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 seventeen 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.
Note: Amanda will be catching up with today’s post later in the comments section. And we’d like to continue using the Hetan thread from earlier to continue discussion of that storyline, so please place comments on that topic there. For instance, if you’d like to discuss the conversation in this chapter about why the Barghast women involve themselves in such a thing, that would be the place to do it, rather than in this thread. Thanks!
Badalle considers the plight of the Snake, the power and lack thereof of the gods, how “Children understood at a very young age that doing nothing was an expression of power… was in fact, godly,” and this was perhaps why gods do nothing, since “to act was to announce awful limitations, for it revealed that chance acted first—the accidents were just that—events beyond the will of the gods, and all they could do in answer was to attempt to remedy the consequences.” She herself had seen the gods as she flew, seen their “growing fear… and self-obsession,” and she knows “the gods were as broken as she was broken, inside and out.” Rutt tells her he can’t go on and she thinks she can’t let him be broken as well, for then the Quitters would get them all. She tell him that Held is nothing without him, that that she has seen a city at the end of the Glass Desert, one they will find tomorrow and one that the Quitters are afraid of. He begs of her not to go mad, and she agrees if he promises not to give up. She tells him they are marching “into fire. Beautiful, perfect fire.”
Several T’lan Imass rise again (Lera Epar—Bitterspring, Kalt Urmanal, Rystale Ev, Brolos Haran, Ilm Absinos, Ulag Togtil). Brolos says, “The Ritual is broken. Yet we are not released,” and he believes it is due to Olar Ethil, though the others say there is as yet no proof of that. Another risen Imass comes toward them, and says she was of another clan, one that had been down to near extinction by humans and also, she says, by “the lies we told each other, by the false comforts of our legends, our stories, our very beliefs.” Desperate, they had tried a different Ritual of Tellann. They thought they’d failed, but it appears not (they’d been buried under ice). When asked whom they’d been waging war against, she answers, “No one. We were done with fighting.” She tells them they have been summoned by the Onos T’oolan, the First Sword, under the “banner of vengeance and in the name of death… The T’lan Imass are going to war.”
Bitterspring walks toward the group of Imass, noting the appropriateness of their return to a land “lifeless as the world we have made.” She wonders if she is beyond betrayal, if she is still a slave to hope: “Life is done, but the lessons remain… the trap still holds me tight. This is the meaning of legacy. This is the meaning of justice.”
Toc leads Setoc and Tool’s children to a cairn to rest, after scaring off some Akrynnai warriors. He senses the newly risen Imass and wonders what Olar Ethil will do if Tool turns them all away. He converses with Setoc about what the Wolves want, and she responds that they want them to all go away, to leave the Wolves and their children alone. He warns her that will not happen, and that “no other thing is as good at waging war as we are.” He asks if the Wolves would kill every human if they could, saying he once knew a woman who could “flatten a city with the arch of a single perfect eyebrow” (Envy), adding she didn’t do it to all because, “she liked a decent bath now and then.” He goes off to hunt and while he’s gone, Tool’s child summons a dead Ay from the ground. The twins tell Setoc the boy “needs Toc. At his side… And they need you. But we have nothing.” They wonder what will happen when Setoc raises her eyebrows, leaving Setoc to wonder, “I can’t level cities. Can I?”
Toc is surrounded by the 14 Jaghut who had fought the K’Chain, led by Captain Varandas. When they tell him they’re looking for something to kill, he warns them the T’lan Imass have awakened, but they reply they had died long before the chance to face them. Toc, before leaving, tells them the Imass will find the Jaghut comforting thanks to nostalgia as they chop the Jaghut to bits.
The Jaghut have a laugh about the Imass until they realize there aren’t many Jaghut around anymore. They decide to head east.
Toc returns to find the Ay, which reminds him sadly of Baaljagg, just as Tool’s son reminds him of his friend (and of what he had been forced to do to Tool). He thinks what he couldn’t do for Tool he’ll do for his son, though he wonders how that will be possible due to his position. He sadly recalls his past self.
Sceptre Irkullas mourns the coming battle with the Barghast, for he feels “he was about to tear out the throat of the wrong enemy.”
Bakal and Strahl discuss the upcoming battle and how Bakal has survived two more murder attempts. Behind them, Estaral listens in and recalls how Bakal killed her husband and his own wife to stop them from killing her. After Strahl leaves, Bakal tells Estaral, who will be the only woman guarding Hetan tonight, that he wants her help in getting her to Cafal, who waits outside the camp. As they talk he asks why the women hobble other women, and she tells him it keeps the men away from them, the men who beat them regularly and laugh about it. She tells him had Tool not died he would have changed the Barghast. She agrees to help Hetan.
Maral Eb’s brothers pick the spot to make their stand and plan their defenses.
Cafal, who has been told of Bakal’s plans, hides from Akryn scouts as he waits. He thinks he has killed Setoc when he struck her, and has contempt for himself, his people, his people’s gods. He considers this coming battle their just desserts, and thinks the two groups worse than animals, whose pack leaders at least fight themselves, rather than having others fights for them.
Estaral gets Hetan to the perimeter. Bakal kills the three perimeter guards, but is killed in turn. Estaral discovers his body and sends Hetan past the perimeter, then is killed by a group of women led by Sekara who find her returning to camp. Cafal, waiting, is killed by an Akryn scout. Hetan walks on, then lies down on the ground.
Strahl hears of the deaths and knows he is now in charge of the Senan. He thinks of what Bakal had intended had he led, and he wonders what the clan chiefs will do when he tells them in the morning.
The armies await each other.
Hetan has frozen to death.
