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 Healthy Dead.
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.
The Healthy Dead Part One
Imid Factallo, a construction foreman, is knocked unconscious by a collapsed wagon. From the Grand Temple comes a group of Well Knights, including Invett Loath, Purest of the Paladins, who has allowed nothing sinful to pass his lips (at least going down) in his life. He tells Imid he is now a Saint of the Lady, who “abides both the physically and the mentally inept.” Imid wishes he had died instead.
Mancy and Bauchelain arrive outside the walls of Quaint, decorated with corpses, which Bauchelain thinks will make Broach happy. Though he agrees with Mancy that perhaps the city might not like their ornaments stolen, and he also worries their recent “escapades” haven’t preceded them. He decides just in case they’ll go around the city and take a boat across the bay. In front of them appear a man and a woman carrying a heavy chest.
The demon Vice Ineb Cough can’t believe he has to suffer the same torments he gives to others—loneliness, despair, and misery. He is wearing the clothes of a dead dancer whose body he’d found. He muses on the “sad truth that the arts of the flesh could not but surrender to decrepitude eventually.” He recalls how “back in the good old days,” Vice had “always been the retreat of artists.” Unfortunately things have changed and now “virtues ruled, righteous and supreme.” And because he is immortal, he has to watch what happens to these sad mortals who try to ever elude “the inevitable.” He finds an old wine container and smells it, reveling yet again in memories of how things once were.
Several other vices sit around in an alley. Seker Later wonders what happened to lust, thinking “of us all, she’d be the most persistent.” Nauseo Sloven bemoans how he has diminished so much night after night, and points out the same is true of Senker, telling her, “you are far less than you once were.” She admits something should probably be done, but doesn’t want to bother thinking about it now.
While Mancy prepares some wine, Bauchelain talks with the man and woman, whose chest was filled with gold and silver and who identified themselves as Saints of Glorious Labour, Imid Factallo (from the construction site) and Elas Sil. They explain how one becomes saints by being injured while working, which all started when the current king, Macrotus the Overwhelmingly Considerate” took the throne when his brother Necrotus the Nihile died (he was, they said, “your usual kind of ruler. Petty, vicious, and corrupt. We liked him just fine.”). They explain that Macrotus has made Wellness, and the cult of the Lady of Beneficence the official and only legal religion. Mancy recalls the old hag in his hometown that followed “wellness” (Mince Blackpug from “Blood Follows”) and wonders if a plague is spreading. They explain how “all that kills is forbidden. The king wants his people to be healthy and since most people wont’ do what’s necessary for themselves, Macrotus will do it on their behalf.” It turns out the corpses on the walls belonged to those who “died unhealthily.” Bauchelain wonders what they can do for them, since he and Mancy obviously don’t have an army with them (though Mancy thinks how they have one chasing them). They tell Bauchelain that in fact, the trio’s reputation has preceded them, and much of Quaint has heard of how the last city the three visited is now half ashes, which Bauchelain blames on a “Misunderstanding.” When Bauchelain asks about the king and his mages, generals, and advisors, they reply that the king gives little credence to gossip and the mages have all been banished. They beg of him to usurp the king, kill him. Bauchelain tells them before he accepts that he suggests they simply leave, as “there are worse things than a considerate king.” Elas responds, “that’s what you think.” Bauchelain says he’ll do it and sends them on their way.
Well Knight Loath wonders whose baby is making all that noise, informing the nearby woman that loud babies are to be confiscated and taught vows of silence. When the mother complains that the medicines they once used to keep babies quiet are illegal, he’s shocked they “befouled” the blood of their children. They confiscate the baby and when she starts crying Loath tells her public emotional displays are forbidden and she’s lucky he doesn’t arrest her too. He delivers the baby to the temple and the priestess tells him it’s the third one today, adding the Lady is pleased. He decides to ignore her when she also pinches the baby and calls it “plump,” saying the “Temple’s peace will not suffer for long.”
Bauchelain tells Mancy that “Every tyranny imaginable is possible when prefaced by the notion that it is for the well-being of the populace.” And when it seems Mancy still doesn’t get the threat of this “genius” king, Bauchelain continues:’
Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness, in turn, leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgment quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror and paranoia, eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution, and thus, the end of civilisation.
