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 seven, part one.
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 Seven, Part One
Fisher has been getting Coots and Badlands’ story about how they shipwrecked on the coast months ago. Fisher asks why they haven’t escaped the Bonewright’s cave and they somewhat shamefacedly say they had a fight with Stalker Lost—head of the clan. But, they point out, Yrkki the Bonewright says he won’t take their bones until spring, when the floodwater from the winter melt usually damages the bridge foundations. They add that “he” has been around for ages, knows a lot of stuff (though he’s “real cagey with what he knows”, and that he’s been treating them like equals. Fisher recalls a snatch of ancient poetry that seems to imply that Yrkki might be a prisoner as well, set to guard the way by the Jaghut. Badlands calls the idea of Jaghut “ghost stories” but when Coots asks who Yrkki is supposed to guard against and Fisher replies, “The Jaghut’s enemy,” they don’t find the idea quite so funny anymore. They think they need to warn the north about the T’lan Imass, and Coots says he thinks the Eithjar already know. Fisher agrees to be the one to talk to Stalker since the other two swore they’d never return, and they decide to try and climb out that night, with Jethiss saying Yrkki probably never intended to give Jethiss his real name.
They make a macabre climb out using the bones and dried ligaments/sinews. Just as they cross the ravine, Yrkki shows up, bursting out from the ground beneath Coots and Badlands. Jethiss runs out and demands his name, and the Bonewright answers it “would only make you weep.” Jethiss cries out “No!” then strikes Yrkki with Kurald Galain sorcery, forcing him to release the brothers and then dragging him back into the ravine, even as the Bonewright tells him “None shall remember your name!” Jethiss collapses.
Jethiss, having realized he actually is an Andii, broods. Coots picks up the trail of the larger group and says they’re only a few days ahead, but Jethiss and Fisher say they’ll go back to the Lost Holding with the brothers. They take off running and keep up a fast pace for the day. They camp overlooking the Salt Range and Sea of Gold, which look strangely hazy to their eyes. Jethiss broods some more. Trying to snap him out of it, Fisher says maybe one of the powers in the north can tell him his name. Jethiss reacts sharply “as if Fisher’s words had awakened something within him” and Fisher has a bad feeling. They decide to go around the lowlands, worried the haze of so many fires indicates war.
After just over a week of travel, Kyle, Lyan, and Dorrin come across a huge group of ships, all tied together and pulled by people and/or animals. Challenged by a group of soldiers looking to take their horses, Kyle starts to talk to them but Lyan charges, leaving Kyle and Dorrin no choice but to follow. The two adults break through, but Dorrin falls off his horse when struck by a crossbow bolt. Kyle goes back and grabs him off the ground, tosses him on his horse, and sends him toward Lyan, leaving him alone to face over a dozen hostiles, who turn out, much to Kyle’s dismay, to be Stormguard. Despite recognizing Whiteblade, they attack anyway and much severing occurs until the rest of the Stormguard decide it’s easier to run away with both legs under them. He finds Lyan taking care of Dorrin, who is unconscious and has lost a lot of blood. Lyan is a bit disturbed by the “plain butchery” she witnessed. The move on and then camp. Kyle worries about Dorrin, and thinks if he had a son he would have liked one like a boy who “had shown such good sense, such endurance, such patience and wisdom.” The next day, he tells Lyan to take the horses and trade for healing for Dorrin. They kiss goodbye, mourning the necessity.
Kyle travels a few more days into the Vanishing Lands/Lands of Dust, a desert area filled with bodies of people and horses. He comes across a field of bones that show no signs of violence, even post-death (i.e. via scavengers). Equipment lies among the bones, but oddly no leather, cloth, or wood, and he wonders how it all could have rotted away so fast. After a windy night, he notices that his blankets has been shredded in spots, which brings to mind old stories of the wind in this area killing people. He shrugs the idea aside as silly and continues on, but is soon struck by a dust storm whose sand-blasting effect makes him realize the wind here could indeed kill someone (and basically vaporize non-metalllic substances). A roughly humanoid shape forms out of the dust and tells Kyle he can pass but not the “thing of chaos” he carries. When Kyle says it is Osserc’s sword, given to him by Osserc himself, the creature replies, “This thing he carried for a time. Yet its origins are old than he… It is no sword… He did you no favour [giving it to Kyle]. All that will be left of you will be that artifact. And that I shall grind until its dust is spread across the continent entire.” Kyle refuses and draws the sword, striking the creature and, similar to when he’d hit the goddess on Fist, the result is a huge blast of energy. The dust storm disperses, and Kyle takes a close look at his sword, thinking it looked and felt more “organic to him, like horn, or scale.” He wonders what the creature meant by calling it an “artifact” and one linked to chaos.
