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, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. Today we’re continuing Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Assail, covering chapter four.
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.
A few notes: Amanda is on vacation and so will add her comments upon her return sometime after Friday. And speaking of Friday, due to Amanda being on said vacation and my taking off soon for World Fantasy in Columbus, we’ll be skipping Friday’s post and picking up with Chapter Five on Wednesday.
Assail: Chapter Four
The CG get caught in a storm. Shimmer asks Bars where he was in Assail, and he replies on the Dread Sea shore (Exile Keep), caught in a paranoid crossfire when two “inbred families of mages” thought the CG were there to take the keep. Cal and his group retreated north toward the Anguish Coast and when the mages followed Bars’s Blade escaped. Blues tells Bars not to feel guilty; it was the plan Cal devised and it worked.
Eventually they reach the Pillars, a mountainous island, and come across some Letherii merchant ships transformed into warships. They head to shore to enact repairs on their ship and meet with the Letherii, whose leader (Luthal Canar) welcomes them to “his” island. Noting the CG are trespassing on a “private commercial establishment” (he says it’s a guano mine), he says being a civilized nation, the Letherii have ways to deal with such infractions—confiscation of their vessel and all it holds. K’azz seems to acquiesce, and asks if he can purchase a Lether ship. Luthal sets the price ridiculously high (one tenth all the coin of Lether), and K’azz drops a single coin into his hand, telling him that since he could take the beach from the Letherii if he so desired, he’s giving it back to them with the additional coin: “price paid.” Luthal declares him in debt, and K’azz demands a “trial of payment,” which he knows is “in keeping with the laws of Lether.” Luthal agrees that if K’azz succeeds the debt is discharged. K’azz tells Shimmer not to interfere no matter what happens. Cowl laughs and when Shimmer asks what’s going on, he tells her K’azz will be loaded with chains and have to walk under water (a lagoon rather than the usual canal). He adds as far as he knows only one person has survived.
Shimmer and Blues observe the trial and are horrified when K’azz gets dumped into the bay. Luthal tells them he’s sorry (he isn’t), adding they’re now free to land, though of course they’ll have to pay “occupation fees.” Plus there will be extra charges for Wi-Fi. AS Blues and she wordlessly come to agreement that they’ll attack the Letherii. They’re interrupted by sight of K’azz doing fine underwater. Luthal declares the trial “corrupted” by magic, but Shimmer says, “We outlanders are ignorant of such niceties.” As they go to the Letherii camp to wait, Shimmer notices its shoddiness and also wonders why they need a palisade. K’azz exits the water and when Luthal declares it a “mistrial,” he angrily demands if Luthal will dishonor his own laws. When Luthal holds to his claim of a corrupted trial, K’azz says he’ll drop the hundred peaks he’s owed and just go, saying Luthal is lucky K’azz doesn’t consider him the indebted one. As they leave, K’azz tells Shimmer she’s his witness he gave the Letherii every chance, then orders Bars to take a boarding party and commandeer a Letherii vessel as down payment for what he is owed. He tells Shimmer he could just as easily sink all their ships, but that would mean their deaths, because of hostile locals and the lack of food and water on the island. After K’azz leaves, Shimmer asks Cowl how he managed to keep K’azz alive underwater (the others have already said they had nothing to do with it), but Cowl said he didn’t do anything; it was all K’azz. He does say K’azz is no mage when she asks, but that’s all he’ll tell her, much to Shimmer’s frustration. And worse, to her “dread” as she wonders what K’azz is “becoming.”
On the Lucky Strike, Burl takes to sitting in Whellen’s room nonstop, armed, fearing his crew will mutiny. When hunger finally forces him back out, he finds an empty ship save for one member barricaded in the cargo hold and one in the crow’s nest—the former saying the others were “taken” and the latter saying he didn’t know who or how. Later when he checks the crow’s nest and cargo hold are empty. He returns to find Whellen awake, and he assumes he’s been killing the crew. But Whellen tells him no, “No one has killed anyone… it’s this place… It’s not for us [the] enemy is just our fears.” To prove it to him, he drops himself into the water and sinks, looking up at Burl looking “sad or regretful.” Burl returns to the room and endures an “agony of waiting.”
Orman’s group is led by Old Bear farther up into Iceblood territory. Orman sees ghostly armed figures, but says nothing since the others seem to ignore them. Old Bear tells them they’ve reached the Sayer Hold, with Bain Hold then Lost Hold to the north-east and the Heels and Myrni to the west. He says the clans are probably already talking about how Boarstooth has returned to these lands.
Old Bear is told by one of the “ghosts” that there is a trespasser from the east and in return for safe passage their group must check it out. The trespasser, who knows Old Bear well, is Lotji Bain, nephew to Jorgan Bain, who lost Boarstooth in the duel with Orman’s father. Old Bear warns Lotji he can’t challenge Orman on Sayer lands, and Lotji agrees, though he says he would challenge him if Orman sets foot on Bain lands. He leaves after saying he’s sure he’ll meet Orman again. Old Bear asks Orman what he thought of the encounter, and Orman says he needs to practice with Boarstooth. Old Bear agrees.
