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 Sixteen of The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson (TB).
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.
The Fourteenth is on its third day of boarding ships to take them away from Seven Cities. Keneb worries about morale, the army having had its “heart” cut out with the loss of so many veterans. He is also concerned about chaos among the leaders, especially Tene Baralta’s bitterness and hatred of life. He runs into Nether, who tells him they can’t do anything about the plague and that they’ve lost contact with Dujek. She adds that Pearl is still missing. Keneb joins Tavore, Blistig, and Nok. Tavore tells Keneb Nok has informed them the Empress has ordered them back to Unta once they’ve boarded (two more days he thinks) and they have decided to take an alternate, longer route in hopes of avoiding the plague and restocking. Nok leaves, saying he wants to keep an eye out for a strange fleet they’d spotted. Blistig leaves and Tavore and Keneb discuss the army, with Tavore saying she thinks they’ll eventually be sent to Korel. Keneb realizes she doesn’t actually believe it though and wonders what she suspects Laseen of. Keneb leaves and Grub tells him to make it three rather than two days to board, adding some predictions.
Kindly watches over the packing of his comb collection (Kindly is almost completely bald). Kindly complains about Keneb’s incompetence in causing a delay in boarding then leaves. Pores and the remaining soldiers discuss thinking.
Barathol leads Cutter’s group out of the town. They are followed by Chaur and they take him on.
Cutter is impressed Barathol didn’t reject Chaur or beat him. Cutter tells Scillara they are taking Heboric to the Jade Statue, explaining Heboric’s hands are now solid jade flecked with imperfections. Scillara says afterward she’d like to go with Cutter to Darujhistan and he can teach her how to be a thief. He says there are better people there for her to be with.
Scillara thinks Cutter is feeling lonely, guilty, and useless now that he’s failed both Heboric and Felisin and hopes her flirting will keep him distracted. She worries about the ease with which she gave up her baby. She and Barathol speak, briefly and with little substance, about the future.
Ganath stands above the fissure where she had ensorcelled the K’chain sky keep, sensing that dragon blood had been spilled and in combination with chaos had destroyed her ritual. She can’t pin down the time order though and also has a strange sense of order having been imposed. She wishes Cynnigig and Phyrlis were with her, and then wishes for Paran as well. She is suddenly attacked/killed by K’Chain Nah’Ruk (Short-tails).
Spite’s ship is crewed by bhok’arala from Pust’s temple. At sea, Spite seems upset and when Mappo asks what is wrong, she tells him a murder has happened. The two discuss faith, gods, godlessness, war between gods, inequity, motivations for war, etc. She ends by telling Mappo they are heading for the Otataral Sea.
Ormulogun paints Dujek’s barrow. He and the toad Gumble spar over art, Ormulogun’s talent and effect, what Ormulogun will paint on the barrow walls.
Paran looks at the High Fist’s army inherited from Dujek, wondering what had been in Dujek’s logs to lead the army to choosing him. He thinks he’ll do what he pleases with the army until Laseen takes it away. Hurlochel tells Paran the soldiers are his no matter what the Empress says. Paran says scouts have seen survivors heading northeast and says the army will resupply then follow them, helping and survivors and letting them join. He goes to meet Ormulogun to ask him to make him a new Deck of Dragons.
Karsa’s group finds a friend of Boatfinder who has been killed/tortured by the invaders. Karsa says they are close, are hiding via sorcery, then takes off. Samar, fallen behind, hears the sound of Karsa killing then comes to a camp and sees Karsa fighting 50 or so Edur among dead/tortured Anibar. A female Edur tries sorcery, but it is ineffective against Karsa. Samar stops him before he kills all the Edur, saying he needs to leave some alive to carry back the fear so they don’t return. The Edur bring out a Taxilian interpreter and Samar lies, saying Karsa is just one of a “horde” of Toblakai. Samar recognizes the language as descended from the First Empire. The leader of the Edur agrees to withdraw all forces and when Karsa says that is insufficient, the leader offers to convey Karsa to face their Emperor, whom they say has killed over a thousand challengers. Karsa agrees, though Samar says he is “chaining” himself.
