Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Return of the Crimson Guard, Book Two, Chapter Four, 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 first half of Chapter Three 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.

Note: We’ll be splitting this chapter as follows at roughly the halfway point:

Today’s post ends with this paragraph: “Springing up, Kyle grasped hold of a rope…Kyle could not help but raise his legs as tightly as he could from the water.”

Monday’s post begins with: “Impatient strikes on the tunnel wall next to his alcove brought Ho from his meal of stewed vegetables and unleavened bread.”


Book Two, Chapter Four, Part One


Chief Factor Nevall Od’ Orr, Cawn’s factor, hears of the arrival of another fleet and looks forward to fleecing what he assumes is Laseen’s army. At the wharf, Groten tells Nevall the fleet is smaller than he’d expected and Nevall says it’s probably just the vanguard of the fleet. Nevall meets with Skinner (whom Nevall doesn’t know or recognize as a Crimson Guard) and tells him it will cost the fleet a lot of money for supplies as an earlier army just took much of Cawn’s supplies. Cut to the Guard marching away with Cawn still burning behind them and some of its residents impressed into the fleet, against Shimmer’s recommendation. She wonders if the Cawnese are now cursing the Guard, along with many other towns treated similarly, despite the Guard arriving as “liberators.” Greymane tells her it’s time to go and she thinks how she’s been noticing lately how many of the Avowed seem to more and more lose track of time’s passage. She tells him many of the Guard wonder about his joining the Guard to fight against Malazans. He replies that he won’t face any of his command, who are stuck in Korel. And he’s actually happier to be with the Guard than be involved in the Malazan civil war, mentioning how the aftermath would “hopefully work against the continuation of overseas entanglements.” Shimmer thinks how many of the Guard dismiss Greymane as a failure, but she believes there is more to him. She offers him a captaincy and he accepts, though both know there will be objections.


The magistrates’ council, led by Ehrlann, strips Storo of his position, orders him arrested for negligence, makes Captain Gujran Fist, and orders him to open surrender negotiations. Gujran says no. When the council orders them all arrested, Storo pulls a coup and when Ehrlann calls the Malazans usurpers, Storo reminds him of just how few people in the city the magistrates actually speak for.


Three “versions” of Ahl enter the room and Liss asks Silk how he could have invited “this creature…[this] abomination” into the city. Storo suggests they release Ryllandaras, the “Man-Jackal” from where he was imprisoned under the city by Tayschrenn and Kellanved, thinking he’ll slaughter the besiegers. The idea horrifies Liss, who asks Storo what about all the lives that will be lost to Ryllandaras. Storo says they, if they survive, will have to deal with it later. Hurl argues against it. Rell, pressed by Storo to give an opinion, says they should take any chance to wound an enemy. Liss desperately tries to convince them not to, wondering if perhaps there are larger issues, such as will Ryllandaras challenge Trake, do they want to release a god, etc. When Ahl declares Ryllandaras is no god, Liss replies the Seti have worshipped him as such for thousands of years. Storo decides to do it.


Nil and Nether’s group of Wickans sacks D’Avig Castle, which belongs to a noble Untan family. Rillish is happy the two ordered no slaughter. He orders Chord to send a group to keep an eye on the nearest fort at Jurda. Chord tells Talia to get her squad ready and Rillish is torn about his feelings for Talia, military necessity, chain of command, etc. Dol D’avig himself shows up with some cavalry. Rillish, realizing this moment was when he severs himself from his past, orders D’Avig to surrender, remembering too late that D’Avig is a mage. D’Avig uses magic to choke the squad, but Rillish’s crossbowmen fire and D’Avig flees. Rillish takes off after him and is joined by Nether, who tells him D’Avig is using the Warrens. D’Avig enters Shadow with Nether and Rillish behind him. They see a forest that Nether says is akin to the Azath Houses: “They [Azath] capture any foolish enough to enter their grounds. Sometimes with trees…As those trees are to the Azath, so is this forest to Shadow. None who enter escape…what could be so difficult or so important to imprison that an entire forest is needed?” As they continue to chase D’Avig they hear the baying of hounds. The forest erupts behind and before, Nether takes them into the Imperial Warren after D’Avig and Rillish finds him, one leg missing (taken by the forest). Topper shows up and kills D’Avig and is about to do the same to Rillish when he senses Nether (“Not who I was expecting”) and leaves, telling Rillish “The Lady is with you today.” Nether tells Rillish it’s safer he doesn’t know who that madman was. She returns them to the camp.


