Welcome back 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 (with Amanda, new to the series, going first), and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll cover the prologue of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Blood and Bone.
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.
Welcome back everyone! So after a brief digression to follow the meanderings of Bauchelain and Broach, we’re back into the main storyline (the many branching plots of it at least) of the series. Hope you all had a good break and are ready to go.
Blood and Bone: Prologue — Summary
Saeng recalls how as a young girl even she was aware of the ghosts and spirits of the jungle on Jacuruku, how she wandered through the trees unafraid of them and learning from them as she grew. Her mother at first was upset, telling her that her family held to the old faith, none of this superstitious prayer to the GodKing or the Witch or the Beast Gods. Instead they were descendants of the “original priestesses of the Sky and Sun [who] worship Light.” But eventually her mother gave up and Saeng continued to speak to what she learned were the “dreaded land and ancestor spirits, the Nak-Ta,” learning from older and more powerful ones as time went by. Then one day one tried dragging her down into the ground, telling her “The High King will be well pleased with you.” Her brother Hanu suddenly appears, dispelling the spirit and telling her he’s been watching her, worried. He agrees not to tell her mother about the incident if Saeng allows him to accompany her whenever she’s in the jungle. She promises.
The two continued in the jungle for a year while she spoke to older ghosts as well as spirits of nature. Realizing her brother could not see them, and was vulnerable to them, she used magic to protect him. When he asks why the dead are still sticking around, she tells him it’s because they are angry, which makes him think it isn’t safe to be around them. One day an old spirit tells her that she had been ordered drowned by the God-King because she had been a priestess of the old faith of Light. The spirit tells her the same faith runs in Saeng’s blood, and then warns her that she is about to face a trial and a choice, adding to remember all the spirits have taught her. After telling Saeng she had been “called,” the spirit disappears. When she tells Hanu about the conversation, he tells her the Choosing is nearing, and when she says he mustn’t attend he tells her he has no choice; it’s required and failure to go would mean his arrest.
A month later, a group of “the ruling Thaumaturgs” came through the province, with one representative eventually making his way to Saeng’s village. As he inspects the gathered village men, Saeng realizes how he’s just going through the motions, and she has a sudden sense of hatred for him, for his “scheming” at the capital, and for her village’s poverty. The representative starts to leave, having as usual selected none for service, but then returns to the men, picking out Hanu. He sniffs him and after reacting strongly, scans the watching crowd. He then smiles with “cruel satisfaction” and selects Hanu, who gets fettered and taken away, though not after promising Saeng he’ll still protect her. Watching the column leave, Saeng swears vengeance on the Thaumaturgs, though she feels guiltily suspicious that it had been her spells of protection on Hanu that had garnered the attention of the representative.
Shimmer, an avowed of the Crimson Guard, is at Haven’s waterfront in Stratum when a beat up ship moored, a ship that she senses is somehow unusual, that has something or someone of power on it. A man and woman exit and after looking Shimmer over discuss amongst themselves how Shimmer is an “Isture,” which they explain to her is their people’s word for the Avowed, translating to “undying friend.” The woman then apologizes for her sharp temper, saying she’s isn’t fond of her current task, which is to offer the Crimson Guard a contract. Shimmer tries to tell her the Guard doesn’t do that anymore, and that K’azz isn’t seeing anyone now, but the woman ignores that and asks Shimmer to lead her to an inn. She introduces herself as Rutana and her companion as Nagal, saying they’re from a nearby land, though one Shimmer has never heard of—Jacuruku. Shimmer replies she knows of it, and in fact K’azz has even been there. Rutana says she knows, and tells Shimmer to bring him a message. When Shimmer reacts testily to being ordered around, the woman tells her the message is that Skinner is in Jacuruku.
Some time later, Shimmer meets with Lor-sinn and Gwynn, two company mages. Lor tells Shimmer she’s still trying to contact the Fourth in Assail but hasn’t succeeded yet. Gwynn says the First are still on Jacuruku. He tells her that Rutana is a servant of Ardata, Queen of Witches, and warns her that she and Nagal are here to drag the Guard into Arcata’s war with Skinner. Having seen Jacuruku, he strongly advised against it. Lor says none of it matters anyway, as nobody knows where in the interior K’azz has gone. When Shimmer says she’ll send him a message through the Brethren, Lor answers he might not answer.