They eventually reach the valley with gold—“the richest deposit in the Sayer holdings”—and immediately find a big nugget of gold. Old Bear confesses he and Gerrun serve the Sayers and brought the others to offer them the choice to collect as much gold as they want and return to town rich (“for a time”) or swear to defend the Sayers (“for a time”). He wonders though if they truly wish to be “a slave to gold… scrabbling in the dirt like a dog… always chasing after it. Never possessing enough. Grasping, hoarding, and fearful for what you do have. Lusting, envious, and covetous of what you do not.” The other choice he argues is more honorable and requires nothing save their word that they swear to live and die by. All agree to swear to the Sayers, with Orman thinking his father had made the same choice years ago.
After several more days of travel, one of the ghosts comes to Orman and warns him “A time of change is coming… Old grudges and old ways must be set aside, else not shall survive.” She tells him to pass it on, adding he was chosen because he carries “Svalthbrul.” Before leaving, she says, “They will come before summer.”
They reach the Sayer Great Hall and Old Bear introduces them to Vala, whose eyes seem “full of secret knowledge.” She notes that Orman carries Svalthbrul, as the “Eithjar—our elder guardians—whispered.” Old Bear tells them there are now only five Sayers left: Vala, her son Jass, Jaochim and Yrain (master and mistress of the hold), and Buri, the eldest. He also mentions a few servants and another soldier—Bernal Heavyhand. As the others sleep, Orman goes outside and falls into conversation with Jass, who asks him about other lands. Thinking of the tales of the Icebloods as “Forest demons and child stealers,” Orman thinks only that Jass seems similar to all the other young boys he’d known.
SCENES NINE & TEN
The next morning Orman meets Heavyhand, who says he was a good friend of Orman’s father. The group does weapons practice. The brothers tell Orman they fought the Bains and though not Lotji specifically, they did see him fight. Old bear tells him Lotji is one of the few who enjoys the “damned ugly business” of fighting: “to him it’s a game.” He adds he thinks Lotji misses the old days of clan warfare.
The group goes through the swearing ritual, with the Sayer reacting oddly to Orman’s full name as “Bregin’s son.” It turns out that Jass is Orman’s half-brother, also son to Bregin.
I’ve always thought Esslemont has consistently done a great job throughout his books with water settings and naval battles, and even in this brief description of the storm one gets the same level of quality detail that brings the shipboard setting alive.
The banter with the Letherii is fun, but I confess I don’t understand Shimmer’s anxiety, or at least its degree. I mean, obviously K’azz knows a lot about the Lether, as he’s spinning off their legal niceties so smoothly, so he’s hardly ignorant of what he is doing. And unless he thinks he has wholly and entirely lost it and is somehow committing suicide or is just gone all dementia on them, one would think she’d have a little more faith, even given his annoying behavior lately. Same thing when they toss K’azz into the water and her seemingly immediate assumption he’s dead, which just doesn’t ring sensible to me. Now, the getting ticked off at yet more secretive behavior? That I totally get. I can’t stand when characters don’t talk to one another in the length of a novel or movie; she’s had decades of this with K’azz. It’s gotta wear one down to say the least.
One can almost always count on some social criticism when a Letherii shows up, and here we get Shimmer getting justifiably indignant over Luthal’s “nonsense” about how those in debt are not somehow “coerced”:
As if watching one’s children starve, or struggling to salvage a lifetime of work wouldn’t force anyone to do anything. No, there was no coercion at all in the battle to keep a roof over one’s head and survive in this world. Such a belief—and the circumstances that allowed it—must be a convenient and soothing balm indeed.
Did I mention how much I enjoy the water scenes? I love this scene on the ship with Burl. I’ve mentioned before its relation to Coleridge and this has that same wonderful ghostly, eerie, otherworldly tension to it. The waiting for the mutiny, the ship that seems empty but wait, there’s those two guys left, the splash, the empty crow’s nest, the empty cargo hold, the certainty it is Whellen, then the submission of Whellen, and then the image of him sitting in his chair, wholly alone, just waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Along with Coleridge, there’s also a nice E.A. Poe feel to the end of this scene. Quite well done.
Boarstooth is clearly getting a lot of attention both in the lands and in the text, so one can wonder if there will be some big reveal about it perhaps beyond it just being a magic—can’t miss weapon. More future tension set up nicely with the encounter with the Bain boy, and one has to assume as well he’s right that he and Orman will meet up again.
Old Bear’s words about the gold lust make a nice follow up to our meeting with the Letherii, who are living embodiments of the corrosive effect of lusting after riches. As always, I like when we get these moments of sharp social criticism, which lend more than a little depth to the work.
A few possible hints about Boarstooth, with the spirit carrying a spear with a “knapped dark stone” similar to Boarstooth’s spearhead. And in the physical description of the Eithjar.
And I like how the day-to-day mundane petty human tension just created by the appearance of Lotji (who clearly wants the spear back in his family’s hands) is immediately made to seem small-minded with this more general and vague-but-seemingly-grander threat. And especially since she specifically notes that “old grudges” (i.e. you have my spear!) have to be given up.
Well, that’s a pretty big reveal at the end. Relationships and alliances are starting to add up around here.
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.