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 The Crippled God.
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.
Badalle is lying on a wagon pulled by the heavies: “The ones who don’t stop, who don’t fall down, who don’t die. The ones who scare the others and make them keep going. Until they fall over dead.” She recalls meeting the Bonehunters.
Badalle and Rutt are at the head of the Snake when the Bonehunters near. Badalle sees Fiddler at the lead: “the one father among them, his beard grey and rust, his eyes suffering the way the eyes of some fathers did—as they sent their young ones away for the last time.” She can see how the Bonehunters hadn’t expected them, how gaunt and near to death they are, and thinks “They did not come looking for us. They are not here to save us.” Bill Tears Up (BTU) But Fiddler immediately offers his too-little water to Rutt (BTU), who holds up Held and says her first (BTU). Fiddler prepares to do so but then as he looks at Held he realizes the baby has been dead for some time. Despite that, after looking at Rutt, Fiddler pours a trickle of precious water into Held’s mouth (BTU), and Badalle tells Rutt, “This father, Rutt, is a good father.” Rutt finally gives up Held and Fiddler gives him water even as he (Fiddler) weeps. Tavore and the rest of the army catch up, and Badalle thinks of the soldiers as clawed children, with Fiddler as father and Tavore their mother. Badalle tells Rutt he succeeded in guiding the Snake and he can rest now. Rutt collapses. (BTU) Tavore arrives and Badalle tells her: “You are the only ones left… who will not turn away from us. You are our mother.” Then, pointing to Fiddler, she adds, “And he is our father, and soon he will go away and we will never see him again. It is the way of fathers.” Tavore orders Blistig to bring out the reserve water and he argues against it (the kids are dying anyway, the soldiers need the water), and she tells him obey or she’ll execute him here and now. He still argues until Fiddler steps before him and just looks at him, smiling, and then Blistig goes to obey, though Tavore sends Lostara and Ruthan Gudd to go with him. Fiddler asks Badalle how long to water, and she guesses 7-10 days to Icarias. A soldier says aloud the army only has water for 1-3 days at best. Tavore has Fiddler make sure everyone gets food and water. As Fiddler carries Rutt away, Badalle thinks how Rutt is carried as he once carried Held. She tells Tavore she has a poem for her, but the Adjunct says it can wait until Badalle gets water.
Back to present time (two days after the meeting of the two groups), Badalle thinks how the water is gone, and Rutt has still not regained consciousness. The soldiers have been fighting, going crazy from thirst and drinking their own urine, and she is surprised they don’t drink the blood of the corpses. She wonders if it “is true, that all mothers must fail? And all fathers must walk away never to be seen again.”
Fiddler and his scouts are backtracking the Snake’s path, coming across the many bones, as Fiddler thinks “Each… was an accusation, a mute rebuke. These children. They had done the impossible. And now we fail them.” He wonders if Tavore still has faith, and thinks he won’t talk to her; she has enough with everyone else pressuring her. Seeing the sea of bones, he thinks, “Adjunct, you were right to seek this war. But you were wrong thinking we could win it. You cannot wage war against indifference.” Though he notes he isn’t dead yet. He recalls touching the Deck yesterday and finding it empty—“This desert was bereft and now power could reach them. We have made the gods blind to us. The gods and the enemy ahead. Adjunct, I see your reason for this… but… we’re human. Mortal… And for all that you wanted to make us something more, something greater, it seems we cannot be what you want. We cannot be what we want either. And this more than anything else, is what crushes us. But still, we’re not dead.” He hopes Gesler will cut Stormy’s “leash”—let him loose fully on the enemy, “because I don’t think we can make it.” He looks up to see the Jade Strangers even closer. He wonders what’s next.
Banaschar talks a lot to Tavore. He thinks.
Tarr’s group fends off an attack on the water. It’s getting ugly.
Shortnose is hauling the wagons, Saddic (I think) at his side. He recalls his childhood. Then has a short conversation with the woman next to him.
Hedge (who isn’t thirsty) and Bavedict discuss kitten strategy. It’s revealed Bavedict has “dosed” the Khundryl’s horses like the oxen so they’re undead. Hedge is worried about the army’s foul mood (especially the regulars). He says were it him, he’d take Blistig out to the desert and slowly kill him.
As they camp, the children fan out and Sinter notes the odd effect: “Arguments fell away, glaring eyes faded, resentment sank down… Pain was swallowed back.” When one of the children die, the soldiers together make a crystal mound over the body and leave their fetishes/token on it. Kisswhere tells her the children bring “dignity. Same as you. Same as the Adjunct herself—why do you think so many of us hate her… She shows us everything we don’t want to be reminded of, because there’s nothing harder for most of us to find than dignity. So they show us how you can die with dignity… by dying themselves, and by letting themselves die while being watched over.” Neither sister thinks they’re going to make it, and Kisswhere says that hasn’t been the point for some time. She says all those children—“made up of everything we surrendered in our lives—all that dignity and integrity and truth… We ain’t been too good with the best in us, sister have we?” Kisswhere thinks tomorrow will be the end, but hopes someone tells Tavore it “was worth the try.”
