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 the Prologue and Chapter One of Return of the Crimson Guard (RotCG).
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.
Denuth, a “child of the Earth,” arrives at a newly made crater and finds Liossercal (first born of Father Light) recovering from his destruction of an Azath. When Denuth upbraids him, Liossercal replies he’ll do what he wishes and Denuth thinks to himself that something has to be done about all these ancient powers “before their antagonisms and limitless ambitions destroy all order once again.” He wonders if Draconus’ solution, which had previously horrified him, is as bad as he thought. Liossercal tells Denuth Draconus’ answer—“rigidity”—is wrong and explains he was “exploring alternatives.” Liossercal veers into dragon shape and flees Draconus’ approach.
SCENES TWO AND THREE
Draconus arrives with his sword and tells Denuth that Liossercal—“the Bastard of Light”—would be a “great addition” to his sword. Denuth replies “He is not for you,” and when Draconus asks if that is a foretelling from “her,” Denuth answers it is his own and that he believes Liossercal will finds that which they all seek: “union with the All.” Draconus ponders the idea then decides to pursue Liossercal anyway with his own “version of union.” Denuth brings up Anomandaris, but Draconus forbids him to continue, saying he will bring the “upstart . . . to heel soon enough.” As he prepares to leave, Draconus says he is intrigued by this world where “all is change and flux,” and is considering sticking around for a while, an idea which unnerves and angers Denuth. Draconus leaves and Denuth senses there will be no peace until all such beings slept or died or been buried, thus ending their eons-old feuds. Though perhaps not even then, he reconsiders, acknowledging that new generations seem to just take up the same problems. He is dismayed by this “unending strife of all against all” and wonders what might be done to end it, thinking he’ll consult with Mother about it.
Amanda’s Reaction to the Prologue
And Here. We. Go. Welcome back to the Malazan re-read! Today we tackle the side quest of Return of the Crimson Guard, a trip into the Malazan world but penned by Erikson’s co-conspirator Esslemont. Our last visit was Night of Knives, which I enjoyed but found quite simplistic compared to Erikson’s work. I have heard that Esslemont gets better and better with each novel, so I’m looking forward to this.
Having said that, as I embarked on the Myth fragment I felt that I was reading a very typical epic fantasy—Dark versus Light, “two combatants locked in an ever-widening gyre of eternal creation and destruction.” I mean, that just sounds like something from the pen of David Eddings or Terry Brooks. Very traditional fare.
What is more interesting as a reader of these Malazan novels is that last line: “Thus was Shadow born and the first great sundering ended.” We’ve seen the result of the Shadow being sundered in Erikson’s novels. I don’t know whether this Myth shows the same Sundering, or is demonstrating that we are seeing cyclical events in this world.
Now I’ve started playing the usual game when changing novels and storylines in the Malazan novels—when encountering a character I wonder if I’ve seen them before, like Denuth, in this case. I really don’t recall meeting him already, so either I’ve wiped him from my memory or he hasn’t popped up before. I do hope it’s the latter!
I’m guessing that Liossercal is the being we know as Osserc? Or Osric?
Wow, Liossercal has destroyed an Azath? From what we’ve seen in previous books, this is nothing short of amazing. And just to experiment?
Now, this line interests me a lot: “Something must be done about these ancient powers before their antagonisms and limitless ambitions destroy all order once again.” I’m thinking that we’re looking at Liossercal and Denuth on the earth that has featured in previous books—so it sounds very much as though this time of chaos experienced through the Crippled God is not the first time that order has fallen. It’s all gone a bit Wheel of Time, hasn’t it?
Draconus’ answer—the thing that became the sword Dragnipur? The cart drawn by chained individuals?
I have to say, Esslemont’s prose is particularly smooth in this prologue—something that was absent at times in Night of Knives. I’m liking it so far: “…he felt a biting cold darkness at his side, as of the emptiness that was said to abide between the stars.”
Ha, we know how this one ends… “Perhaps Anomandaris-” Denuth began.
