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 Fifteen 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.
Fiddler and his squad are scouting an army of 3000 trailing them, different and larger than the harassing raiders they’ve dealt with for several weeks. Fiddler sends off a message to Tavore to prepare for a fight, then as he looks more closely at the 3000 he begins to wonder. Fiddler’s group is surprised by the new army, but rather than attack, the strangers wait for Tavore to arrive. As Tavore, Gamet, and Temul ride to meet them (Temul seems to recognize them), the chieftain of the strangers tells Fiddler his group has taken care of the raiders that have been attacking the Fourteenth. Tavore arrives and the chief is introduced as Gall, leader of the Burned Tears of the Khundryl. He recalls for them how the Khundryl met Coltaine (Blackwing to them): “My warriors sought to challenge, to see who were the greatest warriors of all . . . we were humbled. Blackwing is dead, his clan destroyed, and Korbolo Dom’s Dogslayers dance on his name. That must be answered, and so we have come . . . We are changed . . . other than we once were. We grieve the loss of ourselves, and so we shall remain lost, for all time.” He asks to join and fight with the Fourteenth and when Tavore wonders if they seek revenge on Dom, Gall answers yes, but that isn’t why they are here; they’ve come to “make amends” for simply riding away and not fighting with Coltaine at the end. Tavore welcomes him and Fiddler and Cuttle think this may actually give them a chance. Gall then rides to Temul, hands him his broken sword and kneels before him, saying, “We are not Wickans . . . but this I swear, we shall strive to be.” Temul freezes, not knowing what to do, and Fiddler signals him some advice. Temul tells Gall he accepts the Burned Tears as “of the Crow Clan, of the Wickans.” Fiddler thinks Temul has just solved his problem with the old Wickans. Tavore invites Gall to a “modest” meal, and Gall says they’ve brought food and tonight will be a feast. Cuttle and Fiddler realize that while Temul’s problem is solved, Tavore’s problem—being in Coltaine’s shadow—just got worse.
The camp is celebrating. Gamet enters Tavore’s tent where Tavore and Gall remain after the commanders meeting. Gamet tells Tavore the army is drunk and Gall responds, “Like us, your army is lost.” Gamet explains how young and untested they are and Gall changes his analysis to “not yet found.” Gamet asks if Gall regrets his decision and Gall tells him his shaman’s have foretold something of Tavore’s army: “The Fourteenth shall know a long life, but it shall be a restless life. You are doomed to search, destined to ever hunt for what even you do not know, nor, perhaps, shall you ever know.” Gall rejects the idea of divination or of destiny. When Gall asks what about the Deck, Gamet says he’s not one of those who puts much stock in it. Gall wonders if Gamet doesn’t notice the patterns, cycles of history: “The past is all patterns, and those patterns remain beneath our feet, even as the stars above reveal their own patterns . . . the past lies beneath and above the present.” Tavore asks what they’ll find the next day at Vathar Crossing, and Gall answers it’s for her to decide, calling it a “place of death.” Gamet feels odd, out of place, thinks how drunken oblivion is like “a small temporary death.” He exits the tent, thinking he’s too old for the war. He sees a massively scarred cattle dog walk by and then Keneb walks after it, saying he’s taken to following it. He tells Gamet the dog survived the Fall though it should not have, impaled as it was by several spears. When Gamet asks how it survived then, Keneb replies Gesler found it and another dog and then the two dogs recovered from what they shouldn’t have. He adds that Gesler himself, along with Stormy and Truth are another mystery due to their strange skin color and connection to the Silanda. Gamet asks if they’ve made a pace with a god, which is forbidden in the Malazan armies. Keneb says he doesn’t know and has no evidence. Gamet tells him he finds all this disturbing, the lack of trust Keneb has for his own soldiers. Keneb answers they don’t trust him either, due to a rumor he abandoned his soldiers when the uprising began. He adds that he did not, responding to Gamet’s unspoken question, but he admits some of what he did might call his loyalty to the empire into question, explaining nothing mattered more than his family. But Gamet interrupts and says he’d prefer not to know the details, though he does ask about Keneb’s family. When Keneb mentions he managed to save them with help for Kalam, Gamet is surprised. He tells Keneb to keep an eye on Gesler, but at some point they’ll have to see if they can trust him. Listening to the cattle dog wandering nearby, Keneb tells Gamet he believes it’s looking for Coltaine, to which Gamet says the dog must be blind and or dumb to miss the fact that Coltaine is right here.