Silverfox , exhausted, barely able to ride or stand, reaches another village. Scavengers and silence make it clear what’s already happened here. Pran tries to spare her from the sight of the slaughtered—“knifed women, men, and children. Many fallen curled round their young, protecting them”—but she tells him she must witness the crime. She wonders how Lanas could do such a thing and what people/history will say of the T’lan Imass. And yet, she thinks:
What was this but a glimpse of the old ways? Her people’s hadns were no more clean. No one’s were. How could this have once been the norm? How could the ancestors have named this a great victory and boasted of it? The slaughter of children?
Hearing a noise, she tracks it down to find Kilava (last living Bonecaster) holding a baby, the lone survivor. Kilava tells her the dead were known as the Children of the Wind and says she’ll take the baby south to be adopted then continue to warn the tribes, saying some have taken her advice and fled. She goes, after upbraiding Silverfox for not yet “taking hold” of her task, which makes Silverfox bridle a bit. Pran calls her a powerfully ally, but Silverfox warns they can’t count on her. Silverfox moves on, and Tolb tells Pran if they reach the far north they’ll be lucky to have Kilava with them. Pran agrees, saying, “Even she would not stand aside… then.”
Lanas meets with Ut’el Anag, the Kerluhm bonecaster, and the two discuss their effort to eradicate the “stain” of Omtose despite being opposed by their own kind (the Ifayle and Kron). Lanas says there are survivors, but Ut’el ells her to leave the “lesser” ones; their main concern should be with “The Matriarch. The mother of their kind… She awaits us. She’s known we would come… eventually.”
Orman has been following the Sayer ancestors’ directions for several days now and at the border of the Sayer-Bain lands, he finds Jass’ cloak pinned to a tree with Lotji’s name. He eventually come to Lotji himself, holding a knife to the bound Jass’s throat, saying he wants to fight. Instead, Orman offers Svalthbrul in trade, calling it a matter of honor, as he is sworn to serve the Sayers. Lothji mocks the concept, but agrees. Orman leaves the spear and backs away as told by Lotji, and then, wholly unexpected from a guy who mocks the idea of honor, Lotji keeps both Jass and the spear, and then knocks Orman out.
Orman wakes to find himself bound and hanging from a tree branch. Lotji tells him he would have rather beat Orman in a duel, but he’ll have to settle for hanging him in a tree and stabbing him in the face with the spear before riding away with Jass. Orman passes out, then wakes to find a strangely-accented man (he calls himself Cal) telling him he’s not sure what he can “access” (warren magic), but he thinks he can stop Orman’s bleeding. He tells him he too is a hired sword (working for the Losts), and that Cal heals him, Orman should return to the Sayers and tell them the Sayers are “broken,” having retreated halfway up the Holding. Cal warns that both the Losts and the Sayers will soon be flanked. He heals Orman, but apologizes for not being able to do anything about the eye, and for the first time Orman realizes Lotji blinded him in one eye. Cal suggest that maybe if an army comes up, perhaps the Losts and Sayers can catch it between them. Cal takes off (with Orman finaly noting his clothing was stained a dark red). For a bit, Orman bitterly resents his decision to not fight, but then decides he has a higher priority than his “name.” He finds an Eithjar and conveys the news from Cal and the day’s events, saying he will go north to “seek the one who should care the most regarding your line.” The Eithjar says Orman will just be ignored and die in the cold, but Orman merely replies, “so be it.” He heads north.
I like the little toss-away lines from Coots and Badlands: the time they got chased by the Elingarth navy when they were doing a bit of pirating, the time Coots “shacked up with” the head of the “trogladytes” (though perhaps they just didn’t like sun).
And I love the way they talk about the horrible awful Bonewright Yrkki (make sure you get that right: Bonewright, not Bonewight).
