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 Seventeen 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.
Karsa makes his flint sword, feeling his companions in it: “Bairoth Gild, whose cutting irony seemed to have somehow infused the weapon, as had Delum Thord’s fierce loyalty.” Done, he faces the Seven, now in their “battered, broken bodies” and carrying their own swords. Urugal tells him “We are now free of the Ritual’s bindings. The chains, Karsa Orlong, are broken.” Another informs Karsa his weapon has been invested with Tellann and will not break. Karsa, though, points out broken weapons in the caverns and Urugal admits “Elder sorcery . . . Inimical warrens. Our people have fought many wars.” Karsa asks which battle killed them but Urugal says it doesn’t matter: “We have known wars beyond counting, and what have they achieved? The Jaghut were doomed to extinction—we but hastened the inevitable. Other enemies announced themselves and stood in our path. We were indifferent to their causes, none of which was sufficient to turn us aside. And so we slaughtered them. Again and again. Wars without meaning, wars that changed virtually nothing. To live is to suffer. To exist—even as we do—is to resist.” Siballe picks up: “This is all that was learned . . . every creature that ever lived—all share the same struggle. Being resists unbeing. Order wars against the chaos of dissolution, of disorder. . This is the only worthy truth, the greatest of all truths. What do the gods themselves worship, but perfection? The unattainable victory over nature, over nature’s uncertainty. There are many words for this struggle. Order against chaos, structure against dissolution, light against dark, life against death. But they all mean the same thing.” Another continues: “The ranag has fallen lame. It is distanced from the herd. Yet walks on its wake . . . time will heal. Or weaken. Two possibilities. But the lame ranag knows naught but stubborn hope. For that is its nature. The ay have seen it and will close . . . . the ay attack all at once . . . Until the ranag is dragged down. And stubborn hope gives way, Karsa Orlong. It gives way, as it always must, to mute inevitability.” When Karsa says the Crippled God, their new master, would “harbor the lame beast . . . offer it a haven,” Urugal agrees and Siballe adds: “Perfection is an illusion . . . mortal and immortal alike are striving for what cannot be achieved. Our new master seeks to alter the paradigm, Karsa Orlong. A third force, to change for ever the eternal war between order and dissolution.” Karsa says “A master demanding the worship of imperfection,” and Siballe says “yes.”
Karsa tells them they are not gods, saying, “To be a god is to know the burden of believers. Did you protect? You did not. Did you offer comfort, solace? Were you possessed of compassion? Even pity? To the Teblor, you were slave-masters, eager and hungry . . . expecting cruel sacrifices—all to feed your own desires. You were the Teblor’s unseen chains. And you woman [Siballe] were the taker of children.” Siballe points out they were “imperfect” ones who would have died otherwise and argues the children don’t regret it. To what Karsa replies “No . . . the regret remains with the mothers and fathers who surrendered them. No matter how brief a child’s life, the love of the parents is a power that should not be denied. And know this Siballe, it is a power immune to imperfection . . . Worship imperfection you said. A metaphor you made real by demanding that those children be sacrificed. Yet you were—and remain—unmindful of the most crucial gift that comes from worship. You have no understanding of what it is to ease the burdens of those who would worship you. But even that is not your worst crime. No. You then gave us your own burdens.” When he asks Urugal what the Teblor had done to deserve that, Urugal says “You failed,” and Siballe adds “We too failed, once, long ago . . . Such things cannot be undone. Thus, you may surrender to it, and so suffered beneath its eternal torment. Or you can choose to free yourself of the burden . . . our answer to you is simple: to fail is to reveal a flaw. Face that revelation . . . It is done. Celebrate it! That is our answer, and indeed is the answer shown to us by the Crippled God.” Karsa says he’ll now give his answer, and he cuts Siballe in half. The other six do nothing and Karsa tells them “Her army of foundlings will follow me . . . You will leave my people—leave the glade. You are done with us . . . If you ever appear before me again, I will destroy you . . . You used us. You used me. And for my reward what did you just offer? . . . . A new set of chains. . . .Get out.” They leave Karsa alone with Siballe, who is still sentient. She asks if he’ll leave her there and when he asks if there is “no oblivion” for her, she answers, “long ago a sea surrounded these hills. Such as sea would free me to the oblivion you speak of.” When he asks of her master, she informs him the Crippled God has abandoned her—”it would appear there are acceptable levels of imperfection and unacceptable levels”—and Karsa says he is “another god that understands nothing of what it means to be a god.” He puts her head, shoulder, and arm into his pack and leaves the cavern, just as Trull and Onrack rise up at its entrance. He uses the flat of his sword to sweep them off the edge and leaves.
