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 Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson (MT).
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.
Seren and Buruk reach the pass after having been hounded by wraiths the whole way. Seren touches the black cliff wall and hears voices within talking of annihilation, of one of three who shall return, one with a bright sword, of Two Mistresses in the same Hold (one seeming to be Seren according to the voices). She makes ready to camp.
Buruk talks to Seren of being Indebted and blackmailed. She tells him to make himself un-useful and he replies he is in a “hurry to do just that.”
Seren and Buruk reach the border town and find three of the most powerful mages there preparing to attack the Edur villages. Seren asks them not to, mentions the children, but they ignore her. In concert with the Ceda, they perform a powerful ritual and cast power that horrifies them all. Seren considers it mindless slaughter. Buruk and Seren think Mosag, Rhulad, Trull, etc. are all dead.
On the river, Buruk tells Seren he will release her from her contract and that he intends to “never leave Trate.” He gives her tea to knock her out and tells her she always had his heart.
Seren wakes the next day and goes to Buruk’s home, breaks in and finds where he’s hanged himself.
Trull and other Edur witness from afar the devastation caused by the Letherii sorcery that destroyed their abandoned villages. Hanradi Khalag, the Merude tribe chief, tells Trull their new allies have arrived and know him well. Trull speaks bitterly of what is happening and Hanradi warns him he nears treason. The allies turn out to be Jheck. In the camp, Trull thinks this will be a brutal war and wishes he could cast his doubts aside as apparently Fear has. The camp is filled with summoned demons, bound against their will to fight for the Edur. B’nagga, the “Dominant” or leader of the Jheck meets with Fear and Trull. It is revealed that the Nerek had stayed behind in the Edur village and so seemingly were killed by the Letherii sorcery. A Lether army has been observed and they discuss plans to deal with it and High Fort. The K’risnan tell Trull they are linked to Mosag and the Emperor and now wield more magical power than ever, power from the sword. When Trull questions that, Fear stops him and tells him to advance and deal with any enemy scouts. Trull leaves, feeling more and more isolated. He joins his group, captained by Ahlrada Ahn who for some reason unknown to Trull hates him. They kill a young scout; Trull is sickened by it all.
Trull’s group crosses a “bridge” which is actually one of Icarium’s time mechanisms. Ahlrada has seen the same writing on the artifact before in ice and says the myth was the language was from the “Tusked Man” who has been seen over generations.
Via Wither, Udinaas learns more of the Letherii past and its connection to The First Empire and how the T’lan Imass killed them after the Soletaken ritual. When Udinaas wonders why he should care, Wither tells him there are over 4000 under his feet, lost and without a single bonecaster. Wither hides within the blood of the Wyval while the Wyval hides within the shadow of the Wraith while Udinaas wonders if he’s gone mad and is deluded. Feather Witch asks Udinaas to take her to his dream realm. She takes them through fire into another world where they are taken by Imass. In the distance lies a wrecked Meckros city “plucked from the sea and sea ice.” Udinaas explains to Feather Witch how the Imass’ strong memories have manifested them as real people in this realm and she connects them to the Beast Hold and says the Imass stole fire from the Eres’al. In the ice mixed in with the city lie K’Chain corpses. Feather Witch confesses she had seen Menandore rape Udinaas earlier. He is relieved he is not mad and realizes Feather Witch had summoned the Wyval and had thought the Tiles would lead her to freedom. They return to the Imass who have been joined by a Meckros boy named Rud Ellale who can speak Letherii. He says the Bentract took him in after Menandore saved him from the city. Rud is Udinaas’ son by Menandore and is draconic Soletaken. Ulshun Pral leads them to 12 gates which were sealed by the bonecaster that took the Imass through and tells them they are in an overflow of Starvald Demelain. Udinaas and Feather Witch return to their world.
