Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Reread of the Fallen: Orb Sceptre Throne, Chapter Sixteen

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Welcome back 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 Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Orb Sceptre Throne.

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.

CHAPTER SUMMARY

SCENE ONE

Kiska worried that Tayschrenn’s response had been part of the Queen of Dream’s plan—to have Kiska “poison” Tayschrenn’s mind. Leoman tells her it was an accident, what’s done is done. The creatures bring them out to show them a seemingly healed Tayschrenn, who now remembers her and what he was. He tells her he is now both Thenaj and Tayschrenn (“everything Thenaj loathed”), and he is troubled by how to choose which to be. Kiska suggests simply being both, and he accepts the suggestion—“conciliation. The difficult third path of adaptation and growth,”—and muses on the “one possibility [that] does beckon. A possible place for me. One perhaps only I can fill.” When he informs her he’ll be going back with her, and she responds, “Thank the gods!” he snaps harshly they are not to be thanked: Terrible, unforgivable things are stirring and it could be argued they are to blame. They’ve stuck their hands into the furnace once too many times and now they find they cannot pull them out. So do not thank them. But perhaps we can find it within us to pity them.” Korus upbraids Tayschrenn for abandoning them, calling him a “Mage. Torturer! Murderer!” When he agonizes over how they will save those dissolving in the Vitr, Tayschrenn makes him immune to the Vitr and says now Korus can take his place. Kiska tells Tayschrenn that was a nice thing to do, but Tayschrenn questions his act, saying most will die in the Vitr anyway, and Korkus will be tormented by failure. Kiska though says it was not failure but helplessness that had been tormenting the creature. As they prepare to go, Leoman informs Kiska he’ll be staying because “it’s peaceful here… I can sleep here. And to me that means a lot… If this place can help our friend here, perhaps it can help me.” Kiska is upset, but Tayschrenn says he understands, adding that Maker likes stories. Kiska can’t believe Tayschrenn will just leave Leoman exiled here, but when he tells her Maker can send him anywhere he wants to go, she accepts it.

SCENE TWO

Scillara awakes to find Barathol exhausted, anxious, and a bit obsessive about washing himself.

SCENE THREE

An retired woodwright fishing off the dock watches a crazy guy (Humble Measure?) dump a bunch of tools, hammers, stones, and an anvil into the water. The man warns the fisher not to try and pull any out, saying they’re cursed, then leaves. The fisherman decides to be elsewhere fast.

SCENE FOUR

The stone counter at K’rul’s bar suddenly explodes, expressing how much pressure the building (and thus K’rul) is under. They discuss leaving, but Duiker suggests their presence is helping, and Spindle agrees. Spindle continues to try and figure out what Baruk had been hinting to him earlier.

SCENE FIVE

Jan heads off to answer a summons by the Legate, troubled by the idea of the Seguleh as servants, believing his anxiety over it runs deeper than simple pride. When he reaches the throne room, Ebbin tells him the Legate needs him to execute a prisoner who’d been caught as a spy. Jan replies that the Seguleh are “warriors, not headsman,” but the Legate (through Ebbin) answers, “You Seguleh have always been my executioners… That is the purpose for which I moulded you. The perfect executioners who slew any and all who opposed me.” Jan submits, thinking it’s the wrong time and place to oppose the Legate. On his way out, he thinks he must consider all possible outcomes and select the right path that will lead to his desired goal, though he admits he has no idea yet what that goal might be.

SCENE SIX

At the prison, Jan shocks the Seguleh with him when he speaks to the prisoner. When he charges the man—a retired city guardsman—with conspiring against the Legate, the prisoner says he’d do it again, arguing “Darujhistan can govern itself without coercion or command.” Jan responds there would be chaos without a clear-cut hierarchy, and when the prisoner says of course he doesn’t understand, Jan says he doesn’t not get the distinction the prisoner makes between rulership and governance. The guard tells him “that then is the gulf between us,” a realization that seems to disappoint him. He asks why Jan is deigning to speak to him, and when Jan answers he’s trying to understand, the prisoner is surprised, then replies, “If that is so, I am saddened for you,” an answer that shocks Jan. Jan executes him, refusing to let the lower-ranked Seguleh do it as it is his burden to carry the guilt. After, he thinks, “I fear I will never put this behind me. I have murdered. To me now falls the guilt for this and so much more… Can’t a people change? Perhaps they can—if those around them will allow it.”

