Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Return of the Crimson Guard, Chapter Five, Part One


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 readers. In this article, we’ll cover the second half of Chapter Four 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.


Chapter Five Part One


Dom complains to Mallick Rel that another noble has left the capital with his guards and that the Assembly is falling apart while Laseen and they do nothing. When Rel reminds him that is what he and Dom have been encouraging, Dom says yes, rioting and dissent against Laseen, but not outright secession/civil war. Rel tells him this is the same thing that happened before the “strong hand of the emperor,” implying that the mobs will look to someone to be that “strong hand” again. Dom argues for a march, but Rel reminds him that would leave the capital to the nobles. Dom realizes it seems to be a three-sided stalemate: the nobles, Laseen, he and Rel—all of them fearing to make the first move and thus open themselves to the other two. He decides to himself he must act before Rel lets things get too out of hand. He exits, the two of them barely tolerating each other.


Oryan (Rel’s bodyguard) asks why Dom is still alive and Rel replies he likes to have a scapegoat should anything go bad.


A group of Wickan elders speak to Lt. Rillish, asking him, again, to let them help in the garrison’s defense. He refuses, saying the Malazan military will see to the defense. On their way out, the hetman—Udep—asks if Rillish will fall back to the Wickan’s building when the soldiers lose the walls. Rillish says yes. Sgt. Chord enters to say there are new arrivals in the besieger’s camp and they go to take a look.


Ragman (the strange person killing folks inside the Imperial Warren) seems just a bit on the edge, but refocuses himself, thinking he “must not lose hold of the one thread that could lead him back.” He sees huge shapes moving across the sky in the distance and deeming them far enough away, he continues onward until he senses someone watching. He calls the person out and a female—“one of them [like a Claw] yet not”—steps out. The two discuss the huge shapes, the woman wondering if it is an invasion and Ragman saying perhaps it’s “the landlords come to fumigate…not everything relates back to us.” She says she has to go report and the two fight. Ragman is surprised by her skill, saying “It has been a long time since I’ve seen his style [italics Esslemont’s].” She replies that her father taught it to her. She starts to gather shadows to exit, but Ragman uses Kurald Galain to badly wound her. She recognizes him then, saying “You! But we thought you…you were no…” He apologizes, saying “I would not have sent someone like you. For, as you see, I’ve come myself.” Her heart still beating, he summons a “pool of utter darkness” and sends her into it, thinking it “a small enough gesture, but he felt that he owed her at least that.”


Urko speaks to his High Mage, Bala Jesselt, who wonders a bit at the “unexpected reach and influence this new ally possesses.” Urko orders the pace lessened, as the transports are falling behind. He asks if there is any news from Choss and Jesselt says no. Watching Jesselt, Ullen thinks of A’Karonys and Nightchill, and noticing his observation of her, she tells him she’s is of the “old school…taken in by Kellanved and expelled by Tayschrenn. And for that I will teach him regret.” Ullen worries that she has her own agenda.


Ho confronts Treat and Grief as to what they are up to and they tell him nothing, then say if they are, maybe it will be helpful rather than something threatening to the prisoners. He threatens to tell the guards, but they call his bluff, then ask him why Sessin, who has been watching them since their arrival, thought it “convenient” to leave Ho alone with them. They leave and Ho picks up a piece of driftwood from where they’d been standing.


Silk enters one of the refugee camps near Li Heng, looking for “the Hooded Ones,” a group of elders. When he tells them he and his group are going to defend the city, they tell him he’s going to lose. He tries to tell him last time they did what they had to, that “she” (the Protectoress) was going to lose anyway and Kellanved never would have kept this word; instead he would have wiped out or co-opted their cult as he had done with others. He adds that Liss is helping him and this is their best chance in a century. When they still mocks him, he says they know where he’ll be and the “way is open” if they choose, but he and the others are “going all the way with this” in any case. The three elders disappear.


