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 six.
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.
Assail: Chapter Six
The Lady’s Luck pulled into shore at the Plain of ghosts (also the Barren Shore) and sent out a provisioning party, but it hadn’t been seen in four days. Finally, on the fifth day, only Storval and Galip return, pursued by locals. Reuth says it wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t forced Kyle off the ship, and Tulan steps in before Storval can strike Reuth, telling his nephew he has to learn to keep his mouth shut. Reuth wonders if Kyle is still heading north, thinking of the irony that Kyle would be the most likely one of them all to survive. He’s upset with himself at not standing with Kyle when he’d been forced off, thinking himself a coward and thus deserving of whatever fate is in store. Tulan asks if there are any rivers and Reuth tells him they’ll surely come across one eventually, thinking to himself it doesn’t really matter if they find water or not: “Eventually, just as certainly, they would meet their end. And there was nothing any of them could do about it.”
Since the Silver Dawn entered the Sea of Dread six days ago with the other ships, Ieleen has been sick, though she refuses to leave the tiller. She tells Jute, upset, that she can see neither ahead nor behind. Cartheron pops on board to say they have no idea where they are, that the stars aren’t useful guides as usual, and that they’re all counting on Jute (so no pressure). Jute has the ships stay set until night, but he doesn’t recognize any of the stars when they come out, which makes him think magic is involved.
Jute crosses over to Lady Oroseen’s ship, which is oddly empty of crew. Her aide tells Jute she’s busy, but she comes out and says she assumes he’s worried about the “choking wardings that have settled upon us.” He tells her Ieleen is finding it impossible to find her way and when asked, admits he’s concerned about her beyond the wayfaring. She confesses she’s been selfish in her attempts to remain anonymous and not “exert” herself, and apologizes she’s put the burden on Ieleen, who she says is “drowning” in the Sea of Dread. She says she has now “announced herself” (over the objections of Velmar), telling Jute she is “a child of exile . . . returning home.” She instructs him to have the ships tether themselves to her own, and she will lead them through.
SCENES FOUR & FIVE
Jute informs the others then returns to his ship to find Ieleen sleeping peacefully. Three days later they come across a ghost ship, and the crew is getting increasingly on edge and superstitious. They pass more than a dozen such ships, then eventually find one with a man on it still, but when Jute orders a boat launched because of the man on board, Buen tells him neither he nor the crew saw anyone, and when Jute looks again he doesn’t see the man either. Cartheron comes over and says he’s going to go check it out because he too thought he’d seen someone aboard. Jute goes with him. They climb aboard (it turns out to be the Sea Strike) and Cartheron is suddenly stabbed by a man (Burl) who calls them “ghosts” then leaps overboard and sinks out of sight. Though Cartheron says it’s no use, they take him across to Lady Oroseen, who takes him into her cabin. While waiting, Jute happens to glance into an open hatch and thinks he sees figures crowded below. Velmar asks if he’d like a tour, and when Jute says no, the priest says maybe later, “definitely later.” Oroseen appears and says she’s kept Cartheron from dying, but she can’t guarantee he’ll recover, though despite being “old and very tired,” he is also “an extraordinary fellow.” Jute leaves to tell Cartheron’s crew, and Velmar again says “Later.”
They pass ever fewer ships until they see no more at all, save those rotting beneath the amazingly clear water, piled one atop the other so the whole “graveyard of vessels” is one large vertical historical record of seafaring. After a few days travel through mist, they finally emerge to find a forested cost before them, rocky and snow-covered, with ice in the waters between. Ieleen wakes and tells Jute she had horrible dreams, though someone had shielded her from the worst of it. She suspects who. She adds that she smells “the stink of ancient rotting ice.”
Two days out from the Pillars, Master Ghelath complains about the ship the Crimson Guard commandeered from the Letherii. He wants to modify it, but K’azz instead says to light a smudge to get other ships to come to them. When Shimmer wonders if K’azz is underestimating the “blind spitefulness of the self-righteous” in thinking the Letherii wouldn’t follow them, he tells her she may be right, as to him, “such emotions feel distant now.” She realizes to her shock that it’s been some time since she herself had felt a strong emotion. She goes to find Bars, pulls him into a room, and tells him to kiss her. She starts to undress, and when he tells her “Not like this,” she says she wants to feel something. She thinks he’s rejecting her because she isn’t pretty enough or feminine enough, but he tells her she’s beautiful, that he has long thought so and long wanted to be with her, but not if it’s just going to disappear the next day. She replies that she never knew, how could she when he never told her anything. He gets teary eyed and recites a saying of his people: that if you have to chase and corner a while animal it isn’t truly yours, but if it comes to you while you stand still, it is. She asks if she’s supposed to be the animal in that saying, and he tells her she’s the “wildest. And the most frightening . . . because [women] can break men with the simplest word or briefest glance.” Things get hot, husky, and gaspy.