SCENE SEVEN

As Antsy works on preparing to blast open the doors (allegedly to the Throne of Night), Bauchelain tells him Death is interested in him. When Antsy asks if he means Hood, Bauchelain corrects him, saying Hood has gone on; he is referring to the “current manifestation [which is] appropriately enough, soldiers. A certain band of soldiers, whose remains, so rumours have it, can be found on this very rock. My companion, Korbal Broach is very eager to make their acquaintance.” He asks if Antsy knows where they are, but Antsy says he doesn’t know what Bauchelain is talking about. The mage is called away (Broach in trouble again), and Antsy thinks how he’d come to the Spawns specifically the ensure nobody would mess with the Bridgeburner bodies. As he works, Jallin wonders over to tell him his mistress is going to kill Antsy. After he leaves, the mercenary leader, Cull Heel, offers to dig the hole while Antsy rests. Antsy asks if they’re from Elignarth, but the mercenary says they’re from farther away, pulled away from their “taxing shipping” to seek riches here, though they think that decision was a big mistake. Antsy heads off, with them agreeing to call him in a while.

SCENE EIGHT

Antsy is woken up by the mercenaries, whom he now notices all look alike, as if they’re related. He inspects the hold and says they need to do a little more, then gets pulled away by Orchid, who shows him a garden. Malakai is there gathering stalks, and he tells them the flowers are all dead now, “This is what Apsalar sought when she came to the Spawn so long ago… to steal a rose. A black rose. One that poets had claimed had been touched by the tears of Mother Dark herself.” He says he’d hoped to succeed where Apsalar hadn’t. Back at the doors, Antsy asks what the mercs are called, and Cull says they are “the Heels.” He sets the munition, takes cover with the others, and then a huge Spawnquake occurs, tilting everything and causing the cusser to fall through the hole in the middle of the floor. There’s an explosion then the Spawn begins to tilt back. Hesta, the mage, screams Antsy’s killed them all, then throws a bolt of sorcery at Antsy, who gets pulled back by Mallet.

SCENE NINE

Antsy finds himself in a room with stone sarcophagi, which Mallet tells him is their last resting place. When he tells Mallet he’d been worried someone would mess with them, Mallet scoffs at the idea they’d allow that. Mallet tells him he shouldn’t be there; he’s retired, not dead. Antsy replies he might as well stay, “I’m dead anyway.” Mallet tells him he and the others can see “Whose end is near. Whose isn’t. We decide. And you know what? None of us ever liked you, so you’re just gonna have to kick around for a while yet… All that moaning all the time about how we’re all gonna die… Well, look at you and look at us. You was no fun alive—imagine how you’ll we dead! We’ve about had it.” Antsy replies, “Fine! To think I was worried ‘bout you. You can all rot.” He demands to leave and Mallet takes him back.

SCENE TEN

Another Bridgeburner (Whiskeyjack?) joins Mallet and asks if he thinks Antsy bought all that. Mallet says he believes so. The other “waved a goodbye like a blessing. ‘Go live, Antsy. Sour doomsayer that you are. Sometimes the only thing that gives me grace is the knowledge that some of us are still out there.” Mallet says soon nobody will be able to disturb them, and the other answers, “Four fathoms down we will rest.”