Badalle has had sight of the two armies and Hetan, telling Saddic, “I held her broken soul in my hands… As Rutt holds Held.” She adds she has “seen a door. Opening.”
Badalle’s words on gods doing nothing are interesting in that we actually mostly see a lot of gods doing a lot of something in this series. Especially coming out of the last chapter, where we saw a little PTA-like meeting of a group of gods planning a whole lot of something. And we know Shadowthrone and Cotillion have some plans in the bag. But then, from Badalle’s perspective of the Snake, it’s certainly easy to see why one would think as she does. Which gods, one wonders, have turned away from them. Are they purely local? Are these the “broken” ones of which she speaks? If so, how were they “broken”?
More direct questions also rise out of her scene. What does she mean that Brayderal has “threads in her blood”? What is this city she has seen? Why are the Quitters afraid of it and will it truly be a refuge for the Snake? What is this “Beautiful, perfect fire” she sees them heading toward?
This reawakening of this group of T’lan Imass seems ripe for big screen treatment. I like how we get a sense of their early lives, hints of other stories (The Order of the Red Sash), and how the Imass story keeps getting more and more layers to it from that first time we heard of them. Here we have an entire clan who had tried their own Ritual, who had given up the Dark War and decided they were done with killing and were performing the Ritual not as a means of continuing a war but of bringing justice to themselves, having it seems faced the “false comforts of our legends, our stories, our very beliefs.” That last part seemingly becoming a pretty major theme in this story, though it is of course something we’ve seen from an early point in the series.
And if in fact her people had given up killing, what will be their response to Tool’s call to vengeance and death?
Speaking of running themes, Bitterspring’s noting of how empty this world is, the world that is “lifeless as the world we have made,” is yet another in a string of such references (with more quickly to come via Toc and Setoc) that we’ve seen throughout but that are really piling up as we near the end.
It’s interesting that as Badalle sees the Wastelands, Setoc seems to have caught herself in Badalle’s thoughts as well, dreaming of children, of a glass desert, of a “thin, wavering line.” Might these two more directly connect in the future? And what sort of conversation might they have—one who has watched children abandoned and killed and pursued, who has seen the cruelty of people, and the other who is aligned with the Wolves, whose own beasts have been abandoned and killed and pursued. They might find they have a lot in common.
An interesting disagreement here: one T’lan Imass thinks it was Olar Ethil who raised the new Imass, the other says it is Tool summoning them, and now Toc says it was Olar Ethil and that Tool might just deny them, release them from any summons. Who is right?
Well, that’s not a comforting question from Toc: “could the Wolves kill us humans, every one of us, would they?” Nor a comforting answer from Setoc: “If they understood it was them or us, yes!” And sure, it might seem a rhetorical question, save for Toc’s reference to Envy, who could after all level entire cities. Might Setoc be able to do the same? If so, would she? She herself seems unsure.
Boy, I love Jaghut. This is one of my favorite lines in the series: “K’Chain Nah’ruk, and now T’lan Imass. Doesn’t anyone ever go away?” Cracks me up. Especially considering the source. Jaghut humor gets me nearly every time. Like a few more pages in with the “We should make ourselves scarce.”
So right on top of the T’lan Imass talking of the “false comforts of our legends, our stories,” comes Toc explaining how “Our memories lie. We call it nostalgia and smile. But every lie has a purpose… We lie about our past to make peace with the present. If we accepted the truth of our history, we would find no peace—our consciences would not permit it.” Has there ever been a people this was not true for? Ever?
How often do Toc scenes break our hearts in this series? This is yet another—his memories of Baaljagg. His pain at seeing Tool’s younger self in his son. His pain, again, at what he had to do to Tool. His fear that any vow he makes regarding Tool’s children cannot last. His memories of the self he had once been, one “who knew how to smile, and love… [who] once wrote poem.” The man is a walking dagger to the heart.
Sorrow onto sorrows. I find Bakal’s death particularly sad, among so many deaths, because one really had hope that he was on the path of change. We’ve seen it really ever since that scene with Tool, the effect that Tool’s death has had on him, and even keeping in mind that he had up until really recently been a more than willing proponent of all things Barghast-ugly, it’s hard for me not to pull for the guy, to hope that he could not only find his own way onto a better path, but might lead others onto that path as well. He’s not easy to root for, given his past, and given his killing of his wife and her lover (granted even that they were about to become murderers themselves), but still, in his actions, in his thoughts, in his insight into the reality of the warrior life, and his shame at his recoiling at Tool’s compassion, oh, I wanted him to win through to the other side. And one would like to think his death is a redemption, a sacrifice, but then, Cafal and Hetan both die. This doesn’t lessen the sacrifice, but it sure does remove any taste of victory from it. Cafal’s death made even worse by how close he ends up to his sister, by the senselessness of it (killed by those he has no quarrel with and whom he even wishes well to on the morrow’s battle), and by his dying thinking he had killed Setoc. As for Hetan’s death, we’ll save detailed discussion of her for back in the other thread (especially Bakal and Estaral’s conversation about it), it’s hard to see that and not wonder if it is a mercy, as disturbing a thought as that is.
It also seems that one by one the “good” or “potentially good” Barghast are being whittled away. Making it awfully hard to get too upset if they get wiped out. Though we’ll have to see what Bakal had planned and if Strahl will go through with it.
Love that definition of tradition: “Stupidity on purpose.”
More references to the wolves and the beasts. Coming fast and furious, aren’t they?
That’s an interesting connecting Badalle makes near the end, with how she holds Hetan “as Rutt holds Held.” And what “door” has she seen? And does it’s opening bode well for them? Or not? Lots of things could be on the other side.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.