Hurl, Sunny, and Liss meet with the Seti high council and their warlord, Toc (only Liss knows that’s who it is at this point). Liss tells of how long ago she was a Seeress of the White Sand tribe, as well as a Sun Dancer. A young boy who was to be a shaman of Ryllandaras was enamored of her despite that she was supposed to be sacrosanct. He raped her and then she was tossed out of the tribe. She asks if the Seti shamans, Imotan and Hipal, remember the vow she swore then. Hipal tries to dismiss her as a liar/imposter, but the warlord demands to hear the vow and Hipal says it was that “the Seti people would wander lost for ever without knowing their true path…until they welcomed her back in their hearth circles…and begged for her forgiveness.” The Warlord deduces immediately that the story that will go around will be that “this uprising is just one more wrong path. One more errant turn doomed to fail,” and gives his compliments to their commander, then leaves, after giving the old Emperor’s salute. Liss reveals it was Toc they had just spoken to and Hurl thinks they’re outmatched. Sunny asks if Liss is really “that” Liss and Liss tells Hurl “things only have the power people are willing to give them.”


Kyle, Stalker, and the others have been on the run for five days now. Stalker tells Kyle their pursuers have gone to Quon for the invasion. Badlands brings out a local shaman named Janbahashur, whom Stalker implies was responsible for Kyle’s earlier protection from pursuit. When Kyle thanks her, she says they only helped him a little, but Kyle “did most.” She says they will help them travel west by opening a way/path and when Kyle asks why they are helping him, she says “it was whispered to us on the wind.” When Stalker says their “Path of the Wind” doesn’t look like the portals he’s seen, she dismisses the warren methods as “Brute force. Abusing the fabric of things…We merely bend the natural ways, concentrate and redirect forces.” She warns Kyle not to stop on the path or part with their weapons. Kyle steps in and begins to travel in a strange “blurring flow.” When he sticks his hand out he is grabbed by something that looks like a huge fish. He strikes it with his sword and then lands near a stream, where he’s eventually joined by the others.


Amanda’s Reaction to Chapter Five Part One

Happy New Year, boys and girls! Let’s get this party started! Well, at least let’s try and remember where we were a few weeks back, shall we?

I do shudder at the idea of Mallick bathing, but there is also something so very hedonistic at the idea of him taking his leisure as the Empire burns around him. It sounds as though Mallick has indicated to Korbolo that they should deliberately encourage the city states to rise up against the Empress. Here, as well, I think that Korbolo has finally realised that Mallick then intends to rule as Emperor in her place. They really do make a rotten pair…There was a little part of me that just wanted Korbolo to drown Mallick as he considered doing—it might have made for a short book, but it sure would have made the air seem cleaner!

And here, as well, Mallick’s confirmation that Korbolo is only alive still because he can be used as a scapegoat. Nice….

I find it amusing—and also a little scary—that Rillish is so oblivious to his wound that it has to start bleeding again before he takes notice. Pretty badass, non? I can absolutely see why he wouldn’t want the Wickans on the walls since he is deep in Wickan territory, but, also…use all the bodies you’ve got before you all die, surely! “No attacks. Not until the last soldier falls. This is still a Malazan military possession.”

Hmm, the fact that Rillish is relying on the fact that the besieging army doesn’t seem to have any experts in charge sort of suggests that the next movement in this plotline might involve someone a little more capable arriving….

An odd little interlude featuring our lurker in the Imperial Warren—who I really am leaning towards thinking is Topper, thanks to reference to his once-fine clothes, the fact he’s familiar with Dancer’s technique and the way he uses Kurald Galain (he is half-Tiste Andii, yes?) I wonder who this girl is—and who the father is who taught her. She was cool—until Topper killed her. The fact he put her in that pool of darkness means she might come back to life? And Topper might be close here about the floating rock fortresses when he says: “Or the landlords come to fumigate.” The K’Chain Che’Malle might be ready to take back their Warren.

I do like Bala Jesselt, although here it seems she is being set up for something a little more ambitious than just this little storyline featuring Ullen and Urko.