Hellian is loving the lack of spiders. When asked why she hates them so much she, ahem, “spins” a tale that would both horrify you and break your heart. If it were, you know, true.
Urugal explains who the Unbound are, how they escaped their prison. They talk of how the King in Chains has abandoned the Crippled God’s cause and the Knight hates chains but hasn’t yet understood things fully. Beroke Soft Voice points out that while some chains are cruel, they have chosen on their own to wear chains of honour, virtue, and loyalty. Urugal says they know the Consort, The Reaver, Cripple, Leper, and Fool all walk amongst the humans. None of them know how to save the humans though, or how to bring them hope, so Nom Kala says they must go to Tavore and lie to her, to “steal one more day.”
Ruthan Gudd wonders how Tavore continues on her feet, dragging this army behind her, and wonders how much longer she can continue doing so. He wonders if he’ll be the sole survivor, carrying Tavore’s sword: “Aye, Ruthan Gudd, he’s been a one-man army before, after all. Here he goes again.” He notes that Lostara looks in surprisingly good shape and wonders if being possessed by Cotillion had done that. Tavore asks him about his ice armor, but he says he can’t do that here—no power. Lostara mentions the T’lan Imass calling him Elder, but he replies that he is not a god. When Tavore points out he’ll survive though, he answers “We do not choose to whom we are born,” though he won’t say who his parents are. He reveals he’s been to Icarias before (telling them it’s actually two or three weeks march away, not days) with a Jaghut and a “refugee enclave of K’Chain Che’Malle. He says the only way the Snake could have done it was via warren. Tavore tells Lostara to get Badalle. He sees her thought and warns her not to, things “could get worse.” When she asks how, he asks her to draw her sword and when she gets it only halfway out, he drops retching to his knees and she staggers at what she felt. He explains, “It’s not just some damned metal that just happens to devour magic. Otataral is aspected… The next time you draw… the act will summon. She is loose upon the world now, the dragon that is the source of all otataral—the living heart of that which takes life.”
When he sees Tavore apparently frightened and ready to panic, he tells her, “They’re not interested in the Crippled God… the ones who did this… They’re reaching for something bigger—and they think they will sweep all this aside… But they’re fools… Draconus now walks the world. Do you see? Everything is answered!” And he thinks “And that is the true madness of this—the Otataral Dragon cannot remain unchained. Draconus will have to kill it—him or the Eleint—and by killing it, they will end all magic.” Her eyes suddenly shining, Tavore mentions how someone had told her “my sword would not be enough… He said, ‘It will be answered’ His words, the same as yours.” He asks who told her that, wondering, “Who’s been scheming this nightmare all along? What raving, lunatic idiot—” When she tells him Ben Adaephon Delat, he’s shocked: “He stared disbelieving, thunderstruck at his own stupidity… Laughter burst from him. Disbelieving, wondrous laughter. ‘Delat? Adaephon Delat? Quick Ben—oh, by the Abyss. The bloody nerve of him. Was it a glamour that made me so think. No wonder he stayed away from me.” He tells her no way Quick Ben died in that fight with the Short-Tails, and she scornfully says, “Duh!”, adding that Banaschar (referring to him as the “resident Septarch of D’rek) has figured it out finally. Banaschar joins them and tells Ruthan, “This is Quick Ben’s game, O Elder. The bones are in his sweaty hands and they have been for some time. Now, if at his table you’ll find the Worm of Autumn, and the once Lord of Death, and Shadowthrone and Cotillion, not to mention the past players Anomander Rake and dessembrae, and who knows who else, well, did you really believe a few thousand damned Nah-ruk could take him down? The thing about Adaephon’s Delat’s game is this: he cheats.” (Bill pumps fist in air and goes “yeah!”)
Gudd eventually says the desert is still going to kill them though, and Tavore asks that if she dies he takes her sword. He replies that if he ever has to draw that sword, it will kill him. She says he must have been right then, that he isn’t an Elder god, and he says, “yup.” He adds that he’s lived a long time thanks to sorcery.” Lostara returns with Badalle and Saddic.
