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 Eleven 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 spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Gamet, Tavore, and Baralta have left the city ahead of the army, which is marching today, and are looking over Coltaine’s Fall. The hill is riddled with ants and filled with memorials—braids woven into chains, dog skulls, crow feathers, etc. Tavore asks who is responsible for all these things and Baralta identifies a number of clans—Khundryl, Semk, and others. When Tavore asks how it came to be that those who fought Coltaine now make pilgrimages and honor him, Baralta has no answer, though he says this is nothing compared to what’s at Aren’s Way. Gamet believes he knows what Tavore is thinking: “We must walk, step by step, the legacy. We? No. Tavore. Alone . . . she now realizes . . . that she will stride that man’s shadow all the way to Raraku.” Tavore dismisses both men. Before leaving, Gamet tells her the Crow Clan isn’t accepting Temul as commander and she says she’ll deal with it. As he rides back, Gamet thinks on Duiker’s final acts before being staked to a tree, and also on the fact that his body was never found. Baralta asks Gamet to convince him that Tavore is equal to her task, and when Gamet replies she is, Baralta says some day Gamet will have to tell him what she had done “to earn such loyalty.” Gamet thinks to himself “can you not see the truth before you? She has done nothing. I beg you. Leave an old man to his faith.”
Fiddler and Gesler are following a supply wagon on the Aren Way, in the midst of a conversation. We come in as Gesler says “faith is for fools,” and Fiddler replies that “Every soldier knows . . . without faith, you are already as good as dead. Faith in the soldier at your side . . . and no matter how delusional . . . faith you cannot be killed.” Gesler points out the trees still showing the spike holes and bloodstains and says to ask the ghosts about faith. Fiddler says that faith was betrayed doesn’t ruin the idea of faith, but Gesler answers that “some things you can’t step around with words and lofty ideas. And comes down to who is in that vanguard . . . The Adjunct. Who just lost an argument with that pack of hoary Wickans.” He adds that Fiddler has been lucky in his commanders, but Gesler had Dom, who thought Whiskeyjack was “unfulfilled potential [Dom thought] If only the bastard had been hard enough, he could’ve taken the damn throne.” Gesler says Dom thought Whiskeyjack’s failure was a betrayal. Fiddler says Dom can complain to WJ in person since the Empress will probably send the Genabackan army over. As they walk, they pass trees laden with fetishes or painted with the figures of the soldiers that had been spiked on them. Tavore had forbidden the cutting down of the trees when the idea had been mentioned, and Fiddler wonders if she regrets that now. He looks at the Fourteenth’s standard—a thin figure holding up a bone before a sandstorm—and he thinks Tavore at least understood that whole thing well, though he also wonder at the “curious coincidence” that the standard “could as easily apply to Sha’ik’s army of the Apocalypse . . . As if Tavore and Sha’ik—the two armies, the forces in opposition—are in some way mirrored reflections of the other.” He finds that there have been a lot of strange things happening, including the fact that he was “feeling strangely fevered . . . Strains of a barely heard song rose up from the depths of his mind on occasion, a haunting song that made his flesh prickle. And stranger still, the song was entirely unfamiliar.” He muses as well on how the reflections isn’t just Tavore and Sha’ik but is also Tavore and Coltaine as they reverse-walk Coltaine’s path, and himself and Raraku as he returns to “the desert that saw me destroyed only to rise once more, mysteriously renewed—a renewal that persists, since for an old man I neither look nor feel old. And so it remains for all of us Bridgeburners, as if Raraku stole something of our mortality, and replaced it with something else.”
As they walk his thoughts turn to his squad. Koryk and Tarr look good he thinks, Smiles reminds him of Sorry, Bottle he thinks of as a young mage with a handful of minor spells, and Cuttle he sees as a “burlier, more miserable version of Hedge. Having Cuttle there was like coming home.” Gesler points out the tree where they found Duiker, saying they hadn’t said anything because Truth was so hopeful, but when they returned the body was gone. Strings starts to say Tavore should call a stop but is interrupted when she does just that. Gesler, Borduke, and Fiddler discuss how their mages are all Meanas (Gesler’s mage is Tavos Pond and Fiddler’s is Bottle) and maybe they can use that, maybe with illusions. Ranal comes by and after some words with Gesler, says Keneb wants an inventory of mages. Gesler begins to say they have none, but Fiddler interrupts and says they have three, but only minor ones. Ranal leaves and Fiddler tells Gesler to go easy on him and maybe Keneb will teach him some things. Gesler isn’t so sure about Keneb either though, suspicious that Keneb was the only one of his company to survive. Fiddler tells him it’s a bit early to “start honing the knives,” and Gesler says he can wait.