Fiddler sits by the fire with the other cattle dog—Roach. He’s lonely and miserable and wondering why Keneb is punishing them by marching them at the back of the army in the dust. He thinks that now with the Burned Tears, the army doesn’t actually need him anymore. And also that he doesn’t really want to return to Raraku: “I hated it the first time. I’m . . . not what I once was. Did I really think I could recapture something in that holy desert? . . . That charging momentum that belongs to the young? . . Revenge [is not] filling my belly like it used to—Hood knows, nothing does anymore. Not revenge. Not loyalty. Not even friendship. Damn you Kalam, you should have talked me out of it.” The other cattle dog appears and then Fiddler calls out for Gesler to join him. Gesler sits across from him and tells Fiddler he, Stormy, and Truth can’t get drunk any more, calling it a curse. He says they can’t sleep now because they’re not looking forward to seeing Vathar Crossing again. After some silence, Gesler asks if Fiddler is thinking about running, saying it’s bad, losing friends, wondering why you’re the one left: “Then what? Nothing. You’re not here, but wherever you are, you’re still there.” Fiddler tells Gesler it isn’t just losing the Bridgeburners; it’s about doing soldiering all over again: “There’s got to come a point, Gesler, when it’s no longer the right place to be, or the right thing to do.” Gesler says “Maybe, but I ain’t seen it yet. It comes down to what you’re good at,” and he asks what Fiddler would do instead. When Fiddler mentions he once apprenticed as a mason, Gesler interrupts and tells him apprentices are ten years old. Fiddler’s too old to change: “There’s only one thing for a soldier to do, and that’s soldiering. You want it to end? Well, there’s a battle coming. Should give you plenty of opportunity . . . But that’s not the problem. It’s because now you’ve got a new squad and you’re responsible for ’em. That’s what you don’t like and what’s got you thinking of running.” Fiddler walks away. On the ridge a half-dozen wolves stand quiet after their howling. Fiddler hears singing and he goes to its source, finding Nil and Nether sitting with a bowl between them and butterflies fluttering around the bowl. Nil calls him closer and Fiddler is swarmed by butterflies so he can’t see. Inside he hears a presence speaking to him: “Bridgeburner, Raraku waits for you. Do not turn back now . . . I am of this land now. What I was before does not matter. I am awakened. We are awakened. Go to join your kin. In Raraku—where he will find you. Together, you must slay the goddess. You must free Raraku of the stain that lies upon it . . . The song wanders Bridgeburners. It seeks a home. Do not turn back.” The presence then the butterflies disappear. Nether and Nil are crying, upset the presence spoke to Fiddler and not them though they called it. They tell him it was Sormo E’nath. As he speaks to them he yells to them to “stop that damned singing,” and at their blank looks realized neither of them is singing, thought the song is filling his head. He heads back to camp, thinking, “Sormo had not words for them. Nor did he. Nor did he want to see their faces—their helpless desperation, their yearning for a ghost that was gone—gone forever. That was not Sormo E’nath. That was something else—Hood knows what. ‘We are awakened.’ What does that mean? And who is waiting for me in Raraku? My kin—I’ve none barring the Bridgeburners—gods below! Quick Ben! Kalam! One, or both?” The sun starts to rise and the wolves begin howling.
