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 nine.
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.
Just a note that Amanda will be adding in her comments later. And a thanks for your patience during my hit and miss status the past few weeks thanks to some caregiving necessity.
Assail, Chapter Nine
Kyle continues to travel north, though the lack of water is having an impact. Luckily, he is able to use the Sword of Ice Finding to, well, find some ice. Special ice that he’s pretty sure would have killed someone else to have dug up and consumed—“Something, some power, residing in this ancient ice would have overcome them.” He, however, feels “rejuvenated.”
Kyle’s journey is interrupted by three “prospectors” (their plan is actually to hold the patch of ground then sell it off once everywhere else is tapped out). He mocks their desire for a life of doing nothing, warns them about not touching the Sword of Severance, then takes his sword back after Gleeda of the Nine Fingers tries to take it despite his warning. Realizing he’s Whiteblade, they back off and he continues on.
Three days later he runs into a cousin of Coots and Badlands (though it takes a while for he and the giant—Cull Heel–to realize it). They head for the Greathall. Cull tells him he has traveled and fought as a pirate/ mercenary, though his wife wasn’t so happy. They pass a shade ancestor who tells Cull to do something about the “trespassers on the Holding,” and when Cull says offhandedly he will, the shade says, “We are ashamed.” When they camp, Kyle thanks Cull for not killing him for trespassing, and Cull says he’s had enough killing and besides, too many are no coming for the gold. He adds he feels sorry for the gold rush people, as “Gold [is the] least important thing in land.” “Life,” he says, is the most important thin in the land. They continue on for days, passing through abandoned fields and finally coming to the Greathall, which is in ruins. Cull’s wife Yullveig is there, as huge as he is. Kyle explains that Stalker made him a Lost years ago, and so she accepts him. She tells him Cull is the way he is (odd, child-like) from falling as a child and hitting his head. Kyle asks if they live alone, and she says they have a son and daughter (Baran and Erta). They had another son, but when Cull left with both boys only one returned. She explains the ruins by saying when Cull was gone the lowlanders raided and killed everyone save the four of them. Baran and Erta left to go fight when Cull refused, believing that “death does not erase death.” Kyle says he understands where Cull is coming from, and she says she can see it in him, the “blood-price.” When he rejects the idea that he owes a blood-price, she mocks his simplistic idea of “vengeance, vendetta, honour and debts owed,” saying she speaks of the “only real cost of blood that matter—the price it extracts from the one who spills it.” He points out lots of people don’t seem to mind killing much and she agrees there will always be some like that, “the enemies of order among people.” As they eat, she tells him it won’t be easy to get to Stalker Lost, as he’ll have to cross all the surviving Holdings and thus probably get killed before he ever gets there. He notes that she said, “surviving,” and she surprised him with the news that there used to be a lot more Holdings, all the way down to the Dead Sea, but they’ve disappeared with “the retreat of the cold and ice.” The next few days are spent with her escorting him to the edge of the Holding. They make their goodbyes, with her final piece of advice being to cover his weapon. He says he usually does, and after she leaves, does just that.
Kyle continues on (and on), running into more gold-rushers and eventually reaching Wrongway, where he hears of the recent attack that left the town missing its gold and its former strongman Lying Gell (dead of a “mysterious knife-thrust”), as well as many of its former residents, who left to go to join the siege of Mantle. He learns the leaders of the siege are Marshal Teal, and a woman they call the Shieldmaiden who says she served under Caladan Brood. He leaves for Mantle.
Shimmer’s group, traveling in the newly christened Mael’s Forbearance, (leading the convoy of twelve) is intercepted by a strangely sleek and speedy vessel, one Gwynn tells Shimmer is “soaked in magery.” An old man demands their surrender, saying if they argue they’ll be destroyed. But in the middle of his threat, he senses something and then Bars steps forward. The two recognize each other, Bars calling him “The Sharrs of Exile Keep.” The old man’s cloak wraps itself around Bars, and then the man uses sorcery to send a slew of blades at the Guard. Shimmer takes a blow to the chest, Sept is impaled in the throat, Black the Elder goes down, and Gwynn takes one in the eye. A young man appears with chains as weapons. The old man leaps back to his own ship, then Bars kills the young man, dumping his body into the water and then following it as more blades fly toward him. Cole, Reed, and Amatt follow the mage onto his vessel over K’azz’s warnings, and all three are dragged into the water by ensorcelled chains. Shimmer is ready to leap over, but K’azz holds her back as Cowl suddenly beheads the mage. Bars is pulled back aboard and they survey their losses (Black the Elder, Sept, Cole, Amatt, Reed). Gwynn tells them to burn the Sharrs’ ship, calling it cursed. Bars and Shimmer share a moment.
