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 Chapter Seven (Part Two) 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.
Blood and Bone Chapter Seven (Part Two)
Pon-lor continues on with two guards left alive, though one is feverish and Pon-lor is forced to eventually use his magic to give him a mercifully peaceful and quick death. When the single guard left thanks him for performing the kindness, Pon-lor thinks to himself: “Thank me? No—you should curse me. I have led you poorly.” He leads the guard onward, thinking his only chance at redemption at this point is to return with the yakshaka and/or the witch.
Pon-lor, coming across a pitcher plant that uses poison to kill those insects lured into it, thinks of a line he once read: “Beware the Queen’s gifts, for poison and death lie within.” He thinks of how the Thaumaturgs employ poison for lots of purposes, and then recalls how his teacher, Master Surin, used the poison of this particular plant to keep subjects alive as he dissected them. Pon-lor remembers how he’d been appalled even as he’d crowded around with the other students to observe. His thoughts are interrupted by the guard pointing out a path which they follow to an old temple or shrine where they decide to camp. That night Pon-lor has a vision of a horrible sacrifice that had been done there long ago in an attempt to bring to an end the “Weeping Pestilence” that had ravaged the area. None of the histories had mentioned human sacrifice, and Pon-lor is horrified by what he has seen, but he thinks as well he that he “had witnessed a people driven to the edge and it felt as if a hot knife had carved out his heart.” The next morning, when Toru asks, Pon-lor tells him he was “allowed—or cursed with—a vision of tragedy.” They continue on in the morning, but Toru falls into a stake trap and is killed. Pon-lor is struck and knocked unconscious.
He wakes to find himself captured by Jak and his gang, including a young woman with a harelip (Myint) and a young boy (Thet) who has helped himself to Toru’s armor. Thet suggests just killing Pon-lor, but Jak rejects the idea and tells him to find the witch’s trail. Myint guards Pon-lor as they walk, though she says she too would rather just kill him. Pon-lor meanwhile is just fine with being captured as he knows he’d never be able to find Saeng on his own, so while he could use his powers to escape, he goes along with the charade of being a prisoner.
Osserc looks at the Nacht that sits at the table with him and Gothos (who is apparently sleeping). He wonders about the Azath, about his own goals, about how he has allowed himself to become distracted. Gothos wakes and the two banter a bit, with Osserc telling the Jaghut he has “guarded the wellspring of Thyrllan from all who sought to explot it. Kept it apart. Walled it off at costs few could imagine… I have asked nothing of others that I have not demanded of myself.” Gothos replies, “Exactly… You have asked nothing of others. And so by your own admission… you have asked nothing of yourself.” Osserc angrily calls that absurd, saying he had “closed Kurald Thyrllan! I have maintained the peace! I have done nothing but watch and ward the boundaries of that realm… Even those of my own blood have had to be dissuaded now and then.” Gothos doesn’t seem very impressed, admitting he supposes such tasks have kept Osserc “busy” and “distracted.” Osserc wonders if he’s missing something.
Shimmer dreams of when the Crimson Guard swore the Vow. How they’d been nearly destroyed by Kellanved’s army, reduced to a core band of 600 harried and harassed and, rumor recently had it, now targeted by the Emperor’s most dread weapon—the T’lan Imass. K’azz leads them to the Fenn Range onto a grassy plateau, one he tells them is “an ancient site. A place of power. Holy to our family, to our ancestors, and, some say, even to those ancient ones who preceded us upon these lands.” In response to Skinner’s direct challenge of his choices, K’azz says he’s brought them here to swear a “binding oath [of] unrelenting and unending opposition to the Malazan Empire for so long as it shall endure.” He says any who doubt are free to go, but he himself shall make this vow. Stoop and Skinner are the first to say they so swear. After a moment of trying to figure out if he is missing something here, Skinner also agrees.
