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 chapter sixteen 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.
Just to note that Bill is having an extraordinarily busy week and will be adding his comments in at a later stage.
The first scene of this chapter dives straight into a meeting between the Elder Gods that Errastas has summoned, including Sechul Lath, Kilmandaros, Mael, and Olar Ethil. They converse about the absent Elder Gods, including K’rul, and then Olar Ethil talks about things coming back, rising, including the T’lan Imass and the Jaghut. She refers to the fact that she has once again released the First Sword (Tool), and then says that the Crippled God is nothing, that his body is scattered across seven continents. Errastas (in all his wisdom(!)) disregards everything that Olar Ethil mentions, says that they are irrelevant, says that Mother Dark has turned her face away so the Royal Andian blood approaching Kharkanas is meaningless.
Mael points out that, even if Errastas is successful in killing their children, the younger gods, the fact is that even younger gods are springing up. He and Olar Ethil wonder what Hood is up to, and think about the changing nature of the lifeless side of Hood’s Gates. And there is outright mention of Whiskeyjack and the ascended Bridgeburners, who was the one to summon the fourteen dead Jaghut, not Hood. They piece together the fact that, right now, the Malazans are growing into positions of new power, including the Master of the Deck and his ally, Tavore.
Basically, Errastas is slapped down, and shown that each of these Elder Gods has knowledge and plans beyond what he intended. Sechul Lath then states he will tell Errastas of the path that has been prepared, and manages to get him to stop sulking and rejoin he and Kilmandaros.
Cuttle is drinking and melancholy, telling stories to young Bonehunters about the Malazans of the past, particularly the Bridgeburners. The youngsters are talking about the legends and acting awestruck, while Cuttle rains on their parade and generally brings everyone down about their future. Gesler interrupts and gives Cuttle a dressing down, so that he eventually leaves.
Gesler asks Widdershins to make sure that Cuttle is okay, and then starts drinking, finding himself feeling as depressed as Cuttle.
Bottle slips away from where he had listened to Cuttle and then Gesler. He stands at the side of the barge and contemplates the army, the fact that boredom and bickering is doing damage, that the veterans were doing almost as much damage to the spirit of the Bonehunters. He thinks about how much the army depends on Fiddler. He then tries to distract himself by sending his mind into the creatures beneath the water of the river, but gets caught up in more melancholy thoughts about religion and gods and what it means to exist.
Bottle’s rat watches as Deadsmell, Throatslitter and Ebron gamble together and argue about what level of cheating is acceptable.
Skulldeath watches the unconscious Hellian, while he is watched in turn by a nearby soldier, and Hellian is watched by Sergeant Urb, who clearly adores her.
Skanarow approaches Ruthan Gudd at the side of the barge and lets him know that she is aware he is more than what he seems, that she has done some research into his past and where he might have come from. He is quick to deny it all and puts out that his history is dull and uneventful. He walks off and then Skanarow follows.
Bottle thinks that it seems everyone on the barge is getting some action that night and feels a bit jealous. He hasn’t recently been visited in his dreams by the Eres’al and is wondering a little at her absence. As he looks out on the land that passes, he is joined by Sergeant Sinter. They have a rather odd conversation, where Sinter talks about how things are sexually with the Dal Honese, and she blithely insults Bottle unintentionally, to the point where he is ready to dive over the edge of the barge just to get away from the conversation. Eventually she realises she has been rather deflating and they agree to spend a little more time together.
Banaschar stands and looks at the maps of Kolanse and thinks about depressing things, including that Lostara Yil is not interested in him and the fact that there is nothing uglier than soldiers at rest. He thinks that he wanted more blank spaces in the map of his own history.
Lostara stands with a blade in her hand, and thinks about the Red Blades and how they have progressed without her. She recalls the evening meal she shared with Tavore, how she had tried to make conversation and draw out the Adjunct on a personal level, but how Tavore didn’t respond and, in fact, acted like a widow in mourning. She thinks about Banaschar and how he is being eaten from the inside out by his past.
Stormy sits on the deck and watches the five spears of jade in the sky, feeling as though they are coming from him in a personal vendetta. He tries to think what he might have done in his past to deserve such revenge, but is interrupted by the arrival of Quick Ben, who calls him Adjutant and asks him about the flames under his skin.