Eventually they hear the sound of fighting, but Bars says Blues can handle it and more gaspiness ensues. Ghelath later interrupts to say they’ve got another ship and they go. She wonders for a moment if she’d made a mistake, but then thinks no, “Reaching out for companionship—for a human touch—is not a mistake. Withholding such a thing is the mistake . . . All the years she had held herself apart . . . she had been the fool.” Blues smiles knowingly at her.
After days of training with the spear, Jaochim—head of the Sayer clan–arrives at the Greathall and tells them 20 raiders have entered the holding and tells Old Bear’s group to drive them off. When he adds they should bring Jass with them, Orman objects but to no avail.
SCENES TEN & ELEVEN
As the five of them head off Old Bear tells Orman that Gerrun has joined the raiding party as their “guide,” and Orman regrets thinking of Gerrun as a coward earlier. Old Bear also tells him not to worry overmuch about Jass; the Eithjar will look out for him and can do “things . . . here on the lands of their Holding.” After a few days they reach the raiders, dismayed to see that Gerrun is tied up and being led along. They also appear to be well-armed and armored soldiers as opposed to amateur bandits. Old Bear says they’ll attack at night, and when Orman says that’s a bad idea, Jass sides with the Bear, saying Jaochim has given them their orders. They move in at night and Orman’s fears are heightened, making him worry they’re being set up. That proves the case when they attack and the raiders are shown to be only pretending to be asleep. Orman’s group is losing until a “massive mountain of russet shaggy fur came bowling in” wiping out several of the raiders and sending the others to flight. As Old Bear heads off in pursuit (Jass says he was rumored to be a shapeshifter), one of the dying raiders tells Orman they’d been warned but didn’t believe the townspeople. Despite their loss tonight though, he tells Orman he and his should run—“Straw hut in a flood is you, lad. Compared to what’s coming.” The next day Old Bear joins them as they head back to Greathall. Orman complains Old Bear hadn’t told them of his ability, but is happy when Jass makes it clear he realizes they would have lost without Old Bear’s transformation, adding “it wasn’t what I’d thought it’d be.” Old Bear tells him “It never is what we think it’s going to be. It’s ugly, and confusing, and it’s a blur and full of the acid of fear. Then it’s over and you don’t quite remember what happened.” Orman chimes in to say he was scared, surprising Jass, who admits he was too. Gerrun heads back to the lowlands, and Orman feels a tinge of resentment (Gerrun gets the best of both worlds), but then feels bad about that when he recalls the danger involved in his spying and how it also makes things easier for them.
Talking to Jass on the way back, Orman is surprised to learn that there were only five Sayers left (didn’t he know this already?). They arrive back and Old Bear tells the story of the fight with a few minor embellishments, a story that then morphs into an old tale of their ancestor Vesti the Odd-handed who traveled to the tower of ice to meet the “matriarch of all their kind.” Orman asks if Vesti was older than Buri, and Jaochim says “Winter” (their name for Buri because his visits always “bring winter with him”) is the oldest of their kind. Jaochim upbraids Jass for not having blooded (killed a man) his spear, ignoring Old Bear’s defense of Jass that he fought two of the soldiers. To Orman’s dismay, Jaochim sends Jass away, not to come back until he has killed in defense of the holding. Vala, Jass’ mother, sends a beseeching look to Orman and he nods in reassurance. Old Bear stops him though when he would follow Jass, telling him he can go later, but this is the Sayers’ way, harsh though it may be. Now he adds, it’s time to celebrate their survival: “Live every day as if honourably facing death then celebrate if you live to see its end.” Orman has to admit that’s not a bad philosophy.
That night Orman heads out after Jass, guided by the Eithjar. Unfortunately, the boy is heading for Bain holding.
I like this little dip into Reuth’s head for how it characterizes him as a decent young person, one who recognizes his own flaws (“It was as Tulan said. Too long in the dusty halls bent over manuscripts . . . ”), and has a conscience, displayed via his guilt over not standing up more for Kyle. Though his fatalism at the end is more than a little disturbing.
Some good tension being set up with Storval and how he reached so fast for his knife when Reuth mentions how driving Kyle away was a bad idea. And perhaps some other foreshadowing through the mention of the fortress “Taken”.
There are clear intimations of jaghut relationships with Oroseen (something we had from the earlier book), with the exile and the north.
I felt kinda bad for poor Burl. Even if he does stab Cartheron (c’mon, not the guy’s fault obviously). To survive that long in such a horrible state and then still go down in the water. This whole long stretch in the dread sea has been a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy bit and I’ll be sorry to see it go (I don’t recall if this is the last we see).
