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, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll cover part one of The Lees of Laughter’s End.
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.
Apologies for the long gap. I’ve just returned from 40+ days of hiking and camping out west and beyond the lack of time, wasn’t really in easy communication mode and Amanda (who may be adding comments later) has been busy with a new job. Also, as the commentary part of this post was done while traveling, it might be a bit scattered (but on a kind of cool note, it was written in a ghost town in Texas!)
Bena Younger sits with her mother in the crow’s nest of the Suncurl as they near the “treacherous, dubious sea-lanes as far as the red road of Laughter’s End,” and thinks of how the ship seems cursed with the crew’s muttering fearfully, strange sounds from the hold and the strong room, the black crow flying behind them despite no land being nearby, and the arrival of “Mance the Luckless” with the two odd strangers. Her mother warns her soon “the nails shall speak their dread words,” and when Bena cries out at sight of Laughter’s End, she hopes to get some rum, “before yee all die.”
First Mate Ably Druther asks Captain Sater if she thinks “they” are still after them, and she tells him to keep quite. He apologizes, blaming his nerves, complains about the presence of Mancy, and tells her the three others who “came with us” are the ones talking about their run through the Mare Lanes (the ones she forcefully tells him they “never” got near). She lets on she knows he’s the one who’s been doing the talking, and after worrying one of her three friends will kill him for his talking or his stupidity and then she’ll have to kill an old friend, points out he’s lucky he’s the only one of them who knows anything about ships and being at sea.
Heck Urse, sitting with Birds and awaiting Gust Hubb, can’t wait to get off “this damned stolen ship”, which appears to be haunted. He thinks how none of them save Ably (who joined them later) are sailors—Sater was a Captain in Toll City’s palace guard while he, Birds, and Gust were sentries at the city’s gate until, “that fateful night (the Night of Chants).” When Birds makes a Chanter sign in reference to the haunting sounds, he tells her to keep that to herself, even if it’s likely none around them have heard of the Chanters. Gust bursts in and yells that someone had cut off his ear while he’d been sleeping.
Mancy, sitting nearby, has been thinking how there’s something weird about this group, who it seems clear know nothing of sailing. He exits and sees Korbald Broach getting ready to fish, baiting his hook with a severed ear.
As they near Laughter’s End, “the grim vein, the currents of Mael’s very own blood (and thus power), the ship’s nails, which had come from “the sarcophagi in the barrows of Lamentable Moll”, creak with the “language of the dead… Trapped in the nails for so long now, but release was coming.”
Bauchelain has a serious conversation with Mance about his durhang habit (causing “diminished capacities, chronic ennui, and the obliteration of all ambition”), and tells him that he is confiscating Mance’s supply for now and maybe in the future. Mancy tells him he needs it for his nerves, especially troubled by Broach’s “child.” Bauchelain scoffs, noting it has never escaped, that he himself has warded the “modest homunculus,” and that its noises are “entirely natural.” He also points out that being sorcerers, he a demon-conjurer and Broach a necromancer, they will “ever have guests in our company far less pleasant than my companions quaint assemblage of organs and body parts.” Besides, he says, now that they are nearing Laughter’s End, the child should be the least of Mance’s concerns; instead he should be worrying about the nails. And he asks Bauchelain what a Jhorligg is.
That night, Heck comes across Broach fishing, thinking the necromancer is joking when he seems to imply he is fishing for sharks. Playing along, he says sharks like “meaty bait” and Broach agrees he needs bloodier and “more substantial” bait. He hands his pole to Heck and heads out. Captain Sater finds Heck holding the line, and when Heck explains, tells him to tie it off and go wake up Birds and Gust for Night Watch.
Mancy tells Bauchelain the last Jhorligg he’d heard of—decades ago—had been caught under the docks and had killed 16 of the 20 soldiers before finally being killed itself, though it wasn’t even a day old. He explains the story is the “Jhorligg seeds swim the waters” and if they come across “a young woman in her time of bleeding. . slides right on in, steals the womb. And she gets big and big fast… for six, seven months, until her skin starts to split,” whereby the Jhorligg rips its way out and eats her before heading for the water.” He adds that they are intelligent, use weapons, and “they look like lizards, but long and able to stand on their hind legs. Got a long sinewy tale, and two clawed arms.” This last part piques Bauchelain’s great interest, but then he moves on to having Mancy get his armor and red-bladed sword ready. They’re interrupted by a scream from down in the hold.
