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 conclude our coverage 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.
In the crow’s net, Bena’s mother tells her the night’s terror is about to start, but they’re safe up there.
Heck, Birds, and Gust have their swords out as they move toward the hold, with Heck asking who was screaming. Gust tells him Briv, carpenter’s helper (as opposed to Briv Cook’s helper and Briv the rope braider, who might actually be Gorbo who likes to dress in woman’s clothing) had said she was going down to get something from the hold. Banter ensues. Heck exits to check the head.
Mancy wonders if Broach might have killed whoever was screaming, but Bauchelain tells him they’re far too out to sea for Broach to start killing crewfolk (who would sail the ship?). He blames the nails, saying it isn’t smart to take the spirits of the dead from their place of rest. Mancy likes to thinks of such places, but Bauchelain apologizes for using the metaphor, saying “places of eternal imprisonment” would be more accurate. Sater and Ably enter, with Ably pretty belligerent. Sater orders Ably out to check out what’s going on at the hold. Bauchelain tells Mancy to pour some wine, then explains to Sater that spirits have been loosed, that the scream was a death scream of a crewman, that while spirits generally can’t kill there are exceptions and being so close to the power of the Laughter’s End isn’t good. Mancy, after rejecting several bottles, finally hands Bauchelain a goblet. Unfortunately, it’s bloodwine, and under its lust-inducing spell, Bauchelain quickly ushers Mancy out, giving him his sword, and then has sex with Sater (the bloodwine on his lips has the same effect on her it is later explained).
Ably arrives on the deck just after Heck has checked out the head, finding nothing. Ably tells Heck, Gust and Birds rope braider Briv was reported missing by Gorbo. Ably’s head is suddenly bitten off from behind.
Bena sees the crew massing around the hatch as her mother comments on what is happening, promising again they’ll survive the night.
Lots of error and madness and violence and blood. And some sex.
Heck, Gust, and Birds tumble down, then get landed on by Ably’s headless corpse, which then tears away Gust’s other ear, then starts to choke Heck. Heck tosses the oil lantern, which ignites a sheet of flame, causing Bird to scuttle away and knock herself unconscious. Heck breaks free and hamstrings Ably’s body. He slaps Bird awake and drags her away.
Ably’s body slips to the ground, the fire goes out, and Broach appears, mourning a rat killed in the chaos. For a moment, he worries the crew has jumped ship, robbing him of “a harvest promised him once they were no longer necessary.” His thoughts are interrupted by a cackle, and then he and the voice have a conversation, with the voice saying “You. It can’t be … You must … Soon.” And then it revels in what it will do once it kills him. Broach moves toward the stern where the voice is coming from, and when it notes his axe can’t hurt him, Broach says he has no interest in hurting him; he just wants to chop him up and use the pieces. The voice has a sudden change of mind regarding confrontation and disappears. Broach moves into the warrens.
Mancy flashes back to earlier scenes of chaos and terror as he watches the crew fall apart. He raises Bauchelain’s sword and tries to rally them. It doesn’t go well.
Bauchelain’s sword, knocked from Mancy’s hand, cuts of Gust’s nose while the crew hoists Mancy up the mainmast as a sacrifice to Mael. Heck tries to stop them until he’s told Mancy cut off Gust’s nose.
Bena hears someone coming and gets her knife ready.
Post-coitus, Bauchelain apologizes and explains to Sater. He tells her a lich is aboard ship, thanks to the nails and perhaps something else. Broach might be able to explain more, but, Bauchelain says, he’s off stalking the lich through Hood’s realm. She comes clean that she and the others are being pursued, though she won’t say why, just calling it a momentary temptation at a nice opportunity. When Bauchelain tells her such a defense is that of an “untutored” child, and that giving up her honor due to an alleged “weakness of nature” deserves al the punishment she might get, she points out he just raped her. He notes the bloodwine made her want it too, but she argues it didn’t matter as she hadn’t consented. She exits.
Broach appears, mocking how upset Sater was, but Bauchelain says she had a point, adding maybe he’ll write a “scholarly treatise on the ethical context of bloodwine,” though he gets a bit caught up in the vocabulary. Broach opens up the trunk where he keeps his child, distressing Bauchelain by how easily he just shreds his wards. Broach tells Bauchelain he’s improved the child by harvesting all the rats on ship (save one) and giving their limbs, eyes, noses, ears, and teeth to his creation. He adds the creation will grow “more agile, larger, ever more hungry,” with no limits, and that he plans on setting it to hunt the lich in the warrens. Bauchelain heads off to collect his sword.
