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 Nine (Part One) 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 Nine (Part One)
Golan’s army is stopped by a large river, which Scribe Thorn dutifully reports, as he does the other day’s news. In spectacularly deadpan manner. After they agree they are “crushing” their non-existent opposition with their dying on its feet army, Golan heads off strategizing how best to win his next exchange with his scribe. He orders the labourers to build rafts, then orders that the soldiers, who are after all not labourers, not speed the process by helping. He moves off to the infirmary to visit U-Pre.
The head surgeon directs him to where U-Pre lies—warning him U-Pre hasn’t much time left—before he prepares, in the most fastidiously sanitary fashion, for yet another amputation. As Golan walks away, he muses on how the Thaumaturgs have yet to come up with a cure for infection, their various theories on what causes it, and then more broadly how poorly designed the human body is and the Thaumaturgs’ goal of perfecting it. In the tent of the dying he’s annoyed at finding “common” labourers together with soldiers. Even though he agrees with the basic precept that “in the end all men and women were mere bags of blood and bile no different from one another, it was the principle of rank and class that mattered here.” He finds U-Pre, partially out of it due to being dosed with poppy for the pain. He tells U-Pre he’s sad at his soon-to-be death, especially as he’s come to rely on him a lot. U-Pre apologizes for the inconvenience and suggests sub commander Waris as his replacement. Watching him, Golan thinks how “and so too shall we all go. Death is the true great leveler. We humans are perhaps no more than ambulant fertilizer… Human so-called dignity, individual identity, achievements and accomplishments, all are as nothing. The present is not more than a sweeping eternal fall into a futurity that none can know. To grasp this is to know profound humility. And profound indifference to one’s fate.” U-Pre gives him the expedition’s journal, and Golan says farewell and exits.
Golan promotes Waris, tells him his idea about letting the soldiers work with the labourers was dangerously revolutionary, but tells him considering their situation he’ll allow it. Waris leaves, having said nothing, and Golan thinks perhaps he’s a bit too terse. But then watching Scribe Thorn scribbling away at his reports, he readjusts his thinking.
As the days pass and Warleader’s army strikes deeper into Thaumaturg territory, Jatal feels ever more dread, wondering how they could possibly achieve any sort of dominance over an entire nation with a few thousand soldiers. But somehow Warleader has managed to convince them all, particularly his argument that the Thaumaturgs’ centralized hierarchy means if one can control the center one can control all. Jatal also worries that Andanii is done with him, since it’s been a while since she’s visited his tent. Ganell notes he doesn’t look well, and the two discuss the Warleader’s assurances, with Ganell saying so far he’s been right about everything. He points out, however, that Warleader is a foreigner, and the tribes’ troops outnumber his, though he does worry about a covert alliance between him and Andanii. They’re interrupted by Warleader calling a halt as several scouts have returned and reported a large group of soldiers set up for battle ahead. Warleader says they’ll take a look at them.
Looking at their opposition, Warleader scoffs at calling it an army, saying it’s more of a mob formed of farmers and city-dwellers, showing just how desperate the Thaumaturgs must be. Jatal though asks if it could also be as sign of determination, which gets him a stern Catholic School nun stare from Warleader. Jatal feels a shock of recognition at that face but can’t quite recall why. To everyone’s surprise, Warleader orders a charge, but then as they do so, Jatal realizes Warleader had called it perfectly; this mob would never stand up to one. Amongst them, he realizes the “soldiers” are shackled in place. The Adwami break through easily, but then are cut down by some unseen force. Jatal realizes they’ve been trapped, and then sees Yakshaka attacking. Warleader appears slicing through, looking like “the very god of war.” He tells Jatal to attack the Yakshaka with the Elite soldiers while he deals with the Thaumaturgs that must be controlling them. The attack doesn’t go well, though Jatal thinks they’ll be able to grind them down. But then Thaumaturg magic strikes down a horde of people, leaving only Warleader standing. Jatal watches as Warleader charges after an unseen target, and he decides to follow, curious as to how the magic hadn’t affected Warleader and also why it had struck just where he’d been standing. He sees Warleader wreaking havoc amongst some Thaumaturgs, somehow having won through past the yakshaka, whose bodies Jatal notes in passing had “suffered astonishing wounds.” Jatal arrives just as Warleader kills the last one, telling him, “So perished your forebears,” as the Thaumaturg looks at Warleader and mouths, “You” before dying. Looking into Warleader’s eyes at that moment, Jatal sees “a hurricane of rage and a soul-destroying bottomless black despair” that drives Jatal to his knees. Warleader raises his sword over him as if reedy to kill him, but then a group of lancers appear and he steps back, though looking at Jatal with suspicion. The lancers report the Yakshaka are still fighting, and then ignore Warleader when he tells them to destroy them. When Jatal repeats the order, they ride off.
Warleader tells Jatal that it is as it seems; he and the Thaumaturgs had “dealings in the past… long ago. And I deem it my business.” Jatal wonders if Warleader is in fact a foreigner. Warleader says it doesn’t matter, as Jatal will have his territory while Warleader will get his vengeance, though it was Jatal who prompted that word and it took Warleader a moment to think about it before agreeing. Jatal suddenly worries if anything happened to Andanii, and he’s annoyed to see Warleader also seemingly concerned. They find her getting a not-too-bad leg injury tended to. Warleader lifts her in his arms and then into her saddle, much to Jatal’s dismay. Warleader tells her he’s studied healing and alchemy for a long time and proffers his aid. She gives him permission to visit her tent later. As she rides away without looking back, Jatal feels something “break” in him, “something that once broken can never be replaced.” He returns to his tent to play The Cure over and over.
