Welcome to the Malazan Reread 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 of Dust of Dreams.
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.
On the barren, wind-scoured Elan Plain, west of Kolanse, a long train of refugee children travels the wasteland, fleeing the “Fathers.” The oldest, a 13 or 14-year-old boy named Rutt (“head of the snake,” as they call the train) swaddles a baby he calls Held and speaks with Badalle, a girl who speaks in poetry. He tells her “they live,” the words having become a ritual of their journey as they fled first the “starvers and bone-skinned inquisitors,” then the “ribbers”—packs of starving dogs—and the “Fathers”—cannibals who stole children away. The snake contains tens of thousands, starving, dehydrated, worm-ridden, sick, and as thousands drop dead on the journey thousands join. Badalle climbs a barrow and looks back on a “road of flesh and bone,” thinking of how the children who died were simply stepped over or on and she composes a poem about birds feeding on their dead.
In the Wastelands, Kalyth wanders the machine-filled corridors of “Root”—a K’Chain Che’Malle home. She recalls her past: born in a tribe on the Elan Plain, how she became wife and mother, then fleeing the destruction of her people “on a morning of horror and violence.” She passes the Feed level and then the Womb, where “dread surgeries were performed, and moves onto the “Heart,” where huge Ve-Gath soldiers line a long ramp. It is the number of them being produced by the Matron that tells Kalyth that war is coming. She continues on to Eyes, the Inner Keep, home to the Matron herself, passing by J’an Sentinels to enter the Matron’s chamber. Two K’Chain Che’Malle, badly wounded, stand before Gunth’an Acyl, the Matron: Sag’Churok, a K’ell Hunter, and Gunth Mach, the One Daughter. Their state is evidence of their failure. The Matron, referring to Kalyth as Destriant, tells her she must accompany the two who will try again, that “what is broken must be mended.” Kalyth tries to refuse, saying she is no Destriant and has no ability to find a Mortal Sword or a Shield Anvil. The Matron tells her “We have failed every war. I am the last Matron. The enemy seeks me. The enemy will destroy me. Your kind thrives in this this world… Among you, I shall find new champions. My Destriant must find them.” Kalyth leaves, the plan set for her to depart at dawn with three K’ell Hunters and the One Daughter, along with a Shi’gal Assassin, that last meaning if they failed they would not return. Kalyth considers this further evidence of the Matron’s insanity—sending away the only K’Chain that can possibly breed (the One Daughter) and one of only three Shi-gal whose job it is to protect the Matron, including against the other two. She thinks this must be her penance for fleeing her people, her family, and she has no sympathy for the K’Chain either, thinking “the world will not miss them.” She considers that “the only real curse is when you find yourself the last of your kind… the cruel comprehension of a solitude without cure, without hope of salvation.” She recalls how her people, the Elan, died, “death winging across the face of the setting sun, a black, tattered omen” and knows all is bleakness.
Shi-gal Gu’Rull (6100 years old!) considers the sanity of the Matron, thinking her “assumption of the godly structures of faith” was a bad move, as was her desire for human help, humans her were “too frail, too weak to be of any real value.” He thinks Kalyth is the perfect example of that, as the “flavor of percipience” the Matron had gifted her with, that “should have delivered certitude and strength” had become the basis for “self-recrimination and self-pity.” He knows Kalyth’s gift will quickly wane in the journey without the Matron to replenish it, and she would revert to her true state—unintelligent, a burden. Gu’Rull thinks this quest will fail just as the prior one, which had chosen Redmask as Mortal Sword, though this trip will go elsewhere—south, into the Wastelands. He admits, though, that leaving Ampelas Root for the first time in 800 years fills him with a sense of “exhilaration” if not hope.
An unnamed narrator “travels” with a group through the wastelands, no memory of having ever been alone and wholly “incorporeal, possessed of the quaint privilege of being able to move from one companion to another almost at will. If they were to die, or find a means of rejecting him, he believed he would cease to exist.” The group bicker and seem generally miserable: Seb, Last, Asane, Nappet, Breath, Rautos, and Taxilian. They see a huge structure and decide to head there, as “none of them even knew where they were.”
