oh. Just call me “confused.”
Ah, the fact that the blue-eyed stranger’s name is being withheld suggests that either it will be a shocking revelation or he will not remain in the story for too long.
Torvald! *crows* Still alive!
Wow, such a shocking little aside: “All this talk and I’m surprised everyone else in this line isn’t awake—”
“They would be, only they’re all dead.”
Oooh, I remember Mebra! In Deadhouse Gates, wasn’t he the one who guided Kalam into Raraku when he was to pass over the book? (Apologies, slightly rusty recall of the start of Deadhouse Gates). Heh, I do remember Membra being less than trustworthy and so he proves again…
Now this really is savage. I approved of Silgar being in the stocks, but this is truly barbaric, as his limbs are cut off by Karsa and the blood stopped so that he will suffer a slow death. Geez, and we thought Karsa had grown as a person! Can’t see much evidence of it here!
“You are Thelomen Toblakai.” Yay! I also realised that quite early on. But OH! I did not guess that Karsa is the Toblakai who accompanies Sha’ik! Wow *admiration* All the hints have been there, haven’t they? And I even skirted round some of them as I read up to this point. Good job, Erikson. *grins*
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Four:
Torvald’s little summary of events in Seven Cities is an interesting one. We’ve seen it remarked upon several times that the Malazan Empire, whatever its intent (which we’re not quite sure of I’d say) does bring some material benefits when it conquers. And Torvald lists a slew of them—an end to tribal feuds and civil wars, to raids by outlying tribes, seemingly effective imposition of law, reduction of governmental and religious corruption, safer roads, better and more lucrative trade, reduction in general starvation and misery. What are the tradeoffs for all of this? And what drives people (outside of those who profited in some way by the older ways) to rebel against such benefits? Sheer cussedness at having things—even good things—imposed upon them? Automatic dislike/hatred of “the outsider”? Shame at having been conquered? Resistance to assimilation, to a broad movement toward more similarity and less diversity? (Though as Whiskeyjack pointed out at one point, the Empire at its “best” revels in diversity.) We had this discussion before with Rake and Brood et. al. Are we as readers meant to see the Empire is mostly, if not entirely, a benevolent creation/actor? Or are we supposed to see it as more grey?
“…form an opinion, say it often enough and pretty soon everyone’s saying it right back at you, and then it becomes a conviction, fed by unreasoning anger…”
Glad this only happens in a fantasy world. And glad that fantasy is nothing but “escapism” with little to no connection to our real world or lives, with little to no opportunity/ability for commentary on our real world….
I like how the ambush is set up so smoothly and subtly: Torvald noticing the penned goats, Karsa sniffing horses, the road narrowing into an arch, the lack of locals, shuttered windows
Karsa. Chains. Again.
Poor Torvald. He did say his act might cost him his life. Though we don’t know if Torvald is dead—a knife tearing across a throat and blood “spattering” are never good signs, but he was still alive when Karsa last sees him. Friends of Karsa (hmm, FoK for short? Probably not a good one to use….) don’t seem to last very long, do they?
Speaking of which, here comes another jailtime romance. I love Karsa’s dry “Are you, by any chance, from Darujhistan?” when the stranger’s word play reminds him of Torvald.
Replaying the same pattern we’ve seen before, after a few subtle hints to a running mystery, we get a much more clear set of answers—in this case to the connection between blood-oil and otataral. It does raise the question as to where the otataral in Karsa’s homeland comes from. Could it be from the convergence of power/force that was the Spirit Wars. They did, after all, involve a (at least one) Jaghut, lots of T’lan Imass, Icarium, and a Forkrul Assail. That’s a high-powered meeting.
Somebody else who finds the name Teblor amusing.
Hmm, so Karsa’s tattoo makes his face look “shattered.” Probably no significance though….
The reappearance of Torvald—that didn’t take long. I confess though, I wasn’t a fan of this little play with the reader, even though it only lasted a few pages. The whole knife tearing his throat and blood spattering but thanks to the guy being “distracted” it wasn’t fatal felt just a little cheap to me. Not a big deal, but still… However, I am glad Torvald didn’t die; I do like him. Which makes me sad he drops off so early here.
Another direct connection to Deadhouse Gates: our old friend Mebra. Mr. Reliable.
And this, I think, is where if one hasn’t made the other direct connection to DG and Karsa, that connection starts to come into view. The pieces are all there. Karsa as a Toblakai. A stranger he partners with who is a rebel leader against the Malazans, who knows Mebra, who is connected to the Whirlwind.
Another little bit of irony with regard to the “barbarian” and those who are “civilized: it was also obvious that among the lowlanders, there was no sense of any other sort of loyalty. Karsa was Uryd, but he was also Teblor. The lowlanders seemed so obsessed with their differences that they had no comprehension of what unified them.”
And just as we credit Karsa with some good qualities, he goes and lops off the hands and feet of Silgar and saves him from bleeding out so he can drive him mad. So we’ve seen cruelty in battle before from the Teblor—we saw Bairoth and Delum cutting off the hands and feet of the Rathyd warrior if you recall. But is this the same or different? Could this be “civilization” having a deleterious effect on Karsa’s moral code? Karsa himself perhaps wonders that, as when the stranger asks “What value senseless torture” Karsa hesitates and sighs. And then we get a direct connection to that dog in the opening: “The slavemaster is not as a soldier—he has not earned swift death. He is as a mad dog, to be driven into a hut and killed.” Of coure, just because Karsa uses the same language as our narrator doesn’t mean our author means Karsa’s answer has to be THE interpretation, or even a correct one. Anyone?
And then we get the big reveal—the stranger is Leoman and Karsa is Deadhouse Gates‘ Toblakai. As I said earlier, the pieces were there to pick up on a few pages back, but I do think this was a very effective moment in the book and a nice way to make a reader who maybe had been struggling both with character (“Boy I hate this Karsa guy!”) and plot (“what happened to Picker and Blend and Fiddler and Rake and Paran and and and”)
I’ll be curious if folks breathe a sigh of relief as they turn the page and move away from Karsa for a time….
Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.
Amanda Rutter contributes reviews and a regular World Wide Wednesday post to fantasyliterature.com, as well as reviews for her own site floortoceilingbooks.com (covering more genres than just speculative), Vector Reviews and Hub magazine.