When it comes to Shimmer, she feels “a sudden weight, as if she were being sucked down into the earth beneath her feet, or the earth itself were rising up to swallow her.” She hears what sounds like hooves but too deep and loud for horses, “something immense moving across the land.” She swears and the weight moves on, and as she recovers, she notes a female figure—“broad, powerful and dark-skinned, her long kinky black hair windtossed”—watching them at a distance. She flashes back to another memory, this time of herself as a young child being taken away to be taught the whipsword. She thinks back again, but her memories are interrupted by Stoop, who appears and warns her she’s drifted almost to the point of no return. He leads her back from her memories and she comes to standing at the railing of the ship, which has run aground in shallow water, the river having shrunk to barely a stream. Stoop tells her the Brethren are frightened “of where we’re head. Of who is awaiting us there. She’s like nothing else in the world—‘cept maybe the Shattered God… She has the power to steal us away.” He asks her to make sure that doesn’t happen and she promises.
She finds K’azz in a trance and tries to wake him. Rutana appears and says he dreams, “merely a side effect of [Ardata’s] presence.” K’azz wakes and he and Shimmer bandy some philosophy. K’azz tells her what separates humans from the animal is society; they have each other. She scoffs, saying “the herd, the group. So we are sheep.” But he mocks the cliché, telling her wolves are actually “more sophisticated. Wolves have a hierarchy. And the worst fate for any wolf is to be cast out of the pack. If a sheep becomes lost it just wanders around until something eats it. If a wolf is cast out, it dies of loneliness. Human society shares much more with the wolf than the sheep.” She notes how bad he looks thanks to his “sickness or condition,” and he, noticing her look, turns away, seemingly hurt. She asks what he’s trying to tell her and he replies that where they go there is neither sheep nor wolf: “I believe the entity awaiting us does not even know what society is. Has never been part of a group, or even a family, such as we understand it. She, or it, is unfathomably alien to us. Remember that.” She says she will, and they go to wake the others.
Pon-Lor is a decent character by the looks of things, and helps us to recognise that we cannot apply sweeping generalisations to people based on what race they belong to. Sure, the Thaumaturgs are fairly hideous in their practices, but it doesn’t mean that all of them can be tarred with the same brush. This is something that we need to keep telling ourselves, especially in light of current affairs.
Immediately we have another look at what makes the Thaumaturgs so grim. They clearly see themselves as progressives, intellectuals, but they have a rather horrible way of displaying it. Also, you do wonder how exactly human beings learnt about the inner workings of the human body? We maybe are not that different from the Thaumaturgs.
The idea of being awake and aware, watching as a knife point descends to pierce your eye is an example of the rather delicious horror that Esslemont is capable of, and something that he does almost better than Erikson.
Pon-Lor is also very logical, considering and discarding the superstitions of the goat skulls, and ending up being fine to stay in what the guard refers to as an ‘ill-omened place’.
I wonder if what Pon-Lor says here gives an indication of how Ardata has achieved such power: “And what need has she for temples or shrines? The entire jungle of Himatan seems to be dedicated to her.” Considering what we’ve seen before in the main series, where Mael gains more power again because of a temple being rededicated, this would seem to show that having a whole jungle would lend her a lot of power.
I’m not sure I could be quite so calm if a spider that is clearly so big and heavy it ‘pads’ up to Pon-Lor’s side ended up trying to investigate me! There would be no edging aside. There would instead be an Amanda-shaped hole in the jungle foliage.
Who is the Queen’s Avenger? Is this Queen Ardata?
Hmm, it seems a little odd that Pon-Lor finds the sacrifice so distasteful but he is aware of what his own people do. I mean, I know he isn’t fond of their own practices but there seems a slight air of hypocrisy here.
Gosh, Jak is such an endless source of joy to read about! Why do people never learn that treating their followers so cruelly (the way he refers to the lad as worthless) only invites rebellion in the future?
I love the moment where Pon-Lor realises who Jak really is. And I don’t love where he reflects on the fact that “later these bandits would all writhe in indescribable agony”—that seems to be a typical Thaumaturg thought.
I am confused by the whole scene with Osserc. Although I love Gothos, as usual, I am unsure as to what these scenes are adding to the novel as a whole.