As they recover from their fall, Onrack senses the Tellann warren still active in the cavern and rushes into the cave then into the Tellann fire to fuse Siballe’s other arm to himself. Trull eventually catches up just as Onrack finishes, and Onrack tells him the renegades have just left and are close. They leave just as Trull realizes Onrack now has two arms.
Karsa enters the edge of the Jhag Odhan and feels a kinship with it: “Its scale matched his own in ways he could not define. Thelomen Toblakai have known this place, have walked it before me.” He kills a deer and as he continues comes across an emaciated Jaghut sitting in a circle of flattened grass beside a brazier. The Jaghut—Cynnigig—offers an exchange of deer meat for his cooking fire and Karsa agrees. Cynnigig then tells him Aramala contacted him and so he came to meet Karsa. He informs him that both he and Aramala had helped the T’lan Imass against the Tyrants. Cynnigig says he’s going to bring Karsa to another Jaghut—Phyrlis—who will summon the Jaghut horses—they will come to her because it was “by her hand and her will that the horses came into being.” They converse and at one point, Karsa tells Cynnigig “I care not for fame, I did once . . . I changed my mind.” Cynnigig explains how he hid using magic, but not Omtose Phellack since the T’lan Imass would have sensed it and there is no law that a Jaghut can only use Omtose. On a tangent, he mentions the Forkrul Assail: “saving us the bloody recourse of finding a Forkrul Assail to adjudicate, and believe me, such adjudication is invariably bloody. Rarely indeed is anyone satisfied. Rarer still that anyone is left alive. Is there justice in such a thing? Oh yes, perhaps the purest justice of all.” He continues in a torrent of words, discussing the “preening empires that have risen only to then fall . . .Pomposity choking on dust, these are cycles unending among short-lived creatures” and other things.
Cynnigig takes Karsa to a lone huge tree atop a hill, telling him the tree is “An Elder species . . . A sapling when an inland sea hissed salty sighs over this land . . . Hundreds of thousands [of years old]. Once these were the dominant trees across most of the world. All things know their time, and when that time is past they vanish.” This one has not because Phyrlis is part of it: “The tree and all its branches were wrapped in spiders’ webs that somehow remained entirely translucent . . . and beneath that glittering shroud, the face of a Jaghut stared . . . the tree had indeed grown around her, yet a single shaft of wood emerged from just behind her right collarbone, rejoining the main trunk along the side of her head.” Cynnigig tells Karsa that Phyrlis was a baby when she and her mother were caught by T’lan Imass. Phyrlis was spitted on a spear that was then shoved into the ground and the spear took part of her life-spirit and was reborn as a tree, whose own life-spirit helped keep her alive. When Karsa asks what her connection is to the horses, she says her blood gives them their longevity, which is lucky since they breed too infrequently to maintain themselves. She is happy to hear Karsa’s news that his people still breed them, as the Odhan horses are being hunted to extinction by the Trell. When Karsa asks if she means people like Mappo, she says yes, “Mappo Runt, who travels with Icarium. Icarium, who carries arrows made from my branches. Who, each time he visits me, remembers naught of the previous encounter. Who asks, again and again, for my heartwood, so that he may fashion from it a mechanism to measure time, for my heartwood alone can outlive all other constructs . . . It would kill me [so] instead I bargain. A strong shaft for a bow. Branches for arrows.” Karsa wonders if she has no defenses and when she replies none do against Icarium, he tells her he fought him once and now that he has a better sword, the outcome will be different next time, a statement that causes some alarm to the Jaghut. She then calls for the horses, telling Karsa usually no more than a dozen or so come, but soon a herd of 10-15,000 arrives. Cynnigig tells Karsa they have come not in answer to Phyrlis’ call but to Karsa’s, though neither of the Jaghut knows how or why. Phyrlis tells him the horses can smell the bloodoil in him: “It courses in your veins Karsa Orlong. Bloodwood has not existed in the Jhag Odhan for tens of thousands of years. Yet these horses remember.” Karsa picks out a stallion and names him Havoc, and then the herd leaves. Cynnigig says he had never imagined Thelomen Toblakai horse warriors and asks Karsa why the Teblor haven’t conquered all of Genebackis. Karsa answers one day they will and he will lead them. Cynnigig says then he and Phyrlis have “witnessed the birth of infamy” to which Karsa replies in his mind “Witness? Yes, you are witness. Even so, what I, Karsa Orlong, shall shape, you cannot imagine. No one can.”