The POV switches to a group of capemoths looking down on the speaker—a single “gaunt figure, skin of dusty green, tusks… Carrying a sword… A lone wanderer who spoke in seven voices.”
A speaker considers visions and tries to find patterns in them: a strange two-legged lizard in armor looking at a dragon crucified and bleeding. Two wolves. Dolmens, statues with jutting cowls and tails. Stars and sun and voices. Tattoos. He knows himself now—Heboric Ghost Hands. He sees “jade suns” streaming down and knows that “he and his god were in their path, and these were forces that could not be pushed aside. No shield existed solid enough to block what was coming.” He understood “the gods of war and what they meant… he was overwhelmed by the futility.” He thinks people have done this to themselves: “We stood tall in paradise. And then called forth the gods of war to bring destruction down upon ourselves… I see now with the eyes of the Abyss… with my enemy’s eyes, and so I shall speak with its voice… I am justice. And when at last we meet, you will not like it.”
I am always a person who reads the author notes at the beginning of a book, and here the notes from Erikson about how Dust of Dreams is really the first part of one gigantic book, and follows no conventional storytelling patterns, does really set down the mark of what this novel is likely to be—sprawling storylines, massive plot details (few of which will find any resolution) and a whole lot of set up. I am braced, I guess. It feels like this might be more of a challenge than usual.
The language immediately as we meet Rutt, Held, and Badalle is very bleak, setting a tone of an immensely difficult type of living. Even down to Held’s features being “grey smudges,” the wind “scouring” and carving out the dust around the roots of plants.
Is this baby Held alive? So far nothing suggests that this baby is alive.
Hmm. I may have to reserve judgment for Badalle and her manner of speaking in verse. Verse is never my favourite thing at the best of times, frankly, but I am remembering some of the other quirky ways in which people have spoken through this series and how it ended up being endearing rather than frustrating to read, thanks to the power of character development.
Oh wow, the reveal that Rutt is so very young, and actually leads a snake of refugees, running from these ‘ribbers’ is done well. It’s as though the scene opens out from a tiny pinpoint to a sudden sweeping panoramic shot that shows this trail of children walking across the dusty plains.
Some of the imagery conjured up by Badalle’s speech is very strong: “And the flies make patterns of suffering. And suffering is ugly.” It feels like the start of Deadhouse Gates, where the flies were such a presence through the whole of that book.
The idea of these starvers and bone-skins is pretty damn nightmarish. Imagine children experiencing that? “They’d pulled his sister out of his grip, and it was her scream that still echoed in his skull.”
Something about these ribbers and Fathers reminds me a little of the Gentlemen from the Hush episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Jesus! The fate of those who are ridden by the Satra Riders, the worms that cause their body to inflate and then destroy them from the inside out…
I love this description of the K’Chain Che’Malle legacy: “The machinery was coated in oily dust that gleamed in the darkness as the faint glow of the lantern light slid across it, conveying motion where none existed, the illusion of silent slippage, as of reptilian scales that seemed, as ever, cruelly appropriate.” Once again, the descriptions at the start of this novel are both bleak and sinister.
Oh my word, the brief picture of the life that Kalyth has lived so far, and the death in solitude she was expected to experience, is just as bleak! This is a dark book and I’ve only read six pages… This says a lot about Kalyth’s life and what was expected of her: “And when the end of that life has come for her and her people, on a morning of horror and violence, all that she had revealed then was a damning selfishness—in refusing to die, in fleeing all that she had known.”
The K’Chain Che’Malle are breeding soldiers—worse than the K’ell Hunters we’ve already seen, who could destroy people as though they were nothing. “No further proof was needed—war was coming.”
Okay, so there is an awful lot to take in here concerning the K’Chain Che’Malle. For one thing, we see the age of them and realise that they are playing a long game. We see different types than those we’ve already encountered. We see the desperate fear of this Matron that she is the last and needs to protect her people somehow, and so has turned to human beings to form her Destriant, her Mortal Sword and her Shield Anvil. I imagine that this is going to be a focal part of the book, so I shall be patient and wait to see how it unfolds. It is difficult to comprehend just how clever the author has been in building up these little tastes and hints of the K’Chain Che’Malle prior to this point, and now, it seems, they are to step onto centre stage.
