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 Seven of House of Chains by Steven Erikson (HoC).
Just a note for today that Amanda has had to deal with a sudden crisis and so may or may not be commenting this week. She sends her apologies.
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.
Back near Sha’ik’s camp in Raraku, Heboric is climbing up a rise to collect hen’bara flowers on it, which can be dried and steeped to make a soothing tea. Heboric thinks how life cannot be “bloodless. Spill that of those blocking your path. Spill your own. Struggle on . . . with all the frenzy that is the brutal unveiling of self-preservation. The macabre dance in the tugging currents held no artistry, and to pretend otherwise was to sink into delusion.” He believes he has no delusions any longer; “He had drowned them one by one with his own hands.” For others in the camp, however, he thinks “such clear-eyed vision was absent . . . guided by a will . . . that was drowning in delusions.” His bemoans that his vision has been failing, as well as the fact that he is trapped in the desert, the Whirlwind wall impassable in either direction. He is joined atop the ridge by Felisin’s adopted daughter—Felisin Younger, who carries scrolls of Felisin’s poem “Call to Shadow, a continuation of a poem by Felisin’s own mother. Felisin Younger tells Heboric that Korbolo Dom, whom army he has named “dogslayers,” is afraid and lists whom he is afraid of when Heboric rejects the idea: Leoman. Toblakai. Bidithal. L’oric. Mathok. And the one he finds most terrifying of all: Sha’ik” She adds that Felisin has banished Mallick Rel and Pullyk Alar, and Dom sees that as the removal of two of his allies. Heboric tells her “the Whirlwind Goddess whispers in the Chosen One’s ears. There are secrets with the Warren of Shadow . . . containing truths that are relevant to the Whirlwind itself . . . The sundering of an ancient warren scattered fragments throughout the realms. The Whirlwind Goddess possesses power, but it was not her own, not at first. Just one more fragment, wandering, lost and in pain. What was the goddess, I wonder, when she first stumbled onto the Whirlwind? Some desert tribe’s minor deity, I suspect . . . it did not take her long for her to destroy her old rivals.” Felisin Younger questions how that explains all that came afterward—the Seven Holy Cities, the prophecy of Dryjhna, etc. Heboric answers that religions feed on each other, coopt other myths. Seven cities, he says, built upon an earlier legacy—an ancient civilization that itself was built upon the ruins of an even older one—the First Empire of the T’lan Imass. Anything that is still recalled is mere chance. Felisin Younger tells him she was sent to say Leoman wanted to see him in the pit temple. The two return to camp and Heboric, noting its “ills” sees it as a microcosm of Seven Cities and as proof that the Empire’s conquest was beneficial as it ameliorated or removed many of them. Passing through the Circle of Temples, he thinks of how the children that once thronged there have been adopted by Felisin: “her private retinue, the Whirlwind cult’s own acolytes . . . over three thousand.” The act had angered the pimps exploiting the children. As they prepare to head down to the pit temple, Heboric thinks how Sha’ik had looked into Leoman’s soul “and found it empty, bereft of faith, by some flaw of nature inclined to disavow all forms of certainty.” She could no longer trust him fully and so put him as second to her general Mathok. Heboric recalls the rumors that Karsa and Leoman has once “shared a chain” as Malazan prisoners. Felisin leaves and Heboric climbs down into the pit temple, which smells of Leoman’s durhang use. Leoman tells Heboric that Bidithal is “back to his old ways . . . with children . . . Girls. His unpleasant hungers.” When Heboric asks what Leoman expects him to do about it, as Felisin appears to no longer listen to him while Bidithal is her High Mage. Leoman says that all three of them (Heboric, Leoman, Karsa) care about Felisin Younger and she has “caught Bidithal’s eye. But that attention is more than simply sexual . . . Bidithal believes she must be shaped in a manner identical to her mother . . . As the mother was broken inside, so too must the child be broken inside.” Heboric says Sha’ik should be told, but Leoman says she has been, but because she needs Bidithal to balance out Febryl and L’oric (the other High Mages), she won’t do anything outright, but has told Leoman, Karsa, and Heboric to “be watchful.” In response to Heboric saying Bidithal should just be killed, Leoman says Bidithal actually isn’t the problem; he may in fact be Sha’ik’s savior as he will divulge Febryl’s co-conspirators when Febryl invites him into the conspiracy. Right now Leoman is only sure of L’oric, but he says traitors could be Dom, Kamist Reloe, the lesser mages Henaras and Fayelle. Heboric worries that all the command structure might be compromised, but Leoman says it won’t matter: Sha’ik has the Whirlwind, she has Mathok and him to lead the armies, and L’oric as a mage, but Dom is more of a liability than a plus. Heboric realizes then that Leoman lied, that Sha’ik actually hasn’t been told and this is a way for Leoman to get back into her good graces. Leoman says Heboric is partly right—Sha’ik was told that Bidithal was harming girls again, but wasn’t told anything about Felisin Younger. Furious, Heboric leaves. Karsa thinks he’ll go straight to Sha’ik, but Leoman says he won’t, not to Sha’ik.