Kyle’s group spots fires and a large tent and put in to shore. A man, Jhest Golanjar, walks out and welcomes them. He tells them he speaks Talian because it’s the language of invaders who conquered and ruled a neighboring kingdom decades ago—the Crimson Guard, acting in the name of the kingdom’s goddess Ardata. When Traveller asks if that makes them enemies, Jhest says no, his people admire the Guard (Isture) for progressing so far in the path of Ascension, the focus of his own people. He leaves and Ereko says he’s been gone for a long time but had heard rumors. He tells them this half of Jacuruku is ruled by a “magiocracy, an oligarchy of powerful mages who bend all their resources and research to unraveling the mysteries of Ascendancy…masters of the Paths of Denul [who] conduct rather horrifying surgeries and experiments upon the bodies of their people.” He adds that once they’ve determined the group’s “capabilities” they’ll decide whether to attack or not. Traveller says they will attack.


Kyle is woken for his watch by Stalker, who tells them there are soldiers (strangely still) surrounding them. Day breaks and they ready themselves for a possible fight. Jhest has supplies for them on the beach, and says the soldiers (tall, strangely armored, unspeaking) will help load the ship. Jhest says the soldiers were “inspired” by the Moranth. As they begin to gather the supplies, Jhest tells Traveller he should reconsider his impossible goal. Traveller warns Jhest not to get between Traveller and his vengeance. Jhest attacks Traveller with magic, making him disappear into the sand. Ereko, enraged, tells Jhest he and his cabal have made a grievous error, saying they’ve forgotten who Ereko is. The soldiers attack and are given the Guard trouble until Kyle realizes his sword can slice right through their odd armor. The soldiers are taken care of and Jhest demands to see Kyle’s sword, calling hundreds more of the strange soldiers out from the forest. Stalker runs Jhest through to no effect. Ereko pulls Traveller up from where he’d disappeared, much to Jhest’s shock. Kyle catches a glimpse of a portal into dark nothing and then it disappears. Traveller tells Jhest “My life is now my own, magus. It can no longer be taken by anyone.” Jhest is thrilled—“Then it is true. It can be done!”—and then Traveller kills him. All but Ereko and Traveller board the ship. Traveller wants to stay and fight, to punish them for interrupting his vengeance, and will not listen to Ereko’s pleadings to just go. Kyle finally convinces him by reminding him is vengeance lies elsewhere.


Amanda’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Four, Part One

Groten’s reactions to Nevall—Chief Factor, if you please—are downright amusing here: “If you say so, sir,” “So you say, sir.” Nevall is the type of idiot character that I don’t mind reading about, because he tends to provide more comic relief than frustration.

And this makes it somewhat painful then to read about the fate of Cawn after the Crimson Guard have swept through. I’m glad that Shimmer pauses to reflect on the legacy they’re creating for their name, that she’s aware of the fact that they are being cursed by those in their wake. Also glad that she argued against forcible recruitment into the Guard, although she’s pragmatic enough to see it’ll be required. She’s a fine character.

And therein lies one of my issues with the novel. In Erikson novels (yes, I know I do this too often—compare apples and oranges just because of the Malazan name on the cover) the bad guys often have redeemable features. We’re able to feel sympathy for their cause. There are only a rare few that seem outright bad. Erikson likes to work in real shades of grey. Here, Shimmer is such an awesome character (such as here, with her capacity to see beyond what others do regarding Greymane and to offer him a captaincy) and Skinner such a bastard that it’s very easy to know how we are supposed to react to them, and that lack of subtlety is a little disappointing.