The assassin Shi’gal Gu’Rull is sixty-one centuries old… That is some life to have led.
Heh—we finally see what Redmask was all about! I love how it is just casually dropped into this prologue. This series really does reward the determined reader.
This is stunning language and imagery: “The assassin soared through the night, high above a blasted, virtually lifeless landscape. Like a shred of the murdered moon.”
How much does this reflect the attitude of modern times! “Empty land is useless. I long for the day when it’s all put to use, everything, right over the surface of the world. Cities merging into one…”
This solitary gaunt figure—is it Hood?
And then this last section, with Heboric Ghost Hands. These visions he has seems to encapsulate what is about to happen, with dragons and dragon blood, and K’Chain Che’Malle. Once again we see this: “A final war had begun.” We really are approaching the endgame here, aren’t we? And have we the courage?
I’ll be very curious as to Amanda’s responses to the Snake going forward, an odd mix of horror and poetry. I know I really enjoyed, even when not wholly on firm footing, the language and the metaphors. I’m also curious as to how you all feel about this storyline, which, after all, we’ll be spending more than a little time with. It’s funny; I just had a conversation with my wife and 11-year-old about difficulty/confusion in writing/reading, in relation to a play I’m working on where there’s definitely some confusion, and we discussed where the line is drawn between confusion being stimulating, driving the reader to work hard, driving them to want to know more, and confusion being off-putting, driving the reader away due to frustration or simple boredom.
Here, I like for instance the use of “ribbers” and “fathers” and “grey leaves”—the not knowing exactly what they were, not immediately.
File that poem by Badalle that begins “All day Rutt holds Held.”
We get the idea that the children are refugees made clear via Visto, who had fled “the starvers and the bone-skinned inquisitors [who] kicked in doors and dragged people out and did terrible things to them, while the bone-skins watched on and said it was necessary.” First-timers might want to file “bone-skinned” and “necessary.”
As is often the case, what is at first unclear is explained (admittedly, not always) if you’re patient. And so the ribbers are quickly explained as “huge packs of gaunt dogs with red-rimmed eyes,” and the Fathers as “all wrapped in black who… stole children away… and once he [Visto] and a few others had… seen for themselves the small split bones… and so understood what the Father did to the children they took.”
Besides the tragic horror of the children—starving, dropping dead, being trampled where they lay, the flies, the satra worma, and the inhuman (oh, if only truly inhuman) Fathers and their cannibalism, we also see a return to a common theme in the series—environmental devastation: the “gouged wasteland, ruined and ravaged… Stump Road” and “Forest Stet, a range of denuded hills… .reminding him of the bone-yards that ringed the city that had been his home, left after the last of the livestock had been slaughtered.
If anyone is hoping for a rescue of these children, of some sort of happy ending, it’s good to keep in mind just how unhappy such a “happy” ending might be if it ever in truth happens. These tens of thousands, after all, are the survivors, meaning that like Visto’s sister—a concrete reminder to us—there are probably tens of tens of thousands already dead, and day by day hundreds more are dying, Visto himself being the concrete reminder this time. There really cannot be a “happy” ending to this.
Then off to Kalyth in the K’Chain Che’Malle home of Ampelas Rooted. A hint to which we’re given immediately by the comparison of the light across the machines to “reptilian scales.” And then a little later, the steps “too broad for human strides” and now we can guess who the inhabitants probably are.
It is odd, isn’t it, to read about “cables” and “machinery?
I really like getting this other side of the K’Chain Che’Malle—a little more detail about their social structure, their various castes, etc. Is it possible that our viewpoints on these creatures might change the more we see them? It’ll be interesting to see as we start getting up close and personal and get some POVs from them.
“war was coming”—might want to file that. What war? With whom? Why does the Matron see the need to breed so many soldiers? And soldiers—Ve’Gath—that are more frightening than K’ell hunters.
Boy, there are some long-lived folks in this series, huh? Bre’nigan the Sentinel at least a thousand years old, and Gu’Rull having seen “sixty-one centuries of life.”