Looking at the temple Bidithal now resides in, Heboric recalls how Bidithal had not always been a High Mage; he had once been the archpriest of the Cult of Rashan, a cult which long pre-dated Kellanved’s claiming of the Throne of Shadow. The cult hadn’t liked the ascension of Shadowthrone and Dancer and had “torn itself apart . . . blood had been spilled within temple walls . . . only those who acknowledged the mastery of the new gods remained among the devotees . . . the banished [such as Bidithal] slunk away.” Heboric believes the fact that the Rashan cult exiles found refuge with the Whirlwind is confirmation of his theory that the Whirlwind is a fragment of the shattered Shadow warren. Which makes him wonder whom Bidithal is loyal to. “The unknown player” he thinks, “the unseen current beneath the rebellion—indeed, beneath the Malazan Empire itself—was the new ruler of Shadow and his deadly companion . . . I now wonder, whose war is this!” Before he can enter Bidithal’s temple, L’oric steps out and warns Heboric that he just was with Bidithal and Bidithal is highly upset over something and short-tempered. L’oric confesses it might have been something he said to Bidithal that upset him. L’oric leaves and Heboric continues, passing Silgar who sits outside Bidithal’s tent, using one of his stumps to draw patterns in the dust, “surrounding himself in linked chains, round and round, each pass obscuring what had been made before.” Inside the tent, it appears Bidithal is talking in gestures with his shadow. He interrupts and Bidithal tells him to step closer; he wants to see if Heboric’s ghost hands have shadows. Heboric refuses and then brings up Bidithal’s “appetites.” Bidithal waves Heboric’s complaints off and Heboric tells him if he even looks at Felisin he’ll kill him. Bidithal says there are plenty of others and when Heboric says all of them are under the protection of Sha’ik and she will not permit it, Bidithal says perhaps Heboric should ask Sha’ik if that is so. He dismisses Heboric, but Heboric pauses, considering whether he should just kill Bidithal now and wondering how Sha’ik could allow him to do what he does. Bidithal warns Heboric that he has resanctified the temple. When Heboric asks if Bidithal really thinks Sha’ik will let him have a temple to Shadowthrone, Bidithal rages “that foreigner? The roots of Meanas are found in an elder warren. Once ruled by . . . Oh, not for you, ex-priest. There are purposes within the Whirlwind. . . Challenge me Ghost Hands and you will know holy wrath.” Heboric informs him he’s known such wrath before, then steps out of the tent. Silgar has gone, leaving behind “an elaborate pattern . . . Chains, surrounding a figure with stumps instead of hands, yet footed.” Heboric scuffs through the pattern as he leaves.
