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 part two of chapter fourteen.
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.
Note: Amanda will be adding comments in a bit later.
Assail, Chapter Fourteen (Part Two)
Marshall teal is up in the Salt range planning his next move and confident all that’s left is the mopping up. The ground shifts and he hears panic outside. Asking about it he’s told many of the soldiers haven’t experienced an earthquake before, and he sends out a guard to calm everyone down. Looking up, he sees the entire slope moving toward them, “roiling and churning as it came…entire swathes of tall spruce and fir fell before its advance.” He waves off his soldiers, telling them to simply try and save themselves. He himself merely awaits the inevitable, “And he did… He glimpsed, above the mounded-up tons of loose soil and talus, something glowing with an inner cobalt-blue light… his breath left in him awe. How beautiful, and how terrible.”
In Mantle. Lady Orosenn tells the others they need to flee. The new king, Voti, refuses, saying it’s their home. Orosenn begs them to reconsider. She shows Tyvar the people below the fortress, roughly six thousand, and tells him if they don’t move south they’ll be dead in two days, adding she believes Togg’s last geas to Tyvar, to save innocent lives, did not mean battle. She highlights that his group is called the Blue Shields and asks him to escort the six thousand south. When he notes his soldiers are down to only a hundred, she suggests he work with the Shieldmaiden who led the opposition. Tyvar agrees, thanking her for reminding him of their purpose. He leaves to arrange things. Orosenn tells Jute to head south, to see the evacuees safely out of danger. He leaves, but doesn’t feel right abandoning her or Cartheron. He goes to find him and tells him about Orosenn’s plans. Cartheron says it’s a good plan, but says he’ll be staying as the Ragstopper can’t sail anymore. Before leaving, Jute asks what the old emperor was like, and Cartheron replies “I could never make up my mind if he was the biggest fool I’d ever met, or the most cunning bastard.”
The next day Jute arranged for the ships to take on the young and wounded (Enguf, the Genabackan pirate, took the “highest bidders”). Ieleen guesses that Jute wants to stay, and he admits he does want to see it through the end, mostly out of curiosity, though he tries to appease her by saying worst comes to worst they can flee in the Ragstopper despite its condition. She tells him to be careful, and he leaves to return to the now-empty shore, since Tyvar has managed to chivy the mob on a march south. He joins Cartheron and Orosenn. Cartheron shares his ideas for the defense, noting that the castle is the highest piece of land and is set on bedrock, “atop a wedge that slopes down away before us and to either side.” Orosenn skeptically says he’d need “an immense push to get the motion going,” but Cartheron says he has “a big motivator,” and then orders the Ragstopper brought to shore. When his first mate arrives, Cartheron tells him he wants “all the consignment.” When his first mate objects that was “our nest egg. Our retirement fund!” Cartheron says the king has offered them as spot there and that he’ll be taking over as “foreign advisor” (after Malle leaves). Malle too asks if he needs to use it all, and Cartheron tells her “It’s it or us.”
They set up the siege weapons and Lt. Jalaz tells Jute the munitions came form the imperial depot, the ones thought lost when the Guard attacked the capitol. Jute wonders what they’re doing there—he from Falar, her for Genabackis—both of them conquered by Malazans. She tells him when she was little, you didn’t leave your tiny village/valley because you’d be killed or enslaved:
as a stranger—an interloper. But then the Empire came and my world broadened beyond measure. I could travel from Cat…to Pale…even to Darujhistan if I wished, all under the aegis of the imperial scepter. I was treated as an equal… I could hold what was mine under the law and the law held. That was what the Malazan brought. Granted, there were abuses, corruption, just as there had been under the old provincial rulers—human nature doesn’t change. But the opportunity was there. Hope was there. At least a chance.
She notes that the new Emperor is from Falar, but Jute tells her they don’t speak of him:
We of the sea trade in Falar know of the old blood-cult, the Jhistal. It followers terrorized our island for generation… We in Falar had squirmed in the grip of those priests for generations… The Malazans broke that grip… But the new emperor, he tries to rewrite the history of it, but there are those who still dare to whisper that he… was once a priest of the Jhistal.
Cartheron tells Jalaz it’s time. Malle volunteers her guards to go with Jalaz and Cartheron agrees. Jalaz and the guards head out the gates, carrying four munitions chests. Cartheron explains to Jute it’s a gamble, that Jalaz is going to plant some munitions out there “for a little extra oomph.” When Jute says there’s no time, and asks Cartheron about those nine lives, Cartheron tells him, “Don’t lecture me, son. They’re good people doing what they do best.” Jute goes to follow Cartheron when he moves away, but Malle stops him, saying Jute shouldn’t add to the commander’s pain.
By evening the earth’s vibration was nearly intolerable, and Jute watches “entire swathes of forest disappearing as if swept down by an invisible hand.” Then he spots Jalaz and five others running before “a churned froth of mud, silts, soil, and sand, all being scooped downslope towards them in in front of a solid wall of one of the ice tongues.” Four of them, including Jalaz, make it in. The trees and wash pass to either side of the rise the castle sits on, sweeping the town of Mantle away as Orothos uses the siege engines to blast the logjams even as the “roiling mass of coming earth just kept mounting higher and higher.” Orosenn explain to him they’re pushing the wash along so it doesn’t pile up and firing into the mud, assuming the leading edge of the ice will be there first. The walls shake and Jute looks north to see that
“what he’d taken earlier for a thick wall of frozen snow revealed itself to be a steep upward-sweeping wing-like slope that went on and on, perhaps for leagues, up the entire lowest shoulder of the mountains: an ungraspable immensity of ice and weight and might all bearing down on them like a war dromond striking a water beetle.”
