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 continue our coverage of The Healthy Dead.
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novella 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.
A few notes:
- I’ve been having a long-running problem being able to see any comments due to some bug in the new system (Tor is on the case!). So I’m not ignoring you; I just have no idea what you’re all saying…
- Also, the bug that has been working its way methodically through my family has landed on me this week, so Friday’s post may be a little iffy
The Healthy Dead Part Three
Imid sits at home thinking of how his life hasn’t added up to much and how, having no friends, he’s been pretty much a lonely guy for most of it. A mob rushes by, interrupting his thoughts, and Imid saves a fallen baby before it’s trampled. Chasing the crazed crowd is Loath, brandishing his sword and yelling about how he has judged them all unclean. After they all pass, Elas shows up. She asks about the baby, warning him it’s dangerous, then, noting a bruise on it, tells Imid he’s discovered the youngest Saint of Glorious Labour. He argues babies don’t work, but she says, look, he’s working now. The baby, as babies are wont to do, poops.
The mob grows and riots and causes an accident that leads to a huge explosion as a pot of hot coals contacts caskets of jellied oil.
Bauchelain cuts Ineb out of his constricting clothes. Broach appears and studies Ineb, who tells him he’s a real demon, not a homunculus or golem. Storkul staggers over, saying she’s bleeding and is about to faint. Ineb mocks her, saying Bauchelain just pricked her finger. They pour her some wine.
Elas and Imid run down an alley and come across very small, very diminished manifestations of Corpulence (Nauseo Sloven) and Sloth (Senker Later). Nauseo says he smells something wonderful. Elas and Imid head toward the Grand Temple to give the baby over to the nuns. In the alley, Nauseo tells Senker he’s beginning to feel better and senses that change is coming.
Mancy exits the throne room thinking how it was “the sordid nature of humanity… to concoct elaborate belief systems all designed to feed one’s ego. An unending multitude of daggers to hold against someone else’s throat.” His thoughts are interrupted by the sudden shattering of the glass coffins and the animation of the corpses in side them, which he blames on Broach. One corpse tells him, “It’s all a lie…We go. All of us. To the same place. The healthy, the sickly, the murderers, the saints! All the same, terrible place! Crowded, so crowded!” Mancy ponders how none of the dead ever seem to say the same thing about their experience. Having grown intrigued by “the details of the innumerable private nightmares death delivered,” he asks what the place was like. The corpse describes it as a “giant market… So much food. Treasures. So many… things!” When Mancy observes that doesn’t sound so awful, the corpse scream, “But I have no money!… Everybody else has money—even the murderers! Why not me?” It wanders off and another, a woman, staggers around looking for her baby, picking up invisible ones and commenting how ugly they all are. Watching the corpses mill around, Mancy assumes eventually they’ll make their way outside and to their loved ones: “Driven to utter last regrets, spiteful accusations or maundering mewling.” All “mostly pathetic” in his mind, and only occasionally murderous.
Imid and Elas watch an undead shamble by and when Imid wonders what’s going on, Elas tells him it’s due to their contract with Bauchelain and Broach. When he says the two sorcerers never mentioned raising the dead, she reminds him they’re necromancers; it’s pretty much part of the job description. Looking ahead, though, she tells him the corpses will fall apart soon (finally, someone has zombies really decomposing!) and the living will just bury the pieces somewhere. Imid suddenly panics his dead mother might appear, and Elas says she’s got a dead husband whom she pushed down the stairs because he peed standing up without ever wiping the rim, a murder she got away with by bribing the Guard back in the good old days of Necrotus. Once the undead is gone, they move on.
Ineb Cough tells the others he senses “hunger…the desire to indulge” from the city, and when Storkul says there’s nothing to indulge with anymore, Bauchelain mocks her naiveté, telling her even now floorboards are being plied up, locked doors are being opened, hidden caches raided. Noting that Broach’s part is now dead, he says it’s now his turn, and prepares to enter the city. Ineb eagerly joins him, as does Storkul, who thinks the undead Hurla will be opening her brothel again, meaning her (Storkul’s) rom will be there waiting for her.
Mancy watches as the undead mill around in front of the palace drinking, smoking, and partaking of all sorts of vices. The living, meanwhile, are fighting the undead for the “various indulgences,” and mostly winning thanks to the poor state of decomposition. Though the anarchy isn’t so surprising to Mancy, but the speed of it is, and he wonders if Bauchelain threw something extra into the air. As the smoke from the fires wafts past, he wonders what he should do next, then decides to get more comfortable to watch the proceedings.
Bauchelain, Storkul, and Ineb look up at the animated corpses staked to the outer walls, kicking their heels, and Bauchelain reminisces about a similar dance he’d seen in a far off land. Bauchelain lowers Necrotus down, and they continue on into the city. Bauchelain notes how the city has fallen apart and “none of it through my doing,” adding it merely confirmed his belief that “piety is but the thinnest patina, fashioned sufficiently opaque to disguise the true nature of our kind, yet brittle thin nonetheless.” Necrotus says he just wants his throne back, and when Bauchelain wonders if his people will accept an undead king, he points out they’ve had no issue accepting brain-dead ones. Bauchelain agrees scandal hasn’t seemed to stop kings in the past. They enter a city in chaos, an artist chases a gallery owner demanding payment, children have dismembered their murderer. Storkul heads off to her brothel, “where the sane people are,” while the others head for the palace. Bauchelain asks Ineb if he’ll do a “sordid” favor for him and the demon agrees.
