Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Return of the Crimson Guard, Book Two, Chapter 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 Chapter One of the second part 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.


Book Two, Chapter One


In Li Heng, Storo and his squad let out a group of refugees on rafts down the river, despite Storo’s belief that the attempted departure is doomed, something he had already tried to impress on the refugees. Magistrate Ehrlann tells Storo the Council is opposed to the attempt and Storo says he couldn’t stop them. Ehrlann then complains that Storo has left a bridge standing and Storo says other forces might need it and he’s waiting to see which one—Toc’s or Laseen’s—arrives first. As they watch, the refugees are eventually attacked and killed by the Seti, the rafts set alight by flaming arrows. Ehrlann tells Storo he’s lost the Council’s confidence. The gathered crowd curses and throws stuff at the Malazans for “letting” the refugees get slaughtered.


Ho overhears Treat and Grief talking of how they’ve heard nothing from “them…or Fingers,” and how they thought “the Brethren shouldn’t give a damn about the Otataral . Treat thinks they should just leave and wonders what the pit’s mages are up to, revealing to Ho that Treat himself isn’t a mage. The two spot him and he joins them to deliver some apples, noting that Treat has made himself a spear, the first weapon Ho has seen in some time. Ho asks them again to not attempt escape and Grief asks what the mages are up to, then offers up a theory that they are investigating Otatatral’s effect on magic, figuring how it deadens magic and maybe trying to deduce how to get around it. Ho thinks Grief is both closer to and further from the truth than he might think, but that it’s best the two think it is the Otataral being investigated. When Ho “confirms” the theory, Grief tells him he and Treat can leave whenever they want and take anyone with them, which makes Ho think the two are crazy. He tells them, though, that most would not want to leave, considering the “research” too important, though he agrees that many would want vengeance on the Malazans, if they could ever get rid of the contamination. Ho leaves and thinks he needs to keep Yath and Sessin away so they don’t learn how close Grief and Treat are to figuring out what they’re researching.


Ghelel’s been traveling downriver for a few days now, the rafts being sped by sorcery. As they near Heng she begins to worry about when her departure will take place, but that night Molk appears and tells her it’s time to go. She and he swim over to another raft. Ghelel, disguised as an officer, takes her place among the Talian soldiers. At dawn, she’s shocked by the sight of Li Heng and its huge walls. Molk tells her they were built to keep out the “rampaging demon…the man-jackal…Ryllandaras.” She recalls how they’ve never been breached and Kellanved only took the city with his T’lan Imass and by Dancer assassinating the Goddess Protectress. She tries to find the Marchland Sentries and is directed to Captain Leen at the command tent.


Ghelel is told by Leen’s assistant, Tahl, that the Sentries are on the other shore in a village to the south. Molk tells her they’re working for Amaron gathering intelligence. When she worries that’ll be the first place people look, Molk tells her nobody else knows the Sentries are working for Amaron and informs her they have a double on her barge so nobody will think she’s even missing. They cross the river and head south. Molk tells her the local legends say Burn is sleeping right beneath them under the Seti Plains. When she calls their surroundings a “wasteland,” he criticizes her, saying that too many people call something a wasteland because the people on it use it differently. He also tells her they’re being shadowed by a group of Seti riders, though she doesn’t believe him until the five riders advance. The Seti take them as escapees from Li Heng, though the two protest. When Molk mentions Choss, the lead rider points out Choss is far away, then the Seti ride away. Molk worries they “mean to have themselves some fun.”


The Seti harry Molk and Ghelel as they run along the plain. She and Molk stumble on the Imperial road to Dal Hon and take it to where Molk believes a hostel lies. The building is burned down (the Seti had said they’d burned everything), but they find a Sentry, Sergeant Shepherd, there. Molk introduces Ghelel as Provost Alil, a new officer, and Shepherd doesn’t seem to buy it. The Seti rider leader arrives and is greeted as “Toven” by Shepherd, who tells him the fun’s over.


Shepherd leads them to the Sentries’ camp, whose temporary headquarters is a brothel. Inside, he introduces them to Marquis Jhardin and Prevost Razala, leader of the Heavies. Ghelel suspects Jhardin knows who she is but doesn’t say anything. In her tent, she complains to Molk that Choss and/or Amaron has made the Sentries nothing more than babysitters for her and she thinks they must hate her for it. When she says it’s a waste, Molk tells her the 500 extra soldiers would have no effect on the siege. He tells her Jhardin knows “a lot. Razala less” and says what she tells them is up to her.