Later, alone, Shimmer is frustrated at how K’azz seems to be trying to avoid something, and she wonders it it’s her. She’s annoyed he’s abdicated his responsibilities. She summons the Brethren and when Stoop appears tells him she has a message for K’azz that visitors from Jacuruku have arrived with news that Skinner is there. Stoop notes the Brethren had sensed them and that they were “hardly human.” Stoop heads off, leaving behind a cloud of dust, which strikes Shimmer as odd as she’d never seen any Brethren gather dust to themselves. Plus, she found it odd how Stoop had acted “almost as if he were still alive.”
Afterward, Shimmer thinks to herself that she’ll be surprised if K’azz answers, recalling how he’d disavowed Skinner and his followers over a year ago, meaning the Guard was no longer responsible for whatever Skinner did. A few days later though, K’azz appears.
Seeing him, Shimmer is shocked at K’azz’s appearance of age. He asks about Blues, and she tells him he’s probably reached Korel by now to rescue Bars from the Shieldwall. He tells her he can sense that the two visitors are two of Ardata’s most powerful servants, meaning she takes their mission very seriously, but the Guard still won’t oblige them. They go to meet Rutana and Nagal, and Rutana angrily tells K’azz that his “vassal” Skinner is making war on them and it is the Guard’s responsibility to deal with him. When K’azz says Skinner is no longer one of them, Rutana says that the Guard still owes reparations from when Skinner was (“reparation” meaning “kill Skinner”). K’azz though points out that Skinner became Ardata’s vassal when he entered Jacuruku. Rutana answers there was no “formal agreement” like that; Skinner and Ardata merely had “a relationship.” When K’azz says again he’s not responsible for Skinner’s actions, Nagal points out that it is K’azz’s Vow that keeps Skinner alive though. K’azz says he regrets that, but can’t do more than he has, which is to disavow him. Nagal says that isn’t enough, adding that Ardata has delved into “the mysteries” of the Vow, wondering if K’azz isn’t at least a little curious. K’azz is clearly shaken, but rejects the offer, saying maybe down the road he’ll take her up on it. Rutana tells him Ardata has given her leave to reveal one more thing if he was uncooperative, telling him her mistress has foreseen that there will soon be an attempt on the Dolmens of Tien. Shimmer recognizes that as the place K’azz had been imprisoned, and when she looks to K’azz she’s shocked at how he’s turned pale at the news. Clearly disturbed, K’azz agrees that cannot be allowed, and he agrees to come to Jacuruku, much to Shimmer’s surprise.
A ship lands (one of a fleet), its warriors jumping out “howling like wolves,” led by one known as “The Grey Ghost” or “Warleader,” and his second in command Scarza. Warleader notes to Scarza the land did not quake nor trumpet peal upon their landing, saying it has “been a great many years since I last walked these shores.” Scarza asks what they’re doing in such a miserable place (one that reminds him of his own home), and Warleader answers he’s here for the nearby kingdom ruled “my a complacent set of self-aggrandizing mages who style themselves master alchemists and theurgists.” But in this spot where they landed are small groups of bandits/raiders who attack the Thaumaturgs, and he plans on organizing them into a campaign, admittedly one that will probably end in all their deaths. He orders Scarza to organize the landing and dismantle the ships for lumber.
Well, my lovelies, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I have no excuses—well, I do, but I’m not sure they’ll be up to snuff. Basically, I’m currently working three jobs—a day job in finance, freelance editorial work and as a literary agent for Red Sofa. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else, and it’s taken me all these months to try to find a balance. I can’t promise that I won’t tumble off again either! I do intend to read the Bauchelain novellas after having enjoyed the first, but that will be a while away and perhaps for my own pleasure!