Cynnigig sits with Phyrlis after Karsa has left. The two discuss how she did a good job disguising the remains of the Azath House under her. Cynnigig calls the T’lan Imass fools for driving the spear into a House’s ground, but Phyrlis says, “What did they know of Houses, Cynnigig? Creatures of caves and hide tents. Besides, it was already dying and had been for years. Fatally wounded. Oh, Icarium was on his knees by the time he finally delivered the mortal blow, raving with madness. And had not his Toblakai companion taken that opportunity to strike him unconscious . . .. ” Cynnigig finishes the thought, “He would have freed his father . . . [who] had no desire to be saved. And so the House died, weakening the fabric . . . ” Phyrlis finishes for him “sufficiently for the warren to be torn apart.” She asks if Cynnigig sensed the six T’lan Imass standing beyond the House walls and he said yes, “Servants of the Crippled God, now, the poor things. They would tell [Karsa] something . . . They possess knowledge with which they seek to guide the Thelomen Toblakai.” He thinks they stayed back because of the House, but she says the House is dead; it was Karsa they feared, not the House. Cynnigig says then perhaps they aren’t so foolish, those Imass.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Seventeen
Hmm, the Prayer of Giving at the start of Chapter Seventeen talks about one of the seven faces in the rock being Unfound. Mother to the Toblakai? I’m not sure what this refers to. Ah! Just read further, and of course it is ‘Siballe.
It’s quite profound how progression is seen as coming forward from the Stone Age, and yet here we have the way that Karsa feels about stone: “But wood and stone were the words of the hands, the sacred shaping of will.”
We’ve seen before the way that Tool—a T’lan Imass—worked with stone, and there are many similarities here as Karsa creates his weapon.
And a pointed remark on the fact that Karsa is learning to shape and bend with circumstance: “To fight with such a weapon would demand changes to the style with which Karsa was most familiar.” We’ve already seen evidence of this change in other areas.
I’m sensing that here is the forging of an important sword—I imagine the forging of Dragnipur was just as considered. “The sword commanded all.” This is a demanding weapon. (And, no, I didn’t mean the inadvertent euphemism there.)
Free of the Ritual’s binding? You know, this Ritual didn’t seem to be as watertight as was previously believed! When they say that the chains are broken—well, only one sort of chain. As far as I am concerned, the seven are still bound in chains to another master.
Ouch—Karsa has little respect for the T’lan Imass, does he? “I walked upon stairs made of your kin. I have seen your kind, fallen in such numbers as to defy comprehension.”
Heh, with these words Erikson approaches traditional epic fantasy: “There are many words for this struggle. Order against chaos, structure against dissolution, light against dark, life against death.”
And suddenly he veers away again… “Our new master seeks to alter the paradigm, Karsa Orlong. A third force, to change for ever the eternal war between order and dissolution.”
Here again is more evidence of the changes in Karsa. I personally like his view of godhood and what it should mean. By that definition, we certainly know some people in the series who aren’t gods but probably should be! Is this what the process of Ascendancy seeks to accomplish? “To be a god is to know the burden of believers. Did you protect? You did not. Did you offer comfort, solace? Were you possessed of compassion? Even pity?”