At the end of the first day, Gamet thinks they haven’t gone very far at all, unsurprisingly. He looks at the Wickans and thinks they’re all either very old or very young: the old here for Coltaine’s memory he may have fought against; the young he thinks are here because they “were being fed the singular poison of bitter old fighters filled with tales of past glory.” He pities Temul for his problems with the Wickan elders. He joins Tavore in her tent as she is sealing away her otataral sword. She tells him they await news, then Topper (Claw Master) appears from a portal and gives greetings from the Empress. He tells them he comes from Genabackis, where he got drunk with Tayschrenn, the clear implication being that he comes with bad news. Tavore steels herself and asks what the new is. Topper begins his report with “Losses . . . terrible losses.”
Bottle is off a ways magically eavesdropping on Tavore’s tent via “riding” the small creatures nearby. He thinks of his grandmother’s advice back in Malaz City: “never mind those damned warrens, child, the deep magic is far older. Remember, seek out the roots and tendrils . . . the invisible web woven from creature to creature. Every creature . . . they are all linked. And it is within you . . . to ride those tendrils.”
Tavos Pond and Balgrid tell Fiddler Bottle is out there but they can’t sense him. Bottle shows up and tells them all a portal opened in Tavore’s tent. Then tells them the news he heard: Dujek’s army nearly wiped out, the Bridgeburners annihilated, and Whiskeyjack dead. Fiddler goes numb and walks away. He comes across Temul weeping beside his horse. Temul puts his hand to his knife and Fiddler tells him “Relax . . . I’m in grief’s arms this night myself” and then when Temul starts to leave, Fiddler tells him “Face me. I will be your witness this night and we alone will know of it.” Temul tells him his tears were of self-pity, “Proclaim me—I am done with commanding, for I cannot command myself.” Fiddler says he isn’t going to say anything to anyone. He guesses Temul’s problem and says he had a commander once who had the same problem, having to lead a bunch of children. When Temul asks what the commander did, Fiddler says “not much and ended up with a knife in his back,” adding he isn’t one for “stories with lessons in life.” He continues, saying Tavore probably shares Temul’s frustration over his position and would like to help him but worries about Temul losing face. He suggests stealing the Wickan’s horses; “If children your kin must be, then take away their favored playthings . . . hard to look tall and imperious when you’re spitting dust behind a wagon.” Fiddler asks about the scroll hanging from his horse and Temul tells him it was Duiker’s, then talks of how impressed he and the others (Coltaine, Bult) were with Duiker. He says Coltaine even gave Duiker the “soul trapper” stone from Baruk, adding the elders have spoken of a child born to the tribe “once empty, then filled, for the crows came.” Fiddler asks if Coltaine has been reborn and Temul says yes, then says he keeps Duiker’s horse for “when he returns.” Fiddler reminds Temul that Duiker looked to him, not just Nil and Nether, to guard the refugees. Temul stands stronger and says he goes to tell the Adjunct what he plans with the Wickan horses. The two agree that Fiddler saw nothing this night, then Temul leaves and Fiddler buries his head in his hands.
Topper has finished his report, including Paran’s “heroism, then his death. Not a single Bridgeburner left alive. Tayschrenn himself saw their bodies, witness their internment in Moon’s Spawn. But lass, Ganoes redeemed himself—redeemed the family name.” Gamet, though, thinks that cuts Tavore even more, for she made so many sacrifices and Paran had never been a renegade or responsible for Lorn’s death—”thus, the sacrifice of young Felisin might have in the end proved unnecessary.” Topper also informed them that Laseen had planned to land Dujek’s Host on the north to open up a second front and have Dujek take overall command (news of which Gamet thinks will be a blow to Tavore’s confidence), but while Dujek will still be coming, it will be late and as a broken man in charge of a devastated army. Gamet thinks Tavore should have been told all this before; now she’s been told the Empress never had confidence in her but now has no choice but to leave the fate of the Empire in Seven Cities to Tavore. When Tavore asks if that’s it, Topper is surprised and says, yes, then asks if Tavore wants to send a message to Laseen. Tavore says no. Topper says one last thing is that some in the army may grieve over the fall of Fener and there may be desertions, but Tavore interrupts and says there will be none, then dismisses Topper. When Topper tries to give her some last military advice, Tavore tells him his role is Clawmaster; from Dujek—a solider, commander—she’ll take advice but otherwise follow her own instincts and if Laseen doesn’t like the results, she can replace her. Topper leaves, as does Gamet after Tavore tells him to get T’amber.