Karsa thinks how Heboric, despite his near-blindness, had “seen clearly enough those trailing ghosts, the wind-moaning train of deaths that stalked him [Karsa] day and night now, loud enough in Toblakai’s mind to drown out the voice of Urugal . . . mortal faces each and every one twisted with the agony and fear that had carved out the moment of dying . . . the children among those victims—children in terms of recently birthed as the lowlanders used the word—had not all fallen to the bloodsword . . . They were . . . the progeny that would never be, the bloodlines severed in the trophy-cluttered cavern of the Teblor’s history.” He wishes for solitude and peace but “the rattle of chains was unceasing, the echoing cries of the slain endless. The name he now goes by—”Toblakai, a name of past glories, of a race of warriors who had stood alongside mortal Imass, alongside coldmiened Jaghut and demonic Forkrul Assail”—he senses is full of “blinding irony,” and he vows vengeance on those who deceived his people, assisted them in their fall, though “the enemy had so many faces.” Karsa knows the Whirlwind is a lesser stepchild of the true power of Raraku itself and recalls how he knelt to Felisin as the reborn Sha’ik not out of faith but relief that he could drag Leoman from the spot where they had failed to protect the first Sha’ik. He knew Felisin was “but a hapless victim that the insane Whirlwind Goddess had simply plucked from the wilderness, a mortal tool that would be used with merciless brutality. That she had proved a willing participant in her own impending destruction was equally pathetic in Karsa’s eyes.” He thinks Felisin is similar to the old Karsa—the Karsa that led his two friends out to attack Silver Lake. Now he is witness to “the madness that was the soul of the Whirlwind Goddess seep[ing] out like poison in the blood to infect every leader among the rebellion.” He believes they rebel, though, not against the Malazan Empire, but against “sanity itself . . . Order. Honorable conduct. Rules of the common as Leoman called them.” Karsa knows that Leoman’s seemingly heavy use of durhang is a sham, that Leoman hasn’t ever actually used the drug but pretends to.
He believes Leoman is “biding his time,” as is Karsa, as is the desert itself: “Raraku waited with them. Perhaps, for them. The Holy Desert possessed a gift, yet it was one that few had ever recognized . . . a gift that would arrive unseen, unnoticed . . . too formless to grasp in the hands as one would a sword.” Leoman has been showing him the secrets of the desert, hidden springs, ancient sea-god temples, petrified remains of ships, fossils, ancient docks and piers, etc. He thinks how “Raraku had known Apocalypse first-hand, millennia past” and he wonders if it really wants to see it again, if the Whirlwind was really aligned with it: “did the goddess war with the desert?” In the grove he’s been walking to, he finds Felisin waiting for him. She says she wanders in the grove to think and says she’s concluded, “The gift of the goddess offers only destruction.” He tells her the grove and its stone will resist and she answers “for a while . . . but there remains that within me that urges creation.” When he suggests she have a baby she laughs. Pointing to the book of prophecies she is reading, she says “There are naught but bones in this tome . . . obsessed with the taking of life, the annihilation of order . . . not once does he [Dryjhna] offer anything in its stead. There is no rebirth among the ashes of his vision.” When she asks if this makes him sad, he brings her deeper into the grove and shows her a clearing ringed with petrified tree trunks, two of which he had carves into shapes of warriors (Bairoth and Delum). She asks if all the trunks will be warriors and he answers that the others will be different. She hears a snake and Karsa tells they always come to watch. She senses power and asks what it is, stating it isn’t the Whirlwind. Karsa agrees but says he doesn’t know what it is, perhaps he says it is the desert itself. Felisin says she thinks it’s actually Karsa’s own power. She asks how many carvings he will make and he says seven more, adding that these two were his friends, his only friends. He then points to them and says “creation.” She tells him she has “resurrected the habit” of writing poetry and he hopes it “serves her well.” She bridles a bit and answers “but that is never its purpose, is it. To serve. Or to yield satisfaction—self-satisfaction . . . the drive to create is something other, isn’t it?” He tells her the answer can only be found “in the search—and searching is at creation’s heart.” When she asks what he was searching for when he carved his friends, he says he doesn’t know, to which she responds, “Perhaps they will tell you, one day.” She thanks him and adds she is “humbled and revived.” He tells her the camp is troubled and she says she knows. As they work their way slowly through the many snakes now surrounding them, she says she should be “alarmed by all this,” and he thinks to himself “it is the least of your worries,” but only says he will keep her updated. She leaves. He turns to begin carving.
