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 ten, part two.
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, but 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 Ten (Part Two)
Back aboard his ship, Jute tells Ieleen that their help was rejected but Tyvar offered the ships, and she thinks perhaps he did so in case of a needed evacuation, which Jute hadn’t considered. He tries to tell her not to worry about Giana, but she replied that she never was, since Giana is interested in Letita, the master-of-arms, which surprises Jute.
Badlands, Jethiss, and Fisher continue heading north, with Badlands saying nothing and refusing to rest. Fisher reminisces about his past here: growing up in Myrni Holding, who had taken in his mother when Fanyar Hold was overrun, never feeling welcome due to being a half-blood, his departure, his most recent return about 30 years ago, his disgust at finding each time he returned the same “blood-feuds and vendettas, the same blind hatreds and stupid bigotries.” He’s always come back anyway, but now he thinks this will probably be his last return:
He had seen this same tragic story of invasion and obliteration… in many lands. Any subsistence society, even one that is small-scale horticultural, cannot possibly compete against the invasion of a full-scale agricultural society. The inequity in numbers is simply too great… Such has been the story for every region of human migration and settlement. Even regions that boast of themselves as ‘pure’ or ‘native’ stand upon the bones of forgotten predecessors.
As a bard, he pledges not to forget, bitter as observing/telling this story will be.
They eventually reach the Lost Handhold, run-down and near-abandoned. In it they find Stalker and Badlands tells him what happened to Coots. They’re joined by a trio of Crimson Guard, led by Cal. Stalker says he ‘s taken them in to defend the Holding. Fisher asks Cal why he didn’t just head to the coast, but Cal doesn’t answer (Stalker says he’ll only say “the Guard has a stake here in this region). Stalker tells them the defeated a lowlander army, but he expects another, bigger one and though he acknowledges they can’t hold out, he refuses to leave, which leads Fisher to call him a fool. The other news Stalker shares is that Orman killed Lotji with Svalthbrul and that the foreigners burned Bain Greathall down and the Bains are no more. Badlands calls for a song and looking around at the decrepitude, Fisher sings one of ruins and passing and how those in the future will “wonder what giants these were from long ago/Only twisted tales shall remain.” Badlands and Stalker exit. Jethiss and Fisher continue to drink wine and wax philosophical. The Andii says he understands Stalker and Badlands, saying he does not understand why, he feels something of the same. He adds he will continue on north to find those (the Forkrul) who may provide an answer for why he feels he “was sent in this direction.” Fisher says he won’t encourage him, and when Jethiss points out he isn’t discouraging him either, Fisher says that’s not his place; “Each of us possesses a Wyrd—a fate—and nothing we do can undo it.” When asked if he therefore thinks all is pre-ordained, he say no, but that “we follow our natures. Our natures determine the choice we make. In short, we do it to ourselves. There is no one else to blame.” Jethiss asks if the gods play no role, and Fisher replies that they “are determined by our natures. But if you decide to quibble them down to nothing more than mere causation—then why have them after all?” Jethiss responds that “some other justification would have to be found then, for their existence,” and Fisher says, “I suppose so.” Then Jethiss looks at his hands and says, “That means that our whole solar system could be, like, one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being and one tiny atom in my fingernail could be one tiny little universe… “ Both say “Whooaa”, then Jethiss goes to bed and Fisher worries a bit more over the dilemma that to survive the Icebloods must retreat north, but that is also where the Forkrul—“a peril far greater than any human invasion slumber.”