As he rows, Iron Bars thinks of his group’s (The 4th Company, commanded by Cal-Brinn) failure on Assail, how they’d been “annihilated.” Jemain tells them something is out there in the fog and Corlo confirms it, though he can’t say who or what, adding he’s picking up agitation and “hints of movement” from the Brethren. They arm just before spotting a war-galley. Jemain frantically stops them from firing on the ship, telling Bars it’s a Seguleh ship and that they have to drop all their weapons immediately. They all do this except for one, Tillin, who finally does at Bar’s order. Eight Seguleh board, killing Tillin almost immediately, saying he was armed. The spokesman (actually a woman—Leal) tells Bars they will take the Guard’s food and water as well as the strongest among them to row. When Bars demands Jemain give him an option, Jemain says he has to challenge the spokesman, but only him. Bars, barely surviving himself, kills Leal. The next in line, Oru, challenges him but Bars declines (on Jemain’s advice) and gives his name to be entered in the ranks. The Seguleh say they’ve heard of the Avowed. Before they go, Bars asks what they’re doing out there and Oru says “We search for something…that was stolen from us long ago.” The Seguleh leave and Jemain tells Bars he thinks Oru was ranked in the top twenty.


Five days after escaping from the garrison fort, Rillish, whose leg wound is infected, is told by the ten-year-old girl who leads the Wickans, Mane, he will be dragged in a travois so he doesn’t slow them anymore. Every time he tries to argue she gets her way. Later, he’s wakened by Chord who tells him there is a small group of armed settlers that they’ll have to deal with. When Rillish orders an attack and says they have to kill them all, Chord says that’s what Mane had said too. Rillish notices Mane is carrying Chord’s knife in her belt and when he asks if that means something, Chord says yes but he hadn’t know that at the time. As Chord leaves, Rillish is amused that the Wickan’s seem to be reporting to and taking orders from the toddler in the other travois. He passes out.


Rillish flashes back to when he met Chord, the two of them on a troop transport being attacked by a Mare war-galley, which rams them. Rillish orders the crossbows to fire and calls for the cadre mage, who has been killed. He wonders if any of the Malazan ships had made it through the blockade of Korel. He prepares his men to swim for shore or another ship.


Rillish wakes at night and Chord tells him he’s been feverish. A Wickan child, one with Denul talent, wants to look at him but Rillish says it’s too dangerous, so young and untrained. Mane says it’s been “ordered” (seemingly from the toddler in the travois) and they do it. He passes out.


He “wakes” seemingly alone save for a Wickan youth. When he calls out, voices calling him “outlander” tell him they’re deciding how to kill him. Then the shapes in the grass freeze and a “presence” enters the area. He feels it as “the rich scent of fresh-turned earth” and then when it goes to the Wickan boy he hears “Such innocence…Must it be punished?” The presence speaks to him and says, “In these young times my ways are named old and harsh…but hold efficacy. Guidance was requested and guidance shall be given. My children needs must now take a step in to that other world from which you come.” It asks him to help, saying it cannot coerce understanding and acceptance. Rillish agrees. He wakes to afternoon and Mane tells him the healer died saving him.


Rillish is able to walk again. He notices Chord has two crow feathers on his helmet and the sergeant says it’s for safe passage, adding they’re heading for the Golden Hills, “some kind of sacred lands for the Wickans,” saying Mane thinks there will be others there. Rillish wonders what his future will be, thinking his command at Korel and now here had both been destroyed.


Riders are spotted by the scouts and Mane, not happy, tells Rillish she’s been ordered by the child in the travois to place themselves under Rillish’s command. He tells them to retreat and hide in the hill. They are spotted and have to engage. In the midst of the fight, the enemy is killed by insects. Wickan’s ride up, led by Nil and Nether. They thank Rillish and say they’ll escort them to the Golden Hills.


Kyle’s group tries to steal the boat but are interrupted by the arrival of Traveller and Ereko. They tell Traveller they quit, which he didn’t think possible. He agrees to hire out the ship. Ereko asks where they’re going and Kyle answers The Dolmans on Jacuruku (Ereko’s homeland and the place Skinner mentioned the night in the woods). The set sail on the Kite.


Amanda’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter One

This is a pretty powerful scene with which to open the second book of Return of the Crimson Guard. The idea of these citizens of Heng deciding that they’d rather run the gauntlet towards freedom than try and stick out the siege with the Seti is a really sad section of the book.

And I feel very sorry for Storo here—damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, really. After all, there is no point trying to keep people in the city if they’re determined to leave, but he’s now considered a monster for “allowing” them to leave.

I also like the imagery where the flaming rafts and boats remind Hurl of a peaceful Festival of Lights, and she considers that this is only an offering to the God of War.

Hmm, Ho is fooling himself with all this talk about how he wasn’t intending to eavesdrop—sure, that’s why he crept silently and on tiptoe towards the cave where Treat and Grief are talking.

How very, very mysterious—if the mages are not investigating Otataral (and why is this suddenly capitalised in this novel—it hasn’t been before, has it?) then what are they doing? “Better by far, though, for him and for them, that he suspect it was the Otataral they were investigating.”