So. Lees at Laughter’s End. My memory of this one was that it was my least favorite of the novellas, but that was some time ago, so we’ll have to see how much it holds true, if it is even a correct memory. I can say I didn’t care for it as much as its predecessor, though it has its moments.
I like how we get this early bigger picture, this geographic and more connection to the wider Malazan world, with the opening paragraph mentioning the Seguleh, Genabackiss, and the Fallen God.
I also like the hint that not all is above board with the Suncurl, as it is strongly implied that something secretive and a bit untoward set this ship a-sail, and maybe even something a bit desperate.
A bit more subtle foreshadowing in the references to Bena’s mother and her Bates Motel-like quality, with how she “rattles,” has “wispy” hair that comes off the “parched, salted scalp above the shrunken, sightless eye sockets.”
I can’t recall if we had already learned of Mancy’s issues with sea travel. Certainly we know of his employers’ propensity to die while he was working for them, but this certainly adds to his “luckless” moniker.
And really, this first scene sets up the horror to come, with the blood-red sea, the “laughter’s end,” the crews’ “growing fears,” the “strange voices rising from the hold and from behind the strong room’s solid oak door,” the reference to a “curse,” Broach’s crow form following, the description of Bena mother, and of course, that closing line.
And as is typical in these novellas, along with the horror, the humor. Love Sater’s dry “Give me your knife… I don’t want your blood on mine.”
Confirmation that something is up as Ably wonders if someone is still in pursuit of at least himself and the captain, with Sater also worrying their pursuers might be hot on the trail. And then clearly she isn’t really a “captain,” since she doesn’t much know “‘which end of a ship points where we’re going.” In the novels, we might need to wait a few pages, several chapters, or eight thousand pages to find out the story here, but plot moves apace here and so it’s just the next page that Heck Urse tells us they’ve actually stolen the Suncurl (the “they” apparently being at least Ably, Sater, Heck, Birds Mottle, and Gust Hubb).
Yes, rats leaving a non-sinking ship would indeed be a worrisome sign one would think.
Here’s the other side of the coin from that opening paragraph that connected us to the familiar Malazan world. Here we have a widening of that world with the mention of Toll City and the Night of the Chants. We’ve pointed repeatedly to the sense that the novels, despite their heft, were showing us only a small sliver of this universe and these novellas continue to impress that upon us readers. So many stories out there…
Now, I admit that one of the reasons this one is (I think) my least favorite of the novellas is the running gag of Gust losing body parts. But I also confess I found this first one—the movement from Gust’s frantic, bloody, excitable entry into the galley to Broach leisurely baiting his line with Gust’s ear quite funny
I also enjoyed Bauchelain’s lecture to his employee about how his weed habit is becoming an issue, making him ineffective, as well as stupid and boring. And I love the dry understatedness of “my companion’s quaint assemblage of organs and body parts,” and “Is it not a given that we will all experience a plethora of peculiarities?” Peculiarities is one word I suppose.
If you recall, we (and Reese) heard about the iron nails during a tavern discussion with his two friends, who “swung a good price” on the nails to the Suncurl.
Perhaps suggesting to Broach that his bait needs to be bloodier and more substantial isn’t such a great idea…
So this Jhorligg creature is pretty interesting (and to Bauchelain too as he leans in excitedly at the description). They sound quite a bit like water-habitat K’Chain, don’t you think. Reptilian, intelligent, standing on two legs, clawed arms, tough to kill. And if you recall, we have had earlier references to the K’Chain and the sea. One is a Matron who released her eggs into the sea and another is the reference to the “abominations” sometimes born to the Shake. Again, the world widens…
OK, I mentioned at the start that while I considered Lees to be the weakest of the novellas it “has its moments.” The whole Briv, Cook’s Helper’ Briv, Carpenter’s helper; Briv, rope braider (who may just be Gorbo “who likes to dress up like a girl”) is one such moment. I love the whole Abbot and Costello-ish conversation about them, and then their later appearance and the continuation of the running gag. It is one of the more successful humor aspects in Lees I think.