Heboric sits alone in his tent, dreading the nightly visions that come of “a face of jade, so massive it challenged comprehension. Power both alien and earthly, as if born of a natural force never meant to be altered. Yet altered it had been, shaped, cursed sentient. A giant buried in otataral, held motionless in an eternal prison.” He wonders who abandoned whom—he Fener or Fener him. He feels sure that someday he’ll have to return to the giant, though he doesn’t know what for. He thinks how he’d always thought Fener had taken his hands “into keeping, to await the harsh justice that was the Tusked One’s right,” but now that Fener had been dragged into this world, “Heboric’s severed hands had found a new master, a master possessed of such immense power that it could war with otataral itself. Yet it did not belong. The giant . . . was an intruder, sent here from another realm for a hidden purpose. And instead of completing that purpose, someone had imprisoned it.” He drinks more hen’bara tea, hoping it will narcotize him and keep the dream visions away. Felisin Younger appears and tells him her mother is calling a counsel. The confusing trip to Sha’ik’s tent reminds him of being led by Baudin out of the mines. He thinks “Tavore, you were not wrong to place your faith in him. It was Felisin who would not co-operate. You should have anticipated that . . . you should have anticipated a lot of things. But not this.” Inside the command tent/”Throne Room” are all the leaders save Leoman and Karsa, including Korbolo Dom, Kamist Reloe, Henaras (“a witch from some desert tribe that had for unknown reasons banished her.”), L’oric, Bidithal, Febryl, Fayelle, and Mathok. Felisin seems excited and she tells Heboric that “distant catastrophes have rocked the Malazan Empire . . . Less than a week [ago]. The warrens have been shaken, one and all, as if by an earthquake.” L’oric then announces, “the brutal reshaping of the pantheon . . . usurpation. Fener, Boar of Summer, has . . . been ousted as the preeminent god of war . . . In his place, the once First Hero Treach. The Tiger of Summer.” Heboric blames himself and Sha’ik and he share a glance of shared knowledge. Dom interrupts and says who cares, “War needs no gods, only mortal contestant . . . and whatever reasons they invent in order to justify killing each other.” When Sha’ik asks what his reasons are, he answers, “I like killing people. It is the one thing I am very good at.” Heboric asks if Dom is referring to “people in general” or does he mean just the Whirlwind’s enemies and Dom simply replies, “As you say.” L’oric continues with the news, telling them that the Beast Throne was taken by Togg and Fanderay and adds “I would suggest personally to those Soletaken and D’ivers among us ‘ware the new occupants . . . They may well come to you eventually to demand that you kneel before them.'” He then laughs about “the poor fools who followed the Path of the Hand,” at which Fayelle says “We were the victims . . . of deception. By minions of Shadowthrone,” and she vows vengeance. L’oric then informs them that Dujek’s army allied with Brood and Rake and Darujhistan to fight the Pannion Domin. He notes how this had been a matter of concern as a Genebackan peace would free Dujek’s Host to work with Tavore to deal with the Rebellion. Dom interrupts to say Tavore isn’t a concern, but Dujek is another matter, especially as Dujek owns his men “body and soul.” “Barring a few spies,” Sha’ik mentions “flatly.” Felisin Younger points out that Dujek had been outlawed, but L’oric says it was just a ruse. As Dom starts to tick off all the bad things about Dujek’s army coming to Seven Cities, L’oric says not to worry, “The Pannion War proved devastating. [The Host] lost close to seven thousand . . . The Black Moranth were similarly mauled. They won in the end but at such a cost. The Bridgeburners gone. Whiskeyjack dead . . . And Dujek himself a broken man . . . the scourge that is the T’lan Imass is no more. They have departed . . . Thus, what has the Empress left? Adjunct Tavore.” Dom starts to celebrate the news and Reloe asks about Quick Ben. L’oric tells them Ben is alive, as is Kalam. He adds a handful of Bridgeburners survived but were listed as casualties on purpose by Dujek. Reloe asks who and L’oric asks if it really matters since they are so few. When Reloe says yes, L’oric asks Sha’ik for permission to contact his spy and she gives it. Meanwhile, she tells her counselors that the Rebellion will deal the “killing blow” to the Empire. But Heboric hears “the hollowness of her words. Sister Tavore stands alone now. And alone is what she prefers. Alone is the state in which she thrives . . . [Felisin], your fear of sister Tavore has only deepened. Freezing you in place.” L’oric starts to list the survivors and at Paran’s name Sha’ik pales in shock. L’oric adds Quick Ben has been made High Mage, the Bridgeburners seem to have gone to Darujhistan though it isn’t definite, Moon’s Spawn was abandoned and became the tomb of Whiskeyjack and the others. He finishes by saying Whiskeyjack was killed by one of Brood’s commanders. Reloe worries about Quick Ben and the remaining Host but L’oric says the army is broken, “hence the wavering souls among them who sought me out.” Reloe asks about Kalam and Dom says the assassin “is nothing without Quick Ben . . . Even less now that his beloved Whiskeyjack is dead.” Kamist, seemingly terrified, asks what happens if the two of them reunite? Dom says he and Reloe weren’t the ones who killed Whiskeyjack; Quick Ben and Kalam will focus on vengeance for that. Sha’ik abruptly orders everyone out except for Heboric. When they leave, she breaks down, sobbing “My brother lives.” She goes into Heboric’s arm and he holds her, “the child in his arms—for child she was, once more—cried in nothing other than the throes of salvation. She was no longer alone, no longer alone with only her hated sister to taint the family’s blood.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Seven
Not the most encouraging of openings: “the world was encircled in red.”