Fiddler returns to camp; Cuttle is the only one still at the fire. Cuttle tells Fiddler “it’s all far away” and Fiddler answers “But it feels close.” Cuttle thanks him for the munitions and Fiddler says how weird it is that “we always find more, and they’re meant to be used, but instead we horde them, tell no-one we have them—in case they order us to put them to use.” When Cuttle says he’ll use them to get Dom even if he has to “go to Hood” himself at the same time, Fiddler says he thinks that’s what Hedge did, adding he wish he could have been there with them all, naming them. Cuttle corrects him on Quick Ben, saying he’s alive and made a High Mage by Tayschrenn. Fiddler says he isn’t surprised, and then when he wonders if Paran was still captain, Cuttle says he was and died with them. Fiddler is curious if Tavore is grieving and Cuttle answers that “wondering’s a waste of time. We got lads and lasses that need taking care of right here.” The two of them discuss what sort of “iron” their army will or should be.
Iron, Strings smiled . . . Since we’re looking for revenge, you’ll want it hot I expect.
You expect wrong. Look at Tavore—there won’t be any heat from her . . . She’s just like Coltaine. It’s obvious Fiddler. The iron needs to be cold. Cold. We get it cold enough, who knows, we might earn ourselves a name.
Strings . . . tapped the finger bone hanging from Cuttle’s belt. We’ve made a start, I think.
We might have at that, Sergeant. Them and the standards. She knows what’s in her, give her that. She knows what’s in her.
And it’s for us to bring it out into view.
As Fiddler goes to bed, he thinks “Iron. Cold iron. Yes, it’s in her. And now I’d better search and search hard to find it in me.”
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Eleven:
What relevance the ants? We’ve seen so many instances where insects are used to highlight a scene. Is this perhaps a commentary on how little people can affect overall events? (In the same way that ants seem small and insignificant?)
I think Tavore starts to realise the effect that Coltaine’s death has had on proceedings in Raraku. This is unutterably sad: “This—this is the path we now take. We must walk, step by step, the legacy. We? No. Tavore. Alone. […] she now realizes, down in the depths of her soul, that she will stride that man’s shadow… all the way to Raraku.” In more frivolous terms, it’s almost like the younger sibling following a talented older sibling through school and always being compared unfavourably.
Tavore is quick to take control of the Crow Clan situation, but surely this shows a lack of faith in Temul—a very public lack of faith. The very abrupt “I will see to their disposition.”
This just hammers home the whole Duiker situation, the painful words that we read in Deadhouse Gates about him: “Duiker had delivered the refugees. Only to end up staked to a tree. It was beyond him, Gamet realized, to comprehend the depth of that betrayal.”
The exchange between Tene and Gamet just bewilders me a little bit. I’m not sure quite what is being said here, when they talk about loyalty and faith. We know that Tavore has done nothing to inspire Gamet’s loyalty, so why is he so loyal? Or is he really?
And then the discussion between Fiddler and Gesler is something else entirely—sharp, with much more going on than is actually said. The philosophy and ideas are perfectly balanced here, talking about the faith and truth required by soldiers. Faith in the soldier by your side, and faith that you cannot die. I particularly appreciate what Gesler brings to the discussion; the fact that faith in your commander is essentially what will give soldiers the other two faiths. There is a real difference then between someone like Tavore and someone like Whiskeyjack.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk along the Aren Way. For me, this has real echoes of the Appian Way, and the crucifixion of Spartacus and his army [Bill: Good connection]. Oppressive, and giving a very real sense of mortality.
Aha! Listen to this concerning Fiddler! “…it seemed indeed that he was feeling strangely fevered throughout the day. Strains of a barely heard song rose up from the depths of his mind on occasion, a haunting song that made his flesh prickle. And stranger still, the song was entirely unfamiliar.” A song? A fevered feeling? A little bit of ascendancy taking him over?
Oh, and this whole bone thing—the new standards and finger bones = the Bonehunters? Just thinking ahead to a different book title. [Bill: As you should.]
I really like the whole mirrored reflection thing—Sha’ik versus Tavore, and then Tavore reversing the path that Coltaine took.
Fiddler seems to be a very astute judge of character, and I really feel for him when he observes to himself that being around Cuttle is like coming home, because he is much like Hedge. I feel even more, knowing what has happened to Hedge.
