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 begin our coverage of The Wurms of Blearmouth.
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.
Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render and his trusty scribe Coingood are atop the tower of West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding above the peninsular town of Spendrugle of Blearmouth. Coingood is not so happy to be there, cursing his decision to come. After pronouncing “Behold” in properly spectacular fashion, Fangatooth order Coingood to prepare the torture instruments, as Fangatooth plans to visit his brother again.
In town, Felittle tells Spilgit Purrble, former Factor of the Holding, that she saw Fangatooth atop his tower, like a “mad sorcerer!” and wonders if he was looking at the wreck from last night. Spilgit asks about survivors, and she tells him nobody has been down to check yet. He decides they need to go check, and they get sidetracked into a conversation over how he and Felittle’s mom, who runs the inn/brothel The King’s Heel, don’t get along. He promises he’ll take her away when he goes in the spring.
Bauchelain drags Mancy from the sea after their shipwreck, noting they’ve lost Broach, whom he says flew from the wreck. He points out the “substantial fortification” he saw before the wreck and says they should go find the local lord and also check for Broach in the village. They’re interrupted by three villagers heading their way. Mancy worries this might be a wrecker’s coastal town.
Hordilo Stinqu, former pirate and current executioner/constable of the village, sits drinking with Ackle. They get to talking about how Ackle’s dead-man smell is why the whores don’t sleep with him. Ackle points out his smell might have something to do with “my having been pronounced dead, stuck in a coffin for three days, and then buried for two more.” They recall how Hordilo found him washed upon the shore, and Ackle complains that if he’d just let him lead Hordilo to his buried chest they’d both have been better off. Hordilo with coin and he not having been hanged. Hordilo is skeptical about this alleged treasure chest, adding that Ackle was dead when they cut him down and “dead people are supposed to stay in the ground. It’s a rule.” Hordilo wonders at how long Fangatooth’s golem, Grimled, has been gone on his rounds and decides to go check on it. Before he leaves, Ackle asks him to promise that if he ever sees him “not moving or anything” out in the cold, which seems to affect him more since his incident, that he doesn’t bury him. Hordilo tells him he’ll toss him on a pyre instead.
Comber Whuffine Gaggs, who lives in a shack over the beach and had heard the wreck last night, hears voices from the beach and assumes they must be survivors. He thinks he’ll meet them and send them nicely on to town, where Hordilo will arrest them and they’ll eventually be hanged (as reward, he gets to keep some good stuff from the survivors). On his way out, he runs into Spilgit and Felittle. He notices tracks and reads them as someone coming up from the beach dragging two bodies, adding he also heard voices on the beach. Spilgit acts disgusted by the wrecker way of life—killing survivors and taking their stuff—and says Fangatooth found the right sort of people for him to rule. Whuffine shrugs off Spilgit’s complaint that Fangatooth usurped his power from his brother, pointing out Fangatooth’s brother did the same, and the “witch before him, and then that bastard son of Lord Wurms himself—who strangled the man in his own bed.” Spilgit says he looks forward to the day the Black Fleet burns down Wurms Keep, kills Fangatooth, and wipes out the village. Whuffine warns Spilgit not to warn the survivors, saying Fangatooth won’t take kindly to that. On the beach they find Mancy and Bauchelain, and Whuffine welcomes them. Mancy recognizes the accent and figures out they’re at the Forgotten Holding, claimed by The Enclave. He warns Bauchelain it’s a wrecker’s coast, and points out Whuffine is wearing Malazan cavalry boots. Bauchelain is unperturbed, pointing out the corpses behind them won’t care about being robbed, and since he and Mancy are healthy, he isn’t worried about any casual throat slitting. Whuffine says Lord Fangatooth will be happy to meet them, and Spilgit offers to escort them to the inn. Bauchelain accepts, though he asks Mancy to draw his sword and keep an eye on Whuffine and his knife. Unhappy, Whuffine leave them to the other two and heads down the beach. Looking at the bodies, he’s surprised by the bites taken out of them—worse than sharks he thinks, and some looking as if they were human bites—and wonders if this wreck brought trouble to the area.