You know, I think part of the issue with Return of the Crimson Guard, for me, is that we just don’t seem to be staying long enough with any storyline. None of them progress very far before we’re skipping off to join other people. It makes it hard to keep track of what is happening. Admittedly, the Christmas break has been harmful in that regard as well—it has been a bit of a struggle recalling what happened before this! Here in the mine, we’ve seen Ho watching Grief and Treat—and that is about it. With Rillish, we’ve seen him entering the fortress with the Wickans—and that is about it. There isn’t a lot to really grasp ahold of as yet.

I guess these three hooded Elders that Silk goes to find and recruit are part of the cult of Shalmanat?

Although brief, I liked this scene where Hurl, Sunny and Liss ride out to meet with Toc the Elder and his shaman companions. We see a little more about Liss here—the fact that she had power stolen by rape, and then cursed the Seti to be doomed to wander until she was welcomed back into the fold. There is definitely more than meets the eye with her, including the fact she’s met both Toc and Dassem before now.

It strikes me that the magic wielded by Kyle’s tribe and this Janbahashur is quite similar to the old magics exhibited by Bottle—something that is ancient and predates the use of Warrens.

There just isn’t that much to say each chapter about this story. There isn’t that much depth, as far as I am concerned. It is far more your traditional fantasy epic than the far more ambitious work by Erikson. Shame really, but it strikes me I would have enjoyed Esslemont a lot more if he hadn’t been writing Malazan novels.


Bill’s Reaction to Chapter Five Part One

Not a lot to say about the Dom-Rel meeting. It merely reinforces that Dom is a relatively oblivious and obvious blusterer and that Rel is supremely confident in his plotting and certainly the smart one of the pairing. The only thing of real interest to me was a small one—Dom’s metaphor to describe the three-faction face-off: jackals. There’s a reason we keep getting these jackal references.

We’re clearly being set up for something with the Wickans and Rillish. If we didn’t know it early on, we’re certainly slapped with it via the seemingly portentous question about if Rillish will fall back to the Wickan building once the defense of the walls fail. One can almost hear the organ music when Rillish nods yes: da da duh!

More mysterious is Ragman’s encounter with the strange woman in the Imperial Warren after the two of them espy the K’Chain Skykeeps. Who is this mysterious veiled girl? Who is the father whose style Ragman recognizes? She is like a Claw but with a different, more individual style. How does she control shadows? If Ragman knows the father, why is he surprised at this ability? Why does she recognize him at the end? Does he indeed kill her? What does he do with her and why? Will we see her again?

Speaking of being set up for something, this is not the first time Ullen has worried about Bala’s ulterior motives….

And, of course, Grief and Treat continue to plot, well, something….

As does Silk…I did like this scene. The three Elders, despite their brief page time, really had a sense of personality to them I thought. I enjoyed their responses to Silk.

The scene with Toc felt a bit too expository and forced to me, consisting as it did mostly of Liss telling her story. Which I liked, but it seemed a bit odd that this meeting is set, all that gets mentioned is Liss’ story, and that’s it; they all turn around and ride home. Was there no purpose to the meeting at all? It just felt artificial—a means to an end. I did like the playful is-she-or-isn’t-she at the end, however.

Another hint that there is more to Kyle than it seems, when Janbahashur tells him he did most of his own protecting. And if she and the others merely “helped,” and their power seems associated with wind, one wonders if that means Kyle’s own protection (of which he seems unaware) is also associated with wind.

This scene is also a bit awkward to me. Why would she tell only Kyle her warnings and only after others have gone on the path? I’m also not clear why Janbahashur was so alarmed when Badlands stepped into the path. I felt like Esslemont was trying to create some readerly tension but doing so somewhat cheaply and clunkily.

As Amanda says, the scenes do come a bit fast and furious. Not only do they feel a bit disjointed, they feel a bit light on substance, so much so that I sometimes wonder what their point was. The opening two scenes, for instance, don’t really give us anything we don’t already know with regard to either plot or character and so it seems to me they could have been cut without any loss. It’s a feeling I have a little too often with these scenes throughout the novel. I think the brevity of our commentary speaks a bit to that problem as well. However, one would assume that as we move further in, more of import will be happening. We’ll see if that’s true or not….

Hope everyone had a good holiday!

Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.

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


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