SCENE ELEVEN

Antsy returns amidst fighting and chaos. Morn appears, telling them he hasn’t been around because the mages were so strong and “I am but a reflection of a shadow. I dare not show myself yet.” He tells them the Gap is underwater and only Orchid can open the one remaining way out—the doors and through the Night Imperishable. He says he didn’t mention this earlier because nobody would have listened to Orchid if all the other alternatives hadn’t failed. Orchid opens the doors with a push while the mages, Heels, Bauchelain, and Malazans cover the rear. Inside appears more shrine than throne room, and Orchid points out a fresco of the marriage of Night and Light. On the floor is a rectangle of utter black that Bauchelain identifies as a gate. Broach tries to reach through but cannot. The rear guard warns them something bad is coming. Orchid puts a hand out to touch it then disappears. Seris says the gate must now be open, and Ogule says, “Then now is the time,” as Jallin stabs Antsy in the back. Hemper, the old man, yells about “profaning” the shrine, and Antsy thinks he must be a priest of darkness, just as he collapses, and a group of Seguleh force their way in. Corien drops beside him but Antsy tells him to go. Malakai appears and says he feels bad for Antsy, though now Orchid has opened the Warrens via the Throne. He says goodbye and adding he repays his debts. Antsy thinks how angry Mallet will be about him dying, as he watches Malakai help Jallin up and slip something into Jallin’s pack before going through the Throne’s gate. Hesta and Ogule kill Hemer, then Seris leaps into the throne. The Seguleh point at Jallin, saying he has to “surrender it,” and give chase when he runs. Korbal tries to talk to the Seguleh, but is struck at by a sword, and he turns into a crow and flies off. Bauchelain and Reese go after him. Corien says goodbye, then Antsy watches the Malazans trying to climb up toward the throne (the floor has tilted more) as water comes in behind. He blacks out and wakes to look up at a “shape of night itself. Her face was black, as were her eyes. Black on black.” She tells him everyone is out now then notes he “spoke with a shade,” asking how he was, adding he’d been away for a long time and she wondered how he had seemed. Antsy answers he’s seemed “sad,” saying he’d called himself Morn. She thanks him, saying she blesses him for the knowledge and telling him it is time for him to go, but not to his squad as he thinks. She says they had been harsh with him earlier because they’d “feared you might long to join them. They love you, Antsy. They want you to live. For that reason I am here speaking to you. That and for the child Orchid. . . You brought her to me. And for that you have my gratitude.” He feels cold water and movement, spots a masked face, and then blacks out again.

 

Amanda’s Reaction

What? What now? Suddenly Tayschrenn is all better, and he and Kiska are leaving, and Leoman is staying? So, tell me, what was the point of all that lingering, and talking, and introducing Leoman as a character alongside Kiska as someone who seemingly had more to do? What was the point of circling back to this storyline, and boring us as we watched them walk from cave to shore, get trapped in said cave, bicker ad nauseam? This might seem a rather overwrought reaction to something small, but I want scenes to achieve something. I want to feel as though I am reading for a reason. And now all those prior scenes that we kicked through just seem to have been a waste of my time.

And another thing… Yes, I am on my high horse now… Bill touches on it in his reaction, when he speaks about unnecessary complications, and not naming names. Mine is on giving people multiple names. And here we have Tayschrenn saying that he is still Thenaj as well. Why? What’s the point? We may as well have Antsy still called Red every second paragraph he is featured.

So, yeah, still not a fan of the Kiska part of this novel. The only part that interested me at all was Kiska’s reaction to learning that Tayschrenn would be going with her—that feeling that she has won, succeeded in her task. I like her attempt at self-evaluation, realising that she might not have been so concerned about Tayschrenn, but about the fact that she had failed. I do feel a slight kinship with Kiska here, being as I am a competitive bitch at times as well.

Also, just one more complaint… The fact that Leoman is staying and there could have been a touching departure between him and Kiska is utterly cheapened by the fact that Maker can just send him back whenever he likes. There isn’t even the idea that his self-imposed exile would be meaningful or forever.

Ack. I’m done. I think.

Seeing inside Scillara’s head here, and her idea that she has been trying to cheer up Barathol, and chivvy him along, is quietly amusing, considering that he has seen her as flippant and uncaring. Just goes to show that you don’t actually know at times what drives the actions of another person, and that they could be trying to show you they care in a rather odd manner.

And her realisation that her first thought on thinking there was an intruder was to wonder about her babe is a lovely moment, and does make me think again that this is a form of post-partum depression, considering that she is gradually showing signs of bonding with the babe.