Keneb asks Temul how it feels to be heading home, commander truly of his men, and Temul says he thinks the Wickans will leave the army at Unta and say little of Seven Cities to their families, feeling shame at the army’s failures. He says they wanted to die as Coltaine did against the same enemy and this return will break them.
The dogs all start barking and Pores sees a troops marching up the road toward the ships. He takes Tavore’s horse to ride closer, recognizes them as survivors from Y’Ghatan, then heads back to the ships when Faradan Sort says they’re in desperate need of water.
Tavore walks with Keneb, Blistig, and a few others toward the commotion, asking why he purposely delayed their departure. He tells her Grub told him they would die otherwise. Pores goes galloping through them calling for water. Tavore and the others see who it is coming up the road and are stunned. Faradan surrenders herself but asks leniency for Sinn (for desertion). Fiddler tells Tavore if she hangs Faradan she better get a lot more nooses for the survivors. Tavore welcomes them back, “Bonehunters in truth.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Sixteen
I like how these past few chapters have a bit of a rhythm to them—a rise and fall. In this case, we move from the announcement of Dujek’s death to Keneb’s concerns about the army and we’re given a litany of dismaying concepts: the army’s morale gone bad, the hole at the center with the loss of so many in Y’Ghatan, the fear of mutiny, the lack of food and water, the plague surrounding them, Tene Baralta’s horrible wound and its effect on the man. Some of this we know of course is about to be ameliorated—the plague for instance—though that knowledge is counteracted a bit by the fact that we also know that when the army does “get in touch with Dujek” the news will be bad. But by the end of this chapter, we will have climbed out of this abyss thanks to the arrival of the survivors, and that scene is made I’d say all the sweeter and more effective thanks to this beginning.
Also, in the list of things to worry about, note that little throwaway line about how High Denul is becoming more rare among the Malazan Empire. Healing, it appears, is becoming less and less likely which would seem to set up the reader for some more deaths to come. One also wonders what that might say about the sustainability of the Empire’s expansion/occupation. We’ve heard before that high magery is also becoming more limited.
And another quick line—where is Pearl? A nice bit of suspense to toss in there. Is this the Claw acting on Laseen’s orders? If so, where is he? Is he killing someone? Planning to? Is this Kalam’s revenge? Is this Apsalar? Is he off on his own?
I’ve said before, probably more than once (I assume you’re used to my repetitions by now, and we’ve got books and books to go folks!), that one of the craft aspects I like about this series, one of its more clear signs of the author’s attentiveness and world-building and respect for the readers is how events in the past don’t simply disappear into the past. They don’t happen, have an immediate impact, then get washed away by the turn of pages. We see this in thematic ways such as how all these characters are constantly walking on the bones (sometimes literally) of the past. But we also see it in tiny ways, such as when Keneb walks into the command tent and immediately notes how it still smells of smoke, “a grim reminder of Y’Ghatan.” I think far too many authors would never have had that very concrete, very sensory reminder of the past.
So, anyone think that Tavore’s fleet going the “long way round” to Unta, through somewhat unknown waters, with some mysterious fleet out there, might prove to be eventful on the way?
We’ve heard of Sepik before, and Nemil as well. Earlier, Samar Dev had told Karsa that Sepik has “two distinct populations, one the subject of the other” and it is this information that enraged Karsa and made him head toward the island. And Veed told Icarium they are heading for the coast “opposite the island of Sepik.” Nemil, meanwhile, is the land whose army Mappo recalls the Trell defeating, though the Trell eventually succumbed anyway. Then of course there is Shal-Morzinn, though I already spoiled last chapter that we wouldn’t be dealing with them—sorry. And then Drift Avali, and we’ve seen some interesting things happening there.
Good ole’ Blistig. Even surrounded by negativity, he can bring a room down . . .
So, we have a mysterious fleet out there (though probably not so mysterious to us readers). More than Nok’s mention of the fleet, I like how we get that Meckros city casually tossed in there, which should remind us of a few events/characters from the past.
Here is another reference to possible tension between Tavore and Laseen, to some concern that the Fourteenth Army and the Empress might be on a collision course. What does Tavore know? What does she suspect? And where is that damned Claw?
And the potential bad news continues as the Foreshadow Express arrives via Grub:
“Sepik will be bad”
“Nemil will be good. Then bad.”
