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 Forge of Darkness, Chapter 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, 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 her comments later.
Forge of Darkness, Chapter One
Lord Draconus, Consort to Mother Dark, arrives at Dracons Hold, whose lintel is carved with the phrase “There will be peace” in the Azathanai language, though few Azathanai ever visit the city-state of Kurald Galain, save as stone-cutters/builders.
Arathan, Draconus’ bastard son, watches nervously from the Old Tower as Draconus enters the Great House, thinking how many fear Draconus, though Arathan doesn’t know why. At 17, Arathan has no idea who his mother is and in his entire life has only been around Draconus maybe two dozen times. His father has never even once spoken to him, including after he’d nearly drowned at age nine by falling through the ice. His three triplet half-sisters Envy, Spite, and Malice speak to him, but only infrequently. He thought he knew their mother, but his tutor Sagander had implied the “brooding, heavy woman” he recalled was merely a wet-nurse, a “witch of the Dog-Runners who dwelt beyond the solitude.” He himself does not look Tiste—“he had not the fair skin or tall frame”—nor do his sisters, and he wonders where the blood of their father is, if it “hides deep within us.” He knows that as an adult the time has come for him to make his way in it soon, by force of will, which is what his tutor tells him it takes, for “Kurald Galain society was a true map of talent and capacity… The insipid and the incompetent had no place in which to hide their failings. ‘This is natural justice, Arathan, and thus by every measure it is superior to the justice of say, the Forulkan, or the Jaghut.” Though Arathan wonders if this is in fact true. He’s surprised by the arrival of Malice (shortest and “last from the womb”), who has never spoken to him directly. She tells him Draconus has summoned him. When he notes that “names shouldn’t be curses” with regard to her own, she, says Draconus will be “relieved” Arathan isn’t the simpleton Envy says he is. She leads him downstairs even as he fears he’s about to be cast out. He recalls Sagander’s advice: “In natural justice, the weak cannot hide unless we grant them the privilege… At any given moment, should the strong will it, they can swing a sword and end the life of the weak…. Forbearance.” All his lessons “circled like wolves around weakness, and the proper place of those cursed with it.” He believes “one day he would hurt Draconus,” and thinks, “Father, I believe I am your weakness.”
Master-at-arms Ivis waits for Draconus, proud that he’ll be able to report that their smithy had produced well enough that none of the many new recruits would be left without armor or weapons. He wonders though what has brought Draconus back so abruptly. Sagander exits from his meeting with Draconus and says Ivis can go in. Ivis believes with the “mutually exclusive ambitions of the Holds and Greater Houses” that it makes sense for Draconus to build up his Houseblades to “second only to that of Mother Dark herself,” though the Holds were not so blasé about it. Draconus took over the Hold after his adoptive mother, Srela, had died ten years ago. Draconus asks Ivis to report about Arathan, and the master-at-arms tells him he has “natural skill” (despite weak hands), but it’s hard to gauge him because “there is an air of the effortless about him… he remains unpressed.” Draconus tells him to get Arathan ready for a long journey.
Malice takes Arathan to the chamber, telling him Ivis has reported about him. Arathan corrects her for calling Ivis “Clawface” for his scars, telling her they are from starvation on the retreat from the Forulkan War. She tells him his father is waiting to judge him for himself, and if he doesn’t like what he sees he’ll just kill Arathan. He enters the room. Draconus says Arathan may think his mother didn’t want him, and acknowledges that Arathan has lacked answers his whole life. He won’t apologize for that, but tells him that leaving Arathan hurt his mother too, and he hopes that one day Arathan will understand and forgive her. He explains he won’t be bringing Arathan to the citadel because of the growing tension and his own precarious position. When Arathan points out he’s Consort, Draconus says that has “placed me between her and the highborn Holds—all of whom bear the titles of sons and daughters of Mother Dark,” a title which could be “an affectation or an assertion of unshakeable loyalty.” Instead of the citadel, Arathan will join him on a journey west to visit the Azathanai and Jaghut, as will Sagander, Gate Sergeant Raskan, and four Borderswords. He dismisses Arathan to go help his tutor pack.
Sagander recalls the day Arathan fell through the ice and feels now “the treachery beneath his own feet… he was moments from tottering… as the world gave way under him.” He thinks the feeling silly as he’s about to start off on a journey of his dreams, to see the Azathanai and Jaghut. He prefers things to make sense: “Fitting neatly was the gift of order, proof of control, and from control, mastery. He would not accept an unknowable world.” He compares the tracking of mysteries to the extinction of the “fierce wrashan that had one roamed the Blackwood… [now] Blackwood Forest had become knowable. Safe.” He looks forward to returning, “in crowning glory, with all he needed to fuel a blazing resurrection of his reputation as a scholar” so he can spurn those who now look at him with disdain. Arathan knocks and Sagander wonders how some one like Draconus could father a child like Arathan, whom he believes is “destined for mediocrity” since “what other future could be expected from an unwanted child?” Arathan enters and tells his tutor he’s overpacked, pointing out for instance that Draconus will probably disallow giving maps as gifts, despite the current peace. Sagander then gives Arathan the task of picking out five gifts, including one highly valuable one for the Lord of Hate. Arathan leaves and Sagander muses on the “masks of innocence… [and] earnestness” when Arathan speaks, and how after every recent conversation with his pupil he feels “agitated.” He thinks though this journey will put Arathan back in his place: “wide-eyed and frightened.”