Hmm. What did Barathol do that means he wants to scour his hands clean to the point of bleeding? And refuses to even see his baby until he has done so? Then we see a man (Humble Measure? And why do we need any confusion over this—why can’t we just be told outright?) dumping cursed tools in the lake. What on earth did they do? Is this a hint—the fact that Chal (why does he get a name, but we are not told who the wild-haired guy is dumping the tools?) hears the groaning of wheels, accompanied by the jangling of metal chains? See, the last time those two sounds came associated with each other was when Dragnipur was a rather dreadful prison…

I actually really like the idea that K’rul’s sex is ambiguous, that some people consider her a her, and some people him a him. There is no good reason why gods should be limited to just one sex—makes more sense actually that they could be either he or she at will.

I am very pleased to see that Jan has started to question what is happening with the Legate, and the Seguleh’s role—are they servants? Are they executioners? I particularly like that he is willing to speak to the lowly guardsman in order to try and find out the knowledge that he believes he is now lacking. For me, that curiosity and willing to break (some) boundaries are what separates him out from a character who just follows blindly. Sure, he currently thinks he is putting the Seguleh where they should be, but that isn’t stopping him from questioning whether this is the whole truth.

I also admire the fact that Jan takes on the execution himself. Sure, it would be easy enough for him to give the task to someone beneath him—in fact, the female Hundredth with him reacts strongly (for a Seguleh) when he says that he will execute the guardsman. The fact that he doesn’t shows real compassion, since he must know the level of guilt and shame that will fill him as the task is done, and he is saving the others from that.

And I like his own attitude to himself having done it—watching the reactions from other people, the fear and the distaste, and then realising that that is how he, in fact, thinks about himself now.

Is there anything more terrifying than learning that Korbal Broach is attempting to find the final resting place of the Bridgeburners and probably manipulate their new manifestation as Death? I mean, the mind boggles at what he is after and what he is capable of.

And I like learning about Antsy’s true purpose here: “All along he’d wanted to make sure things were still all squared away and proper.” Just shows that the Bridgeburners are loyal even beyond death.

Who are these mysterious mercenaries—the Heels? I feel like I’m being given enough information that I should recognise them, what with coming from a distant land, and looking very like each other. Something I’m missing? Or just mystery for the sake of it? Or a reveal coming?

Interesting hearing this hint of why Malakai bothered to make this trip as well—to succeed where the Lady of Thieves had failed.

I love this picture we’re given of everyone watching this cusser fall and bounce into that hole, and their utter panic at trying not to head the same way. A brief moment of comedy in the chaos that follows.

Because I did find the end of this chapter fairly chaotic. The Spawn is sinking. There are people fighting. There are shades wandering around, lending a hand. There are many named characters, some of whom we’re barely familiar. I confess I didn’t enjoy the end of the chapter that much because I was puzzling through what was happening and left too breathless.

I did like the brief moment between Mallet and Antsy, although I regretted that Mallet felt he had to say what he did in order to drive Antsy away from death. Especially because they were half-truths, so it was likely that Antsy would feel the ring of authenticity in what Mallet said. Shame to have that wedge.

Why are we not just given the name Whiskeyjack? Why does it have to be ‘this one taller, bearded, wearing a helmet with wide cheek-guards’? Just give us the name.

Why on earth (since I’m in the question asking section of the analysis) didn’t Morn just tell Orchid she had the power to open the door? Especially as he also tells Antsy that the cusser wouldn’t have blown the doors anyway?

I do like this moment: “Spend my whole life avoiding all the traps the world throws at me and now that death themselves tell me to live—I don’t last five minutes.” And it’s sweet that he then thinks Mallet will be mad at him. At least Antsy is told by Mother Dark that the Bridgeburners do, in fact, love him.

 

Bill’s Reaction

Well, I’m glad to get to this point where Tayschrenn is recovered and Kiska and Leoman’s storyline can finally move on a bit more apace, well, even if Leoman is staying behind.