On the other hand, this scene with the Crimson Guard and the Vow is just great—I especially love K’azz’s gentle humour. It’s easy to see why Shimmer feels the way she does. His refusal to be called Prince, and his final acceptance of Duke makes me feel very warm towards him.
Again, I find it quite well done, the way Esslemont is able to present the Thaumaturgs as a whole as such a repulsive society, and yet manages in their individuality to present them as people we can actually engage with and even like. We like Pon-Lor’s knowledge that it isn’t bad “miasma” but the insects that are the vectors of disease. We like how he immediately accepts the responsibility of delivering the coup de grace to the fevered soldier (“the onus is upon me”). Thanks to Esslemont’s description of the coup—employing words like soothing easing, calm, easy, relaxed—we like what Pon-Lor does for the man. And we like his refusal to accept the other guard’s gratitude, his willingness to blame himself and seek “redemption.” And of course, we like the younger him as well, how he is “appalled” at watching his teacher dissect a living person, and perhaps appalled at himself as he crowded around to watch with his friends. Is this a case of evil is seldom done by “fully evil” people or might it be a hint of some upcoming rebellion on his part, or perhaps a growing change in the Thaumaturg society?
In that same vein as above, it’s a nice little detail, adding to our positive view of Pon-lor, that rather than kill the spider that moves beside him that he simply nudges it aside.
So that line about beware the gifts of Ardata for they contain “poison and death.” We have several character apparently on their way to meet her, so perhaps we should keep an eye out of any gifts she may bestow. Or maybe we’re meant to think of a gift already given, a certain suit of armor maybe? Or is this just a red herring tossed our way?
A horrific scene of sacrifice and again, we have to like the sense of empathy Pon-Lor displays as a response.
Too bad, I kind of liked Toru.
Lots of nice little hints in this scene of dissension in Jak’s ranks, dissension he is clearly unaware of. Perhaps setting us up for it playing a role later.
Osserc kind of can stand in for the reader here, with his constantly looking for deeper meaning, connections, metaphors. We get so much thrown at us that we’re always wondering, “Yeah, but what does that really mean?” or “Sure, but how does that connect to that thing mentioned 2642 pages ago?”
Yes, I had to look up anastomotic.
As anyone who has begun the prequel trilogy knows, and as we’ve been reminded of several times in this series, one should, as Gothos says, be leery of ascribing too much “truth” to memory or history. And I love his phrasing here, that we “sculpt them to suit our images of our present selves [consciously or unconsciously]. And in any case, the truth of then is not the truth of now.”
This is a tantalizing scene looking back at the creation of the Vow. We get an intriguing look at Skinner as K’azz’s best bud until the losses begin to wear on him and he comes close even then to challenging him. And of course, we get the Vow itself, literally. At that field, a place of power making it not merely a vow but a Vow. Though it does seem to me that perhaps K’azz could have been a bit more explicit about that. Especially as it’s made clear that, if Shimmer is representative, most of the Guard don’t have a full sense of what they are actually doing. We’ve certainly had lots of intimations of connection with the Imass and the Tellan ritual. Who is that female observer? Might she be Imass? What is the significance of this field? Is it linked to the Imass—are they the “ancient ones who preceded us upon these lands”? That would seem to be a pretty blunt indication. And as well the soon-to-come description of K’azz: “parchment-like skin stretched taut over high cheekbones, the skull’s orbits of the eyes clearly visible.”
And what is Ardata’s connection? Why does she wield the “power to steal us [the Avowed? The Brethren?] away” according to Stoop?
Certainly Ardata has a heap o’ power if being in her mere presence, her power unexerted, casts them all into such a dreaming state
I’m trying to remember—did we have a sheep-wolf discussion in one of the earlier Malazan books? I know I’ve read one in a fantasy book but it all sort of blurs over time. I do like how K’azz dispenses with such a facile point. And how his point about having each other, of being part of a society, had been just shown more concretely by how Stoop looked out for her and came to rescue Shimmer from her own dreaming.
Ardata is being painted in more and more intimidating a light as we go forward, isn’t she?
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.