Hordilo comes across Grimled lying on the ground with Broach looking inside it. Two corpses lie nearby. Broach tells him he was trying to fix it, adding he hadn’t meant to break it. Hordilo arrests him, despite something about Broach making him greatly uneasy, and informs him he’ll have to go to the keep to see Fangatooth. Broach agrees, but says he has to bring his friends too, pointing down the street to where the group from the beach has just come into sight. He also says he wants to bring the bodies. Hordilo calls him a fool, which Broach doesn’t take kindly to, but they’re interrupted by the arrival of the others. Bauchelain is unimpressed with the bucket head of Grimled. Spilgit tells Hordilo he’ll take Mancy to the inn while the constable takes the other two up to Fangatooth. Broach tells Bauchelain that Hordilo called him a fool, and when Bauchelain wonders that the “misjudged assessment” wasn’t yet taken back, Hordilo quickly does just that. Bauchelain asks how many other golems there are, and Hordilo answers two—Gorebelly and Grinbone. Everyone heads out.
I’ll start with an element that makes Wurms one of my favorite of the novellas—I love these names. Fangatooth Claw the Render. Scribe Coingood. Felittle. Spendrugle. Blearmouth. Gorebelly. Grinbone. Not only are the names themselves such a joy, you get the sense right away that here is an author just having a ball with the genre. The windswept tower is icing on the cake, as is the self-important “declamation.”
I also like the many references to writing, the self-aware nature of much of this (the metafictional aspect if you’d like): Coingood running a long metaphor and then getting lost as to where he actually began it (then deciding it doesn’t matter); Fangatooth’s awareness of the language and visuals he is supposed to employ in his role as “Tyrannical Sorcerer” (the “behold”, the tower, his looking over a vividly detailed powerfully bleak setting); the line that “Anyone who can write has all the qualification necessary for artistic genius.”
Between the names and the dialogue, you can tell from the get-go this is going to be a fun ride.
And of course, in case you didn’t get the meta aspect, we get Felittle telling us that Fangatooth looked like “mad sorcerer” up on his tower.
The bit that mars the novella for me is that I do wish the women had some better roles or countering roles outside the whores, madams, horrible wives, etc. And I confess, urine humor seldom does it for me…
This line—“He considered again the delicious absence of guilt that accompanied his thoughts of stealing Felittle away…”—is wonderfully constructed. It isn’t simply that he wants to steal the girl away, or simply that he feels no guilt, it’s the “delicious[ness]” of that absence that is so sharply defining/characterizing. Love this line.
As always, the banter/relationship between Bauchelain and Mancy is wonderfully done, beginning with the first back and forth:
Will you recover, Mister Reese?
Very good. Now get up…
And then there’s Bauchelain’s always delightful sense of understatement: “Give our record thus far when assuming positions of authority, even I must acknowledge that trial and error remains an important component to our engagement with power.”
You also know you’re in the Malazan world when you have lines like this: “Dead people are supposed to stay in the ground. It’s a rule.” Living and dying are pretty fluid concepts in this universe, as we’ve seen.
So far, Blearmouth is living up to its name considering the residents we’ve met so far. Of course, we as readers of the Malazan novels and prior novellas know that anyone who thinks Bauchelain and Broach will be hanged as anyone’s “entertainment,” let alone give up their boots etc.—well, that person is in for a bit of a rude surprise.
Having seen Mael, the line “Mael and all his hoary whores” has a somewhat different impact than it might otherwise.
It’s subtle, but it’s a little hint here that the only two that don’t seem to feel the cold are Whuffine and Bauchelain (note his shiver is from what he sees, not feels). He’s also pretty sharp in his assessment of Mancy and Bauchelain, and his decision that the farther from them, the better.
So here, the whole thing with Hordilo and his wife is an example of the portrait of many of the women in the novella. In isolation, each, I think, is actually often funny (well, much of the time, at least—some jokes miss for me), but the pattern is a bit discomfiting. That said, I found this segment quite funny.
Broach sounds just like a busted five-year-old here, doesn’t he? A homicidal, psychopathic, sociopathic, body-snatching five-year-old, sure, but still.
Love the “will the treachery never end” coming from, well, anyone in this town.
Wise move on Horodilo’s part to apologize, despite how non-intimidating the conversation actually is, with Bauchelain’s “Oh dear” and “misjudged assessment.”
And even though I’ve already laughed at Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render, this is a perfect example of how Mancy stands in for the reader so often in these tales, because I laughed again, found it funny again, through his reaction.
“Great believers in peace,” indeed. It just so rarely appears wherever they are.
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.