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 Nineteen 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 watches Tavore walk through the remains of the Seti wiped out by Leoman’s band last night, over 300 of them killed in the ambush. Gamet thinks how only the Wickans had shown the discipline that kept them from the ambush and also eventually allowed them to drive off Leoman, who was “too caged to see his force ensnared in an out-and-out battle.” Gamet worries Tavore’s horse will be stung by one of the hordes of wasps and end up getting her injured, though both the horse and Tavore seem to be moving fine through the carnage. Tavore rejoins Gamet and informs him that Leoman had left many of the Seti wounded, thinking the Malazans would get to them before they died: “Wounded Malazans are better than dead ones, after all.” Gamet wonders why Sha’ik didn’t send Leoman’s group out sooner to harass them, saying she could have bought another month’s time and faced a much weaker enemy. Tavore says she has no idea, and both wonder if their enemy is not as monolithic as they’d thought, that perhaps they are “a confused opposition, one at odds with itself.” Tavore tells him to put the marines out tonight, referencing a time when Dassem Ultor faced a similar situation. Gamet remembers and agrees with her, telling her he will command them himself, though she says it isn’t necessary.
Fiddler arranges a competition among the army involving the three kinds of Odhan scorpions, involving Gesler and Borduke in his “scheme” and the three agree to split the profits three ways. They randomly select and Gesler and Borduke feel sorry for Fiddler, as he ends up with the birdshit scorpion: “puny and flat and black and looking like its namesake.” Fiddler, though, smiles at his “bad luck” and shares a glance with Cuttle. The first battle is set for this night, which surprises Bottle and Tarr coming right after the army was just badly bloodied. But Fiddler knows they need to get their minds off of it. Fiddler let his group know he actually arranged to get “stuck with” the birdshit scorpion, though he won’t tell them why. As they discuss it, his people let him know they are on to the fact of who he really is, though they tell him they won’t let command know. Gamet, Keneb and Ranal join them and take Cuttle, Fiddler, Gesler, and Stormy off to inform them that they’d be needed for “Dassem’s answer” tonight. Keneb also tells Fiddler he’s betting on Birdshit and has told Gamet to do so as well. Gesler and Stormy start to smell a rat. Fiddler wonders if he should reconsider his opinion of Keneb.
Just before the scorpion battle, the three scorpions are examined to make sure they haven’t been altered in any way, such as via magic. When Gesler confirms Joyful Union, the birdshit scorpion, is fine, he adds, “even though I know there’s something about it I’m not seeing and I’m about to lose my life’s savings on the Sergeants’ Wager.” The battle begins and when Joyful Union enters the ring, the other two seem terrified. JU then raises the tail and splits into two small but incredibly fierce and fast scorpions that take no time at all to kill the others. Stormy cries out “Cheat” and tries to draw his sword, but Gesler and Truth hold him back and say they all checked out Joyful Union and swore it was fine. Cuttle tells Fiddler they’re rich. Fiddler then tells his group (and via the “word-line” communication the other marines) that they’re “about to become our own Joyful Union” as they set up the answer to Leoman.
Fiddler begins unpacking munitions and his specially made crossbow, explaining to the impressed Cuttle how he and Hedge had designed it then had it made by a jeweler in Malaz City. He finishes and tells the others it’s time.
Gamet tells Tavore he’ll be heading out to his men in a few minutes, though he won’t actually join them in battle until the fighting starts. She asks Nil and Nether if they’ve done their rituals and Nil says they’ve spoken to the spirits as ordered, but due to the warlock’s weakened powers, they could only talk to the spirits and not compel them. Nether chimes in that “this land’s spirits are agitated at this moment . . . something else is happening.” Gamet leaves, feeling a fog fall over him, “unease and confusion [that] he had heard [claimed] other commanders, but had not thought it would befall him.” He has begun to “doubt his ability to command.” He knows tonight will be the first real test of that command and wishes he had stayed home, “refused her insistence—dammit, her assumption—that I would simply accept her wishes.”
Corabb crouches with 800 other soldiers wondering at Leoman’s hesitation. He asks Leoman about it and Leoman says he is wondering “About the Empress. She was once Mistress of the Claw. It fierce potency . . . we have all learned to fear. Ominous origins, yes? And then, as Empress, there were the great leaders of her imperial military. Dujek Onearm. Admiral Nok. Coltaine. Greymane.” Corabb interrupts to point out that none of them are here and Leoman agrees, saying, “True. We face the Adjunct Tavore, who was personally chosen by the Empress.” Corabb gets the implication, but notes Laseen also picked Pormqual, Dom, demoted Whiskeyjack, assassinated (according to rumor) Dassem Ultor. Leoman takes Corabb’s point that she makes mistakes and he orders his men forward. Corabb hopes the spirits smile on him tonight.