Mancy finds himself in the crow’s nest, looking at Bena younger and the desiccated corpse of her mother, which he shoves aside. Bena engages him in two voices. “Bena Older” tells him the nails have released the dead spirits and one rises above the others, grabbing and devouring souls in order to grow. Something hits the mast hard and then Bena knocks Mancy out.
Birds Mottle comes to just in time to see Broach’s creation scuttle by. Trying to avoid it she falls into the hold.
Sater is frustrated by how the “damned lich [wearing Ably’s head] kept rising out of the solid deck to fold far too many withered limbs about soldiers” to drag them down screaming. She sends Wister to the weapons locker in her cabin to get weapons, but he tells her all that’s in there is rum. She says fine, bring the rum. She looks down to see Broach’s child go by, “the stupidest monster she had ever seen.” She kicks it into the hold.
Inside the hold, the lich’s various parts (including Mancy’s former employer) are arguing amongst themselves, each having retained “fragments of identity.” Their spat is interrupted by the arrival of Broach’s creation—“that thing hunting us!”—and then the Jhorligg, who has stayed quiet, takes over to face Broach’s child.
Birds Mottle, embedded in the lich, recalls her dad and bits of her life, including the night that had brought her and the others to the Suncurl when they’d stolen silver and gold from Toll City and some other things wrapped up like idols. The stolen money belonged to the Chanters—“that nasty mob of tyrants ruling the roost”—and had been meant to pay the Crimson Guard so as to unify Stratem, but when the Guard had disappeared on them, Sater had decided to steal the money.
Bauchelain reclaims his sword, and notes Broach’s line still trailing some kind of bait in the water, which he thinks may not be such a good idea. He sees the Lich killing another and thinks it’s fascinating the way the Lich is growing/evolving. Broach’s line suddenly snaps, and Bauchelain sees sharks fleeing and then dehnrabi fleeing.
Gust bites through his tongue. Heck hands him rum.
Sater now thinks stealing “a half-dozen Sech’kellyn statues was probably a bad idea,” thanks to the whole curse thing and their weird look: “black iron eyes and black iron canines… strange limbs with too many knobby joints, twice-bent knees… iron collars enclosing their thin necks.” She recalls carting them up to the court mage’s place then bringing them back down after he’d gone mad. She tells the three Brivs to go to her strong room, get the statues, and toss them overboard. Broach overhears and joins them.
The four enter the hold.
Briv carpenter thinks Briv rope-braider isn’t very ladylike. They reach the strongroom door.
Sech’kellyn, it turns out, were “homunculi, of sort, Jaghut creations, modeled… on… Forkassail.” After the Jaghut disappeared, the Sech’kellyn did whatever they wanted, usually killing lots of people, until someone could knock them down and bury them where they wouldn’t be found, though a sorcerer might be able to bind them. Which would have been better than what really happened here.
Mizzankar Druble, who lived in a long-ago city of Stratem and was a horrible sorcerer, even if he understood the need to delegate, tried to conjure a demon powerful enough to bring his Sech’kellyn servants better to heel. He bit off more than he could chew, was eventually killed by the villagers after spending a few days as a servant, and then he, the god he’d inadvertently summons, and the Sech’kellyn had been buried in Tolls city. But now the god is coming back for “his children.”
Mancy looks out from the crow’s nest and sees Dhenrabi breaching all around the ship, and he can hear an “inhuman” fight waging somewhere below. A large crest begins to break and he watches Bauchelain waiting the surge. Two “enormous scaled arms” crash down on the rail, followed by a huge reptilian head. Bauchelain leaps to meet it, but then the ship’s sudden rocking throws Bena out of the basket and Mancy leaps out after her.
In the fight between Broach’s child and the lich, Birds is expelled. It’s head break through into the upper deck and starts getting kicked. It bites off half of Gust’s right foot.
The Lich drops back down, and Birds runs Ably’s sword into its chest. It pulls it out and moves toward her, but then begins to choke a bit on Gust’s foot and then loses its lower jaw.
Mancy catches Bena Younger, and he pulls her up into the crow’s nest as Bena Elder goes flying over his head.
Bena Elder’s corpse lands on Gust, poking out his left eye. People start kicking at the corpse on top of him and he gets kicked unconscious.
As Broach fights the suddenly attacking the Sech’kellyn in the strongroom, Briv Carpenter and Briv cook drag Briv rope-braider off, with Briv Carpenter shocked to find out Briv Rope-braider is actually Gorbo.