Well, clearly Jethiss is a “right puissant” Andii, but really, that doesn’t narrow things down much, his ability to wield Galain. Nor does the brooding… The foreshadowing about the northern “powers” maybe being not such a great idea is also a bit dark. Luckily, all this (plus a bridge of bones don’t forget) is nicely balanced by Coots and Badlands’ banter.
I love that image of Kyle’s group coming across the forest of masts slowly moving across their view. As for the rest of this scene, it’s fine enough, but as usual with Kyle it doesn’t do much for me thanks to the magical Sword of Severance, the mournful kiss goodbye that I just don’t feel (because I didn’t really feel the relationship), and even Kyle’s thinking of being a parent and wishing for a son like Dorrin, which again, just didn’t quite feel earned enough.
On the other hand, I do like the sandstorm scene. One, the creature forming out of the storm, and the cryptic words regarding Kyle’s Whiteblade that isn’t a blade. Now that is interesting.
Been a while since we got a good “witness” moment. This is a great scene, built up strongly by the vivid detail of the scavengers, the silence, Pran’s tortured attempt to stop Silverfox from looking at the carnage. Then the tease of at least two survivors, a mother and a child, only to get the surprise (and sorrow) that the “mother” is Kilava. The deep, deep grief of both, heightened by their discussion of how they cannot nurse the child, that “neither [are] the nurturing sort.”
That’s a pretty pregnant pause at the end, with Pran saying Kilave will feel like she has to act “then” (when they reach the far north).
This scene with the two Imass discussing genocide just made me think back, as some of these moments do, of our introduction to the T’lan Imass and Jaghut conflict and how far, far we’ve come from those days and our feelings about it. And intentional or not (I’m going with the former), that new tone is nicely encapsulated by that description of them leaving: “a rattling and clack of bone over stones… sloughing off a rain of dirt and mud.”
As I hinted at in the commentary, it isn’t like one can be surprised that Lotji doesn’t hew to the deal, so one has to shake one’s head a bit at Orman’s suggestion in one aspect. But I prefer to think of it as further characterization of Orman. Not of his honor, which is clear already, but that he is both so honorable and so naïve that it is nigh impossible for him to imagine others not so.
I know that it is probably a tool so that Esslemont doesn’t end up explaining everything going on between the Jaghut and their ancient enemy, but we once again have a pair of allies here not directly stating what it is they are up to or thinking. I don’t like that Fisher just says: “Sorry, Jethiss. Local history. Old feuds.” Especially to someone who is an amnesiac and therefore struggles with what they do and do not know.
Coots and Badlands sound as though they deserve a series of novellas or short stories with those little snippets offered!
I’ve been mis-spelling Bonewight as Bonewright since we met this character, so I’m none the wiser as to who or what he is…
This bridge of bones moment is done well. At first I was wondering why Fisher was being so daft about having to use this bridge, then I let the descriptions really reach me, and realised just how terrible it would be to use that as a pathway.
So Jethiss is able to wield Galain? Another point to file against trying to work out who he might be. Also, how scary must it be to suddenly wield power such as this, when you have no awareness of being able to do it?
Coots and Badlands are represented as such a comedy duo that seeing their ability to travel long distances with great skill and speed is a reminder that no character should be taken at face value.
Considering Lyan is supposed to be guarding Dorrin carefully, this seems bizarre behaviour, to go charging through these armed men on a horse that Dorrin won’t be used to riding!
This also must be the shortest relationship ever. Although I don’t think it would have lasted anyway, based on the fact she now sees him as a butcher. Bet he’s really regretting the sword now. Especially during this dust storm, where the humanoid creature challenges his approach and tells him Osserc did him no favours, that the sword predates Osserc.
Such a sad, sad scene as Silverfox walks among the dead and curses Lanas. She must honestly wonder how Lanas is capable of genocide. I hate to mention any links with the election result, but Silverfox here is looking at events that hearken back to a worse time, rather than seeing any progress forward.
Kilava is one of those characters that has been in and out of the series in several huge moments, and yet she’s never featured as a favourite character. Here I don’t like her disapproval of Silverfox, considering we know how much work Silverfox is trying to do.
Cursed weapons so often become an obsession of the person who carries it, so it’s very cool here to see Orman so willing to just give it up in exchange for his new half-brother, who he deems more important than any weapon.
Bit shocked by Orman losing an eye here. His naivety was poorly paid there. And this Cal—the Cal that the rest of the Crimson Guard are coming for?
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.