“Then we find friends, twice.”
“Then we end up where it all started.”
“Then it will be very bad.”
“That’s when she realizes everything, almost everything.”
We know some people heading toward the same general area—will they be the “friends”? Or will they be brand new folks? Or old folks we haven’t seen for a while? Where is “where it all started?” As Buffy once said to Giles, “Can you vague that up for me a bit more?” Might “it” be Malaz City? Aren? The First Empire? The list goes on… And who is he collecting that bone whistle for? We’ve seen a bone whistle before….
Before things get unbearably heavy though, Erikson winds us down a bit with some much-needed comic relief with Pores and Kindly. Oh, how I love those combs. And Kindly’s lines just crack me up: “I’ve personally killed more lazy soldiers than enemies of the empire.”
Barathol simply accepting Chaur’s addition without yelling or worse, beating him, does characterize him nicely. But I’d say the group’s reaction, or lack thereof, also does the same. Cutter doesn’t complain about dragging along someone both “simple and stubborn.” And Scillara offers to make him sandals. I think it’s funny that Cutter, while internally praising Barathol for his behavior, doesn’t seem to give himself any credit. And while I have no idea whether it is intentional or not, I have to confess that I laugh at the idea that Scillara, a new mother, is going to make “baby booties” for a giant with the mind of a child.
It’s certainly an intriguing bit of info that Heboric, even though he’s been stuffed and dried, has had some sort of major change in that his hands are now solid (but not pure) jade. Something is going on there obviously, even if it isn’t a “climb out of my old skin and be alive again” kind of thing like Greyfrog.
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten much into the head of Scillara beyond her pregnancy, and I like this Scillara we see here—the one who is attentive enough to see Cutter’s various pains (guilt, grief, loneliness, self-esteem), who actively tries to distract him from those pains by flirting, who picks up on Barathol’s dryly subtle warning not to push Cutter too far. A Scillara who is actually looking forward to something rather than dreading the future: “Thoughts of a city lit by blue fire, a place filled with people, none of whom expected anything of her, and the possibility of new friends—with Cutter at her side—were in truth rather enticing. A new adventure . . .” And then, after her very dry and not-so-informative conversation, if one can call it that, with Barathol: “I think I’m going to enjoy this journey.”
Oh, poor Ganath. I got to the first line of this section and felt a pang immediately. I liked her and the few moments we get with her in this scene make her death more painful. It begins with her sense of vulnerability, which automatically is going to make us feel sorry for her. And her futile wish for her friends of old. Whose names, by the way, should sound familiar. We met both Cynnigig and Phyrlis in House of Chains. Cynnigig took Karsa to see Phyrlis who was the one in the tree who called the Jhag horses for Karsa to choose (her wood also furnished Icarium with his arrows).
Then it really puts me on her side when she wishes for Paran. A Jaghut wishing to have a human (albeit an ascendant or near-ascendant one) at her side when she feels anxious and alone. Which is yet another knock against the whole T’lan Imass genocide by the way.
The pity only goes up when she tries to kill herself by throwing herself over the cliff into the crevice rather than be killed by the K’Chain. And then up again when she sees her own blood, thinks she needs to put it back into herself and clean it.
I’m not sure if we had this distinction between the two K’Chain Che’Malle races before or not. The Long-Tails are (according to Ganath) the “truly chaotic ones” while the Short-Tails (the Nah-Ruk) are the “servants of machines, of order in all its brutality.” So they seem to mirror the most elemental of conflicts.
And what a lovely, sad, quiet end to a relatively minor character whom I still bemoan the loss of: “She was cold, and that felt good. Comforting. She was, after all, a Jaghut.” Sad, but I was happy for that bit of comfort at the end at least.
More mule: “Iskaral Pust’s black-eyed mule had somehow preceded them [aboard the ship]”
And how is this for setting us up for a future conversation: “If bhok’arala could possess faith in a god, then their god had just arrive, in the dubious personage of Iskaral Pust, and the endless mewling, chittering, dancing about the High Priest was clearly driving Pust mad.” Hmm, doesn’t take much translation there to see that as a more serious parallel.