But Mancy still doesn’t get how “the desire for goodness leads the end of civilization,” so Bauchelain tries again:
Good living and health, as you say, yield well-being. But well-being is a contextual notion, a relative notion. Perceived benefits are measured by way of contrast… The result is smugness, and from that an overwhelming desire to deliver conformity among those perceived as less pure, less fortunate—the unenlightened… conformity leads to ennui, and then indifference. From indifference, Mister Reese, dissolution follows as a natural course, and with it, once again, the end of civilization.
Bauchelain admits that the “ethical aspects of our mission”—saving civilization—is “surprisingly refreshing.” To begin, he orders Mancy on several missions in the city.
Necrotus the Nihile finds himself back in his body, which is in bad shape and hanging on the city wall. Bauchelain and Broach, in crow form, are perched nearby and tell him they’ve brought him back to ask about his brother. They inform him Macrotus poisoned his “life-extending alchemies,” which Necrotus says probably had to do with him “cheating” via those chemicals. He explains how his brother invented an exercise machine to extend his own life. When they ask about the Lady of Beneficence, he describes her as a minor, miserable goddess and is shocked to find she’s now the official patroness. They ask if he’d be interested in overthrowing his brother, and he’s up for it.
Bauchelain informs poor Mancy that while he’s in the city he’ll have to abstain from all vices. Mancy convinces Bauchelain to let him have one more fling before entering into his mission.
The opening scene does a nice job of introducing you to this weird city of Quaint, with its Well Knights, its great names (all these novellas have such great names), its odd method of becoming a Saint apparently via getting injured on the job (sainthood as workman’s comp?) and having the luck to “spill your blood so messily onto your face.” And we’re introduced early to the usual humor, with Invett Loath’s line about how the Goddess “abides both the physically and mentally inept” and thus Imid is “twice, if not thrice blessed.”
We also get the hint, very early, that all is not well with this system of saints and the Lady, since Imid would rather have been killed by the wagon.
Speaking of the dark humor, how can you not chuckle at Bauchelain saying that the only part of the city that seems to fit its name, to actually be “quaint” is “that tidy row of corpses spiked to the inland wall” Yes, Bauchelain is not your usual protagonist, is he? As is often the case, Mancy stands in for the reader in these moments, double-checking Bauchelain said what he actually did and meant it as he seems to mean it: “And you call that quaint, Master?” And leaving no doubt, for either Mancy or the reader, Bauchelain’s response is simple and matter-of-fact, “Yes, I do.”
Of course, when you hear corpse, you have to think Broach’s ears (feathered or not) will perk up, and Bauchelain immediately thinks how pleased his companion will be to see bodies so readily available, until real-person Mancy clears his throat and helpfully points out the city might look askance upon their “decorations” being stolen. Bauchelain agrees Mancy is probably right, and this thought—of an upset city—makes him worry that perhaps their reputation has preceded them. And wouldn’t you love to hear those rumors? It will turn out later, as we hear from Imid and Elas, that indeed, Bauchelain was right to worry. Is it even possible, given what we’ve seen when this trio is around, that their reputation does not precede them?
While it’s a nice tease, and as Mancy says, probably an “excellent idea,” did anyone really believe they were going to avoid the city? Didn’t think so.
One of my favorite aspects of this story is how the vices are personified, as I’ve mentioned before, always one of the biggest opportunities for a writer in fantasy—to bring something non-literal literally to life. I like the idea but I also love the portrayal of it—these formerly powerful folks reduced, thanks to Quaint’s focus on “Wellness” to rummaging around in alleys, trolling through garbage, wearing “foppish dancer’s clothes” that don’t fit, that “clearly had belong to a much taller, wider-shouldered individual.”
Erikson, though, rarely lets the real world escape us for too long—whether by direct or indirect reference, whether by parallel or metaphor. And so Vice’s thoughts about aged artists hit with some impact, are more than a little depressing, because he obviously may just as well be talking about our world:
A sad truth, that the arts of the flesh could not but surrender to decrepitude, eventually. That talent and prowess gave way to aching muscles and brittle bones. The world had no place for aged artists… the final realization that, bent and old as he’d [the dancer] become, he could no longer perform that particular mood… Another sordid fact of aged artists — no one watched, no one cared.
Hmm, maybe this is why he chose the life of a writer. They, after all, can go a lot longer executing their creative talents than, say, a dancer or an athlete.
From musing on the inevitability of waning skills and disappearing audiences for artists, it isn’t that far a leap to musing on the inevitability of death:
To die slow. To die sudden. But always to die… [Vice] was witness to the unchanging realities of these sad mortals. Ducking and dodging the inevitable awakening of those tiny eaters of flesh. In the end… was the end, and only the end. Poor sods.