Orosenn gives a signal and all four siege engines begin firing cussers, “pouring half the imperial arsenal of Moranth munitions into this unstoppable mountain of ice in a colossal contest of will that would grind all else into dust. Chunks of ice begin falling into the keep and Jute takes cover. He hears a great cracking and imagines the ice river splitting and looking out, sees that it has passed to the right and left while the keep “sat atop a scoured-clean island of naked rock.” He finds Cartheron collapsed, clutching his chest. Jute runs for Orosenn, but she says she can do no more for Cartheron, saying “it’s a miracle he’s still alive.” When she says the Omtose invocation will fade in a “mere hundred years,” he’s relieved it’s over, but she tells him, “This was only the opening salvo. The true confrontation is taking place high above” and wishes she were there to add her voice “Against the rekindling of an ancient war. And I do not mean the animosity of the T’lan Imass for the Jaghut. There have been far older wars, Jute of Delanss. And there are some who never forget, nor forgive.” They go to Cartheron.
I think anyone knowing this series was pretty sure upon reading Teal’s litany of all the great things Lether was going to do one by one that he was about to get slapped by the universe.
I have to say, this is the beginning of one of my favorite scenes in this series (so you’ll forgive me for quoting at length a few times), starting with this image, unclear at first maybe of just what is happening:
the swirling clouds parted then, as if thrust aside by some broad front of wind. Through the dimness of the overcast night he saw that the slope above was much steeper and closer than he remembered. And it was moving—roiling and churning as it came. Even as he watched, entire swathes of tall spruce and fir fell before its advance, only to be sucked beneath the leading edge of tumbling rock and soil.
That’s just a wonderfully epic, grand-scale image. As is the end image: “Above the mounded-up tons of loose soil and talus, something glowing with an inner cobalt-blue light. A broad and low wall descending out of the heights, pulverizing rock, and growling an immensely deep basso rumble that was shaking the ground.”
What makes this stunning imagery have even greater impact is Esslemont’s wise choice to filter it through the human element. So rather than an objective, distance effect, we get to experience it more emotionally. First with Teal’s decision not to run: “He chose not to. There was something inexorable, almost magisterial, in what he was witnessing. Running might gain one a few more minutes of life, but why fall in an undignified mad scramble? He preferred to meet what was coming. And he did—just before the end… his breath left him in awe. How beautiful, and how terrible.” And even with our issues with Teal, it’s hard not to feel respect for him here, his standing there before that. And that wonderful last line works on so many levels,–the description of the Omtose landslide of course, but also of Teal, who himself is a bit “beautiful (in this moment) and terrible. And is thus a fine representation of humanity—also beautiful and terrible.
I like how Tyvar’s task morphs into an escort/rescue mission, one so appropriate for a sect called the Blue Shields, as is pointed out to him.
And I love Cartheron—Mr. Old Guard—refusing to leave out of “curiosity,” because it will be, he thinks, “quite a sight.” Again, that audaciousness of those people that built the Empire, including its Emperor, who was either—and how could you not laugh at this—“the biggest fool [Cartheron] ever met, or the most cunning bastard.”
There’s a bit of a sense of things getting tied up here, loose ends being clipped—there goes Reuth, there goes the heir Dorrin, there go the Blue Shields, there goes Lyan the Shieldmaiden. Nicely, economically done.
And then Jute’s decision. I’ve said all along he and Ieleen are two of my favorite characters in the novel, and their relationship one of my favorites in the series, as it’s a different sort than we usually get. You see that special nature here, that love and intimacy and knowledge of one another. And respect. She knows him well enough to know he’s staying, and why. And respects him enough to accept it. He doesn’t try and come up with some half-ass excuse. Nor is it played sentimentally or melodramatically—it’s understated, but still warm and intimately moving.
And then again, the Malazan audacity. Omtose, glacier, avalanche? Fine, whadda we got? And to bolster that, Malle comes up and asks, “What’s the plan?” Because they’re Malazan. Of course there’s a plan. Might not work, might not have a chance in hell, but there’s gonna be a plan.
And we’ve talked before about the good that the Malazan Empire has wrought and questioned the cost (as have characters in the series), and I liked Jalaz’s clear, heartfelt summation of it here. How it boils down to “Hope was there. At least a chance.” And also how it’s clear-eyed, noting that of course there were abuses of power and corruption. It’s made of people, after all.
I will say, one of the few missteps in this chapter for me (other can and probably do differ on this) was Jute yelling at Cartheron. It just seemed a little manufactured and a bit out of character.
But then we get the great descriptive scene of the race with the avalanche and then its arrival. I just love this scene. Talk about audacity—in this case not just the Malazans, “pouring half the imperial arsenal of Moranth munitions into this unstoppable mountain of ice in a colossal contest of wills that would grind all else into dust,” but also the audacity of the author for having this “battle” scene in the first place. My eighth-grade English teacher would have loved this as a Man vs. Nature conflict! (sure, sure, it’s magic so not really “nature” but still… ) And tell me you don’t want to see this scene done cinematically! I just love these few pages.
And then we get victory, but are cruelly—and effectively—left wondering at its cost, with Cartheron “collapsed against the wall… pale, squeezing his chest, his face clenched against pain… a tremor in the Malazan’s hands that he didn’t seem to notice.” Way to leave us hanging…
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.