Atri-Pedra Yan Tovis plans to ride out from the coast after having seen roughly 300,000 Edur ready to make a landing, after 5000 landed at First Maiden Fort. The local Finadd thinks this is probably it for the Edur forces (Tovis isn’t so sure) and also that they can hold out, but Tovis, telling him a third fleet has appeared to cut them off, tells him she is going to surrender Fent Reach.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Fifteen:
Ha, I notice that Bill rarely makes much comment on the poems that begin each chapter! I would be interested in a show of hands as to who actually reads them? I mean, we have discussed before how they can give an indication as to the tone, themes, mood, characters that might be following in the chapter, but that sure doesn’t mean everyone is going to be reading them! So who does?
We only see the very last part of what must have been a truly nightmarish trek through the Edur territory for Seren and Buruk. Well, for the latter anyway—although both are badly affected by the constant scrutiny of the wraiths who are there to harry them through Edur lands. Buruk never really gained any real feelings from me either way before now. He was an annoying minor character. But here I see him making every effort to keep up with Seren. Sure, it is to save his own hide, but I have gained respect and sympathy for him.
I am not going to head into an analysis of when Seren touches the black rock again, since Bill has produced a handy dandy one below that I would not have been able to replicate. Needless to say, though, Seren’s part in this novel is FAR from over, and I’m glad of this. She is one of those characters that it is easy to get behind, and she often provides a decent and sensible commentary on what is happening. (Far too many unreliable narrators in Erikson’s work!)
I am keen to know the answer to Seren’s question: Mistress of the Hold—which Hold?
Ye gods, poor Buruk. I didn’t see that coming, the fact that he is Indebted. What was it—the unsavoury thing—that he was asked to do? Anyone else getting just a little bit worried about the fact that he seems so relaxed about being able to get out of debt?
This scene, where the cadre of mages casts their power against the villages of the Edur, is absolutely amazing. I could totally see this on film—the way the mages shift away from each other, the rising wave of power, the soldiers being sucked into the wave as collateral damage… It would look superb!
Isn’t it hideous the way that the Edur mages sneer at Seren when she mentions the Edur children? I guess it is the age-old question: would you sacrifice millions to save billions? This is very much a Watchmen-like moment! And their callousness in allowing their own side to succumb to the wave of power… No respect for the Letherii right now. However, I am certain that Erikson will soon provide me reason enough to not exclusively side with the Edur either!
Anyone else getting echoes of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during WWII here? “This is not war. This is… what? Errant save us, I have no answer, no way to describe the magnitude of this slaughter. It is mindless. Blasphemous. As if we have forgotten dignity. Theirs, our own. The word itself. No distinction between innocence and guilt, condemned by mere existence. People transformed against their will into nothing more than symbols, sketchy representations, repositories of all ills, of all frustrations.”
Even more foreboding is Buruk’s actions during the scene with the poisoned tea. There is a definite sense that all is not well with this man. I feel unutterably sad that it is only when she is no longer in control of her faculties that Buruk feels able to tell Seren how he feels. There is definitely the nature of a goodbye in that moment.
And here the final scene of Buruk. I’m not entirely surprised by this end, but remarkably unhappy given that Seren would have helped him, that he should have found another way to free himself. Suicide is always upsetting and, ultimately, frustrating—could I have done something? Should they have come to me for help? Why didn’t they? etc
I’m glad that Hull’s intimate knowledge of the way that the Letherii made war ensured that the Edur survived the blast, but those Nerek… No doubt they stayed because the land they were on had been consecrated by Mayen? Again, upsetting moments….
Trull truly doesn’t think before he speaks does he? Using words like “usurper” will indeed see him cast out from his own kind!
There have been many moments in our own history where people have found themselves fighting alongside those that, previously, they had been trying to kill. Betrayals and switching sides was endemic, for instance, during the War of the Roses in England. How did the common men feel about this? How could they reconcile the fact that they were now allies? Here we have Trull trying to do the same as he comes face to face with the Jheck leader.
Trull is so very alone: “No-one wanted to listen. Independent thought had been relinquished, with appalling eagerness, it seemed to him, and in its place had risen a solid resolve to question nothing.”
Why would Trull choose someone who hated him to be his captain? That just seems daft!
So far we’ve seen this war claim unwary soldiers on the Letherii’s own side and a fifteen year old scout. This is not a war to be proud of, is it?
That time piece bridge is awesome!