I’m glad that Karsa has made clear his position, that he refuses to be shackled by the Crippled God. Bill is always right! [Bill: I’m showing this to my wife!] I just need to keep reading and have a little faith. I love Karsa’s deadpan acceptance of the fact that ‘Siballe remains alive, although, y’know, I could have stood to see her swept to oblivion after what she did.
The whole “I go in search of a horse” reminds me a little of the “I’m going to see a man about a dog.” *grins* [Bill: Oh, just wait for that one.]
Has Onrack stolen ‘Siballe’s body? Because it seems as though Karsa just nicked the head—for what reason, I’m not yet sure.
Sometimes there are just certain paragraphs or sentences that make me happy to be reading these books, and sometimes they are perhaps something that no one else would identify. Here is one that I love: “He knew, suddenly, that this land would capture his heart with its primal siren call. Its scale…matched his own, in ways he could not define. Thelomen Toblakai have known this place, have walked it before me. A truth, though he was unable to explain how he knew it to be so.”
Oh, I LOVE how he names this new sword: Bairoth Delum. How appropriate!
I think I like the fact that this sword’s first kill was born of necessity and not of rage. It gives the blade a measure of dignity that might otherwise be lacking. And is there something in the fact that the creature killed is a fleet and clever type of deer?
Cynnigig is one of those great characters that absolutely abound in this series—one of those characters that you feel an instinctive affinity to and appreciation of. And we have another verbose and humorous individual here!
“It was, by and large, by her hand and her will that the horses came into being.” Is she some type of god of the Jaghut people?
Here, with Phyrlis, we have the now-familiar tale of woe between T’lan Imass and Jaghut, but, unlike other occasions, this one has a slightly more happy ending—or at least an ending of growth and renewal. And a few more hints about Icarium; an emphasis on the heartbreak of his neverending cycle of forgetting what has gone before. And the rather foreboding: “Have you no means to defend yourself, then?”
“Against Icarium, no-one has, Karsa Orlong.”
The Jhag horses are attracted by the otataral that exists in Karsa’s veins from his use of bloodwood and blood-oil? Heh, I absolutely adore horses, in every shape and form, and these Jhag horses are noble specimens indeed. I cannot wait to hear more about them and how they fit into the story.
The warren that was sundered when Icarium attacked the Azath House—was this that same warren that we’ve seen fragments from all over the place? (I’m pretty sure I’ve asked that before and received an answer, but I’m damned if I can remember!)
And we now move onto Book Four, which is, I’m guessing, where all these very disparate storylines start coming together.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Seventeen
There certainly are starting to be a lot of unbound T’lan Imass running around.
I like how Karsa punctures their grand statements:
“The Warren of Tellann has found your sword Karsa Orlong. It shall never shatter.”
Karsa: “There are broken weapons in the caverns beyond.”
Hard to stay pompous around Karsa Orlong.
“Our people have fought many wars.” Sad to think that could end up as the tagline for the T’lan Imass.
“We have known wars beyond counting, and what have they achieved? The Jaghut were doomed to extinction—we but hastened the inevitable. Other enemies announced themselves and stood in our path. We were indifferent to their causes, none of which was sufficient to turn us aside. And so we slaughtered them. Again and again. Wars without meaning, wars that changed virtually nothing.”
“Indifference.” If “compassion” is, as I’ve argued repeatedly perhaps the most important word in this series, the driving guide, then “indifference” is the darker flip side of compassion, maybe even more so than cruelty. And so what a horrible light to cast the T’lan Imass in. And by one of their own—think of the burden of this realization. Of course, one always has to question these pronouncements—is Urugal’s observation wholly the right one? It’s hard to argue killing the Tyrants was a bad choice, I’d say, or that it changed nothing. But maybe it’s those words “slaughter,” and “indifference” that are key—the inability or unwillingness to make distinctions, to know when to stop, the pursuit of the absolute. And doing so in complete “certainty”—another one of the series’ key weighty words.
“To live is to suffer. To exist—even as we do—is to resist.” Now that’s uplifting. In some ways, it’s tough to argue I suppose, and that last part is a bit uplifting. But when Siballe says “that is all that was learned,” that seems so tragic. “to live is to suffer” is all you got out of millennia of living (well, kinda living)? No wonder they were “indifferent.”