Hmm, if the mines are chockfull of otataral then how can Treat and Grief get out? I assume, like Ho, that they would use a Warren, but surely the magic would be negated?

Eep, something is buried beneath the mine! Suddenly this storyline is looking up a little bit… I’m making a silly leap—and no doubt someone is going to correct me in the comments—but it isn’t going to be the otataral dragon, is it? Actually, strike that, I’m pretty sure that’s in a Warren somewhere!

If the Seti are involved with Ghelel, does that mean that this storyline is on a collision course with that of Storo, Hurl, Silk et al? Is that how they connect together?

Molk might well be the best thing to bring Ghelel back to reality, and stop her from believing the pretense of being leader. She seems the type to start getting incredibly high-handed, like with the whole ‘I only get ONE servant?’

Ugh, I know that soldier talk can be vile, but do we really need concrete examples like snatch? Besides, what about the female soldiers? Erikson makes it very believable having female soldiers in his books and treating female characters with respect. I don’t get the same impression from Esslemont.

I do object to some of the language that Esslemont uses, actually—it is very jarring. We go from “snatch” to “making out” on the same page and it just doesn’t feel authentic to the world we’ve been immersed in for so long. It’s too much like modern slang.

Who wants to take a bet that those never-been-breached walls of Li Heng are about to lose that particular notoriety?

Ghelel seems to possess the ability to take on the character of whatever she is meant to be acting out—first, the Duchess and figurehead of an army; now an officer. Who is the real Ghelel? Mind, I do prefer a Ghelel that is a bit more kickass and willing to forge her own path….

Hmm, this Ghelel storyline—thanks to the introduction of Molk—is one I’m starting to warm to as I read on. It’s much more interesting now that she’s being guided by this rather disreputable soldier.

Now this I absolutely agree with: “Just because they don’t use the land in a way familiar to you doesn’t make it useless or wasted.” So very true.

Okay, now Ghelel is just annoying me. Sure, she isn’t getting the future that she wanted and things have all gone a bit wrong for her, but her attitude isn’t helping any. Molk is very clearly a knowledgeable person, someone to whom she should look for advice and help—but she can’t see past that initial appearance. And then her whole “Like I give a damn” response makes me want to slap her.

I just can’t see that Ghelel is going to have much success if she keeps up the way she started, antagonising the Seti and being generally childish. I think Shepherd got the measure of her straight away!

I don’t know if it is part of Ghelel’s character or, rather, Esslemont’s make-up that leads Ghelel to put that emphasis on her being female. It’s the second time in this chapter that it’s come up, which makes it noticeable. In previous Malazan books there has never been any hint of male soldiers resenting women, even those set very high above them. There has been a fairly even ratio of characters amongst the soldiers. Makes you wonder whether the attitudes of the author have leaked a little into the book….

It’s very cool that the effect of the Vow is being emphasised here—the fact that, even though they can’t die, they can be virtually incapacitated by wounds taken, just as normal. Sets some ground rules for how it works.

Huh! You would have thought the Seguleh were famous enough for someone as long-lived as Bars to have caught wind of them before now…For me, this is clumsy—allows Esslemont to explain a little about them, but he probably shouldn’t have used someone as experienced as Bars to be the ignorant questioner.

Apart from that, the scene is a brilliant one—from the highhandedness of the Seguleh’s demands, to the battle itself, to Bars’ acceptance as one of the Agatii thanks to his victory. Lovely stuff. I wonder what the Seguleh are hunting for?

I love that Rillish gets embroiled in that little spat with a ten year old girl. “Well. He’d just been dismissed by a gang of brats.”

Who is the entity that comes to Rillish while he’s delirious? This is poignant: “Such innocence. The aching desolation within the voice wrenched Rillish, brought tears to his eyes. Must it be punished?” I’m thinking this entity that takes the small Wickan child is either a Wickan god or some Malazan god with an interest?

Oh, and what is the significance that Chord gave his knife to the Wickan ten-year-old girl-leader? Does it mean that he’s offered her his service? Or something a little more inappropriate? Whatever is happening here, it’s quite sweet to see him adopt the crow feathers.

I think Rillish is pretty much my favourite character so far in this book. Although it’s not nice for him, I appreciate the fact that he is haunted by the young mage-child who healed him, Tajin.

Hmm, so last night I read a scene in Robert Jordan’s Knife of Dreams, showing a man dying as he vomits beetles from his mouth. And now Esslemont is bringing us this: “Like an explosion, a mass of chiggers, wasps and deer flies as large as roaches vomited up from between the corpse’s gaping teeth like an exhalation of pestilence.” Delightful. Nightmares ahoy.

Fab to see Nil and Nether again. And to see how they’ve grown.