Here is a nightmare thought: “What did he care about some ancient nemesis? Because the dust of over four thousand of them was beneath their feet at this moment.”
“If they are dust,” Udinaas muttered, “they cannot slaughter anyone.” Wrong!
It is hard to know what to comment on during the stint in the dream world with Feather Witch and Udinaas. I have to say that I feel even less empathy for Feather Witch than before, if possible, when we learn that a lot of her bad feelings towards Udinaas are caused by her envy over the fact that he “stole” the Wyval she summoned in order to achieve some form of freedom. Finding Udinaas’ son was a key moment—that was a quick process, the carrying, the birth and the growing up! Time really does move differently. And here we also find out that they are within the realm of Starvald Demelain: the realm of pure dragons.
Have to confess, the storyline of which I have least interest in this novel is probably Udinaas and Feather Witch. There is always something going on, but, because a whole heap of it takes place in dream realms or through tile castings, I find myself confused as to what is actually happening!
Just a thought here… Surely it would be a good idea to find out how many people you’ll be fighting against? “We have never known the population of Edur lands.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Fifteen:
So we get yet another cryptic prophecy when Seren places her hands against the black stone. I’ll offer up some views:
“He who commands cannot be assailed . . . From each death power burgeons anew” – I’d say this is Rhulad, who commands the wraiths via the CG’s power via the sword and who gains power each time he dies.
“Of the three, one shall return” – Since these are wraiths, I’d guess we’re talking the Andii leaders and we know Silchas is about to crawl up out of the Azath, so I’m going with him.
The “she” with the “bright sword” is probably Menandore as we see her described this way in Udinaas’ earlier vision, “She blazed, blinding white. A sword flickering like lightning in one hand.”
“Two Mistresses to the same Hold. She is one and she is here.” – Well, I’ll go out on a limb and say Seren is one of the Mistresses JAs for the other, I’m not sure at all. Mayen? Going on the idea that the other one is an Edur and we’ve recently seen her become a Mistress. Or is the Mistressing coming in the future?
I always find these ending pages with Buruk to be moving. I can hear the grief and hopelessness in his voice as he talks of falling deeper into debt and thus deeper into behavior that destroys the image of himself he once had, once dreamed of. The suicide reference is pretty clear here, pointed at not just by his words but also by Seren’s fear at his words and tone—and we know she is a perceptive person.
It’s just a little funny to hear a Letherii referring to the Edur as “smug.”
Hmm, interesting that the first casualty of the Letherii attack are Letherii. Not a great omen. (And of course, we know who aren’t casualties—the Edur).
And then, from Seren’s point of view, more language that can be transplanted into our own, more modern world: “This is not war . . . No distinction between innocence and guilt, condemned by mere existence . . .”
Speaking of omens, we’ve had the first glance between Seren and Trull, then the parting is such sweet sorrow at the bridge, and now Seren seeing Trull’s face in her head as she thinks of the dead. Wonder where this is going to go….
And more hints to Buruk’s suicide:
- “You’ll soon be free of me.”
- “My need for you is ended.”
- “She sensed from him a kind of resignation”
- “My days as a spy are over.”
- “I intend never to leave Trate.”
- “Remember this . . . you have always held my heart.”
- His paying the man a year’s wages to make sure Seren stayed safe after he drugged her.
- His orders to Seren not to go in the house.
So the only casualties of the Letherii sorcery are the Nerek. Killed while sitting on newly-sanctified ground after we’ve been told their goddess is waking or has woken. That can’t be good.
I’ve said before; I’ll say it several times coming. Anyone surprised this guy—Trull—is going to get shorn? Calling Rhulad an usurper, complaining that Rhulad is setting spies among his own people, wondering at Rhulad’s fearing his own, refusing to allow criticism. Referring to himself as basically the sole voice of “reason.” And if we didn’t already know where this was going, we could be so smart and read into that image at the end of his conversation with Hanradi: “Trull alone once again on the precipice.” And then, a few pages later, Trull himself looks to his future, his inability to stay quiet: “No possible conclusion but his own isolation.”