Sunrise thinks about how much he loves being a soldier, how much he adores Dead Hedge as his commander. He is approached by Corporal Rumjugs, who has spent the night whoring and then by Sweetlard, who has done the same. They talk about the special munitions that they are working on in secret at Hedge’s command. Rumjugs and Sweetlard tell Sunrise that they are receiving a whole ton of marriage proposals—when he wonders why, they say it’s because they’re all desperate for children because they’re all expecting to die.
Pores encounters Tarr, who has taken a whole wad of rylig and is getting the jitters. Pores gets him to spit it out.
The two D’ras who gave the rylig to Tarr are laughing about it when he approaches them and heaves them over the back of the barge, to be eaten by crocodiles. He then goes into a delirium.
Badan Gruk leaves Tarr in Nep Furrow’s gentle ministrations and spends some time thinking about the Bonehunters—what they are and what they aren’t, and the fact that it seems something within is resisting the shape that the army needs to be. He wonders whether that might be the betrayal of the Empress—the fact that the army did everything required of them, but the Empress still tried to rid herself of them, that this is preventing them from growing into what they need to be now.
Fiddler and Balm talk about soldiering, about the people in their squads and about little incidences from their past.
Brys is getting ready for bed when he is asked to see one of the new Atri-Ceda’s, called, Aranict. She tells him that she has been exploring the warrens—the Malazan way of sorcery. She shows him a patch of earth that seethes in her hand and he isn’t too impressed, but then she says that she is not the one doing it, that there are patches of ‘sympathetic linkage’ that extend all the way into the Wastelands. Brys says he is sending her to the Malazans, so that she can talk to their mages, and, when informed she will be dealing with Adaephon Ben Delat, she falls into a dead faint.
This first scene with the Errant being completely schooled by his fellow Elder Gods makes me grin—it seems exactly what he needs to take away some of that prideful attitude. Of course, what they’re all talking about it pretty terrifying, and showcases some of the plots it seems we should have a particular interest in, like the Jaghut, and the Andian royal blood. Of course, these gods are clearly not omniscient because they have no real idea about the part that might be played by the K’Chain Che’Malle in their quest, or the Barghast, who are looking for a new enemy still, or the wanderings of Icarium and the impact of his new warrens, or the machinations of Silchas Ruin, or the fact that Draconus is no longer captive in Dragnipur (if that has happened yet—not sure where the timelines cross over). Really, they know so little. It just shows up the fact that, despite all their knowledge and all their manipulations, they have only a tiny piece of the picture.
Also, the Elder Gods here are pretty dismissive of the Wolf Gods—this seems a little dangerous considering the Grey Helms’ presence, plus the movement of Setoc, plus the wolfy aspects of Toc the Younger. Plus, we have this whole theme of people being underestimated, right?
Hoo boy, I also can’t wait to see how the return of Mother Dark is going to shake things up, since she is another that everyone is now disregarding.
What is also clear from the scene is how much they are all keeping from each other. They might say the word ‘allies’ but no one truly seems to understand what that word means. Mael demonstrates his knowledge of the Forkrul Assail, which shows he is aware of a little of what Sechul Lath and Kilmandaros have been keeping from Errastas. Olar Ethil, we’ve already seen, has many fingers in many pies, and does not seem at all inclined to share them with anyone. Errastas seems to be keeping his overall plan for Kilmandaros regarding the Otataral Dragon from her, although I might be wrong about that one. Anyhoo, it is all a mess of conspiracies and secret plans, and this does not seem a side ready to go to war.
We’ve always seen the good side of the legendary Bridgeburners—I mean to say, we’ve always seen how motivational it is for new soldiers and even existing soldiers to know the names of those who have gone before. Here we see from Cuttle the way it can cause pressure and make people feel down about their future as a soldier: “What do you want? Any of you? You want the fame of the Bridgeburners? Why? They’re all dead. You want a great cause to fight for? To die for? Show me something worth that.”