Tayschrenn’s description of Kiska’s somewhat naïvely presented “hard choice”—the “difficult path of adaptation and growth”—could just as easily perhaps be guidance for entire cultures or just “folks in general” as opposed to just good advice for this singular man.

The same maybe for his anger at the gods, which includes as well a dollop of pity. A theme we see play out in this chapter as well with how the Darujhistan guard pities Jan, his executioner. Something we’ll see later as well on a larger scale.

That’s a sufficiently mysterious tease from him about “a possible place” he can fill, “only” him perhaps.

As much as I’m happy to see this storyline moving “apace” as I said above, in the “some people are never satisfied” vein, some bits move a bit too quickly for me. Tayschrenn’s immediate acceptance of trying to “be both,” solving Korus’ issue, the back and forth over their shared past between Tayschrenn and Leoman, Leoman’s decision to stay and Kiska’s acceptance of it and departure. I wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time on what are after all some major decisions/characterizations/events.

Nice to see Scillara worrying about the babe—maybe a corner is being turned here.

So what did Barathol, Humble Measure, and Kruppe do that has Barathol so worried about cleansing himself and has Humble Measure (I think) dumping “cursed” tools in the water? Might it have something with those “slivers of death” Kruppe took from the otataral cabinet at Baruk’s, or what he was doing at Aman’s? I’d say there’s a nice hint perhaps buried in that last paragraph of this scene, just before Chal runs off.

More hints in these scenes with Jan that maybe, just maybe, he might not lead the Seguleh into the full control of the Legate. With Jan questioning his and his people’s role, and with Baruk doing what he can to undermine the Legate from within, and Kruppe’s trio forging some kind of weapon, and Spindle grasping at something to do with the stones—the opposition seems to be nearing a do or die point.

We have had some back and forth on the Seguleh capabilities, but have mostly held off a full debate as we’ll have more to talk about soon, rather than trying to discuss it and at the same time avoid spoilers or talk in abstract terms. I don’t want to reopen that (wisely) delayed debate, but will just point here to the Legate’s statement to Jan that the Seguleh were “moulded” to be executioners, which doesn’t necessarily mean, but can be taken to point to, a magical sort of change (this is the sort of thing that in our stunted debate I said I wanted more of to allow me to have a more comfortable willing suspension of disbelief).

Jan’s willingness to talk to the prisoner seems small perhaps (though not to the Seguleh), but I think is a nicely subtle way of showing just how serious he is taking this reconsideration thing.

While I like this scene for how it shows Jan, it is for me another example of some small niggling issues that arise for me in Esslemont’s books that I’ve referenced before—the what seems to me to be unnecessary and distracting ambiguity (spoken as a guy who is wholeheartedly a fan of necessary and/or non-distracting ambiguity). Now this scene could simply be taken as mostly about Jan, and as mentioned, I do like it for what is revealed about him. But it could also be taken as about this guard. This scene is taking up some prime pages here near the end and involves a major character, so a reader might wonder if this spy is someone important as well. Especially because a retired guardsman of the Darujhistan might call up an old friend and make us wonder if he’s returned to the city or not. Now, I happen to think (and I could absolutely be wrong) that this is not good ‘ole Circle-Breaker, or even someone of import save as a symbol of Darujhistan resistance and a goad to Jan’s further rethinking of the Seguleh’s role in the Tyrant’s plans. But by playing so coy with names, it just in my mind muddies the issue unnecessarily. This wouldn’t be a big deal for me if it were an isolated occurrence, but there are several times where this sort of coyness seems overplayed to me, and so it begins to have a cumulative effect on me as a reader (mostly becoming cumulatively annoying). Maybe it’s just that I want my mysteries to be less frequent and focused on bigger fish perhaps—like Morn for instance.

I’ve never thought of this before, but reading this scene again, I find myself wondering about the subtle distinction between “warrior” and “executioner” Jan relies on. “Warrior” seems to imply someone willing to battle, to fight. But as we’ve seen, for many of the Seguleh, most perhaps, there is almost never any true “fight.” Really, considering that half the time they’re described in “battle,” they’ve killed someone before that person has even realized the Seguleh’s sword is out of the sheath—is there really much difference between that and “execution”? I get the whole “they took up the sword”/challenge kind of thing, but it seems to me the distinction is not perhaps as clear cut as they like to think/imply it is.