We get yet another sympathetic look at “demons” here: “The creatures were bound, now doomed to fight a war not of their making, where the only release was anihilation.” We’ll get to know one of the Edur’s demons a bit better.
That’s a lot of detail on Ahlrada Ahn, and that, along with the characterization that he hates Trull, is probably a good clue he’s going to play a somewhat larger role than a Red Shirt. Note his unusual left-handedness, his darker-than-usual-for-an-Edur skin, and the way the “shadow wraiths swarmed round him—another strange detail unique to the warrior.”
I’m thinking it isn’t purposeless that the first deaths we get in this war once it officially starts are the “friendly fire” Letherii soldiers, the non-combatant Nerek, Buruk, and now a young teen boy.
Wouldn’t you love to see Icarium actually building some of these things we’ve seen over the course of the series?
A dead owl on the trail. From earlier:
The first time we see Trull: “The owl had dropped silently from its branch . . . plucking the mouse from the ground . . . The figure [Trull] who jogged across the glade a dozen heartbeats later saw nothing untoward . . .
The owl froze motionless in its hollow . . . Once it had passed, the owl resumed feeding. Dusk belonged to the hunter, and the raptor was not yet done this night . . .”
When Silchas appears to Buruk, Seren, and Hull:
[Buruk] “The birth of empire, oh yes, but who shall rule it? . . . Thirty paces ahead, unseen by any of them, an owl sailed across the path, silent on its broad, dark wings. There was blood on its talons, blood around its beak.”
When Bugg performs his funereal task for the Nerek in Lether:
“Bugg knelt beside the old woman . . . Urusan of the Clan known as the Owl.”
That’s a lot of owl references, and most of them coming at the end of scenes, a place any author knows is a place of significance to readers, a place where what you put there weighs a bit more heavily on the reader, lingers a bit more in the reader’s mind. What do we have so far? All the owl references have something to do with death. The first one is connected to Trull (who does not see it). The second one is connected to the fulfillment of the Seventh Closure (which has been implied will have something to do with Rhulad, and where Rhulad is . . . ?). The third one is a bit different—not a bird proper—but still associated with death. And this one, another association with Trull. And death. Here endeth the “Pay Attention to Owls” lesson.
And a shift to the Lether origin as a colony of the First Empire and we see imperialism/colonialism once again painted in a harsh (if honest) light: “Other peoples, not human, all of whom bled easily enough.” Nice what we notice.
And a reminder of T’lan Imass, of whom we’ve heard next to nothing of in this book, something that will clearly change momentarily. And an introduction to the idea of “Within the world of ghosts and shades, the past lived on, breathed like a thing alive,” which we’ll soon see.
It’s almost like old home week in this scene: we get T’lan Imass, K’Chain corpses, ice, the Meckros, a reference to the Crippled God (“that damned legless bastard”).
Poor Udinaas—not sure how one prepares to meet, in a dream world, the growing-up Soletaken dragon son you fathered via being raped by a goddess on a dream battlefield of blood and death.
It’s very interesting to see those cave paintings by the Bentract—”a struggling attempt by the T’lan Imass to paint their own forms”—considering what we saw happen to the last T’lan Imass portrait artist we know.
Some dragon (real dragons) names there—we’ll see some of these. And we’ve obviously seen the Soletaken ones.
Those gates will be important as well.
Udinaas’ lines about the demons are particularly sharp coming after we’ve seen Trull musing on the demons in the Edur army: “Perhaps that was all the word ‘demon’ meant. Some creature torn from its own realm. Bound like a slave by a new master who cared nothing for its life.” In our commentary we’ve talked about how much of this book deals with power relationships (colonialists, modern-day “empires,” a reference to an interview where Stephen talked of inequity—thanks for that cite by the way Saltman) and here is how it’s easy to justify in one’s mind the oppression via seeing the oppressed as “other” or, in fantasy terminology—demon. A bit of Joseph Conrad’s vision: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the takingit away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatternosesthan ourselves.”
Well, turns out the appearance of hundreds of thousands of Edur plus demons does a little number on one’s sense of condescending superiority and/or sense of inevitable and imminent victory, huh? And thus we let slip the dogs of war….
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.