Kyle walks into the siege camp looking for Lyan. When he finds her tent though, the guards won’t let him in and point out where he can enlist after a moment’s tension that he might be seen as looking a bit too “native.” As he walks away, he sees Dorrin and is crushed to notice that the boy is missing his leg from the knee down. Pretending as if they’d met on the ship, he gets Dorrin to send a runner to let Lyan know that Kyle is there. The messenger returns, saying they can wait in Lyan’s quarters. As they do so, Kyle has second thoughts about entering the camp, thinking it’s too likely he’ll get recognized by one of the survivors from their fight or another Stormguard or Korel veteran. His worries are confirmed when Dorrin tells him Kyle (Whiteblade) isn’t very popular in camp, and then further confirmed when Lyan arrives and after sending Dorrin to bed tells Kyle he’s crazy for coming there. He agrees and says they need to leave right away, but she tells him she can’t go—“there are riches and more to be won here.” Hurt and surprised, Kyle tells her she was right when she called him a fool, and asks her one more time to leave with him. But she calls him a romantic fool and he angrily says, “You’re the fool, Lyan.” She says “No you are!” and he says “You double are!” and she says thanks for saying hi to Dorrin and try not to get killed because it would make Dorrin sad. And he’s like, “Just Dorrin?” and she’s like “Who else?” and he says “You are!” and leaves, wondering like maybe some readers if he’d just imagined all he thought there was between them. Luckily, he doesn’t have to mope for very long because he gets almost immediately recognized and then verily there was much cleaving and severing and making of spurting stumps. Kyle runs and thanks to some timely fog and swimming lessons from good ole Stoop, he escapes the mob and is found by Baran Heel (son of Yullveig from Chapter Nine), who is there “hunting.” As they move away, Baran tells him of the fall of Bain Hold and that his sister Erta returned to the north, and Kyle tells him he’s from the southern plains. Baran leads him to where he can point out Lost Holding’s direction, and when Kyle suggests that Baran come with him and they all join together, Baran replies that an army isn’t his people’s way. They separate.
Silverfox waits for the others atop a hill overlooking the Sea of Dread, dismounting only with great pain, causing her to realize that she is “already old,” despite being only in her twenties. She muses if this disconnect—seeing herself as a young woman despite being old—is common to all. She is joined by Kilava, who tells her it is “all that remains of a great ice-field that once covered all this region… One of the last remaining glacial lakes.” They both think of how they seek what few Jaghut remain in the mountains. Pran and Tolb join them as well, with the other Imass. Silverfox asks Kilava if she’s spoken to the Kerluhm (I think), but Kilava says they “Know my choice. They would attack.” Her concern that she might lose if that happens makes Silverfox face just how thin their chances are. And she wonders if she is in fact driving her foe forward or is just lagging behind them as they move toward their own goal. They plan to head north via the coast, and Silverfox thanks Kilava for warning away the civilians.
Have I mentioned how much I like Ieleen? Here she sees immediately to just why Tyvarr might have offered their ships—for a possible evacuation. Which gives us some nice anticipation of something going badly wrong in this siege.
I love that extended passage I quoted above about the inevitable defeat of a subsistence society for a few reasons. One is that instead of conflict just tossed into the mix because “Action!” (or a “cultural imperative to invade) and a result thanks to “Because!”, we get an actual argument for why things go the way they go, one based on observation and history and logic. And I also love how that last line both rips away the veil of self-delusion that so many countries/cultures/groups have, and also reverberates so strongly nowadays in our real world.
Finally, after all these mentions in books of Cal, we get to meet the guy.
Well, that was a bleak song. Fits right in with a few of the themes of this series, which has often been focused both on the passage and toll of time and also on how what we think of as “history” is often more “twisted tales” than reality, something we’ve seen time and time again. And if we last that long, something we’ll see in action so to speak once we get to those prequel trilogies… It is no surprise that Fisher, a bard, sings of “twisted tales,” for if anyone knows how twisted the tales get, it would be someone like him. And of course, the tales of Assail’s dangers are what kept so many foreigners away, the tales of gold are what have brought the foreigners here, the tales of the Forkrul are what keep Fisher away a bit more. Story is all…
It’s hard for me to feel much pity for Kyle in this scene with Lyan, as I never could buy their “relationship” from the beginning, making it hard to feel much dismay or empathy at the turn it takes here. And it’s also hard for me to therefore buy into Kyle’s anger and responses, especially as of course it isn’t just as simple as them leaving with him and so he just comes off as childish to me here. That probably put me in a relatively unforgiving mood, so I wasn’t so thrilled either when his moment of recognition is fortuitously held off until he gets to have his scene with Lyan (and Dorrin) and gives him good reason to just go immediately. Plus, all the severing again.
On a more positive note, I really like the contrast with earlier scenes with the other T’lan Imass (the bad guys) and the setting/nature details surrounding them and the setting/nature details we get with this description of Silverfox: “Tall spring grasses and blue wild flowers blew about her knees. Her black hair whipped in the contrary winds.” Such a sharp distinction between the arid, sere, lifeless, rocky details associated with the Imass and these life-filled connotations associated here with Silverfox (spring, tall grasses, blue color, wild flowers, a lively wind, hair that moves). I almost want to go back and look at all the details from her earlier scenes and theirs and see if this contrast holds (maybe later).