Fiddler is starting to be thought about in an ominous fashion—i.e., what will the youngsters, who think so much of him, do if anything bad happens to him. Bottle then thinks about the amount of responsibility being borne by this old soldier, who was only ever a sapper for the Bridgeburners, and wonders if he can bear up under the weight. “Reader of the Deck of Dragons. Legendary survivor of the Bridgeburners. He was the iron stake driven deep into the ground, and no matter how fierce the raging winds, he held fast—and everyone in turn clung to him, the whole damned army, it seemed. We hold tight. Not to the Adjunct. Not to Quick Ben or Fist Keneb. We hold tight to Fiddler, a damned sergeant.” Anyone else getting a wee bit worried about Fiddler’s future now?
It is also really painful seeing the other side of the veterans. We’ve seen the way that they improve morale, the way that having them there gives steel to the newcomers. But here we’re told the flipside, the fact that they can “leak like a septic wound. It stained. It fouled. It killed dreams.” The idea of those dead-eyed soldiers who survived against all the odds is pretty damn creepy, actually.
I’m interested in this that Bottle thinks: “By our belief, we create the gods. And so, in turn, we can destroy them. With a single thought. A moment’s refusal, an instant’s denial. Is this the real face of the war to come?” Thing is, I’m not sure how this would work. We just saw the Elder Gods chatting, and, yes, Mael is on the rise again and is gathering a priest and worshippers around him. But the others—do they have mortals who believe in them and worship them? I don’t think we’ve really seen any worship of Kilmandaros or Sechul Lath, have we? Or is that why they’re skulking in the shadows, because their power is definitely on the wane?
I think I simultaneously feel sorry for Bottle, being able to see all the flirtations and conversations going on between others on the barge, and creeped out by the fact that he watches things that really should stay private. Although I guess all of his knowledge is part of why he’s the shaved knuckle of the squad. It is a tad worrying about the Eres’al—now, didn’t Olar Ethil say that she was that entity when she also said she was Burn? If so, the fact she is absent from Bottle’s mind might be because she is wandering all over the land and causing trouble. Not sure whether I’ve quite grasped that correctly.
This chapter is an odd one, in general. Erikson does his usual and gives us some incidentals, some scenes between familiar characters, some things that we can laugh at gently, which is pretty necessary after the horrors of chapter fifteen. But it does mean there doesn’t seem to be as much to talk about. I can tell you again how much I love seeing the Malazans! But you’ve heard that a lot. So instead I’m going to pull out the odd sentences that jumped out and made me curious about what was going on:
- The reminder of Telorast and Curdle—what are they up to? Who are they with?
- The way that Lostara realises Tavore is afflicted with an immense sorrow, like that of a widow. Just because of the betrayal of the Empress and the death of T’amber? Or because she knows what is coming?
- Five jade swords? This is the most specific we’ve seen it, I think. And then Quick Ben refers to them as the ‘Slashes’—they are coming more to the fore, it seems.
- A little reminder as well of the flames that burn within Stormy and Gesler
- Didn’t like the whoring of Rumjugs and Sweetlard, but then I considered it more and we’re almost seeing the reverse of hobbling here. Rumjugs and Sweetlard are in complete control of their own bodies—they’re not being forced to do it, they’re receiving adequate compensation for what is a job, they’re not harmed body and soul and so seem to be retaining all their womanly power.
- Bavedict’s munitions—keeping an eye on them
- The way that people being brought into the Malazans are taking on some of their phrasing, like ‘aye.’ I found that pretty cute, and very realistic. And that is a small way in which the army is starting to gel
- Although the bit where Badan Gruk thinks about the way that the Bonehunters are resisting being shaped into a coherent force is concerning—that they haven’t yet dealt with their feelings of anger and betrayal about the Empress and so now they are finally considering that.
- And then a little whisper towards what lies ahead, with the new Atri-Ceda, Aranict, who tells Brys Beddict that something is coming. Might this dust be then related to the clouds of dust and what is within them that we’ve seen devastating the Barghast tribes? And why does Aranict faint at the idea of coming face to face with Quick Ben—just because his reputation precedes him or because she is someone in disguise who knows who Quick Ben really is?
So, bits and pieces to pull out. An entertaining chapter, but strikes me more as a holding chapter, something allowing us to calm down after chapter fifteen and giving us some breathing space before we move into the final act.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.