The banter and camaraderie about Coltaine punching Gesler makes me smile, and there is mention of Urko’s punches—is this Keeper, remind me? [Bill: Yes.] The punching sounds like Keeper punching Karsa, anyhow!
I like the way that, just as Fiddler thinks that a break should be called, Tavore gestures for the march to stop. Does it not show that Tavore has at least some experience?
Again, there is great dynamics between Fiddler and his new squad, as he assigns their roles. I especially like the fact Koryk gets assigned sentry duty because he has noticed the presence of tribal markings. Smiles has more than a few similarities with Sorry, doesn’t she, when you include living by the sea? And finally: “…you don’t want a sapper for a corporal, lass.”
Strange that it is a sapper advising caution to Gesler, over the matter of Ranal and the mages!
This is a particularly poignant image, and sort of makes me think of the final years of the Great War: “Ones who’ve never known the terror of war and ones who’ve forgotten. A dreadful pairing…”
To me, this says a great deal about Tavore as well—and probably says a lot to those she commands: “…to where the Adjunct’s command tent sat, its canvas pristine…” The canvas tent very much represents Tavore himself, it seems to me.
A re-emphasis here as well, of both Gamet’s feelings towards Tavore of loyalty and faith, and the idea that Tavore might not be someone to have faith in: “…he saw the concern on her plain features, a momentary revelation that he turned away from as he poured out a cup of wine. Show me no seams, lass. I need to hold on to my certainty.”
Is Topper part Andii? I just ask because of his angular features combined with the dark skin. Can you get half-breeds where Andii are concerned? Obviously we know they can take human lovers, but would that necessarily lead to children?
Here we have an example of another type of magic—not using warrens. Bottle is using some sort of wild magic to eavesdrop on the conversation between Topper and Tavore—riding the creatures around him. Also, this magic appears to be strangely concealed from those who use warrens exclusively (Balgrid and Tavos Pond). I wonder if it will come to play a larger part in proceedings? Having said that, Balgrid and Tavos Pond don’t seem to be the most perceptive mages in the entire world.
And here Fiddler finally comes to know about the death of Whiskeyjack and the destruction of the Bridgeburners—a really bitter moment for the reader, especially the fact that Bottle reveals it bluntly and swiftly, without any consideration (because he doesn’t know!) of Fiddler’s close relationship with those who have died. Painful.
Even in his grief, Fiddler has the compassion to try and help Temul—this really moved me—and the manner in which he suggests bringing the Crow Clan back down to earth amuses me greatly. It reminds me of Viserys from A Song of Ice and Fire being forced to walk rather than ride to show lack of status.
And now Fiddler is given reason to believe that Duiker might be coming back, thanks to the saving stone.
I guess in some respects Ganoes Paran has died—not actually, but he is no longer the man he used to be now that he has accepted the position of Master of the Deck.
Poor, poor Tavore—she is experiencing a few shocks through Topper’s words, isn’t she? I do feel sorry for her. “To tell Tavore that the Empress had no confidence in her, then follow that with the brutal assertion that she was now the empire’s last hope for Seven Cities… well, few were the men or women who would not be rocked to their knees by that.”
This little bit breaks my heart: “Something tells me that’s what Hedge did, in his last moment. He always threw them too close—that man had so many pieces of clay in him you could’ve made a row of pots from his insides.”
This is a sad and quiet little chapter, as the march to war begins for Tavore and her raw recruits. After the amount that Fiddler has thought about and spoke about Whiskeyjack, it was even harder to watch him hear about their deaths. That moment where he sits in darkness with his head in his hands is so utterly bereft of hope—a scene that will stay with me for a long time.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Eleven:
I took the ants as the idea that the world spins on regardless of the actions of “intelligent” life.
I think Gamet’s understanding of what Tavore must be thinking makes a lot of sense, and follows quite logically from events, but it’s also probably good at these kinds of moments to remind ourselves just what a cipher Tavore is not only to the reader but to the characters. So while this makes sense, we of course have no idea if it is in fact what Tavore is thinking. Does this sight make her despair at the journey she is to take ever in the shadow of Coltaine? Or does it steel her, or have some other totally different effect? As a rereader, I will say that Tavore’s responses are not always what one would assume are the “normal” ones.
You’re right Amanda that this recollection of the end of Chain hammers home yet again those scenes. It’s another example of something I’ve pointed out several times already—the way Erikson doesn’t let us forget things. The way events have ramifications that last, really last, in a much more realistic fashion than is usually presented in the genre, where we tend to get some immediate grieving or anger or vows of vengeance and then 50 or a 150 pages later you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence whatsoever in characterization or dialogue or plot that somebody died or something large (or even small) happened. It’s just that steady progression toward the plot goal.