Borduke’s squad is working on a hill, probably a barrow, digging and moving rocks while another group is doing the same on another barrow. Fiddler is nearby, worrying that maybe they’d cut it too close and annoyed by the loud clumsiness of Borduke’s squad.
Leoman spots the outlying pickets digging on the barrows and is pleased at how they’re stumbling around in the dark due to setting up so late and at how they’ve set up too far apart from each other to really support each other well. Corabb waits for the signal.
Gamet is in the empty marine camp, knowing the cutters and healers are getting ready. He knows it’s possible Leoman won’t take the path Tavore has left him so invitingly. A capemoth flutters in front of him and he worries it’s an omen.
The rebels attack. Corabb runs toward the barrows and sees an arrow strike a Malazan helm and knock it off, realizing it wasn’t sitting on top of an actual person. Then the marines rise up and munitions start falling
Fiddler and Cuttle’s group are firing away. The raid has been stopped dead. Fiddler lets a munition loose over a hilltop to devastating effect on the other side it seems, then enemy warriors start pouring over the ridge and Fiddler calls on his men to fall back.
Corabb drags himself away from the corpses of his fellow attackers. He runs right into a group of marines and is wounded and ends on the ground. One of the Malazans leaves a small clay ball on his lap and Corabb sees it smoking. He rolls away, grabs a helm, and slams it over the munition.
As they retreat, Cuttle tells Fiddler he left a sharper in Corabb’s lap and he’s “about to be surprised.” They watch Corabb cover it with a helm then get lifted by the explosion of fire under the helm like he’s riding a jetpack rocket. They continue to watch, stunned, as he lands hard on the ground, then runs off.
Gamet heads toward a besieged Malazan position but even as it’s overrun, he falls into a fog of confusion. Someone calls for him to get out of there, but he’s lost “Too many voices. Screams of the dying. The flames—they’re falling away. Darkness closing in. My soldiers are dying. Everywhere. It’s failed—the whole plan has failed.” He’s surrounded and about to be killed when a munition lands, killing the enemies and knocking him off his horse and even more senseless. Gesler arrive and he and Pella help him out, as he looks at Pella’s youth and thinks, “My mind is clear. Perfectly clear now. Finally. They’re all too young for this. It’s Laseen’s war—let her fight it. Tavore—she was a child once. But then the Empress murdered that child. Murdered her. I must tell the Adjunct.”
Cuttle joins Fiddler back at camp. They discuss Corabb’s miraculous survival of the sharper. Gesler joins them and tells them about the overrun position, saying it was screwed up—that most of the Malazans could have gotten away but only four out of three squads did. He says it could have been worse and leaves. Fiddler tells Cuttle to get his squad together so he can go over all the mistakes. Cuttle asks if one of them was Fiddler leading them up the barrow and Fiddler agrees it was, though Cuttle points out it probably saved lives. He tells Fiddler you can’t start second-guessing or using “what ifs.” Fiddler says he knows.
Tavore enters just as the healer finishes with Gamet. He assumes she’s there to relieve him of command. She tells him it was foolish to put himself at risk but hardly reason to remove him. He says it cost lives and she answers that every battle costs lives—”This is the burden of command. Did you this this war would be won without the spilling of blood?” He tells her he found out tonight he’s no longer a soldier, nor is he cut out to be a Fist. She nods and says since he’s wounded, she’ll allow a temporary field promotion and he suggests Keneb.
Corabb joins Leoman in the aftermath of their heavy losses telling him Leoman had been right, “The Empress chose wisely.” When Leoman doesn’t answer, Corabb curses the marines and their munitions, saying they were the difference. He wishes he could have found one of those special crossbows. Leoman tells him to be quiet and orders him to send a messenger to Sha’ik saying Leoman will continue raiding and return three days ahead of Tavore’s army. The message is also that Leoman has no faith in Dom’s strategy or his tactics, though he knows Sha’ik will not listen.
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Nineteen
It’s an interesting parallel, this opening scene, similar in so many ways to a scene a long, long ways back in Gardens of the Moon when we had another Adjunct—Lorn—riding a horse through the fly and wasp-filled carnage of an attack while being observed. It’s such a parallel, in fact, that I wonder if the “grizzled old soldier” might not be the one who observed Lorn riding through the Itko Kan slaughter. There’s nothing, as far as I know/recall that points that way, but I kind of like thinking it’s so. Anybody have any ideas as to yea or nay?
We’ve been set up for Tavore’s countermeasure by the earlier scene with her studying old battles even at age nine. Now knowing that, her ability to scan through her memory of historical antecedents to similar situations doesn’t come as any surprise or seem out of place or arbitrary here. I also like how Gamet recognizes the particular situation she references. Also not a bad idea to keep the name of Dassem in front of us, considering his involvement on Avalii.