Well, I never really thought for a moment that Esslemont would allow Korbal Broach into the room of the Malazan interred on the Spawn, but nonetheless, it’s a disturbing idea to consider even as one dismisses it’s possibility.

I do wish we’d somehow had more of those two—Bauchelain and Broach—in here, only because they are two of my favorite Malazan creations.

At last we get Antsy’s reason for being here (this is the first time we’ve heard this right? Am I forgetting an earlier reference?). Though one does wonder if he’s been honest with himself—is he really just checking on them, or hoping this journey will allow him to join them?

Speaking of more time, I also would have liked to have spent a little while in the Gardens of the Moon. A black rose cried over by Mother Dark. Was it a gift of romance? A funereal rose? A rose from a one-time lover no longer with her?

Love that little bit of humor as Antsy realizes none of the squad saboteurs had done what he is doing.

And I also love picturing everyone watching the cusser roll toward the hole and fall through—a precious moment to linger on in the mind. “Hood’s laughter!” Indeed.

From the absurd to the bittersweet and moving. I love these two scenes with Mallet, another one of my favorites. But I just like the way we can so clearly sense the camaraderie of this band, the way it outlasts even death. And even though you know Mallet doesn’t mean what he says, that it is just a façade to send Antsy back, it still twists in the gut. But still, the way these guys look out for each other!

And how moving it is that understanding of how Antsy might be looking for a way out, most of his mates dead and buried. Love this scene. And a lovely elegiac lyrical ending to it with that “four fathoms down we will rest,” with a little hint of “five fathom full” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

More hints of Morn’s identity with his “I am but a reflection of a shadow.” Does that mean associated with Night? Or associated with Shadow? Is the reflection a hint that rather than look for a one-to-one similarity we should look for a reversed one? (I said “hints,” not “oh-so-revealing hints”). This is the kind of ambiguity I actually like (to a point).

I do have to say, I’m not quite sure I get the whole “wait until now” thing with Morn and Orchid opening the doors. The idea that nobody would listen to Orchid seems a bit iffy just on its face. But if all she had to do was push the doors open, it seems that would have pretty much closed off any arguments/objections to her trying something pretty quickly. I mean, if she had to do hours of spellcasting or chanting or had to sacrifice the right arm of all who pass through, sure they might quibble and complain. But it seems this would have been more like:

“I think I can…”
“Shut it girl. You’re outta your league here.”
Push.
“I said shut—oh wait. Hey everyone, doors are open!”

Am I missing something here?

Love that image of poor Emancipator Reese on the steps: “an old man loaded with baggage—well, perhaps not so old, just looking extremely careworn.” Did I mention I would have loved more of this trio?

I also love how Antsy (and other) can be so surrounded by the weird and magical and cosmic—I mean, think of what this guy has seen! —and can still be “terrified” by other such, as he is here with the fresco of the marriage of Night and Light (I’m assuming he’s more wowed by the elemental concept than by any actual image on the fresco)

Admit it, you do hope we get to see something bad happen to Jallin after he stabs Antsy. And unlike Antsy, I think we’re pretty safe assuming Malakai wasn’t really “helping” Jallin there.

Smart of the Malazans to let Bauchelain by, I’d say.

Another wonderful scene here, the one with I assume Mother Dark. And a telling bit about Antsy that when she tells him it’s just the two of them, his first thought is happiness the others got out.

And, another hint to Morn—Mother Dark (who herself hasn’t been around much), says Morn has “been away for some time.” Which confirms something Morn himself has said. But we also see she clearly has some kind of relationship with him, in that she is worried about “how he seems.” I think that is a pretty good hint there, as is the sadness.

Also moving that Mother Dark doesn’t simply thank him and send him on—which would have been a nice bit of gratitude in and of itself, but shows some actual compassion in telling him that he is loved by his comrades, who were harsh only out of that love for him and their concern he stay amongst the living.


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 fantasyliterature.com.

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