So, Blood and Bone! Let’s get to it…
I sort of feel a little bit as though Jacuruku reflects a real life location such as Africa or the jungles of South America. This giant river mouth mentioned in the chapter heading of the prologue feels to have the same properties as the Nile or the Amazon.
You wonder what affinity to the supernatural Saeng has if she can hear ghosts and a ‘friend’ brought her back from childhood wandering. Certainly she seems to have no fear of ghosts.
We’re definitely being set up to see the mystery in these jungles, with the mentions of ‘countless spirits, restless dead, ghosts, lost forgotten gods…’
Ooh, so Saeng’s family is descended from the original priestesses of the Sky and the Sun—that all says Osserc to me, and possibly Tiste Liosan (gosh, I feel like I am exercising disused muscles recalling these names—it feels a little like remembering a foreign language again after a period of not using it).
These ghosts certainly don’t seem the friendly type, with the difficulty she suffers in trying to dismiss them, and in the residual anger they have. Which sort of brings to mind the question of what made them so angry.
High King? Hmm, some candidates for this one, I’m thinking, but I’m not sure who is favourite. Would certainly welcome your ideas on suggestions as to who this might be.
Esslemont very quickly and effectively leads us to feel caution about the character of Saeng, with her disregard and lack of care, whereas her brother Hanu straight away feels warm and honourable. It’s good character profiling.
Hmm, so the ghosts have their personal reasons for teaching Saeng what she has come to know—and it seems it is in service of the God of Light. We haven’t been given a lot of reason to look that favourably on the Tiste Liosan until now.
Haha, this is slightly heavy-handed: “She was apprehensive for Hanu, but not overly so, as it had been years since any son of the village had been selected for service.” Cue Hanu’s selection in three… two… one…
‘Undying fiend’—that is some diplomacy right there! But you can sort of see why Rutana would not exactly be happy about seeking the aid of the Crimson Guard regarding Skinner.
Esslemont’s writing continues to improve at a rate of knots—things like this description, with its touch of humour, are very effective: “Shimmer could very easily imagine the man spending even his free time sitting stiffly while he glowered into the darkness rather like a corpse presiding gloomily at its own wake.”
This is a nice little conversation recapping where the Crimson Guard are, such as the Fourth and the First, with reminders about the situation with K’azz as well.
We also get a reminder about how lonely and focused the life of a member of the Crimson Guard is: “Not that whichever of the Avowed occupied the room would have altered anything. The furnishings remained sparse: a cot for a bed and a desk for paperwork. That was all.”
I’m echoing Bill here, but we’re being given a lot of hints that the Crimson Guard are changing. We also have Shimmer here, settling into the role of governor and changing the dress she is accustomed to.
Such determination from K’azz and Shimmer that they are not going to be beholden regarding Skinner’s actions—I suspect we are going to see a reason for them to accept this charge! And it appears to be the mysterious Dolmens of Tien that have him changing his mind.
I was curious about Nagal’s words here: “Yes, some time in the future, Prince. For do we not possess all the time in the world, yes?” His use of the words ‘prince’ and ‘we’ seem to suggest that he is also one of the Avowed, although I could be reading too much into this.
Hmm, who might the Warleader be? Someone who mentions the fact that the world hasn’t ended, even with his arrival back in this place he hasn’t been in for many, many years. Someone long-lived then. Someone who hates the Thaumaturgs. I have a couple of ideas, but shall wait a little to see if I am going in the right direction.
That’s a great opening line, especially to a place we really haven’t been to in any detail: “Ghosts ruled the jungles of Jacuruku.” Sets us up with a nice sense of the eerie and mysterious, gives us some hope for the usual Malazan undead pleasure, and immediately offers up what has been a long-running theme in this series—the ways in which the past refuses to stay the past, often literalized as the ways (many, many ways) in which the dead refuse to just be dead.