The hen’bara tea—file that away.
Note the extended metaphor regarding life: “Struggle on, wade the growing torrent with all the frenzy that is the brutal unveiling of self-preservation. The macabre dance in the tugging currents held no artistry, and to pretend otherwise was to sink into delusion” This metaphor fits quite well into a book which has a flooded realm as a major setting. The same is true of what Heboric thinks of his delusions: “Heboric . . . possessed no more delusions. He had drowned them one by one with his own hands.” It’ll be interesting to see if this flood imagery runs throughout the book.
Don’t tell me you haven’t heard this criticism of modern poetry ever: “to speak plainly is a true talent; to bury beneath obfuscation is a poet’s calling these days.” Is a poem’s quality related to its difficulty?
Remember that we’ve seen portions of this poem—“Call to Shadow”—in earlier books.
All that infighting and dissent in Sha’ik’s camp—file that away.
So Sha’ik has banished Mallick Rel (it’s been a while so I should probably mention I hate Mallick Rel) and Pully Alar, leading to the obvious question—where have they gone? We will find out….
So the Whirlwind’s power comes from a fragment of the shattered Warren of Shadow (a different fragment from the Nascent). Well, that’s a lot of info coming from Heboric. I will just say, here, that not all of his speculation is all correct. File it, but with a question mark.
“That which survives . . . or falters and fades away is but chance and circumstance.” How’s that for an archaeologist’s line?
So do historians “devour,” do their explanations “destroy the mystery”? I confess that Heboric’s line, “there are more worthy things to wonder at in this world. Leave the gods and goddesses to their own sickly obsessions” speaks to me; I’m with him on that one. (As an utter side note, the movie Tree of Life does a nice job of conveying the day-to-day “wonders in this world.”)
The camp followers are an aspect of war and armies that rarely gets mentioned in fantasy and usually not with this detail—another example of Erikson’s strong worldbuilding focused as much on the human (or otherwise) constructs as on the physical world itself—something that doesn’t always happen in fantasy novels.
Coming soon after Torvald’s similar commentary, we get Heboric’s opinion that the Malazan Empire’s conquest of Seven Cities was a net plus, based on the camp being a microcosm of “all the ills the Malazan Empire had set out to cure as conquerors then occupiers.”
Interesting parallel: Felisin adopting three thousand kids juxtaposed against Shadowthrone’s army of children.
The description of what Sha’ik thinks she found in Leoman provokes in me an interesting and complex response. An “empty” soul is hard to not take as a negative. Being “bereft of faith” I tend to be fine with at first, taking it as “religious faith” but then thinking, hmm, maybe it’s faith of any sort—faith in your fellows for instance—and that doesn’t seem so great. Then we get to “disavowing all forms of certainty” and I’m thinking again—that’s a good thing. Those who are too certain, as we’ve seen mentioned on several occasions, can be all too dangerous. But then, one wonders about other types of certainty—moral certainties maybe—and that causes one to think what can Leoman do if “nothing” is certain in his mind—doesn’t that mean “anything” is possible?