Bottle asks Nom Kala what it’s like being dust, saying the humans will soon be joining the T’lan Imass in that state. She points out they won’t be since they’ll have no memories to bring them back. Bottle replies he has strings though that will pull him back (or try) repeatedly, but she says she sees none; whatever ones he might have had are gone—“You are severed from everything but that which lives within you.” When he says that must be why he feels so lonely, she agrees. He asks if she is lonely, and she answers no, “but that is no salvation. Together, we but share our loneliness.” He asks that when the humans all die, the T’lan Imass keep walking rather than turn to dust, and she understands he asks that so as to disprove the idea that the desert couldn’t be crossed; she agrees to do so. She tells him not to give up yet—one more march, in return for her own promise. He ask what for, and she tells him that when he reaches across “that chasm [of suffering] and grasp tight the hand of the Fallen One, ask him your question.” She leaves, thinking of all the T’lan Imass have seen rise and fall, all the suffering, and all they have learned is “life is its own purpose. And where there is life, there shall be suffering. Has it any meaning? Is existence reason enough? I am an Unbound. I am free to see, and what is it that I see? Nothing.” She nears Tavore and prepares to lie.
Badalle tells Tavore her power had been in words, but she has nothing left; she thinks forever. She says it has died like the god here, who “broke apart… murdered by his followers… The god sought to give his people one last gift. But they refused it. They would not live by it, and so they killed him.” She says this happened back when believers killed their gods if they didn’t like what the gods said, and when Ruthan Gudd says nowadays people just ignore them to death, Lostara says people don’t ignore the gods but their “gifts of wisdom.” Banaschar (I think) says do that long enough and the gods wither away, but people do that to other mortals as well. Tavore asks about Icarias and when Badalle says it just hold ghosts, Saddic points to Ruthan and says he saw that man there as well. Badalle says it must hold memories then. Ruthan tells Tavore the kids can’t do anything for them and Tavore agrees, looking defeated. Ruthan says he’ll take them back and tells Saddic he’ll help him with his sack of “toys,” which shocks the two children, who had forgotten that word. The adults, horrified, leave them to play.
Watching the children, Gudd asks Tavore “what are we, when we murder innocence?” and she tells him “It will be answered.” He sees her take on this, yet another burden. Nom Kala interrupts to tell Tavore to march for one more night, saying the Seven will try to awaken Tellann to open a gate. Tavore agrees, and when Nom Kala leaves, she and Ruthan Gudd discuss how horrible the T’lan are at lying. Ruthan agrees it was well intended, but tells Tavore the false hope is unnecessary, for he has a tale to tell now—“two children, a sack of toys.”
This opening point, where Badalle looks behind her at the trail of dead bodies, and then ahead at the soldiers still toiling and dying is absolutely chilling, knowing that these are Bonehunters dropping in their attempt to cross the desert.
I like her perspective of heavies: “The ones who don’t stop, who don’t fall down, who don’t die.”
Okay, this scene where the Snake meets the Bonehunters… This scene. I can’t believe that moment when Fiddler pours the precious water into the mouth of a dead babe. Where Badalle holds her breath to see if he will do so, and, when he does, says: “This father, Rutt, is a good father.”
And then Tavore’s immediate action is to get the reserve water open—and she threatens to execute Blistig when he tries to go against her order. She is a good mother.
What gets to me the most is that these children have had nothing and now, even though they are still dying of thirst and starvation and seem to have no way out, they have everything because they are under the protection of Fiddler and Tavore.
There is one bit I find very ominous: “And he is our father, and soon he will go away and we will never see him again.” It’s said about Fiddler and it makes me wonder what is to come with this enduring character. What is in his future?
Okay, so the part where Fiddler heads along the path of the Snake and keeps seeing those little bundles of bones where another child has fallen… That had me choked up for a while. Especially his words: “Each modest collection he stumbled over was an accusation, a mute rebuke. These children. They had done the impossible. And now we fail them.”
And then his words: “You cannot wage war against indifference” feel like a personal rebuke to me, for all those times I wanted to skip over the storyline featuring the Snake. It just wasn’t as exciting as other parts of the books, I wasn’t really connecting with these characters. My indifference was palpable when I made comments on each chapter that featured the children. And so I find myself remembering that and realising that I, too, didn’t want to face up to the Snake and what it actually meant. That is pretty sobering.
I’m intrigued by Fiddler thinking about Gesler unleashing Stormy—is he so powerful? So much more powerful than Gesler himself?
I like hearing from Banaschar a possible idea about why Badalle referred to the children as a Snake: “Snakes are damned hard to kill. They slide past underfoot. They hide in plain sight.”
This whole thing with Blistig and those trying to steal the reserve water is awful—killing their own, indeed, when they have awful confrontations in front of them (if any of them survive).
Erikson’s ability to tell capsule stories about characters is unrivalled by any other author I know. This here is just the latest example of many, when we see a glimpse into Shortnose’s childhood. I’m going to reproduce it here, because I think it is perfect and I’m not sure if other people might have skimmed over it.
“Back when he’d been a child he remembered hungry times, but every one of those times his da would come in with something for the runts, Shortnose the runtiest of them all. A scrap. Something to chew. And his ma, she’d go out with other mas and they’d be busy for a few days and nights and then she’d come back in, sometimes bruised, sometimes weeping, but she’d have money for the table, and that money turned into food. His da used to swear a lot those times she did that.”