Despite the incompetence of Ehrlann and this obvious sham of a prosecution, it does make me vaguely uncomfortable that these Malazans just take power from the official ruling body in Li Heng. Sure, they’ll do better. And yes, they don’t need to be subject to the whims of people who have no understanding of what is occurring. But to just snatch power? What does that make them? Invaders? Bullies? It didn’t sit easily.

I did, however, laugh out loud at Jamaer first solemnly writing down everything that Ehrlann said, and then handing him the umbrella. Amusing.

Okay, so Ahl is clearly way more than what he originally seemed—and is ultra creepy to boot. I’m guessing that this is the three Elders that Silk went looking for and found fishing on the river bank? Strange that they sometimes appear as just one person. I don’t really have a clue who they actually are—can D’ivers work in human form, or do they always have to be animals? And what Path does he follow, that Liss says it is an abomination?

And now we see why there have been so many little reminders of Ryllandaras—Storo intends to free him and turn him on those encircling Li Heng. Is anyone else going: “Dear God no—bad plan!”? I just can’t see a good ending, especially when the fact that Ryll has been worshipped for ten thousand years by the Seti—if he wasn’t a god before, then it is more than likely he’s been elevated by now….

Ah, poor Rillish—thinking that Talia should show some discretion when he is the one sending her little glances. Besides, that kind of news—the commander taking a lover—is that sort that would be gossiped about freely, I’ve no doubt. There’s no way that the rest of them don’t know. I like that here Esslemont deals with how it must be when you’re in love with a common soldier—the conflict between doing right by the troops and keeping authority clear, and wanting to protect your love from the hard tasks.

I loved this chase through the Warrens, as Nether and Rillish try to capture the mage Dol D’Avig. It was great fun to read, even though there were a few moments of mystification. I didn’t understand the business with the trees, to be honest, nor the encounter with Topper or why he doesn’t want to come face to face with Nether.

I found the description of this land that Ereko and pals are travelling past to be quite lush and poetic, especially the part about peering over the gunwales of the boat. And this was quite a pointed look at how dangerous the land might be: “Careful! Kyle almost pointed to the bow where Traveller reclined in the shade of a sailcloth. With an obvious master swordsman like him on board? And you, a giant nearly twice the height of a man? And there three veterans from Assail who quit the Crimson Guard because they found it boring? Gods and Spirits, what kind of a land was this?”

Hmm, interesting that Jhest says the Crimson Guard have advanced far along the path towards ascension. I mean, the Avowed are pretty godlike thanks to that immortality and the experience they bring, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Who didn’t see that betrayal by Jhest coming, that attempt to find the secret of Ascension—although it looked like it was only confirmed to him that Traveller had achieved ascendancy and possible godhood when Ereko managed the bring him back from the void, and Traveller said that his life was his own.

And it seems that Traveller’s godhood is related to vengeance.

I’m finding the Ereko/Traveller/Kyle storyline quite episodic and slow-building compared to the others, although it does always remain intriguing.


Bill’s Reaction to Book Two, Chapter Four, Part One

The “surprise” that this fleet is the Crimson Guard and not Laseen is nicely telegraphed by Nevall’s shock that Laseen had arrived so fast, his assumption that she would have had to kill her rowers and a mage or two to get such speed, and Groten’s information on how small this fleet is.

I love that dryly humorous cut from Skinner’s response to Nevall attempt to charge him to Shimmer watching Cawn burn. Not a guy to mess with, Skinner. I also have a bit less sympathy on first response for Cawn, based on their greed. Though of course, our POVs have only shown us the ones making money and often it’s the poorer and less powerful who suffer more in these sorts of things, so my sympathy goes up if I think longer about it.

More hints that this Vow is having an unlooked-for effect on the Avowed, the way Shimmer realizes that they don’t treat/feel the passage of time the same way as “normal men and women” do. Ahhh, but they’re young long-lived folk, these Avowed. Let them get the experience of a Rake or a Gothos and….

Funny, considering our contemporary politics, hearing Greymane’s hope that any “reorganization” of the Empire after his civil war/invasion might mean less support by the Empire for “overseas entanglements.” Always a question with Empires after all.