At the big celebration that night, Jatal is annoyed at the continued absence of Andanii and Warleader. He wonders at the man’s connection to the Thaumaturgs, thinking him perhaps a vassal of theirs, maybe a leader of one of their forays into Himatan, or a rebellious general. He wonders if he should tell Andanii. He heads toward her tent but Scarza grabs him and pulls him aside, saying they should share a drink while Jatal tells him all about the battle Scarza conveniently missed. When Jatal tries to push past, Scarza tells him Warleader did bring Andanii medicines and she’s probably sleeping. Pressed, he admits Warleader might still be in there. He tries to convince Jatal not to go, but Jatal ignores him. At her tent though, he’s stopped by her bodyguard, who tell him she ordered no one (really, no one) was allowed to disturb her. He walks off, swallowing his anger at the insult given, and thinking he’ll show them, he’ll show them all.
Will be forthcoming in the comments—she promises faithfully (she’s actually writing this!). Okay, so the day job kicked my arse today—got year end coming at end of March and doing lots of prep work, so am heading home later to curl up with Esslemont so that I can produce my usual level of drivel. *grins*
A lovely bit of colonial racism in that opening citation—of course the natives couldn’t have possibly had any sort of civilization to rival one’s own? They must have been some long-lost ancestors of the superior race. And if not that, then aliens. Yes, definitely aliens. Certainly not those funny-colored/funny-looking/funny-smelling/funny-sounding people. And the fact I can tell that it couldn’t have been them and have come up with a logical alternative is thus evidence of my superiority. It is, isn’t it?
I am so quite enjoying these moments between Scribe Thorn and Golan—they’re so understated in their humor. I mean, so often I love just visualizing the two of them. In this case, standing “not a pace from” the river as Thorn “reports” that a river is in their way. And then there’s the comic beat, beat, beat of silence while Golan just looks at him. Love it. And how can you not smile at the cows and oxen being labeled “deserters”? Even better though is that while the joke could have ended there, Esslemont takes it one unexpected step further, with Golan continuing the absurdity by “understanding” their “desertion”:
“All remaining animals are being transferred to feed stock.”
“Ah, ergo the desertions.”
And then the “encouraging news” that there food stocks and other supplies are so negligible they can easily be carried by the “remaining” bearers. Woo-hoo!
This whole conversation is just a joy, closing with that laugh-out-loud “The troops breathlessly await, I’m sure.” Give me more of these two any day. I laughed when I read this scene, when I summarized it, and when I responded to it. Each and every time.
Talk about an abrupt shift, from the absurd repartee to the trauma of battlefield surgery, presented in what reminded me of very Civil War-like fashion, with the amputations, the limbs, the deaths caused more by disease and infection and gangrene than battle. Even the way the surgeon “cleaned” his saw by wiping it on his wetly bloody apron. Yeah, hard to believe there’s so much infection going around…
I did like the little side path down Thaumaturg science, the way it mirrored our own early questing/theorizing with the humours, the befuddlement over our organs (just what do those pesky things do after all?), and also for how it gave us further insight into what the Thaumaturgs see themselves doing—setting out to improve upon our poorly designed bodies. I also like it for the way it just very quickly, as an aside, shows that the world isn’t wholly static, which is what we see in so many fantasies. Though it has seemed to me lately that I’ve been reading more and more fantasy novels/series that show worlds in flux, allowing for an accrued understanding of the world, of science and technology, rather than the old “stuck in the Middle Ages (which themselves were not as barren of technological advancement as is often thought and portrayed)” setting. We get a good number of these momentary glimpses into advanced thinking in the series as a whole.
I suppose if the Thaumaturgs think all humans are bags of meat, that might explain their lack of empathy or horror at their grisly experiments, though I’m guessing it has much to do as well with a sense of superiority and then of course of rank and status. I do like that even as Esslemont gives us an engaging and often likable character (again, that opening scene with Scribe Thorn), we also get the warts, such as his dismay at the “commoners” being in the same tent as the soldiers or his disbelief at the idea of soldiers working as labourers (though we also see some adaptability on his part, making him likable again). So easy, and so dull, to paint character as “all” one thing or another. How much more fun to show all these facets instead. More fun for the author, more fun for the reader.
“Profound humility” is not how I would have characterized Golan (or the enlightened Thaumaturgs who are his bosses), but it’s hard not to nod along with at least some of his philosophizing (it’s a Malazan book, it has to have philosophizing). He should form a book club.
I liked that little hint Esslemont gives when Jatal thinks he’s seen Warleader’s face before—his use of the word “graven” which would point us to sculpted figures. Nice subtle touch.
The “battle” scene is surprisingly vague for a Malazan battle, though really the fight itself is obviously not the focus. I wonder, though, if Amanda (or any of our first-time readers) thought this trap was part of Kallor’s plan, was a betrayal on his part, especially when he ordered the charge or the attack on the Yakshaka? It’s been so long since I read it the first time, I can’t recall what I thought then, and obviously this time around I had no concerns.
Once again, we get a complicated view of Kallor, with his eyes holding not simply rage, as we’d expect, but also a “bottomless black despair,” which is hard not to feel for. Is it that Jatal sees his despair that almost has Kallor kill him rather than fear he’s been found out as the old High King?
I also had to chuckle at Jatal thinking Kallor must have been some “vassal” for the Thaumaturgs. At least he envisions him as a general, though really, it’s hard to imagine Jatal picturing him as someone taking orders, whether as general or as expedition leader.
I do like Scarza. This moment here he seems sincerely concerned about Jatal’s feelings. I’m also, I admit, happy we don’t spend too much time in Jatal’s jealous/I’ll show them all mode. A little of that sort of thing goes a long way.
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.