“Speak not to me of that upstart,” Draconus grated. “I will bring him to heel soon enough.”
Confirmation, although not really needed at this point, that some of these beings were from a whole other world: “Perhaps I shall remain a time here.”
And this just makes me smile wryly, because it has utterly proved to be true over the years: “It occurred to him that peace would evade everyone so long as entities such as these strode the face of the world pursuing their ages-old feuds, enmities and uncurbed ambitions.”
Bill’s Reaction to the Prologue
I’m not going to say much about the content aspect of the myth since it’s, well, myth. And so I’m not sure there’s much there to work with in terms of piecing things together plot-wise. But I do like how it has so many of the classic myth lines and vocabulary in so short a space: the sexuality (light “thrusts”), the light-dark duality/dichotomy Amanda references, “champions,” a forceful sundering (think heaven and earth for instance), cyclical rise and fall, eternal time lines, “mov[ing] upon the void,” a rending apart (Dionysus, Osiris, etc.). Ahh, the classics….
Talk about opening with a bang…We begin with an eruption that “wounded the world,” as Liossercal (I think our naming—Osserc—plus his attitude, and his love of “experimentation” makes your thought that he’s Osserc/Osric a pretty good deduction Amanda) destroys an Azath. That, plus its lack of major effect on him (think of Icarium who only wounded one) gives us a sense of Osserc’s power.
Liossercal’s questions about “are there no others” is interesting. I read that as referring to those kept by the Azath, as I can’t figure out whom else he might mean. Though it makes me wonder why he is upset (or at least frowns) when he realizes they were consumed by the blast. Was he trying to free them by destroying the Azath? Was the destruction an accident—perhaps he was trying to free them without destroying the Azath, or trying to break in, or harness the Azath’s power? His purpose is the same it seems as Draconus’—dealing with the threat of chaos. But then Denuth’s thought that Amanda points to about something being done with regard to these ancient powers, makes me wonder if maybe the Azath weren’t yet “containers” of said creatures and maybe that was Denuth’s idea? He does after all start to come around to the idea of “eternal imprisonment.” Anybody with wholly different thoughts? Or just better ones?
“I do as I please” certainly sounds like Osserc.
Yep Amanda, I’d say that Void is what becomes Dragnipur. I guess it’s all my fantasy reading, but when I read Denuth think “what horrifying shape would its final forging take” I can’t help but go “Um, ‘forging’? Obviously it’s gonna be sword-shaped. Duh.” I have to force myself to cut him some slack by acknowledging that one forges other things beside swords. Though walking around carrying a big pair of fire tongs or a huge honking horseshoe may not strike terror into your foes.
So, thoughts on who Denuth’s Mother is? Burn? He has some aspects of Burn’s creatures we saw earlier in Memories of Ice (holding up the cavern, referred to Burn as “mother,” made of clay and diamond much as Denuth is stone/basalt) though is not exactly the same. It would make sense of his “it pains us all” when he thinks of the eruption and destruction—“us” being children of Burn.
But then we get his reference to the powers going into “uninterrupted sleep” with no sense of a connection to Mother (thus this pre-dates Burn’s sleep if Mother is Burn?). And his reference to them being “interred” sort of contradicts my idea that this pre-dates the Azath as a repository. Sigh.
An end to strife. Good luck with that Denuth. Just saying.
Kyle, a young and recent recruit into the Crimson Guard waits outside the Spur, an ancient creation whose fortress at the top the Guard has been besieging for over a year, held off by the Spur’s difficulties and the power of its wizard resident—Shen. Down below, Stoop, a saboteur, Sergeant Trench, and others of the Ninth Blade are digging, working on a new plan devised by Stalker, a local like Kyle, though he’d been recruited several years earlier. As he waits, Kyle muses on what little he’s picked up of the Guard—its age, how the Ninth Blade had originally commanded by someone named Skinner. His thoughts are interrupted by an attack of flying creatures which is repulsed by the Guard’s best mage, Cowl. Stalker arrives to say they’re set below.