And then we get his willingness to let Bidithal predation of children continue—so long as he leaves Felisin Younger alone—if it will help him catch the conspirators against Sha’ik. And Sha’ik’s willingness to go along with this as well. Can a reader empathize with this cold rationalism at all? I’d say no. Of course, it’s matched up against Bidithal’s own acts—sexual predation, female circumcision. We talk a lot about Erikson having so many grey characters, complex characters—can he give us a “good” side of Bidithal?
Nice little reminder there of Fener—the Boar of Summer. As it’s been pointed out in commentary, just a reminder to readers that we saw Karsa stomp on/crush a statue of Fener. And yes, that is significant. But only hugely.
That’s very interesting phrasing regarding Shadowthrone and Dancer ascending into the “penultimate” position of power in the Shadow Warren. Who/what holds the “ultimate” position? Do they know they are in the “penultimate” one?
Lots of snake imagery in this chapter—Heboric talking about snakes, asking L’oric what he’s doing in this “army of vipers,” the snakes in the grove, etc.
I know it really doesn’t need to be said, but Silgar drawing chains in the sand—file that away.
I always like when we’re in POVs and just going along mostly trusting the POV and then Erikson pulls the rug out, making sure we always remember just because someone is narrating doesn’t make them any more knowledgeable. As when Heboric asks Bidithal if he really thinks Sha’ik will let him worship Shadowthrone and Bidithal makes clear he isn’t just wrong, but oh so wrong.
And nice cheap tease there: Shadow Warren was “one ruled by . . .“ and then the cut off.
Luke: ”You killed my father!“
Darth Vader: “I am whoops, gotta call, gotta go…”
More chains via Karsa. I’ve seen lots of characters “haunted” by the faces of those they killed (just read a book today that had a character say this), but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one haunted by the faces of the unborn children of those he killed. Talk about some exponential guilt build-up.
This is obviously further evidence of Karsa’s growth—the ability to regret, to feel guilt. His recognition that he should no longer revel in what he once took pride in. And his ability to face the hard truth regarding his gods; remember how he shut up his two friends when they tried to make him face hard truths earlier.
Feints within feints as we learn via Karsa that Leoman’s seeming durhang use is but a sham.
A telling parallel use of language, perhaps, with Karsa being “reshaped” by Raraku—a phrase we’ve seen attached to Whiskeyjack’s squad, one which leads us toward a positive association.
Lots of ocean/sea imagery in this old Raraku. File.
If Karsa loves Raraku, and the Whirlwind wars with Raraku, and the Malazans war with the Whirlwind, then the math says….
If this grove is strong in the spirit of Raraku, and “resists” as Karsa says, is this why Felisin can question the Goddess here—can be Felisin and not Sha’ik?
Karsa was just thinking how Felisin has given in to her own destruction via the mad Goddess. But here we have Felisin discussing a separate, an opposite path—one of “creation” versus the Goddess’ gift of “only destruction.” Thus her return to poetry. Which path will she end up taking? Can she resist the Goddess? I think on a larger scale as well, there’s the general idea in our world of “creation” in all its forms being at least one of the answers (not as solution) to the world’s ills (along with those other key words in this series—compassion and empathy).
Again, it need not be said, but Jade Giant speculation—file.
The conference is a nice way of recapping events readers may have been fuzzy on. Rather than having one character explain to another who already knows most of what he/she is being told, as happens far too often, there’s actually a sensible, realistic plot reason to have this recap.
If we didn’t have enough reason to dislike Korbolo Dom (and we really have quite a lot), his reveling in the death of Whiskeyjack and shattering of Dujek would be enough for most readers, I’m thinking.
I love Reloe’s fear of the dynamic duo of Quick Ben and Kalam.
And we end on an unexpected human moment with Felisin—raising the question again—will she be Felisin or will she be Sha’ik? And what will happen with this family? It’s also an interesting parallel we have here with Paran’s family and Trull’s family at the start.
Lots of references in this chapter to betrayal and snakes. Let’s keep an eye on that.
Also, as one would expect based on the title—lots of references to chains. Chains and prisons. So who is chained and by what? I have my own list but I’d like to see others’ first.
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.