Gate Sergeant Raskan worries about commanding the veteran Borderswords (Rint, Ville, Galak, and Feren—Rint’s sister) and earning their respect, especially as his position came about from being Ivis’ cousin. He hopes too he can trust their famous neutrality, since they are not sworn to Draconus or the Hold. Raskan tells them he needs the training yard to get Arathan used to a warhorse. When questioned, he says the boy is to be seen as “no more than a recruit” and then angrily tells them he is under no obligation to explain himself to them, and how he deals with Arathan is not to be questioned.
Later, as he prepares to get Arathan on the horse, Raskan thinks how Draconus has been training mounted lancers, determined to exploit the other Houses and Holds’ lack of competent cavalry in case of civil war, a concept none dared talk about but all readied for, though Raskan himself can’t see why it must come to that: “What was this power that so many seemed determined to grasp… What lust was being fed by all those who so hungered for it? Who among all these fools… would be so bold and so honest as to say, yes, this is what I want. The power of life and death over as many of you as possible. Do I not deserve it?” Raskan explains a bit about warhorses, admitting they don’t have the time they really need, and saying he’ll only be riding the horse a little bit each day, though he’ll be responsible for caring for her.
Watching the training session, Galak is pleasantly surprised by how well it goes. Rint points out their ways (the “house-dwellers” vs. the Borderguards) are just different as opposed to better or worse. Galak though takes issues with that, mentioning how they’ve hunted creatures to extinction and nearly wiped out the entire forest. Feren says war leaves a wasteland behind, here in the center or at the border and none notice it until it’s too late. Galak wonder why it matters so much that Mother Dark took Draconus as a lover. Rint mentions the rumor that the sorcery about her is “said to be impenetrable now. Proof against all light. It surrounds her wherever she goes. We have a queen no one can see any more, except for Draconus.” Galak jokes maybe not even him. Feren changes the subject o how anxious Arathan is, saying it’s no wonder with a father who wouldn’t even speak to him, adding she thinks it’s because Draconus is punishing Arathan’s mother. Ville tells Galak they all hunt as well, kill when they have to, making them no different than a hawk or wolf, but Galak objects that the difference is they “can actually figure out the consequences of what we do, and that makes us… culpable.” Feren warns “Rely not upon conscience… It ever kneels to necessity.” And Rint adds, “And necessity is often a lie.” Ville muses on Mother Dark’s impenetrable darkness, calling it an odd thing to do. Feren replies, “Why not, when beauty is dead?”
Before he became Consort, Draconus’ “greatest source of envy and unease” to the other highborn was his “mysterious ties with the Azathanai,” made concrete in the form of the new Grand Bridge built by them as a gift to the city from Draconus. Despite recognizing its symbolism, the bridge still created tension, bitterness, and resentment. Those who lived on and worked the river, we’re told, “did not mingle with the highborn…” and Gallan wonders, “Did they dream of peace, those grimy men and women… did they fear the time to come? And could we—oh gods, could we—have ever imagined the blood they would sacrifice in our name?”
“There will be peace.” How heavy hitting is that as an opening line to the story proper given what we know about what’s to come? And how ominous to describe the carved letters as the result of “violence of the mason’s hand.” And as a “savage wounding.” (We’ll also see a mason soon…) And if the reader doesn’t pick up on the fact that the phrasing isn’t inherently all butterflies and rainbows (killing everyone brings peace as well, after all), we’re told in just a few lines that the words are “ambivalent.”
This bit on conviction reminds me a bit of an earlier bit from the MBotF on “certainty.” Both—conviction and certainty—can spark some real atrocity, as human history has shown us.
Draconus ever makes an entrance, eh?
So Draconus’ portrait was done by an artist we’ve seen before—Kadaspala. If you recall, we met him in Dragnipur: “I am Kadaspala, brother to Enesdia who was wife to Andarist.” He tried to steal the sword from Draconus. We’re also told he blinded himself, “[w]hen I saw what he’d done. To his brother. To my sister.” So “ brilliant artist” nor not, we know his story doesn’t end well.