The diggers had uncovered steps leading down. Kyle sees Lieutenant Greymane conversing with Trench and the mage Smoky, one of the twenty or so still surviving Avowed in the company—those who had sworn eternal loyalty to the founder of the Guard, K’azz D’Avore. Kyle and Stalker are the rear guard along with a Guardsman named Ogilvy. As they take the stairs, Ogilvy tells the other two that Greymane has a price on his head from both the Korelans and the Malazans for being a traitor and that they call him “Stonewielder.” He adds that he’s been with the Guard since signing up in Genabackis against the Malazans. Kyle tells Stalker it seems to him that the Guard is divided old versus new and Stalker says some of the Guard have been alive a long time and have great power and knowledge, and he worries they won’t want to let it go.
They reach an iron gate that has been destroyed and Stalker implies Greymane did it himself, which Kyle finds ridiculous. The Guard finds a spiral staircase that goes all the way to the top and begins to climb.
Kyle notices the walls along the stairs are carved with a story involving Wind, one of his own tribe’s totemic powers. Kyle’s group hears sounds of an attack above, then comes across an armored corpse which Ogilvy says is a Revenant. More sounds of battle and then a Guardsman plummets by them. Kyle looks up and sees the warlock Shen standing in midair using magic to attack the closest Guardsmen. Smoky counterattacks to no effect, but it serves as a distraction and Greymane impales Shen from behind with a large sword. Shen screams and flies up and out of sight.
SCENES FIVE AND SIX
The exit onto a walled court and Greymane divides them up into smaller groups and assignments. Kyle notes that he is missing his huge sword and wonders where it went. Kyle is assigned to go with Smoky’s group and check out some rooms. Before they go, Smoky invests Kyle’s sword with power, asking Kyle if there was any particular aspect he desired. Kyle tells him Wind. The rooms are empty and they head back when one of the Guardsmen says, “the Brethren are worried.” Kyle wonders if he’s an Avowed, since none wear any insignia or sign.
Back at the courtyard, Greymane brings up the back of a group exiting the main structure. Kyle is struck first by how Greymane closes the entrance himself with a massive stone slab door, then by how he is covered in icicles, unlike anyone else. Greymane tells Smoky that Shen, before Greymane killed him, woke up the ancient power/mage/Ascendant of Serc (sky). He’d been feeding off of it for power and that power is coming soon. The stone slab door bursts open, killing a Guardsman, and a man steps out wreathed in wind. Smoky tries to deal with him but is cast aside like he was nothing. Cowl and two other Veils (assassins) appear and the Magus calls down lightning. As his sleeves slip down, Kyle spots the Wind symbols tattooed over both his arms and shoulders. When the Veils attack, Kyle, believing the Magus to be one of his people’s Wind spirits, rushes toward him, trying to warn him about the Veils. As he nears, Kyle sees Cowl strike and then the world goes white. He comes to and overhears Cowl tell the others he “connected” though he wasn’t sure what happened, but the Magus is gone and he is sure he won’t return. Kyle passes out.
Kyle wakes to find Stoop sitting next to him. Stoop tells him Cowl killed whatever it was, then there was a huge flash of lightning, and the only ones there were the Veils. He whispers he told everyone Kyle wasn’t trying to warn the Wind power but was trying to get the glory of killing it. Kyle accuses Stoop and the others of knowing about the Wind spirit and Stoop admits it, adding he was sorry that he hadn’t known Kyle was pledged to Wind. Kyle says Stoop doesn’t understand and Stoop replies maybe so, but what he does know is that the Guard is “locked in a duel to the death” with the Malazans and they were hoping whatever power Shen had might be of use to them. Kyle’s hand has been badly burnt and his blade fired down to just the metal—looking at it more closely, Kyle notices the Wind symbols are on both sides of the blade even though Smoky had only carved them on one. He decides to rename it “Gift of Wind” once he gets it rehilted. Outside, he sees Stalker talking to two strange Guardsmen—one hairy and scarred badly, the other older.