A moment of silence for all us poor sods reading this as we’re confronted with our onrushing extinction. That “ducking and dodging” is a particularly appropriate reference, given how Quaint is so focused on “wellness”—on that very “ducking and dodging.” But again, is this very far from our own world/culture (a certain subset at least)? With our gym memberships (used or not); our exercise equipment—treadmills, stairmasters, weight machines (used or not); our jogging, power walking, step aerobicizing; our gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free (some might say taste-free) products; our artificial hips, artificial valves, artificial knees; our Omega-Three supplements, vitamin supplements, supplement supplements; our Mediterranean, Paleo, Atkins, Only Raw Food, Only Green Food, Only Soylent Green Food diets? That’s a lot of ducking and dodging going on there (and it’s hardly an exhaustive list).
That’s a great image at the end—Vice reveling in the redolent remnants of long-gone liquor and planning to do so for half a night.
From one Vice to another. And more great names. And more of a sense that the poor vices are not doing well under this new regime. I don’t have much to say about this scene save that I like the language/dialog quite a bit and love the subtlety of that last line.
Poor Mancy. Imagine what one has to have experienced to think this, and with such emphasis: “Nothing good ever came of riches, nothing, nothing at all.”
Is this an Erikson line or what: “Your usual kind of ruler. Petty, vicious, and corrupt. We liked him just fine.”
So what army is chasing the trio? And will they arrive in Quaint before the trio leaves? Nice set up for the reader to think about going forward.
I like the way Bauchelain gets them step by step to the actual point:
“Usurp, as in depose.”
“Depose, as in remove.”
“Remove, as in kill.”
Say what you will about Bauchelain though, he does try to warn them. He does give them a chance to hie off and not invite Bauchelain and Broach into the city. Let it be upon them then…
While I love the absurdity of prohibitions on crying babies and especially of them learning “vows of silence,” the baby law seems a bit to muddy the “wellness” issue. I know the dialog connects it to wellness, but it still seems a little stretch to me (speaking as a man who on his and his wife’s first dinner out with the little one since his birth ended up telling the staff “We’ll take it to go when it comes!”—and every diner in that place was happy we decided to pack up both our food and our crying child and leave. It also leaves me, perhaps purposely, a little at sea because I so want to be against this crazy king and his “wellness” laws but then I get to mothers giving alcohol and durhang to babies and I ‘m thinking, “well, that seems like a good thing to put a stop to…” Call me crazy. The Public displays of affection also seem a slight tangent—I get the connection—I just don’t know if I want the point so clouded. (Then again, it’s not my point, so who am I to say?)
Talk about a turn from the absurd to the horrific in the baby story though, as we get to temple priestess who tells us, a bit ominously, that the temple won’t have to deal with noisy babies for long (I’m guessing it’s not because they learn their vows of silence) and then even more chillingly, happily calls it “plump.” Where’s this story heading? And Invett Loath doesn’t come off much better than the priestess, with his decision to just look the other way, despite his own sense of disquietude.
Reading this after Wurms it’s interesting to see the difference in how Bauchelain views his two adversaries. Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render doesn’t quite get the same respect as Quaint’s “genius” king.
My wife and I often talk about how we like TV shows and/or movies that have smart people doing smart things. That’s one of the reasons I like these novellas—dark or not, evil or not, right or not, Bauchelain is just smart it seems to me, and while in other books these sort of moments, with one character expounding on a topic to another in “teacher mode” can make me itch, here I don’t mind them at all. I just so enjoy his language and his thought process, as when he lays out the steps from earnestness and good intentions and smugness to the end of civilization as we know it. Especially the segment on how it leads to conformity.
And oh how I love his line about how the two of them— Bauchelain and Broach—being on the side of saving civilization is “refreshing.”
I think Erikson may have ruined me for books where dead really means dead. I truly enjoyed this conversation with the dead former king: his misguided belief about why they called him back from the Abyss, the revelation that his “sniveling worm” of a brother poisoned him, his belief his brother was insane based in part on his exercise machine, his spit-take (if he had spit) reaction to the Lady of Beneficence being the official goddess now (“That bloodthirsty bitch?” –which makes that baby scene even a bit more foreboding), and his answer to joining in against his brother (“Beats hanging around.” Bad pun).
Poor Mancy, can’t even take a pee in peace. At least Bauchelain gave him one last bit of “vice-ery” before heading off on his super-secret mission. Will he return transformed?
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.