Imid and Elas (and the baby) make it to the Grand Temple of the Lady and find lots of bodies sprawled on the floor before the dais and the altar, but oddly no blood. The bodies rise as they near, saying they feel “sick, nauseated, unwell” thanks to the “unhealthy people everywhere.” Elas tells Imid they’re dying because of their belief that “licentiousness… is a plague… the lurid escape from natural misery, when natural misery is the proper path to walk.” Elas announces he’s a Saint and tells them that “Sobriety means clear-eyed and clear-eyed means you see the truth! You see just how unjust, cruel, indifferent, and ugly your life really is! You see how other people are controlling you… screwing you over!” None of the do-gooders want to listen and then the Stentorian Nun yells out “Silence!” and labels him a blasphemer and “Proclaimer of all that is not to be known,” Which Imid points out is a bit late to say. The Stentorian Nun announces adjudication, saying the Lady shall speak. A grinding noise comes from the altar and a voice asks, “Do I smell baby?”
I really enjoyed this bit with Imid thinking about loneliness because it could so easily be an author working his/her way through a moment. That first stab at a good simile, “loneliness is like an old friend,” and you’re psyched you’ve nailed the simile, but then you’re, “oh man, that doesn’t work—loneliness and friend is a bit contradictory.” And I like how Erikson carries the humor forward, first into the next line with the reference to the “modest, friendless abode” and then again into his momentary digression into the mental states of rodents.
Clearly Loath can’t handle his D’bayang poppy spores.
I can’t help but notice the squirrel did not answer when Loath demanded the witnesses announce themselves.
While I love the squirrel, baby poop jokes don’t do much for me, I confess.
Poor Arto, we hardly knew ya.
Now that’s an image—the three oxen somersaulting above the skyline. Anyone else think “fetchez la vache”?
This is a nice bit of monetary suspense here—with Bauchelain wiping blood off his knife and looking “down” at Ineb Cough. Then when we realize Ineb is fine, we recall the plan to draw blood from Storkul, and now the suspense is transferred to her—did he kill her? Is she bleeding out even now?
When she does appear a few paragraphs later, she’s “staggering” and has a “high, wavering voice,” which makes us think even more she’s been seriously bled. But then, no. It was finger prick basically.
I mentioned before how despite the novella length, we still get some digressive gems sprinkled throughout, like this one about the long-distance runner so befuddled he runs into a burning building (and doesn’t come out)
So here we get our different perspective on Nauseo and Senker (Corpulence and Sloth) and see how tiny they actually are. Given Ineb’s growth, however, one has to wonder how long they’ll stay so small in the story. Especially given Nauseo’s line about how he’s feeling better.
The shortness of the story, and the sense of absurdity, doesn’t prevent it from hitting the reader with some moments of seriousness, as we’ve noted before. And here’s another: “Sadly, it was part of the sordid nature of humanity… to concoct elaborate belief systems all designed to feed one’s own ego. And to keep those with less obnoxious egos in check.” This is an insight from a writer—writers being close observers of contemporary human culture—and maybe as well from the archaeologist, who of course has studied human culture down the ages. And certainly we’ve had ages of these belief systems under different names. I’m glad too Erikson gave this thought to Mancy, another reason this is one of my favorites amongst the novellas thanks to Mancy’s stronger role in it.
But, this is an Erikson story after all. So following the nicely insightful bit of philosophizing on human nature, we get shambling undead. And in true Erikson style, they talk, even if, has Mancy thinks, they “rarely had anything good to say.” But again, some depth here. First, the idea that the religions all lied—that it didn’t matter what one was in life—“We go. All of us. To the same place. The healthy, the sickly, the murderers, the saints. All the same, terrible place.” And then the nice poke at materialism/consumerism—with this hellish place being a market with the dead having no money to buy anything, though everyone else does.
Watching them slowly ease in the direction of the doorways, Mancy thinks how they’ll do what the undead usually do: find their loved one and “utter last regrets, spiteful accusations, or maundering mewling.” Which does seem to cover the bases. I like that little stab of humor there though—“only occasionally murderous.”
This scene was a delight I thought, from Imid being so dense as to be shocked (shocked I say!) that necromancers might raise the dead, to his fear that his mother might be waiting for him at home, to the revelation that Elas murdered her husband for poor aim while peeing (thus enacting the dream of many a long-suffering partner I’m thinking… )
The whole thin veneer of society is something we’ve seen a lot in the novels, and is always a favorite theme of mine in general, since I think it so true. And the political humor here is also pretty spot on. Given what we’re seeing in the current political season here in the US, I’m not all that sure that being undead would in fact disqualify someone from doing decently. They’d be the ultimate “outsider” after all.
And even in midst of discussing the murder of several children, we get a spot of humor (dark humor, of course) as those children having garnered their revenge on whatever serial killer murdered them, seem to have been a bit “careless” in said vengeance, parading around with an extra arm.
And you have to love the undead king working the comb-over (oh, he’s definitely ready to run for office!)
I know I’ve mentioned how great the names are in this one, but c’mon, “Stentorian Nun”? She should have her own TV show. Or at least a Christopher Durang play.
And that’s a great chapter close—leaving us hanging with some goddess-smelling baby. For its length, The Healthy Dead manages to throw in a few suspense cliffhangers, some horror, some dark humor, some slapstick humor, and a goodly amount of social criticism. Not bad.
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.