Well, now we see what Kalyth meant when she said she couldn’t be what “they” wanted her to be, as the Matron (an “insane” Matron—that can’t be good if Kalyth’s view is correct) refers to her as Destriant. And now, in good old fantasy novel form, we get a quest—in this case for a Mortal Sword and a Shield Anvil, an interesting choice of quest for a K’Chain Che’Malle Matron. Who is this “enemy” that can drive a Matron to such desperate tactics? To rely on humans and their religious structures? To send away one half of her protecting Assassins? To send away the only other one who can breed more K’Chain Che’Malle? That is some desperation.
And then, to rely on someone who thinks of your kind that the world will not miss your extinction. One might wonder just how hard Kalyth will look , especially with her slightly bleak view on loneliness/the last of one’s kind, etc.
It’s an interesting sidelight here that the Matron has used her abilities to smarten up Kalyth, a seemingly double-edged gift, for “knowledge was no blessing; awareness was a disease that stained the entire spirit.” Later, the Assassin will wonder about how this gift will decrease over time—are we going to see a reprise of Flowers for Algernon here?
So, what was that death that came to her people, the Elan?
So Gu’Rull has some issues with his orders it appears. He seems to agree with Kalyth that the Matron is a bit crazy, thinks the Matron is nuts for wanting humans involved, and considers Kalyth a soon-to-be-idiot that is not only worthless, but “a burden, a liability.” Normally, being considered a liability by an assassin is probably not a good thing, but luckily for Kalyth, “Mother Acy’s command permitted no flexibility.” We’ll have to see if Kalyth wins Gu’Rull over.
And now we find out what had been going on with the K’Chain Che’Malle and Redmask oh so many books ago—he was their first attempt to find a “chosen one.” See? You just have to be patient, like I said.
Hey, reptilian Gu’Rull has “feather-scales”! Dinosaurs evolves into birds!
Lots of wastelands. I’m just saying.
So who is this strange group traveling, with this odd voice that can flit from one to the other. Oh wait, it’s not a group at all, but a single green-skinned, tusked guy with a sword who has mind issues. Hmmmmm…
Here again, we get some an environmental theme, as Sheb looks around and dreams of the day when all this “useless” empty land is “put to use, everything, right over the surface of the world. Cities merging into one.”
So some of these names should sound familiar
Taxilian, from our Bonehunters reread:
Taxilian tells Samar how he was captured, how the Edur warlocks killed the Tanno Spiritwalker on the Taxilian’s ship (though the Spiritwalker resisted longer than expected). He explains he is “teaching” Feather Witch four languages.
And from our Reaper’s Gale reread:
Taxilian meets [Icarium] there and tells him “This is your day.” White light starts to emanate from beneath Scale House, the city shakes and buildings collapse as part of his machine come to life. Icarium slices up his forearms so blood falls freely, thinking “If K’rul can, why not me… Taxilian dies in the blast of white fire and power and then Senior Assessor and Taralack Veed are killed by the debris from falling buildings
Buildings collapse all over and a web of white fire rises over the city. Rautos Hivanar [amateur scholar investigating weird machines under the city]is killed by a large part of the machine that rises up to a large height then drops down on him. He is enveloped in white fire that “sucked out from his mind every memory he possessed.”
Breath’s focus on drowning is a bit of a hint
From, well, I’ll let you figure it out for now, to Heboric Ghost Hands. A little reminder from Bonehunters:
Cutter’s craft is pelted by stones from the sky and they start to sink. Heboric’s body falls into the water. Chaur, grabbing it, falls in too. Barathol dives in after him, then a dragon appears overhead. Cutter hears shouts and then he and Scillara are in the water.
Heboric wakes to the sound of “a million voices screaming.” They are the people inside the Jade giants. Heboric wonders if was ever Treach’s Destriant or something else, wonders if he needed to be killed first as Treach had before ascending. He thinks Hood has “flung [him] back” and realizes that he is Shield Anvil. He tells the people to reach for his hands.
And what will it mean that he sees himself now as justice?
I like the thread of lost people that opens this: the children of the snake, wandering lost. Our tusked, green friend wandering lost. Kalyth wandering in the maze of corridors and feeling lost, Heboric wandering lost.
Well, this is an uplifting opening, eh? Indeed fellow readers, have we the courage?
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.