As he leaves the Spur the next day, Kyle thinks he is one of the Guard but not fully as they’d killed one of his people’s gods or guides. He thinks it will now be easier for him to kill, to “do what must be done.” He feels himself hardening.
Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter One
With another wry smile I shall leave well alone the task of trying to slot in whereabouts Return of the Crimson Guard fits into the timeline. I shall simply read and enjoy. But do feel free to inform me in the comments if it’s very easily slotted!
I like the structure of this chapter—the way we see everything from Kyle’s perspective. It allows for explanations of the situation with the Crimson Guard to be inserted smoothly into the narrative as Kyle contemplates it. Characters can be introduced neatly, although coloured very much by the way Kyle feels about them. Also, I do love the way that Kyle is so naive and confused at the start of the chapter and gradually has his perceptions changed until he begins to harden by the end. It’s not quite as well done as Erikson in terms of making us feel instantly about a character, but I did appreciate it.
Esslemont concentrates a great deal on presenting the divisions within the Crimson Guard—the way those who took the Vow keep themselves separate from those who didn’t; the way that people sworn into the Crimson Guard are not integrated fully and immediately; the way that there are Brethren, a sort of inner circle. Many of the veterans are being kept entirely in the dark. These divisions, I predict, will play a role in the tale.
Stalker is a mysterious character, isn’t he? I’m not warming to him right now. I just don’t trust him, particularly when things are worded like this: “It seemed Stalker has put together different legend: that of the ancient Ascendant who’d supposedly raised the Spur and started a golden age.” It might be that we’re seeing him from Kyle’s perspective, but the Crimson Guard are taking on what he says despite him being a new recruit.
And then this about Stalker: “They were halfway down before it occurred to him that when Stalker had smiled, he’d been squinting up at the Spur.” Just a little bit sinister. He also says: “It’s an old story—one I had hoped to have left behind.” And there is that pouch at his neck he keeps rubbing. Just a strange character all round—I expect much more from him.
Here is evidence that the Crimson Guard is pretty fractured: “They numbered about thirty. Kyle recognized fewer than half.”
Greymane seems pretty badass from this chapter. We’ve seen references to him in previous books, so it’s cool to meet him in person although he doesn’t seem the friendliest. And it’s nice for a reader like me—late to the series—to see that Greymane is sometimes referred to as Stonewielder, and know that Esslemont has released a book with this name. I certainly would not want to be the person who had betrayed both the Korelans and the Malazans, for sure.
Ogilvy, on the other hand, is a character that I immediately warm to. I like that he takes Kyle under his wing.
Hmm, are Veils modeled along the lines of Talons or Claws?
So what is behind this mission—and why exactly are the Crimson Guard recruiting so heavily right now? What is coming up that they need so many extra men for?
Hmm, so Kyle is completely fine with flying demon monkeys (fly my pretties! fly!) and he’s perfectly happy at the idea of mages and whatnot, yet he scoffs at the idea that Greymane can bend bars? Umm.
Some of the descriptions throughout the chapter are very pedestrian, and leave me wanting some real action. There seems to be a lot of walking around, looking at things (so that the reader can have a look at the same time), talking (so that the reader is brought up to speed on events), and not a lot of real tension.
A master of the Warren of Serc? The magic of the Sky. Serc fits into Osserc, but he’s involved with the Warren of Light, isn’t he? And this Ascendent has silver eyes, rather than the amber eyes that Osserc has.
I do feel pity for Kyle in the way that he has many of his illusions shattered in one easy step as the Ascendant is killed. But I prefer the pragmatism of Stoop by far: “Half the men I’ve killed were sworn to Togg, same as myself.”
Bill’s Reaction to Chapter One
Amanda has the right idea: read and enjoy.
- Do not, I repeat, do not obsess over the timeline. That way lies only madness, grief, and confusion. Not necessarily in that order.
- Roughly after Bonehunters and somewhat parallel to Reaper’s Gale/ Toll the Hounds.
- See 1.
Note how wind is introduced in our very first line.