I also don’t remember—perhaps some of you do—is this the first case we have of Shimmer noticing that she hasn’t felt any intense emotion—“such as rage. Or, and here her breath caught, even passion”? We’ve clearly been seeing K’azz slowly distance himself from the human, and I have a vague recollection of Shimmer worrying a bit in prior books, but I don’t remember anything this direct.
So this may be where not reading these books quickly one after another causes issues. Because I’m not sure this Bars-Shimmer thing has been much set up. Anyone? In any case, I confess this isn’t one of my favorite scenes in the books—it just feels a bit off and clunky.
I really like the concern Orman has for young Jass, and his pain (well conveyed to the reader I think) at the burden of his position and of trying to be brave amongst these men. And how that theme is picked up again after the actual fight with the discussion of fighting and the refusal of the others, including Old Bear, to romanticize it. The wrestling with violence in this book is one of my favorite aspects of it, and we’ll see more of it going forward.
While we’re on the fight scene, I’m never a fan of characters not talking to each other (I’m looking at you Lost, you broke my heart after season one). I don’t care about the joy of surprise. Seems to me when you are going into battle, especially outnumbered and out-gunned, you don’t want to add even more surprise/chaos to your own fighters.
Again, I like Orman’ self-awareness. Naturally feeling the resentment about Gerrun heading off with a pocket-full of coin to the lowland towns to live it up (a resentment that both characterizes and humanizes Orman), and then having the conscience to realize that’s pretty bad on his part to resent the guy who risks his life by acting as a double agent.
More references to cold and winter back at the Greathall. Plus mention of a tower of ice and a matriarch (though not in the sense we usually see that word).
What are the odds of Orman catching Jass before they get to the Bain holding and a certain clan member there?
I wonder if this fatalism that Reuth shows at the end of his section is a general malaise experienced by all of those who try to find a way onto Assail? I mean, that can be what caused the soldiers on the ghost ships to leap over the sides into the crystal waters. I, too, like Reuth’s general attitude—he regret at what happened to Kyle and his guilt over the lack of effort he personally made.
I have to say, seeing these various trips by ship don’t make me hugely eager to get back on board a boat! Ieleen now ill and unable to map any path, the fact the forwards and backwards looks the same to Jute; the landing party from Reuth’s ship being reduced to two; the ghost ships. It doesn’t seem a great way to get to Assail—this place is certainly protecting its own.
Nasty situation where someone as famous and knowledgeable as Cartheron Crust is relying on you to get four ships on the right heading and you have no idea where you are!
Orosenn is a curious character—and what’s the betting her ship doesn’t actually have any live seamen aboard, considering the deserted deck? Who is she that she has been hiding and has now returned home and is willing to announce herself? Her head has always been hidden so far beneath scarves—makes me wonder what is below.
This is properly creepy—the ships tied together and being led along by a person of true mystery, watching as seventeen ships loom out of the gloom, completely deserted of their sailors but looking as though they’re just about to return, and then a ghostly figure appearing that only Jute can see.
This is a funny series. You think as Catheron Crust is struck down that he can’t possibly die from this wound—it’s just so daft and pointless. And then, with dawning horror, you realise that of course death can sometimes be daft and pointless and that he might well die from this, especially when the sorceress doesn’t seem convinced that he can heal properly.
I love the image of the ship graveyard beneath the clear surface, especially the idea that ships from different eras are visible, showing who has previously tried to conquer Assail. With this and the ghostly ships, why are these people not seriously questioning their idea of landing on Assail?
“The stink of ancient rotting ice.” Jaghut!
Shimmer and… Bars? Um. Did I miss something? And, to be honest, is she not just trying to prove here that she can feel passion? So why then is she convinced by his words and tears that they should try something deeper. Colour me confused.
I like that Orman is concerned for Jass, but he rather ruined his big moment. The lads in tribes like this are always looking for their first opportunity to prove themselves as men, and Joachim hands him this chance, and then his new older brother stamps him down. I wouldn’t be very impressed if I were Jass.
“And Svalthbrul, of course.” Yeah, as if he’s going to leave the deadly cursed weapon behind!
The way that Gerrun is newly represented, as a lone wolf hero is well done.
Yeah, I also wonder why Old Bear didn’t feel it necessary to tell his own people that ‘oh, by the way, during the battle I may well turn into an actual bear and rampage through the enemy.’ Their feelings of dismay at the battle turning against them just prior to Old Bear pulling his little trick could have created a rout and their heads dropping entirely. Why not just say something?
Oh, my heart ached at poor little Jass admitting that he lost his duel. And it’s good to see that Joachim was wise to show Jass what real fighting was like, before he had the chance to romanticise it all.
What?! Jass being sent off to make his first kill on his own because he didn’t manage it in battle is just horrendous!
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.