They have a burial at sea for their lost friends and continue on. After four days, Shimmer’s had enough of the sense of timelessness. She asks Gwynn if it feels familiar to him as well, and he agrees it’s much like Jacuruku. She orders him to work on it. A few days later Gwynn, Petal, and Blues tell her they might be able to deal with it, but it will take all of them. Petal explains that it isn’t “just another Warren…This is a Realm. Jaghut magics. Omtose Phellack. And we’re not welcome.” She suggests asking Cowl to help, but Petal replies Cowl had already said his involvement would only make things harder. She asks why they aren’t starting, and Blues answers the attempt might be fatal. Annoyed, she calls out Cowl as High Mage, but he tells her the same as he told the others. She complains to K’azz, but he just says trust Cowl. Petal says he should do it because his Warren—Mockra—is best suited. She orders him to try, telling Blues and Gwynn to help. She waits, thinking how it feels so much like Ardata, but “not as heavy-handed or powerful. More subtle. More insinuating.”
Days later Blues tells her Petal is holding up, and it seems as if the Omtose Phellack is fading anyway, which is lucky. When Shimmer notes she hasn’t heard the Brethren lately, he answers that Petal believes the Jaghut sorcery is keeping them away. As Blues chats, Shimmer thinks of all she wants to say to him but finds herself unable to. She wonders if this is the fabled “isolation of command,” thinking how something “had driven itself between her and all the others of the Guard. Something she hadn’t felt before.” She stays quiet, thinking she no longer explains thing, then realizes how much like K’azz this is.
More days pass and they final see the coast. Shimmer tells K’azz they’re through. He tells her they lost two of their convoy. She checks on Petal who looks terrible and is awfully thirsty, and she realizes guiltily that nobody had been taking care of him.
They come to a keep (Mist’s) and form a landing party of her, K’azz, Blues, Gwynn, and Keel. Shimmer is shocked to see K’azz carrying a sword. As they pass the rough village huts (made of a suspicious amount of shipwreck timbers), a woman whispers, “Run while you can.” They find Mist on her throne in the keep, and she asks if they’re the ones she was warned against. K’azz says he doesn’t think so. She says she doesn’t like the feel of them, and so will waive her usual “welcome” and ask them to leave immediately or be killed. K’azz asks if they can buy some food and water to travel north, but Mist gets angry, thinking they believe they can fight their way through. She summons her two sons Anger and Wrath, and Gwynn whispers to Shimmer that they were “Twisted… in the womb.” K’azz says they’ll go, and Mist tell him as they leave that the other ships can stay. Shimmer wonders why she let them go, and K’azz thinks she sensed something about the Vow. They hurry back and warn the others just putting in via launches to go back to their ships. Reuth says he’s heard of the sorceress who enslaves all who land, but Storval doesn’t seem to listen. But then they hear screaming. Shimmer tells them to get back to the boats as the fog gets worse. Shimmer finds one launch filled with corpses and heads off looking for her own. She just misses getting sliced by either Wrath or Anger’s sword and she runs on, hearing more screams. Petal calls to guide her and as she watches Wrath or Anger overturn a launch, Petal tells her to swim for it. She makes it aboard, only to learn they lost eight more of the Guard, though none of the Avowed. It’s the Vow obviously, but K’azz won’t say more than that. They and the other nine ships continue on. Off to the north-east, Shimmer can see the glint of an ice-field.