Gamet begins the descent with the army toward the crossing, noting the bones and bits of cloth and iron in the ground, and all the detritus of the old battle. Long poles rise out of the mud and water, adorned with carcasses of sheep and goats, maggots falling from them into the river. Keneb joins him, pointing out the blood amidst the flotsam. Keneb and Gamet believe the offerings are to welcome the Fourteenth, though Keneb thinks if so the tribes are crazy: “This notion of seeing the world metaphorically has ever driven me to distraction. The Seven Cities native sees everything differently. To them, the landscape is animate—not just the old notion of spirits, but in some other, far more complicated way.” When Gamet asks if it’s worth thinking of, Keneb points out if the Malazans could have better read the signs, they would have seen the uprising coming. Tavore, overhearing, tells him “sometimes, knowledge is not enough.” Tavore orders the sappers forward to blow up “a bridge of detritus held in place by blood.” Tene Baralta tells Gamet the tribes will consider it an insult, but Gamet says Tavore is aware of that, but the footing is too unsure, something the tribes would certainly know. Baralta suggest Gall sends out a rider to meet with observers just to make sure. When Gamet says it’s a good idea, Baralta goes off to do so. Keneb points out that Tavore probably wouldn’t like that the two made that decision on their own. Gamet tells him he’s right and heads back to Tavore. He sees Nil and Nether kneeling in the water near her and thinks, noting that and Tavore’s obvious anger: “Aye, they cling still to the chains, and it seems letting go is the last thing they would do, given the choice.” Out loud, he announces “I see the children are playing in the mud . . . I advise we assign a minder to them, lest they injure themselves in their exuberance. After all, Adjunct, I doubt the Empress intended you to mother them, did she?” Tavore answers, “No, they were to be my mages” and after a bit more back and forth, gives Gamet leave to act in her place. He grabs the two by their shirts and yanks them upright, then shakes them, telling Tavore, “This is what a Wickan grandmother would have done.” Nil and Nether go from anger to sulking and Tavore tells them someone should make contact with any observers to make sure they don’t take blowing up the bridge the wrong way. Gamet tells her Baralta suggested the Khundryl and she says both can do it, and sends the two warlocks to Baralta. When they’re gone, she tells Gamet to tell Baralta that next time he should bring his suggestion to her personally.
Cuttle and Fiddler return from setting the munitions. They blow it and the ford clears. Cuttle tells Fiddler it’s good he didn’t run. Keneb tells them good job and gives Fiddler’s squad the privilege of first crossing. Fiddler doesn’t feel the usual pleasure because “the broken song whispered on in his mind, a dirge lying beneath his every thought.” When Cuttle tells him “the way ahead seems clear,” Fiddler thinks, “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
The army continues to cross as Gamet and Tavore climb the butte on the other side. From the summit, they look down on the city of Ubaryd, its harbor crowded with Nok’s ships, which have retaken the city. Tavore points out the Whirlwind in the distance. She asks if Gamet thinks Sha’ik will contest their approach and when Gamet says she’d be foolish not to, Tavore wonder if Sha’ik wouldn’t rather face untested recruits. Gamet calls that a big gamble, saying just the march will harden the soldiers. He says if he were she, he’d rather face a bruised army, adding harassing them will also give Sha’ik knowledge of Tavore’s tactics. Right now, he says, Sha’ik cannot take the measure of Tavore. Tavore agrees, saying, “Curious, isn’t it? Either she is indifferent to me, or she feels she has already taken my measure—which of course is impossible. Even assuming she has spies in our army.” Gamet is struck that he’d never even considered that possibility. The two are silent as the sun goes down and the Whirlwind “held its own fire.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Fourteen
Just a note that Amanda is stuck in France (oh, I weep) with business so we will add her comments in a day or two.
I like how Erikson sets us up to think Fiddler’s army of 3000, coincidentally the same size as Leoman’s, is in fact Leoman’s. Keeps us on our toes, he does.
Boy, I love seeing Gall and the Burned Tears here. And I envy you their journey Amanda, all bright-eyed and new to you.
Great name they have for Tavore by the way: “The Plain Woman.” Perfect. Just perfect.
I find that speech by Gall, how they have “lost themselves” to be incredibly moving.
Gall’s line “we are as ghosts in this world” come atop:
- “Pardu ghost-slayer”
- “ask the ghost of the soldier who was on that tree”
- “if there must be ghosts”
- Karsa’s ghosts (mentioned repeatedly as “ghosts”)
- “The ghost of Urugal appears”
- “That Wickan Fist’s ghost keeps rearing up”
- “Their yearning for a ghost that was gone”
- “have you instructed them to commune with the ghosts?”