So unpacking Spite’s conversation with Mappo. She tells Mappo a murder has happened and “godless ones walk the sands of Seven Cities once again.” We’ve seen Ganath just killed, and one could argue Poliel was “murdered” as well. I think it’s the former Spite is referring to and that the “godless ones” are the Short-Tails. I suppose one could argue killing a god like Poliel could make you “godless,” but it’s the “walking once again” that makes me lean toward the K’Chain, who have been absent for so long. Any ideas?
So we’ve had this “war of the gods” mentioned repeatedly in this book, and at first it seemed relatively simple perhaps: Crippled God and his allies (Poliel, for instance) versus the “good” gods such as Cotillion, Mael, etc. But we’ve had lots of intimations that things aren’t going to be that simple. We’ve had some moments where the Crippled God is given a little shinier polish than originally shown (not much, but a little). We’ve had Poliel’s death get muddied with her dying thoughts that she wished to save the land. We’ve had other “simple” wars called into question—if the Imass-Jaghut war is a parallel, what might that say about this war? And now we’ve got Spite laying out that no, this war is not simple at all. We don’t know where the battle-lines are drawn. We don’t know what is being used as a weapon sometimes. Even when we think we know something is being used as a weapon, she says, we don’t know if that weapon may not rebound on the user. We’ve been trained by now by Erikson to know things are gray and not to take things at their first glance and we should keep this in mind as we go forward whenever we think we know what the alliances are, who the enemies are, what the goals are (not that I’m saying anyone is walking around crystal clear on any of those things at this point….)
Out of the abstract, tell me this isn’t a timely real-world argument:
inequity . . . is the poison that breeds the darkest fruit. Mundane wealth is usually built upon bones . . . the holders of that wealth . . . are often blithely indifferent in their ostentatious display of their wealth. The misapprehension is this: that those who do not possess wealth all yearn to, and . . . this yearning occludes all feelings of resentment, exploitation, and most relevantly, injustice . . . When wealth ascends to a point where the majority of the poor finally comprehend that it is, for each of them, unattainable, then all civility collapses and anarchy prevails.
Bonehunters—contemporary Western capitalism. CWC—Bonehunters. You two seem to have met.
This is one of those passages that I can fully understand people complaining about. It’s dense. It’s talky. It’s lecture format. It slows action. I do get why people don’t like this sort of thing happening at all or happening too often. But for me, this is one of those scenes that helps distinguish Malazan from a lot of other fantasies. I like getting to chew over dense, thoughtful passages that deal with the big issues: economics, culture, religion, how humans treat one another, and so on. I’m willing to pay the narrative price, and sometimes the characterization price for these sort of moments.
We move on to the idea we’ve heard several times already—the concept that the worshipers drag their gods along, the acts the worshipers say they do in their gods’ names are in fact “godless”, assuming those gods were “moral” ones. When she speaks then of these “godless” being allied with the previous named “godless”—is this an alliance with the Short-Tails?
And who would have predicted that a goddess named “Spite” would make the argument that “motivations prove, ultimately, irrelevant”? That “slaughter is slaughter”? She presents Icarium, in this scenario, as sort of the Doomsday Bomb—the way to end all such conflict, by wiping out both sides utterly. It’s an argument Erikson forces upon the reader, a prism through which to view not just the “bad guys” but also the “good guys”, who do in fact deliver (and will deliver in the future) some hellish destruction, so much so that some of them question themselves their methods and effects. I’m not saying Erikson is forcing agreement upon the reader; personally, I think motivation is highly relevant nearly all the time. But he does force us to think on the question.
As he forces us to ponder the choice of enemies, another wholly topical subject nowadays: “A civilization at war chooses only the most obvious enemy, and often also the one perceived at first, to be the most easily defeatable. But that enemy is not the truest enemy, nor is it the gravest threat to that civilization. Thus, a civilization at war often chooses the wrong enemy.” (we’ll see this played out later in this series). It’s a question the reader can ponder with regard to this series: is the Crippled God the true enemy? Was Poliel? Lether? The Edur? Rhulad? And it’s a question the reader can ponder in his/her own life as we live through a war on terror, conflict with Iran, conflict with China, conflict in the Middle East, in the Sudan, and the list is seemingly endless. Not to mention that Spite’s little parable about the two kingdoms fighting over water isn’t at all removed from our literal world either—check out the tension over China’s proposed dams and their effects on Bangladesh and India, for just one such example.