Okay, there probably isn’t a lot to say in depth about the scorpion plot line here. But a few things. The first is that I absolutely love it. Love the humor, love the sense of camaraderie, love the con game, the reactions, love the way it shows this army starting to coalesce, love how it shows relationships forming and/or tightening, the way it builds the army’s confidence. I mentioned in last post’s response that this was starting to move into Shakespearean tragedy mode, or at least seeming to. This is a good moment, therefore, to give us a bit of a lengthy break from that; a little pause and relief before things start to get dark and ugly (or perhaps I should say darker and uglier). It also, of course, presages this night’s ambush of Leoman’s forces—the split into two groups (one being false), the deceptive appearance. Finally, Keneb’s wager also does a nice job of showing us (and Fiddler) that he’s more on the ball than many think and, because he backs the scammer we like (Fiddler) he becomes more appealing to the reader.
Speaking of humor—lots of funny lines in this chapter:
“How’s the training coming along, Corporal?”
“All right, I suppose. As soon as I figure out what kind of training it needs, I’ll get right on it.”
“What lips? Scorpions don’t have lips”
“Who’s going to listen to our screams of panic in a battle, Sergeant?”
“How’s the word-line Cuttle?”
“Been repeating every word . . .”
“And so legends were born”
Fiddler’s line regarding Gamet looking old and his “tremor of unease” as he looks at him is a nicely efficient pair of phrases, characterizing both Gamet and Fiddler at once—preparing us for Gamet’s issues soon to come and reminding us he may not be cut out for this and characterizing Fiddler as sharply insightful, and quickly so.
Nether’s line about the “land’s spirits being agitated” is another piece of evidence that something large is happening under the surface ’round here.
Poor Gamet—we’ve had him doubting himself for some time, and had other characters doing the same, and as readers, I think we always like to think the poor sap in over his head will always somehow stumble his way toward victory. But it doesn’t always happen that way. We’ll have to see if this night is a minor setback for Gamet or something worse. Two small lines in his first monologue about his worries tonight. One is the throwaway reference to the soldiers not saluting in enemy territory; it’s another one of those tiny details that keeps the actuality of the situation omnipresent for the reader, rather than just dragging out the context for the big battle scene or the like. The other line in that little monologue of his I wanted to point to was “I should have refused her insistence—dammit, her assumption—that I would simply accept her wishes.” It’s a very revealing line for how Tavore works and the effect her method has. Watch how often people wonder why they follow her, wonder how she got them to do something, wonder why they don’t just turn around and go.
Leoman—oh, so close. We can see how this may play out as a great chess match between him and Tavore. He has no evidence, no real reason save deduction regarding Laseen choosing Tavore, to think that something may be up about tonight’s attack, but even so, he is very close to realizing maybe the attack isn’t a good idea. (by the way—his list of famed Malazan leaders: we’ve seen all but Greymane. Just wait).
Sure, the Corabb-rocketeer scene might be a tad much, but makes me laugh every time, picturing Cuttle and Fiddler’s faces as they watch.
I find Gamet’s lines when he’s saved by Gesler incredibly moving: “Too young for this. I will ask the Adjunct to send him home. To his mother and father, yes. He should not have to die . . . They’re all too young for this.” Too often we get these battle scenes played out for excitement only. Or for shock value via the “grittiness” of the description. Or we’re meant to feel bad because people (often relatively faceless ones) die in bloody fashion. Here, though, we’re given so much more despite the few sentences and lack of vivid battle-imagery. The focus on wasted youth, on the burden of those who send the youth to death, on the responsibility of leaders, on the loss to mother and fathers who are so often totally absent in word and thought. And what I liked even better was we went from this abstract grief and guilt on Gamet’s part as a leader to the more concrete and personal as he shifts from focusing on Pella to Tavore: “Tavore—she was a child, once. But then the Empress murdered that child . . . ”
On the topic of showing us parts of battle we seldom see, it’s another little throw-away line, but the bit about how the army picks up the used quarrels and strips the bodies of their dead so the enemy can’t use their equipment is yet another way Erikson presents us a more realistic and full picture of events.
Aloof and cold and remote as Tavore is, it’s a nice way to handle Gamet’s realization that he shouldn’t be fist, though because of how she is, it’s difficult to say if she does this to save his feelings or simply because this way is more “efficient” and less disruptive. Nice to see Keneb making good as time moves on.
And the chess match continues as Leoman realizes the quality of his opponent. And once again, we get one of those pronouncements by a character not quite fully up on things: “I no longer hold faith in Korbolo Dom’s strategy . . . she will not listen to such words.” Little does he know he has risen in Sha’ik’s estimation.
A very short chapter, but as I mentioned last time, the pace is starting to quicken a bit. We get strike and counterstrike in the first true measuring of the two opponents (Leoman and Tavore). We also see the Fourteenth beginning to come into its own: the scorpion battle, their victory against Leoman, Gamet being replaced by Keneb. The stage continues to be set . . .
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.