In contrast to our introduction to Draconus—“the thunder of hoovers,” the rising sun, “a “rumble” and “pounding,” masterful hands controlling the fierce and formidable warhorse before he drops them and “strides” in scattering his servants like “hens”, “a man who was king in all but name”—we get Arathan biting his nails so that his finger tips were “red bubs, swollen with endless spit, and on occasion they bled” and standing there “tense, breath held.”
And soon we get one of our first mysteries (c’mon, it’s a Malazan book): who is Arathan’s mother?
And quickly another if not mystery bit of new world-building (hmm, if it’s a prequel, is it new old worldbuilding?)—who are the Dog-Runners.
And then we’re back in quasi-familiar territory with Envy and Spite, and Malice (as kids!). This will be interesting…
It isn’t hard to see the seeds of at least some of what’s to come in these lines: “The insipid and the incompetent had no place in which to hide their failings. ‘This is natural justice, Arathan… In natural justice, the weak cannot hide, unless we grant them the privilege.” If they belong to the common thinking of the Tiste and not just Sagander. Also a nicely efficient way of introducing the other two races and the concept of justice.
And another long-range question: is Arathan’s thought “one day he would hurt Draconus in ways not yet imaginable” true foreshadowing or a mistaken belief?
More tension is added by the reference to Draconus building up his weapons and armor store and increasing his Houseblades to form a “modest army,” which isn’t exactly endearing him to the other Houses. And later we get a hint of tension between him and Mother Dark, implied by the “slight tightening round [his] eyes,” when Arathan mentions how “she has chosen [him] to stand at her side.” The seriousness of the tension is made even more clear later when Draconus tells Arathan he can’t guarantee his son’s safety in the city.
This is interesting phrasing/juxtaposition, telling us that Srela died “suddenly” even as we’re told of Draconus’ “ambitions.” Hmmm.
That ice works as a nice early metaphor. The thin ice, obviously—treacherous ground underfoot, things not feeling solid. We see that with several of our characters already, nearly all of them actually. Sagander of course, since he’s the one who thinks it. But Arathan obviously as well. Ivis. Pretty much all the city. Even better than the very familiar “thin ice” is the precise phrasing of the image—“rotted from beneath.” Perhaps like Kharkanas itself?
So do you think Erikson is having some fun with his readers who are just stepping out on this book’s journey? “He [Sagander] was about to journey among the Azathanai and beyond to the Jaghut. Where is questions would find answers; where mysteries would come clear, all truths revealed.”? Good luck with that. Or with this, “He would not accepts an unknowable world.”
The hubris and ugliness of such a declaration, if not evident on its face, is made abundantly clear by Sagander’s immediate comparison—the hunting to extinction of the “fierce wrashan that had once roamed the Blackwood” so that now “no howls ever broke the benign silence.” Just as we no longer hear the howls of wolves, the beat of passenger pigeon wings, etc.
Erikson makes it harder and harder to like Sagander. First with his early lessons as revealed to us, then with his desire for mastery and order and safety, and then with his resignation that any “unwanted child” is doomed to a life of “mediocrity.” Great attitude for a teacher. And of course we get the less serious, more petty manner in which he treat Arathan when discussing this packing/gifts and his need to have Arathan “put back in his place.”
Another mystery—who is the wonderfully named “Lord of Hate”?
So, is Raskan’s problem a parallel to the ice metaphor—problems underfoot? Certainly his command is apparently not going to be easy.
And here for the first time, and pretty early in the book, we get our first direct mention of that underlying tension in the city-state: “Civil war. The two words no one dared speak out loud, yet all prepared for.”
I try to throw my mind back, way, way back, to how the Tiste homeland was first depicted. I believe it was more positive at the start, wasn’t it? And there’s always this class fantasy trope of the “Elvish” home as nearly utopian. But here we are actually in this distant-in-time “Eden” and only a few pages in we’re on our second reference to how the Tiste hunted creatures to extinction (the poor tereth), not to mention turned at least part of the place into a “wasteland.” Thank god none of this escapist fare has any bearing on the real world we live in…
Every now and then in this series we get a wonderful aphorism. This is one of my favorites: “Rely not upon conscience. It ever kneels to necessity. And necessity is often a lie.”
I like how this chapter comes full circle with the carved words, “There will be peace.” And if the opening refers to the words as “ambivalent,” leaving them open to interpretation and leaving the reader the option of seeing them as hopeful or threatening/ominous, here at the end Gallan leaves us no such choice, tying the words to this: “Could we—oh gods, could we—have ever imagined the blood they would sacrifice in our name?”
This is a good opening chapter in terms of a nice balance of the familiar and the new. We get Draconus and Envy/Spite (mentioned if not seen), mention of Forkrul and Jaghut, Kadaspala. But we also get wholly new characters, such as Ivis and the Borderguards, new creatures, and some mysteries. All in all, a good entry point, I’d say.
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.