And certainly her litany of all the steps that led to the water fight could be used to describe many of humanity’s missteps on this planet: “the game that was hunted to extinction, the forests that were cut down . . . ”
As can her seeming despair over the needed responses ever actually happening: “one must think in the long term; and then one must discern the intricate linkages . . . motivate the population . . . that of the neighboring kingdoms . . . Can you imagine such a leader ever coming to power? Or staying there for long?”
Okay, I’m tired now.
Another reason to like Paran—his sense that he has not earned Dujek’s armor, his position.
So, we’ve had hints of possible conflict between Tavore and Laseen—between the Fourteenth and the Empire. And now we’ve got Hurlochel telling Paran Dujek’s Host is his, not the Empress’. Brother and sister, each leading an army, each seemingly not all that tightly bound to the Empress’ will. Things could get very interesting with that dynamic.
“But I don’t want an army.” (Yes, actually. Yes, he does. Just saying.)
Okay, Karsa is tough. And I like his rage at what has been done to the Anibar. But have I mentioned I am rarely a fan of the single fighter carving his way (literally) through 50-70 enemies. Just not a fan.
I do like this scene though. It is fierce. It is cinematic. I do like his rage. I like Samar’s quick thinking and her bluff that Karsa is just the one guy who sprinted ahead of all the others exactly like him (imagine that realization sinking into one’s head after what he just did). I like the interpreter catching on and winking. I like Feather Witch reappearing (that finger is the clue as to her identity), not because I like Feather Witch but I like the convergence of plot and character. I like Samar’s scholarly nature coming out in her recognition of First Empire language. I like that Hanradi Khalag, the Preda, is the chief without a shadow who surrendered mysteriously to Hannan Mosag back in Midnight Tides. I like the reappearance of the chain imagery. And of course, the predicted convergence of Karsa the Killer and Rhulad the Unkillable (and let’s not forget Icarium is heading this way…). I like all that, if only it hadn’t come after Karsa took on five dozen warriors.
But as much as I like that scene, it pales to one of my all-time favorite moments in this series. Oh, how I absolutely love replaying this scene in my mind. It begins, as the chapter began, with so much doubt and despair and sorrow: Temul talking of his Wickans abandoning the army in shame, wanting and failing to die; the army thinking Tavore was going to be demote; Nok and Tavore fighting; Baralta, sad in his physical state, also being a source of “sedition” among the officers; the dread of this long, ugly sea voyage to come. And then the dogs start barking (and for us rereaders we were there when Bent took off), then they lead Pores’ eyes to a group of soldiers on the road, (and now we know what is about to happen and Erikson—thank you for this—drags it out so we can sloooowwwllly enjoy this moment), then Pores goes through the possibilities of who it can’t be, then he rides nearer, then he sees Faradan Sort and sure we knew she was alive so big deal and then he sees Quick Ben and sure we knew he was alive so no big deal though a bit odd and then “god’s below, but they’re all—no, they weren’t. Marines! Damned marines!” And I’m already getting choked up.
And then we get to relive the moment again through Keneb’s eyes and again we get Faradan Sort and no big deal, then we get further delayed and get to feel oh so superior when Blistig screws it up again, and then we see Tavore (Tavore!) actually “stagger” (well, almost, but this is Tavore!) and then we get the roll call: Fiddler. Gesler, Lostara Yil, Stormy (and I love Fiddler gets his own sentence. Don’t tell me punctuation doesn’t matter!). And then we get the kids like a blow to the heart: “And in their arms, children, dull-eyed, shrunken.” (and file that image—the army carrying children) Then Faradan offering herself up to be killed and standing up for Sinn. Then Fiddler. Fiddler with “a scrawny child sleeping or unconscious in his arms.” An image that should stay and stay with you. “Bonehunters in truth then . . . Welcome back, soldiers.” (that last word is key). This is where thousands of pages with these characters pays off, in scenes like these. The emotion is so earned here. So earned. And what are we going to feel in thousands of more pages?