I also like her wondering at how she can perceive herself as being young when she is in fact old and if this disconnect is how everyone else thinks as well. Mostly because I do think she’s right—that such a disconnect is pretty universal. I always refer to it as a “bubble.” The rest of the world moves apace—we know that logically, intellectually—yet somehow “our” times moves much more slowly. Yes, yes, I know 20 years have gone by “out there,” but I’m not 20 years older. That would be crazy! (this is also why I’ve come to stop myself whenever I want to say something happened five or ten years ago, because inevitably five years ago turns out to be really ten, and ten years ago turns out to be really twenty. Sigh.)
I think I read this passage right with her and Kilava, but I confess I wish sometimes Esslemont didn’t traffic in so many pronouns, which at times seems to add another level of unnecessary uncertainty (not the good kind) But possibly that’s just the result of my reading this after reading a slew of student papers…
I agree with Bill that Ieleen is one of the best written characters in this novel. She is not one of our flashy favourite characters, the ones that will be remembered years after the book has been read, but she has such a sharp eye for what is happening, and a lovely turn of phrase that I am finding her a delight to read.
Bill remarked on how, considering there are bisexual and homosexual relationships shown throughout the Malazan series, Jute shouldn’t maybe show surprise at the fact that Giana is attracted to women. I agree with that, but then on the other hand, Jute is an older fellow who won’t have been exposed to many of those relationships while on ship, so perhaps it does still come as a surprise to him when he does encounter people attracted to those of the same sex. It could be argued both ways, I think.
Poor Badlands. It feels so odd to see his name without Coots alongside, so it doesn’t bear thinking about how he would be coping with the loss of his brother.
As we approach Christmas, Fisher’s thoughts here remind me of the way many of us approach going home for the big day: “Each time he returned he’d encountered the same festering blood-feuds and vendettas, the same blind hatreds and stupid bigotries, and each time he’d vowed never to return again.”
His thoughts that he is essentially there to witness the death of his homeland are pretty bleak, but realistic for a man who has walked the world and seen this process repeated elsewhere. I think a comment can be made on the person who leaves their home (which once encompassed their whole life) to live elsewhere, and then finds on their return that their home feels suddenly small and provincial.
Badlands’ grief contrasts sharply with Fisher’s “damned fool” comment.
Interesting that Cal has stated that the Crimson Guard have a stake in that region of Assail. What has brought them there? Is it to do with the Vow, do you think?
Again, here as Fisher and Stalker discuss the lowland attack being thrown back, we’re given a marked difference between those who have never left Assail (where Jaochim Sayer thinks that they have dealt with the lowlanders) and those who have travelled (where Stalker says “I’ve been abroad. That was just a first incursion.”)
Nice to see a quick overview here of some of the Holdings politics—Orman’s family actually had a blood feud going back years with Lotji’s, the Bains were an enemy of Fisher’s people.
Heh, turns out that, given a cask of wine, most people would seek to set the world to rights as they drink. Some interesting talk here between Fisher and Jethiss on the nature of free will and gods and coincidence and not having anyone to blame but ourselves. Bleak, but interesting.
Oh, poor Dorrin. We know him just well enough to feel a little shock of grief at the loss of his leg, which is well done by Esslemont considering the lad was only in the story for a short while to this point.
I can’t help but equate this Kyle/Dorrin/Lyan scene with a separated set of parents, where the father is using the affection of the child to give him time to spend with the mother. Even down to the part where the child wants to spend more time with the father, but is sent away so that the mother can bawl out the father without traumatising the child.
Yeah, agree with Bill—the scene with Lyan feels rather pointless because I never felt as though their relationship was real. I couldn’t see any reason she would want to leave with him either, especially as she now finds herself in a much better position. It’s not authentic enough.
All the severing!
I know where Silverfox is coming from here, with the whole “I am already old. Yet I see myself as a young woman.” That is exactly how I feel. Well, I’m not that old, just coming up to forty, but I honestly can’t see any difference within me as to how I was at twenty. My body is starting to creak in old weather, but in my head I am still young.
If the Sea of Dread used to be a huge ice field, and that is now breaking up because the magic of Omtose Phellack is fading, is this because more and more of the Ice Bloods are being killed? Was it their presence keeping the ice on Assail? And is it the remaining Omtose Phellack that prevents the T’lan Imass from fading to dust and travelling that way?
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.