Anyone else wishing that Hedge would follow through with his idle thought that he would take Blistig into the desert and get rid of him?
It’s an elegant and dignified part of the chapter where Sinter watches the children walk amongst the soldiers, bringing them peace in various ways. These children now guarantee that the Bonehunters are witnessed.
Ha, and then a rare moment of humour, with Hellian and her tale about the spiders. “Why do I hate spiders? Gods, who doesn’t? What a stupid question.”
See, this makes me think, where Beroke talks about the fact that chains are not always a bad thing, not always enslaving with malice. Chains can represent duty, honour, loyalty to a cause. In this way, Tavore is chained to the idea of freeing the Crippled God. Does that make Tavore the Consort of the Crippled God?
Damn, that scene with Tavore and Ruthan Gudd… All the mysteries. I do love the way that Ruthan Gudd finally realises who Quick Ben actually is—and, man, I’d love to know why the name Delat was so recognisable. Who is Quick Ben? Who is Ruthan Gudd? Do you know the odd thing? In book one of this immense series, not knowing these things, not having them laid out, frustrated me and made me think that the books weren’t for me. Now that I am here at book ten, I look upon the enduring mystery of Quick Ben with fondness, and think that, if I don’t know more by the end of the series, then that is okay and we’re not meant to know everything in this world. Ten books of Erikson’s writing has turned that around.
My heart broke a little when Bottle asked that, if they all fell, the T’lan Imass would walk out of the desert, just to show that it could be done.
And then it pretty much shattered into pieces as Badalle realised that what Saddic had been carrying, those objects were toys. “I’m sorry. I’d… forgotten.” *cries*
This chapter break my heart. Every time. Every damn time. Every.
The scene with Fiddler is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever read. It begins to break me when Badalle sees the Bonehunter’s state and thinks how these are not their saviors, these people did not come to save the children. And it breaks me again when Fiddler, dying of thirst, immediately, and I mean immediately, reaches for his nearly-empty water to give it all to Rutt. And then it kills me, kills me, when Rutt says give it to Held first and he does. He does! He sees the dead baby and, because he always does what is right, dribbles that precious lifeblood into her mouth. Because he’s Fiddler. Kills me. Every. Damn. Time. And then Rutt collapses. And then the other soldiers give their water. And then Tavore immediately orders the water opened up. And tells Blistig she’ll kill him then and there if he doesn’t. And then Fiddler. Because he’s Fiddler, just looks at Blistig to make him do so. Every time. If this scene doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know how.
There’s a bit of humor here and there to offer some relief—Bavedict and the horses, Shortnose and his short-lived conversation, Helian’s made up story, but this is a pretty bleak chapter. The toll of bodies. The Jade Strangers getting closer. The grimness of it all. The fights among themselves. The resignation. The knowledge that it’s all ending. And yes it doesn’t read bleak and grim because they are still going. As Fiddler says, they aren’t dead yet, are they. And they bear it all, the ones we see, for the most part, with, as Kisswhere says, that intimidating “dignity.” And the children shall teach them. Have I mentioned this chapter breaks my heart? Every time?
When Fiddler thinks this army cannot be what Tavore wants it to be, what they want it to be, as a first-timer I thought, no, you’re not breaking my heart that much Erikson. They will be what they need to be, what they want to be. They will you bastard, or by god… We’ll see.
I love the Unbound turning to lying to try and save them. And then how badly Nom Kala lies—that conversation being another bit of comic relief. Much needed relief.
And then Ruthan Gudd’s mystery serves as a nice distraction as well. We learn of his time in Icarias (a little—and how would you love to see that story—the Jaghut, Gudd, and the K’Chain Che’Malle refugees?). We learn he’s held together by magic and that’s it. Curiouser and curiouser.
And then there’s the simply great moment (and boy did we need something like this in this chapter) where he makes the connection with Quick Ben (and damn, more mystery with that guy is all we need). That moment, and the thought of Quick Ben scheming, and the “obviousness” of his not dying, and that litany of names he’s hanging with, and then that great close: “he cheats” (especially coming after the line about how the Elder gods haven’t met cheaters like these humans before)—that is just a fist-pumping, good feeling scene.
Which of course brings us promptly into heartbreak mode again. Toys. Toys. If your heart doesn’t twist and momentarily stop when that word gets tossed out there and the kids react as they do and the adults react as they do, I’m not sure you have a heart. And then again when Ruthan tells Tavore he will spread that tale. Kills me. Every time.
I know I didn’t spend a lot of time on analysis in here, but to be honest, I just can’t take this chapter apart logically. Its emotional impact is just too great, to dig much beyond that risks diminishing that impact. Sometimes, ya just gotta feel it. And that’s this chapter for me.
Every damn time.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.