Kyle’s place in the Guard does, as Amanda says, give the author lots of leeway for what might have been clumsy exposition (“Yes, Smoky, I realize you’ve been with us for a century or so, but let me just remind you anyway of how the Guard blah blah blah”). I’ll be curious as to how the two of us react to this as it continues throughout the novel. He was a little too much observer and too little doer for me on my first go through I recall.
I do wish we weren’t opening at a “Spur” as I’ve now come to associate that word/place with another of the same name.
I confess the throwaway line about how the Guard has besieged the Spur for over a year bothered me a bit—I had a hard time imagining that. Anybody else?
I also have to confess that I pictured winged monkeys when the “winged fiends” summoned by the evil witch (um, wizard) in her castle (um, fortress) came down to attack. But that’s on me, not Esslemont. I blame the yearly family tradition growing up of watching the Wizard of Oz.
You’re not wrong in assuming the division in the Crimson Guard will play a major role Amanda. And we get some pretty key names of absent folks as well to keep in mind: Skinner and K’azz especially.
Yes, Greymane is pretty “bad ass.” Yep, he’s a key guy in this universe. And yes, Stonewielder will see some major Greymane action. I like how he’s introduced as such a man of mystery here, leaving the reader with a whole bunch of questions: how did he betray both the Korelans and the Malazans? How did he end up with the Crimson Guard? What’s with the ice? Where did that big sword go?
I wouldn’t say the Veils are “modeled” on the Claw/Talons, more simply that their leaders need the same tool—assassins. Much as the Malazans have their sappers while the Guard has their Saboteurs. One can imagine the authors sitting around dealing with this (if one ignores their whole shared gaming history, that is).
Ian: I’m going to call my assassins Claw.
Steven: Took it already.
Ian: Fine. I’ll use Talon; even better.
Steven: Already got it.
Steven: Too on the nose.
Ian: Curtains, as in “aha, curtains for you!”
Ian: Veils. Fine, Mr. Taking-all-the-good-assassin-group-names. You using veils?
Steven: Only at night when, oh, you mean in my books, no. Veils it is….
As for the mission, well, there’s this mission, which gets explained later in the chapter. And there’s the big mission, which we get in the title of both the book and this section of it—the diaspora is ending, the Guard is returning….
So, does Smoky investing the blade for Kyle mean Kyle is now in the club? He seems to get some kind of permission from Greymane, though it’s hard to imagine what Kyle did to “earn” it (I’m assuming Smoky’s carving gives some benefit). And why wouldn’t you do that to every sword? It doesn’t seem to take a lot out of Smoky, after all.
As with Night of Knives, I’ll be doing more criticizing of this book than I typically do with Erikson’s. I do think RotCG is a better book, and I think that development continues throughout Esslemont’s work (his last is my favorite of his), but I still have lots of problems with this one; it often seems the work of a writer still feeling his way into his craft. This scouting scene with Kyle is one example. Kyle gets sent off, he ducks into a room seemingly only to introduce the cage, and then they leave. Feels clunky to me. As does Stoop’s exposition lecture to Kyle about the spirit—I think because it is timed solely for information-giving: Stoop meets with Kyle, tells him the important info, then “gets distracted” and leaves immediately after. It’s the structuring of the scene rather than the exposition itself that feels artificial.
I did, however, enjoy Kyle calling Boll “junior.”
A few things to take away with the ascendant:
One is he is a master of Serc. I repeat: Serc.
Two is that the ascendant disappeared in a flash—Cowl says he “connected” but can’t say what happened at the end there.
Three is Kyle’s attempt to warn the ascendant was heard and met with a smile.
Four is that Kyle’s sword now has a new Wind symbol on it.
Five is that he sees the sword as a gift from the ascendant.
While I like the whole coming-of-age aspect of Kyle here, I do wish Esslemont had been a little less blunt about it at the end here. Again, it feels like a writer more not trusting himself rather than not trusting his audience. But I tend to prefer being told a bit less. Did the bluntness in the last paragraph bother anyone else?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.