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 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 Nine (Part Two)
Shimmer’s ship comes to a sudden jarring stop on what appears to be a sandbar in the river. Checking the hull, Cole reports that it had rotted away long ago apparently. Taking a closer look at what’s blocking them, they realize it’s a giant creature easily large enough to engulf the ship. Gwynn calls it a “Worm of the Earth… A scion of D’rek,” though K’azz says it’s older than D’rek, which troubles Gwynn (either the revelation or K’azz’s knowledge of it). Nagal lowers Rutana onto the creature’s back and she speaks to it, then disappears with it as it dips beneath the water. The ship settles back into the water, followed by Rutana’s reappearance sans creature. Shimmer asks what it was, and Rutana replies, “You could call it a guardian… Some say they are drawn here by our mistress. Or perhaps they have merely been driven out of all other regions.” Shimmer realizes the latter is true of all the creatures they’ve seen in Himata, including Rutana, and wonders if that’s why Rutana so resents K’azz: “Is it because he is human? Are you afraid of losing your goddess?”
Everyone relaxes a bit and Shimmer questions Gwynn about his time here earlier, asking if he’d heard any rumours of what they’ll face, what his task here was. Gwynn answers he did hear lots of rumours, but doesn’t elaborate, and explains his job (ordered by Skinner) was to build a port city to eventually open the country to trade and travel. He goes on to say the job was nightmarish: “The coast is a treacherous swamp… The fever of chilling sweats is rampant—people died in droves. These beast Soletaken raided us, dragging men and women into the jungle. We lost many workers and constantly had to raid the villages to procure more.” He admits he wasn’t proud of what he’d been involved in and that’s why he’d refused to return.
When she asks what makes him so uneasy about K’azz, he in turns asks her if she’s even noticed K’azz having any warren talent, explaining that he senses a “dim aura around him… as if he were connected to a Warren, or a source of some sort… And he knows things. Things he shouldn’t know… Things he ought not to know,” pointing to the point about the worm being older than D’rek. She notes K’azz has changed recently and he agrees, saying he’s “closed to me,” and that seems right to Shimmer: “Closed. Yes. He has walled himself off from the rest of us. Why? What is he afraid of? Or hiding? Or protecting us from?” Her thoughts are interrupted by Rutana pointing out passing statues and submerged buildings worn down by time and elements and then announcing they were very close. Shimmer wonders to what, thinking, “All I see is a gulf of time… [though] Perhaps it has only been a few brief centuries or decades and that is all that is required to wipe away all remnants and signs of human existence. Perhaps this is the true lesson Himatan presents here.”
Jak gets an excited report from one of his men, and his group ties Pon-lor to a tree with a single guard. Pon-lor sets his “Nak” (spirit) free to spy on what Jak is up to, but first gets buffeted by “the psychic storm that was Ardata’s aura,” and then is wowed by the power of an alien presence (Celeste). It asks what he is, translating his answer of “a mage” to “Ah—a manipulator of interdimensional leakage.” Intrigued, it says it wants to investigate him, and sends out a “mountain if puissance… enough to scatter his atoms.” He snaps back to his body just as Jak’s crew returns with an unconscious Saeng, whom they use as hostage to control Hanu (much to Pon-lor’s surprise). Jak orders Hanu to sit, and he does.
Observing Saeng the next morning, unconscious Pon-lor wonders how this “peasant” could have gotten control of a yakshaka, assuming it had less to do with her and more with some defect or malfunction in the yakhsaka. But continuing to watch her confront Jak’s bluster and brutality, he has to admit he’s impressed with her poise and insight into her captors. Pon-lor considers killing all the bandits and taking her and the yakshaka, but knows without them he’d be lost in the jungle. He tries to undermine Jak with Thet-mun, but Saeng warns him not to listen, saying the Thaumaturgs are trying to bring the Jade Visitor down and destroy them all. Pon-lor calls that nonsense, thinking, “There are rumours they’d tried it before. And it had been a disaster.” Myint tells them both to shut up, and Pon-lor decides he’s had enough and it’s time to end this all at the next stop.
When they stop, Pon-lor is about to make a move when he suddenly notices all is quiet and using his magic, sense they’re surrounded. Locals attack and Pon-lor is shocked at the power Saeng displays in trying to protect herself, though she is wounded by an arrow to the leg. Hanu grabs her up and runs, and Pon-lor (also wounded by a poison arrow) follows along with Thet-mun who decides this is his best chance at survival (and a reward, which Pon-lor promises if he sees him back home with the yakshaka and the girl).
Spite is told to leave the forest by several of the hybrid denizens, or “Soletaken degenerates” as she diplomatically calls them. She fights with one, then is a bit intimidated when the Night Hunter appears and tells her they just want her to go. She scorns their ability to harm her and then is swallowed by one of the Autumn Worms. She eventually fights her way out, covered in “mucus and pulped flesh” and yells, “You see! Nothing here is a match for me! I will destroy you all!” A voice calls out in reply, “foolish girl. We could only lure here the smallest of them.”
This story line—with Shimmer and K’azz being taken further into the jungle—is so dreamlike and slow and drifting. I do admire the skill with which Esslemont has generated this feeling, but it doesn’t particularly aid my desire to read.
It does lend it a quiet menace, though, and that is really brought to the fore when they essentially run aground atop a giant worm (also, shout out to the lovely structure of this half of the chapter, that both begins and ends with giant worms). The dawning realisation of what has happened, the terrified wonderment as to whether this worm actually runs the entire length of the river they are moving along, the slow, dangerous rolls of the beast… All of it makes for beautifully atmospheric reading.