I did like her summary of the idea of resistance though: “order against chaos, structure against dissolution, light against dark, life against death.” What I find interesting about this is that these abstractions have their literal counterparts in this fantasy world. Light against dark? Liosan against Andii? Chaos against order? The Crippled God versus? Even death, in the form of Hood, walks this ground and is a player. How much, if any, of this metaphysical summary is correct and/or literal? Is Siballe even working from the right prime premise?
“Our new master seeks to alter the paradigm . . . to change forever the eternal war between order and dissolution.” This is interesting to me because we’ve had several major players—mortals and gods—talk about the futility of walking the same paths over and over. And I’ve mentioned a few times now how maybe turning things over or upside-down is what is needed. And perhaps the ones to do so are those who are relatively new to the game. Perhaps this is a hint that the Crippled God isn’t all wrong.
Urugal’s definition of being a god is a telling one, I’d say: “To be a god is to possess worshippers.” Possession implies ownership, power over. It means to simply have and makes no mention or implication of responsibility. Siballe does add, “to guide them”—but again, it’s a one-way street and assumes greater wisdom always on the gods’ part and also assumes the worshippers are tools to be guided.
Karsa’s response is certainly evidence I’d say of the great changes that have gone through this character. Can anyone imagine the Karsa who left Teblor land with his two friends arguing for compassion or pity, talking about grieving parents? To be honest, part of me wondered if this might be too big a change too soon. He is so fervent in his argument, part of me wondered if he might still be stepping his way through this thought process at this point. But I can accept it. Of course, I also have to try to recall that the Karsa who left his homeland is more distant in the past than it feels from reading through the books—certainly more than a year and perhaps several. (And no, this is not where I try and put together a timeline of events—I’m fine with the vagueness and possible contradictions. But knock yourselves out if you’d like.)
When Karsa starts referring to the Seven as the Teblor’s chains, you’d think they’d get a bit nervous. After all, by now we all know what Karsa does with chains. So I can’t say his next act comes as a great surprise.
I’m not quite sure what Karsa means by parental love is “immune to imperfection.” My first response is a tragic if only that were so, but perhaps he means it less obviously than I take it.
Karsa’s discussion on the burdens of godhood is yet another reminder of why some of those who perhaps could be gods choose otherwise, such as Rake. We’ll have to see if all the gods we meet seek to “ease the burdens of those that would worship” them.
I do enjoy when Erikson sets us up for what we anticipate may be encounters ripe with potential and then just pulls the rug out from under us. He just did it with Karsa and Icarium obviously, and I like how he does it here as well with Karsa just brushing aside Trull and Onrack and moves on—the two of them not even warranting names the “encounter” is so non-existent.
Good for Onrack getting a hand back. This was nicely set up early on with the mention of the Tellann fire at the start of the chapter.
Small detail on Karsa realizing Trull was “like the ones on the ship.” More like perhaps than he knows
More evidence of Karsa’s growth—his change of mind on fame.
Good idea to file away that little bit on Forkrul Assail and adjudicating. They’ll remain a mystery for some time, but don’t’ worry—they have their part to play.
I like Cynnigig—I would have been quite happy to have seen more of him.
Boy, the hits keep coming for the T’lan Imass, don’t they? Spitting suckling babies on spears—nice.
So Icarium has arrows made from the wood of a Jaghut/Azath mix. Wouldn’t want to mess with those….
The scene with the Jhag horses reminds me of a scene in Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books when the rhynnin arrive to answer a call.
So Karsa, and one assumes all Teblor, have bloodoil running through their veins, and bloodoil is associated with otataral, meaning this would go some way at least to explaining Karsa’s magical resistance (whether other things help is another question)
So another small piece of info regarding Icarium and the Azath. He destroyed the Odhan Azath House in trying to get his father Gothos out, a story we’ve heard already, just not which House. As to which warren was then made vulnerable by the House’s death (Houses dying is an important piece of info to file by the way) and so be “torn apart” isn’t made clear here. We obviously know the Shadow realm has been torn apart—so we’ll have to see if this is the warren or is this a more-than-once-ever occurrence, a warren being shattered.
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.