Oh man, were Stalker and Kyle intending to steal a boat from Traveller? Heh, that’s not going to go well!

The gods are made to sound so petulant and childish by Stalker’s little speech about castles in the sand. Alright, some of them maybe deserve that, but the gods we’ve seen? In the most part they are far from this idea.


Bill’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter One

I’m not sure I found this opening scene quite as powerful Amanda. Parts of it yes, especially as you pointed out the impact on Storo and the other Malazans (Malazans, refugees, death. Hmm). But I thought the actual death of the refugees was lacking a bit in descriptive quality and impact. I thought there was a nice build-up of tension at the very start, but then it became inconsistent in its effect. It petered out a bit, then I liked the single flame arrow, but the language (“that’s a shitter all right”) distracted and cheapened the impact a bit, then I also liked the connection Hurl made to the Festival of Lights, but then wished she hadn’t given us the last few lines of that paragraph (As so to what Gods…) as that seemed to write past a good close to it.

That is a nice tease about just what is being “investigated” in the pit here. Something “buried.” Without saying anything else, I’ll just note it isn’t something new….

Yea, more Ghelel! (Yes, that was sarcasm, though I did like the chamberpot. Thank god for Molk). As far as storyline’s merging, that’s usually how things go in these things, but I won’t give anything away….

I don’t know, but when I get “legendary falls” and “Broke Earth Falls” (great name), I kinda want to actually see ‘em. At least a bit (making things even worse, Esslemont gives us “a view of the falls” and “amazing spectacle”).

Yet another mention of the man-jackal. Just saying….

I also liked Molk’s line that “just because they don’t use the land in a way familiar to you doesn’t make it useless or wasted.” Certainly a nice historical analogue to how settlers here viewed Native American usage of land.

These lines don’t ring particularly true to me: “It seemed to her he [Jhardin] was far too accepting, too relaxed for an experienced commander who had just been saddled with a young, inexperienced officer—and female to boot.” My problem with it is first, we’ve seen that females are not accorded any skepticism in the Empire’s armies, and since these people have been working under the Empire (regardless of their loyalties), they’ve seen this first-hand (I mean, an Empress and two adjuncts?). If I’m to accept this as an issue, I need to see this more fully earlier. It’s similar to the issue I have with them going back to the officers having servants. Secondly, seems to me an experienced commander might just shunt off the officer he’s been “saddled” with and ignore him. As opposed to getting all upset as she seems to think he should be. Maybe if she’d tried throwing her “officer weight” around or something.

Now this, with Bars and the Seguleh, is a much better scene and storyline. With the Seguleh, you have automatic tension built right in, with that whole “Are you looking at me? You lookin’ at me?” thing they’ve got going. Even before then, the whispers, the fog, then Jemain’s terror are all nicely built on to create the pre-Seguleh anxiety in the reader.

Now granted, I’m pretty sure we all knew Tillian was going to get it. And that Iron Bars was going to fight and win. But still, I thought this was mostly well well-executed writing.

OK, this is not meant to nitpick, but just to point out an example of how I think we’re still seeing a writer coming into his craft in some ways in this book. When Iron Bars give his name, he looks at the Seguleh who all stare at him, then “remembered Jemain’s warning and looked away.” Then only a few lines later, when the Seguleh asks about a challenge, he looks at him, “then he again recalled Jemain’s words.” I just don’t think we need that recollection again; I think we all know why he’s looking away. Now this is a very tiny thing, and many people probably wouldn’t be bothered by it at all, but there are enough of these small little bits of wordiness or awkward emphasis/repetition to make this book feel to me like still a somewhat raw construction. I find it a bit better than NoK, but not as good as Stonewielder or Orb Sceptre Throne, as Esslemont so far seems to continue to improve (I’ll have to see how Blood and Bone goes).

I like this storyline with Rillish and the Wickans, though I think the bits on the “boy in the travois (cough cough)”—and all I can think of is John Travolta and the Boy in the Plastic Bubble—are a little overdone. But I do like Rillish throughout this and I especially like the running line with Chord and his spiral. There’s a nice little tone of humor that runs throughout this along with the seriousness of what they’re facing.

But here again is a little issue with the writing. When Rillish objects to being healed by saying “Too young. No training. Dangerous,” there is no way to know how to read those lines. One way is Rillish doesn’t want to risk being killed by an untrained healer. Another way is he doesn’t want to risk an child being killed. Those are two very different ways of characterizing him and I for one can’t see any real clues to definitively read it. I want it to be the latter, and I personally think it is because of his prior acts and because I like Rillish, but there’s no real need for that ambiguity here.

I do like the arrival of Nil and Nether though, and Chord’s lines about them

Not much to say about the Kyle-Traveller scene, save I liked their interaction—civil, pleasant, almost jovial in some ways. And I could have done with a little less of the gods and fate bit at the end.

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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