I’ve always liked Shimmer and her recognition of something worthy in Greymane only furthers that response, the sense that she has good judgment. And I know what you mean Amanda, about the bad being bad and the good being good. We’ll have to see if that holds up as we continue—for instance, in our next scene as our “good” guy Storo is going to make a very tough decision.

Anybody really think the soldiers were going to arrest Storo? Anybody besides the out-of-touch-with-their-true-reality magistrates? Silly, silly people.

I enjoyed both Gujran’s terse “no” and dry “You’re doin’ yourself no favors with that magistrate” (after Ehrlann insults his “breeding”), along with Storo’s surprisingly lengthy and eloquent reply to Ehrlann about the Malazan’s “tyranny and oppression”: “oppression comes in many forms. Consider…the very narrow constituency you and your circle claim to speak for.” One might also argue there is some echoes of contemporary politics there to chew over as well. But those are good questions as to what does that make the Malazans here? Benevolent despots? Guiding empire? Simple imperialists?

Love, just love, the image of Jamaer giving over the umbrella.

And then we get to the core matter of this scene, and something that will drive a big chunk of what’s to come: Storo’s decision to release Ryllandaras. Has the man never read/seen how these things go? The military coming up with a great “superweapon” that will destroy the enemy? It never ends well. Not for the enemy, not for those that created the superweapon. Trust me. Never.

As readers, besides the fact that we know it never ends well, we can’t be feeling too great about this. After all, those who seem to know the most about Ryllandaras are against this idea. Silk, whom we’ve already seen as competent and knowledgeable and likable, is saying not to do it. Liss, whom again we’ve seen the same of, is passionately, desperately arguing against it and is in fact “horrified” by the idea. Hurl, who it’s hard to imagine any reader not siding with, is against it. And certainly, up to this point, we’ve heard nothing but horror stories about Ryllandaras. Rell says to do it, but only when pressed to decide and of course, he knows nothing of the Man-Jackal anyway. The only one (or “ones”) who are all for it is/are Ahl, but c’mon, that guy’s clearly on the edge. In the end, it appears Storo is going to do it and we’ll just have to see what happens…(cough cough Skynet cough).

I also liked the difficulties inherent in these command-soldier relationships (and we can see right away why they are frowned upon). Even more, I liked the gut-cramp Rillish gets when he is faced with the reality of what he is doing. All well and good to resign and sign up out in the middle of nowhere, but here to come face to face with someone who socialized (albeit in minor fashion) with, a direct part of his former life—it all drives it forcefully home for him. This is a nice subtle touch here on Esslemont’s part as well, making it someone he only kinda-sorta knows rather than go all out and have it be a former bestest-buddy or someone who’d saved his life, etc. It also goes a good way to explaining why he forgets the guy’s a mage; he has other things tumbling around in his head at the moment.

The chase scene was solid, but it does, as you say Amanda, toss a lot at us with the forest and the Azath and Topper and the Hound.

And just who is Topper expecting?

Well, having finally gotten around to Blood and Bone, I can see if you like this little bit of Jacuruku, Amanda, you’ll love it when we get to that book. In however many years that’ll be…In many ways, this scene is setting up what’s to come there, what with the references to Ardata, the Crimson Guard’s time there, those strange soldiers, the mages ruling the side of the continent seeking ascension, performing horrific experiments on people, and using alchemy (going on the “inspiration” by the Moranth).

And yep, everyone, including our characters, saw that betrayal coming. And I’d be surprised if anyone thought it was not going to end poorly for Jhest. You just want to whisper to him, “Really? This is the group you want to tangle with? Lost Boys, giant child of the Earth, kid with a whanging magic sword, and oh yeah, a god. Really?”

That said, one does have to wonder if Jhest might not have a point—is Traveller’s focus on his vengeance, his putting it before seemingly all us, a “sad waste” of his life?

Have to love that, ahem, “cut” from Jhest’s “Oh yea, I really can have a chance to live forever” and “Hey, I needed that head….”

Funny how it’s Kyle who pulls Traveller out of his I’m all about to go Travis Bickle on these people: “You puttin’ me in a hole in the sand? You puttin’ me…” Maybe our boy is growing up.

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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