As to Gamet’s “loyalty”—what choice does he have beside despair?
The spike holes, the stains on the trees are yet other examples of long-term impact, as well as the way violence can scar a landscape.
That idea of Dom wanting a “harder” Whiskeyjack fits with what we’ve seen of Dom’s character—the belief in a “strong man” to run things smoothly and efficiently.
Always so sad, these lines Fiddler so nonchalantly tosses off about Whiskeyjack in the erroneous belief he is still alive. Every time it gets me.
Here’s an example of Tavore’s thinking maybe at odds with what one would expect—her order to not cut these trees down. Either she is not, as most think, thinking that she walks in Coltaine’s shadow (else cut them down and remove the long reminder of such) or she is hard enough—cold iron enough—to withstand that constant assault.
So does this scene with Fiddler and his “barely heard song” negate the need for L’oric’s earlier more expository speech about Kimloc and the song? Is there anything essential we got out of that speech in terms of plot or character that we couldn’t have waited until now for?
I’m with Amanda on how sad that line is from Fiddler about how having Cuttle is like “coming home.”
“It’s turned out that Coltaine told his own tale—he didn’t need a historian, did he?” File this.
I do like that little tiny bit of characterization regarding Tavore when she calls the rest stop just as Fiddler thinks it’s about time. Bodes well.
The line of Gamet’s about the young Wickans who “were being fed the singular poison of bitter old fighters filled with tales of past glory” is a nice bit of parallelism with Karsa’s first section and his grandfather’s stories.
I asked earlier what choice Gamet has but to believe whole-heartedly in Tavore, and we see that here when he sees a flash of concern across her face and thinks to himself “Show me no seams, lass. I need to hold on to my certainty.” It’s easy to imagine this same thought is shared amongst all in this army. Now imagine, what is the effect of looking at all these faces all the time, each of them saying the same thing: show me no cracks, not the slighest chance of one. What a burden for Tavore. Perhaps this is her need for T’amber—maybe that is the one face that doesn’t show her that look?
Regarding Topper’s heritage, from GoTM: “the tall half-blood Tiste Andii seemed to be wearing the same clothes as the last time Paran had seen him” [Amanda—thanks Bill! Sometimes my filing cabinet fails!]
Man, it just hurts everytime. All of Fiddler’s comments, then Topper’s “Losses . . . terrible losses,” then all the rest.
Yes, Bottle’s different form of magic will be important.
You’re absolutely right Amanda; the manner in which we as readers witness Fiddler learning about his friends and comrades is so incredibly sharp. His few lines in this chapter have been setting us up for this and now it comes like a knife in the gut, to him and us.
I like Gesler’s hand coming down to comfort him. Tiny detail, but nice characterization and different from how we’ve typically seen Gesler.
And what does this tell us about Fiddler—that in the midst of such incredible, and shocking, unprepared-for grief, he hears another grieving and goes to comfort him? And I love that as readers, we’re trained for some sort of uplifting old-vet story of how his commander dealt with the problem and instead his old commander got knifed. (Which plays nicely by the way off of the earlier discussion between Fiddler and Gesler about Ranal and “honing the knives.”)
I like that this scene doesn’t end triumphantly, with Temul now steeled to do what he needs to do and the reader happy that he’ll clearly be on his way toward taking command. Instead, we have Fiddler having overcome Temul’s issue, left alone in his unsolvable grief.
Gamet’s roll call of “what happened” is a nice reminder to us all to take what characters say and hear with a big heaping grain of salt.
Talk about a series of body blows:
- Brother dead.
- Relieving army? Shattered.
- Sacrificing your sister? Didn’t need to.
- Empress’ confidence? Not so much.
- Oh, and by the way—you’re our last hope.
But again, we see Tavore’s “iron” in the way she shoots down Topper when he gets patronizing.
I agree Amanda, that line from Fiddler about Hedge, how right he is, is just that—heartbreaking.
Save the discussion on iron.
Iron reminds me of chains. Any new or continuing chains in this chapter? Maybe Tavore chained by others at least to the chains of Coltaine’s legacy—we’ll have to see if she breaks those. Karsa mentioned kin and comrade as chains—has Fiddler had those severed? Is he forging new ones?
This is a lovely little chapter: character-driven, poignant, filled with quiet but intense emotion. A nice counterpoint to the big action moments.
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.
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.