Plus, “ghostly chains,” “ghostly tendrils,” “ghostly guardians are all that remain of the Bridgeburners,” “horses, ghostly through the clouds of amber dust,” “ghostly voices,” “ghostly faces,” and of course, “Ghost Hands.”
I’m just saying. That’s all. Just saying….
And Fiddler just keeps giving us reasons to love him as a character, doesn’t he? After his consolation of Temul earlier, now we get his subtle veteran support.
And after such a moving scene, we get a nice tonal balance with the humor at the end as Cuttle and Fiddler hide the fact they, like their squad, didn’t notice the Burned Tears when they surprised them.
Well, do we trust the Burned Tears’ shamans? If so, where will the Fourteenth be wandering for so long? What will they be searching for? It’s all a bit vague, but it does seem to point to them surviving the battle with Sha’ik as an entire army.
Gall’s comments remind me of Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” The past does lie all around them (us), affects us, moves us down certain paths or away from certain paths. But as I’ve said a bunch of times already, let’s not forget that this is fantasy, and so the metaphor can be made real. When the past “rises up” in Faulkner, that’s one thing; when the past “rises up” in a fantasy—that might be another thing altogether. We’ve seen the past buried, we’ve seen the past unburied. In the T’lan Imass, we see the past walk. In Karsa’s meeting with the Jaghut woman, we see the past returned. In the Houses, we’ve seen the past preserved. In Rake and other long-lived ascendants, we’ve seen the past and present as one. We’ve seen Karsa’s past literally haunt him. We’ve seen the “ghosts” of the past not as metaphor but as actuality. This is a Faulknerian world in all its literalness. What does that do to the world? And don’t be surprised if we see the past more.
Poor Gamet, feeling out of place, too old for this war. I like how this parallels Fiddler’s storyline in this chapter as well—the wondering if this is where one should be.
Not a lot of confidence going around this place. Gamet feeling out of place. Fiddler thinking of running. Tavore facing Coltaine’s ghost once more. Keneb not trusting or being trusted. The Burned Tears feeling they’ve lost their way. Gesler’s group unable to sleep.
That’s a nice image—Fiddler and a pile of ash.
Gesler’s line: “You’re not here, but wherever you are, you’re still there.,” reminds me of one of my favorite films: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
I also like the echoing scenes here: Fiddler advising/consoling Temul, Gesler advising/consoling Fiddler. And I like too how after the scene with the spirit/presence telling Fiddler to keep on to Raraku to Kill the goddess (clearly a file moment), one expects Fiddler to try to comfort/console Nil and Nether. But even Fiddler has an end point, and it seems this is it. He cannot console them, perhaps because he’s already done so much of that, or perhaps more likely because of how their suffering is a mirror of his own—their “yearning for a ghost that was gone—gone for ever.”
And just as Gall has talked of the past lying under them, here we get it doing so via the bones and remainder at Vathar Crossing.
And after I spoke of the fantasy world as metaphor at times come to life, Keneb makes the same point, complaining about the Seven Cities’ tendency to view the world in just such a manner. I’ve personally always liked the idea of the world animate—seems to me if we all thought in such a fashion, we’d treat it a bit better, so I bemoan a bit the passing of that viewpoint. But that’s just me….
I like how Gamet deals with Nil and Nether, but it seems a bit too abrupt for me; I would have liked that scene drawn out/described slightly more. And is it just me, or is use of the word “mother” with Tavore just supremely discomfiting?
As repetitive as it may get, I confess I never fail to smile at the weeping of the sappers over lost munitions, or the pleasure they derive from using them, often quickly followed by the weeping over having used them. And I absolutely love how this is used far, far down the road.
It’s an interesting and somewhat foreboding word choice to describe Fiddler’s song: “a dirge.” Perhaps a word to file.
I confess I’m not a big fan of Cuttle’s line: “the way ahead seems clear.” Too on the nose for me, draws too much attention to itself, especially the full phrasing of it. Minor quibble, but c’mon, can’t be all praise, can it?
I do, on the other hand, mostly like Tavore’s lines and how they point us to the face off between two sisters—and her ignorance of that—though I could’ve done without the “which of course is impossible.”
Nice closing line.
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.