They find a narrow channel through the ice, and as they pass through it, Shimmer notices that the ice crashing down from the heights only falls near them—none near the Letherii ships or in other parts of the channel. Cowl tells K’azz they have to back out right away. K’azz asks why, Cowl says, “You know why,” K’azz replies, “You don’t think” and when Cowl says he does in fact think, K’azz yells for them to retreat. But then huge ice chunks come raining down and Shimmer can see a huge, huge piece getting ready to calve off just above them. She looks to Blues, but he says his D’riss is no good. K’azz calls on Cowl, but the High Mage says he too can do nothing. K’azz orders them to abandon ship and they all leap overboard. “Some immense dark shape came plunging into the water,” dragging Shimmer down deeper, and then she goes unconscious.
Reuth tries to convince Storval to go back to look for survivors, but Storval says they all saw how only wreckage came back up—no survivors, and in any case it’s too risky. Reuth calls him a coward, and Storval hits him, telling him he’s only alive on his forbearance. Reuth realizes he’s a slave to Storval and decides to jump ship first chance he gets. He realizes then why his uncle had forbidden charts or maps—to ensure that they would need Reuth alive. He weeps for his Uncle, and for his own ingratitude and blindness.
The Kerluhm T’lan Imass reach the Bridge of Bones and Yrkki tells them they “certainly” cannot pass. When Gor’eth says they have not argument with him, Yrkki says that might be so, but he has a “claim upon you.” He adds that when he was set to guard this pass ages ago, his price was “but one request… The bones of the T’lan Imass for my bridge.” They fight, and Yrkki loses, falling apart. He admits to Gor’eth that Omtose Phellack has “withdrawn… [but] I sense it’s stirring. I tell you, the ice shall once again claim these lands.” Gor’eth shatters the dragon skull.
The bridge collapses behind the Imass. Sholas joins Gor’eth and says he sense the other Imass to the west. Gor’eth says he does too, but they must walk. Sholas agrees, saying “Tellann lies behind our reach—as yet,” adding “They will rejoin us—eventually.” Gor’esh agrees: “Eventually. As before.”
Yes, I know I’m hardly fair to poor Kyle in my summaries. I try. Really, I do (well, kinda sorta try. Some. A little. Maybe). But I’ve just never found him or his stories to be particularly compelling and this holds true through here as well. I feel like I’m mostly killing time as he slowly moves through so as to catch up with the other narratives. Mostly because the scenes just don’t seem to do much to move either story or character along—the trio that waylays him, Cull and his wife, the exposition scene at Wrongway. I can’t say I’d be complaining if it’d had all been summed up in a sentence or two (Finally, after weeks of arduous travel, in which he’d mostly found himself on the good side of the locals he met and the bad side of the foreigners he ran into, Kyle found himself somehow enmeshed in a siege. One, it turned out, led by a recent companion…”
On the other hand, while the Crimson Guard encounter with the Sharr mages seems equally random (though it’s noted these are the folks Cal-Brin fled, so there are connections), it has the benefit of being both exciting (Flying daggers! Snaking Chains! Cloaks of Envelopment!) and tragic, with the sudden onslaught and the loss of five, including some we’ve spent at least some time with, such as Black the Elder (I know my first time I was quite happy Petal wasn’t amongst the fallen). We’ve grown so accustomed to the Guard being so powerful, this sudden loss comes as a complete shock.
Things slow down a bit for me past this scene, and I don’t mean just by action. I’m not sure I needed the “timelessness” interlude (or more hints that there’s Something Funny Going On with the Vow). Since they’re following the same path, they pretty much have to stop at Mist’s I suppose, but it did feel like a been-there-done-that scene (since we’ve, well, been there and done that, with the mist, the brothers, etc.). And again, more SFGOwtV. The ice channel gives us a kinda cliffhanger, but nobody really think Shimmer or Blues or K’azz or Cowl are dead. And otherwise these scenes don’t do much for character or plot—they move forward, Storval is still a jerk, Reuth is still a good kid, Cowl is still kinda crazy, K’azz is still maddeningly cryptic, the Vow is still a Big Ominous Thing, etc.
That said, I did like Reuth’s moment of epiphany, which felt real and sad and tragic. Wouldn’t you love to see this good kid who knows water get together with some nice childless couple who know water too and maybe have a ship?
The scene with Yrkki was unexpectedly brief, and I like how Esslemont keeps us on our toes that way. And it continues to paint a dark image of the Imass. And similarly to an earlier scene with them, we get a nice nature detail at the end of their scene, with “a forest of thin spruce boles gripped the bare talus.”
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.