This is helped as well by the look at the people upon the boat, and the fact that they have lost all sense of time and appetite and life. Their long hair, their emaciated features, the ship that is rotting around them. Really well written.
I did have one moment of laughter though—the idea that this beast is able to swallow them whole, and Shimmer’s thought about the Crimson Guard finally meeting something they can’t do anything about, and I had visions of her and K’azz and the others sat in this beast’s stomach. Alive thanks to the Vow, but rather unable to achieve anything further. “Well, this is another fine mess!”
K’azz is becoming both more interesting and more irritating at the same time, as we see Shimmer wonder about how he is changing, and some of the others realising that he is now aware of things that really shouldn’t be open to him. As a first time reader, I am not really picking up any of the echoes of Tellann that Bill refers to, so either he picks up more detail than me (and let’s face it, he does!) or his rereading is having an impact.
“We lost many workers and had to raid the villagers to procure more.” Procure implies buying—did they buy slaves? Or is procure being used here as a rather sanitised way of saying ‘kidnap’? Either way, it doesn’t exactly make for pleasant reading. But then that made something occur to me. Thanks to the ambiguity of K’azz right now, and the splinter between the Avowed and Disavowed, and some of their less savoury actions, the Crimson Guard are far from being the good guys. With the Malazans, we are invited to believe them as on the side of right, with a few bad apples who we can dislike in a singular manner. The Crimson Guard is drawn in far more shades of grey—which I guess is how a mercenary troop should feel.
These Thaumaturgs really are crazy buggers. Pon-lor’s thoughts that they could include this sort of test into their general existence (starvation, deprivation, assault and humiliation) sort of beggars belief. Just as an aside, I didn’t feel we needed to be openly shown the boy pissing on Pon-lor. These things can be so easily implied and create more unease and distaste because of it.
I, as well as Bill, laughed at the idea that the chaining of the Crippled God could be referred to with such a brief word as disaster.
I like the fact that we have already seen Ardata’s Children presented in a sympathetic light while following Murk and Sour, so that we can understand why these often gentle souls would encourage talk about cannibalism in order to deter people from interrupting their lives.
Thanks, Bill, for raising the issue with having to see a description of Spite’s breasts, including the nipples. Why is this? Why do we have to know about what they look like? Why didn’t we see Pon-lor introduced by lovingly describing the shape and size of his penis? It’s so unnecessary and really creates a jarring and unpleasant note.
I’m interested both in the fact that these beasts know full well who Spite is. And in the way that she refers to the man with curved cat fangs and yellow eyes by saying: “you I know.” Who is he?
I like the callback to Spite’s ship and the bhok’lara.
While the giant sea worm is very cool in this scene, I’m actually more taken by the signs of time and decay that we get on the ship: the rotting spar that falls, Gwynn’s much longer hair, Lor-sinn’s lost weight, and of course, the long-ago rotted hull (which naturally begs the question of how they have not sunk). Of course, that probably says something about this series that the appearance of a ship-swallowing worm isn’t my most interesting take.
Gwynn’s story about his previous time here is interesting in its hard-to-like portrayal of the Crimson Guard (granted, the Crimson Guard under Skinner, but still) with the way they, if I’m reading this right, worked the natives to death and then kidnapped others to replace them. You wonder what the reactions of others beyond Gwynn were. And to be honest, “I’m not proud” and “I wouldn’t do it again” is certainly better than the alternatives, but I’m not sure just how admirable that is.
Gwynn’s comments on K’azz are interesting, his connection to warren-like source. We’ve talked about the Imass link, and at this point, a reader would probably think Gwynn would at least recognize Telas or something roughly akin to it (at least sense a familiarity), so this passage would seem to throw some confusion into the mix. Which is why a reader would probably hear his/her own thoughts in parallel to Shimmer’s: “She’d hoped for something more. Something pointing to an answer to the mystery that the man [K’azz] had become.”
I like the “Ozymandias”-like ending to this scene.
I’m not sure exactly what it says about Pon-lor that he thinks this is his most miserable time ever (the next few pages don’t really convince us otherwise) and that he decides it would make a good test for future students. Makes me think of hazing leading to hazing leading to hazing and nobody thinking, “hey, maybe we should give up the whole nearly killing our pledges thing…”
This is a nice little tease here with Pon-lor doing his spirit-walk thing. First thinking maybe he’ll have a run-in with Ardata (though one would assume a relatively short-lived one given how much she’s been built up) and then a stronger idea that something will come of his meeting with Celeste. Though it ends more than a little abruptly. But I like the playing with the reader.
I think it more than a little funny how Pon-lor yells at himself for always underestimating Jak’s crew, and then when Saeng shows up, he immediately drops the idea of her being some sort of powerful witch and instead sees her as some dumb peasant who happened to get lucky with a malfunctioning yakshaka. Though he does pick up pretty quickly at least that she’s not as bad as he thinks. And her burst of power goes a bit longer toward his realization.
“A disaster” seems a bit of an understatement for what happened after calling down the Crippled God.
I do confess I wish we had a bit fewer references to breasts. I’m just not sure why we need to know Spite’s breasts were “high and firm, the areolae a dark nut-brown.”
Otherwise, I don’t have a lot to say about this scene, save that it obviously sets us up for a very powerful, very angry Spite to still being a player in what’s to come, and that it has a killer last line.
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.