Bauchelain gets knocked off by the god and then when one of the Sech’kellyn strikes, he thrusts out his sword and it impales itself on it. The god reaches down and grabs the other five.
The Brivs land on Birds Mottle and all face the lich, but before it can do anything Broach steps forward and pulls off its head, then leaves.
Mance looks down to see the remains of the barely-floating ship. The god and the Sech’kellyn have left, Sater is drunk, Broach wanders around with Ably’s head, Bauchelain appears a bit wobbly, and Bena speaks in her old woman voice. He starts to climb down.
Broach goes back into the hold to get his creature back. He tosses it over as bait, planning on hooking a Dhenrabi to tow them out of Laughter’s End.
The lich’s parts argue some more, with one pointing out they’ve lost their chance at freedom as they’re exiting the Red Road at Laughter’s End.
The Suncurl is being observed by a pursuing ship with twelve Chanter brothers and two Chanter sisters aboard, all of them readying their weapons, while the undead crew of their ship continues to work. The leader, Tiny Chanter, tells them “We have them,” and they smile.
I like the little twist of Broach thinking he needs bigger and bloodier prey, leaving, and a scream, making us as readers think he’s got his bait, but it turns out not to be Broach at all but something worse, which is often how these novellas play out. Sure, B and B aren’t “good,” but it’s all relative in this world (and ours). To emphasize that they aren’t classic good, we have Bauchelain tell us (via Mance) that Broach of course hasn’t killed anyone. Not because that is “bad” in a moral sense, but because it is “bad” in a pragmatic sense–who will sail the ship if Broach starts killing off crew members? No, no, they’re way, way too far out to sea to start killing crew folks…
And Bauchelain’s quick retraction of the afterlife is one of my favorite funny moments:
“It’s kind of comforting to think that there are such things as places of rest, Master.”
“Oh, I apologize, Mister Reese. Such places do not exist… ”
Love it! Cracked me up again rereading it and then again typing it.
Now, the wine scene is more problematic for me as humor. I like it throughout the whole selection process, and then Bauchelain’s response. But the rest of it, well, what Bauchelain terms the “ethical questions” makes me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d have so much preferred both he and Sater had partaken, rather than just him. I just don’t find a lot of humor in the whole “consent” question. Plus, generally “sex humor” isn’t all that funny to me most times, and so this scene, and the breast references etc. just don’t do much for me as comedy. I’m curious as to what others think of this scene.
Now, back to the Briv trio (or is it a duet?) as the deserters try to figure out who died—this is funny. Well, you know, until Ably’s head gets bitten off.
More Momma Bates reference to Bena Elder, who is now described as “desiccated.”
Now we’re starting to get into the horror slapstick aspect of the story, with the bodies and Gust’s parts and Broach’s child etc. and save for bits and pieces, it just isn’t my thing for the most part. So I won’t belabor my reaction to it all, but just skim through a few points.
We see again how B and B aren’t your usual “heroes” in that Broach bemoans the crews’ deaths not because, you know, people are dying, but because he’d been “promised” them once they were “no longer necessary.” This about as “anti-hero” as one can get.
I do like the way Reese does what we as readers (and movie goers especially) are trained to expect in these situations—straightens his spine, grips more tightly to his sword, raises it high into the air, bellows a rallying cry in an epic (literally, as it’s straight from the Iliad) “stentorian” voice, so as to gather those small minded frightened folks into an effective fighting force thanks to a single strong leader, allowing them to defeat all that comes at them no matter the odds, no matter the… “Aw shit.”
More direct connections to the prior novella—Baltro and Hoom are the victims we saw in that story (Baltro was Reese’s last employer if you recall).
The explanation for why zombies et. al. are so ferociously dangerous—bitter envy: “How dare other people be still alive when we aren’t. It’s unfair! … We need to kill everyone…” Finally, someone gives us a reason!
While I did say I mostly don’t like the horror slapstick, something about the spleen does make me laugh.
And yep, still enjoying the whole Briv bit.
The exposition gets a bit heavy in here with the explanation of what’s going on, but it mostly works well, and I like the whole sorcerers need to delegate if they are ever going to ever actually get onto that whole world domination plan. Makes perfect sense.
And I also like how the exposition backstory keeps building on itself with one turn then another, until we end up with the gods, who also get the necessity of delegation.
Well, that last scene certainly cries out for a follow up.
So yes, not my favorite of these stories. I did enjoy several bits and pieces of it. But Reese was a little too absent, Bauchelain has some moments but not enough of his dry wit, and it was just a little too frenzied for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
We’ll see what’s going on with those Chanters next time…