We’re set up early on to have some misgivings, or at least a healthy skepticism, of Saeng’s involvement with these ghosts. First, the way in which their voices are “seductive,” a word than can often have some dark meaning, particular with regard to a child. Her own lack of fear is called a bit into question as a guiding light when it’s emphasized that it isn’t the fearlessness of experience or wisdom or familiarity, but more that she displays the unthinking courage that “only a child can.” And of course, all those “missing children and adults” would seem just a tad ominous. Not to mention the fact that they’ve stuck around post-corpse-state due to being “angry.” And this skepticism pays off in the scene where she is almost dragged down into the earth, an action that didn’t seem would end well, what with the “High King” being “well pleased” with her.
Interestingly though, it appears the High King, whomever he is, isn’t working with all the other ghosts, who, if we can trust the old dead priestess who was drowned, have been “teaching” Saeng with some clear agenda in mind (well, clear to them. Not so much to us or Saeng at this point).
When her mother berates her in her childhood, she rattles off a bunch of deities and the like. Beast gods, which we’ve seen. The Witch, which we can probably assume is Ardata. Light—will Osserc make an appearance? And the “cursed God-King”—which we aren’t quite sure of but we do not who ruled there as King long ago (Kallor) and who might be called a “God.” And this vagueness combined with the scene where she was nearly dragged down calls up the question as to whether the “God-King” and the “High King” are one and the same or two different individuals.
So, when the Thaumaturgs representative arrives carried in a palanquin of silk and “lacquered wood,” and got out wearing more silk, and turned out to be “rather fat… and short,” was anyone expecting him to be a good guy? Didn’t think so.
I liked the complexity of unintended consequences that plays out here though, with Saeng’s attempt to protect Hanu only serving to make him stand out and thus get chosen (or you know, Chosen).
I think I would have liked a little more priming of the pump for Saeng’s hatred for the Thaumaturgs though. Sure, I get why she hates them once they’ve taken her brother, and how that hatred is all the sharper for her own sense of guilt/complicity. But it would have been nice to get a sense of her stance, and the village’s stance, toward the mages earlier. Just a glimpse or two at least to set this scene up a bit more strongly.
From new character to old character. I always liked Shimmer so it’s nice to see her here again.
I like the wry tension of this first encounter between her and the representatives from Ardata. With the “no Isture would have deigned to appear so… informal” and “It translates as something like ‘undying fiend.’” That’s a nice icebreaker. At least Rutana apologized for her “ill humor.”
Like I said, I’ve always liked Shimmer. Skinner now, that’s another story. (and for some reason, every time I hear his name now I hear it like Kirk in the bowels of the Genesis asteroid yelling “Kahn!” “Skinnnn-errrrr!”
It’s a nice bit of economy in the little reminders of other things happening elsewhere—the Fourth Company still in Assail, Blues off to Korel to rescue Bars
There’s a lot here, direct and indirect, obvious and subtle, about change coming to the Crimson Guard. K’azz’s absence of course (and later his aging), the missing/exiled folks, Shimmer’s thoughts about how she is more attuned to things, Lor-sinn’s loss of “plumpness,” Stoop’s acting as if he were still alive and “gathering dust to his form.”
Love the resorting to technicalities when K’azz calls Rutana on Skinner being more Ardata’s vassal than his when he first went to Jacuruku: “There was no formal agreement as such… [They] merely struck up a relationship.” Ahh, a relationship. OK. If that’s what the kids are calling it these days…
That’s a nice tease about Ardata having sussed out at least some of the “mysteries” of the Vow.
Anyone else hear the organ music (dum dum duh!) at the “there shall be an attempt upon the Dolmens of Tien.”?
Hmm, so Grey Ghost. Warleader. Who is this mysterious personage returning to Jacuruku, and who says “It has been a great many years since I last walked these shores.” And who seems to have just a little bit of antipathy for the Thaumaturgs. Hmmm…
After training and working as an accountant for over a decade, Amanda Rutter became an editor with Angry Robot, helping to sign books and authors for the Strange Chemistry imprint. Since leaving Angry Robot, she has been a freelance editor—through her own company AR Editorial Solutions, BubbleCow and Wise Ink—and a literary agent for Red Sofa Literary Agency. In her free time, she is a yarn fiend, knitting and crocheting a storm.
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.