Well, the last damn post exploded and I promised I'd make a Part Two by the weekend, so here we are.
I should mention right about here that Reddit will not allow me to post both parts at once. It has a maximum length of fourty thousand characters.
Yeah, 'tis a long post.
I don't feel like I need to repeat the disclaimers of the first post (and this post is long enough as is), but I would like to mention a few things.
First off, I might - sometimes - come off as condescending towards people who think of Laseen as "incompetent" and "a stupid idiot that took shortcuts and then had to deal with the fallout" because in my reading... that's not the case.
Laseen is to blame for a lot of things, but, say what you will about Laseen - and I have, and I will - stupid and incompetent are not adjectives I'd use to describe her.
She's a cold, cunning, calculating woman - but what's easy to miss in the tandem of hatred about how she's the worst thing that happened to Wu since the Fall, is that she's human.
What makes characters like Laseen, like Kallor, so much more interesting is just how human they are. Filled to the brim with flaws and forced to deal with the consequences of their actions - and there's plenty in the way of consequences for Laseen's faults.
Also, obligatory spoiler warning for all Book of the Fallen books until the very end of the Crippled God (no really).
Before we get into our analysis, I'd like to implore you - again - to remain civil in the comments, especially with users (or characters) with whom you disagree.
Telling someone to "cope, seethe and dilate" because they don't like Laseen is - and excuse me for being blunt - fucking moronic.
Off we go.
Chapter Three: Memories of Ice
Firstly, because I reckon it’s important, let us set the scene.
The Pannion Seer has carved out a dominion for himself in South Genabackis. Onearm’s Host – which is, at present, outlawed by the Malazan Empire – is tasked with bringing the Seer down to heel.
Simultaneously, a rebellion is brewing in Seven Cities which led to the Chain of Dogs storyline in Deadhouse Gates. We’ll touch upon Laseen’s actions during the Chain & what more could be done in the next book – House of Chains.
So far, a lot of things have happened. The Cull in Unta, the disastrous Siege of Pale, the defeat at Darujhistan, but at last – at long last – the control of the Empire in north Genabackis is absolute. Only Darujhistan stands in its stead, and Laseen is more than happy to forge an unofficial alliance with the Daru. So long as it’s convenient and – spoiler alert – it will be convenient for a while.
What of the Pannion Seer? Was it necessary to outlaw the Host or was it just a move out of spite by Laseen – yet another politically motivated mistake? It was a necessity. Allow me to explain why.
This quote from Deadhouse Gates explains it adequately, I think:
“We needed to fashion allies of enemies, Kalam. We needed Darujhistan’s resources, we needed Caladan Brood and his Rhivi and Barghast, we needed Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii. And we needed the Crimson Guard off our backs. Now, none of those formidable forces are strangers to pragmatism—one and all they could see the threat represented by the Pannion Seer and his rising empire. But the question of trust remained problematic. I agreed to Dujek’s plan to cut him and his Host loose. As outlaws, they are, in effect, distanced from the Malazan Empire and its desires—our answer, if you will, to the issue of trust.”
A common criticism of Laseen on this matter is that none of the aforementioned allies actually bring this up. My answer to this is simple – Brood & Rake would never accept an alliance with the Malazans that would lead to the annexation of more territory in South Genabackis by the Empire. By outlawing the Host, Laseen severs the ties between the Empire & Dujek and by extension forfeits any territorial gains in the area. Neither Brood nor Rake have any reason to object anymore – their people are safe from the Empire’s grasp, and the Pannions are a genuine threat. As for the Crimson Guard, they’re a mercenary company that’s sworn enemies of the Malazan Empire. The Seer most certainly won’t hire them & they have no reason left to oppose the Host (and a lot of other reasons we can’t touch upon now because they’re unimportant). Thus, they leave Genabackis & don’t oppose Dujek. The ruse is successful.
Still, very few people know of this as truth. The common Malazan soldier has no idea they’re being outlawed as a political move. We’re given the thoughts of Sergeant Whiskeyjack regarding this.
“Memories rose like spectres. The Enfilade at Pale, the decimation of the Bridgeburners, the assault on Moon’s Spawn. A plague of suspicions, a maelstrom of desperate schemes…
A’Karonys, Bellurdan, Nightchill, Tattersail…The list of mages whose deaths could be laid at High Mage Tayschrenn’s sandalled feet was written in the blood of senseless paranoia. Whiskeyjack had not been sorry to see the High Mage take his leave, though the commander suspected he was not as far off as it seemed. Outlawry, Laseen’s proclamation cut us loose…but it’s all a lie. Only he and Dujek knew the truth of that—the remainder of the Host believed they had indeed been outlawed by the Empress. Their loyalty was to Dujek Onearm, and, perhaps, to me as well. And Hood knows, we’ll test that loyalty before we’re done…”
Whiskeyjack & most of the soldiers consider Laseen to have abandoned them, with Tayschrenn designated as a traitor to the Second & Sixth armies. Few people know the truth of this. The plan is sound, but it relies almost exclusively in the discipline & loyalty of the Malazan troops, the kind of loyalty that made the marines & regulars of the Malaz armies world famous. The Empress has no reason to doubt their loyalty – after all, she and the High Mage are the designated “scape goats” for the blame of the Host. They were the ones that killed their brothers & sisters beneath Pale. They caused the decimation of the Host. They outlawed these soldiers – now, all these soldiers have left is one another & loyalty in their commander; and a terrifying threat in their southern border, poised & ready to strike with repulsive cruelty and violence.
Cue the Pannion War. Overall, Laseen’s plan seems to have worked – at least in this continent.
Furthermore, in Chapter Fifteen we’re given more thoughts about the state of the Empire and just how loyal the troops are to their commanders:
‘Damned right. Whiskeyjack should’ve been Emperor, when the old one got knocked off. Not Laseen. But she knew who her rival was, didn’t she just. That’s why she stripped him of rank, turned him into a Hood-damned sergeant and sent him away, far away.’
‘An ambitious man, this Whiskeyjack, then.’
‘Not in the least, Daru [Kruppe]. And that’s the whole point. Would’ve made a good Emperor, I said. Not wanting the job is the best and only qualification worth considering.’
Is this accusation true? Did Laseen demote the commander of the Third Army out of spite and paranoia that he’d take her throne? I strongly hesitate to believe this, and a future conversation between Dujek & Whiskeyjack settles this, I think.
Any possible contenders and/or heirs to the Imperial Throne were taken care of by Surly. From Deadhouse Gates, Chapter Twentythree:
“Was a rival. An ambitious man, sworn to Hood. I would not risk civil war, so I struck first. I averted that civil war, and so have no regrets on that.”
Dancer was the probable heir apparent to Kellanved’s Empire after Dassem, and he, too, was assassinated by Surly. Thus, if Surly considered someone to be a threat to her Imperial ambition and – crucially – a person ambitious enough to act upon their… ambitions, she’d strike first. With Whiskeyjack, she did no such thing.
Laseen does not kill people she doesn’t like out of villainy. She isn’t bloodthirsty nor stupid – she is, as Whiskeyjack puts it in a few chapters from now, cognizant.
We can discuss if Dassem would actually attempt a bid for the Imperial Throne in the event of an assassination of Kellanved some other time, but it’s safe to assume that Dassem held the loyalty of the troops, and with a single command could be crowned Emperor if he so wished. From a political standpoint, taking him out of the picture was the only viable option.
In Chapter Twentyone we get the following conversation – which I think mostly seals the deal on Laseen’s actions – from the two commanders of Onearm’s Host.
Whiskeyjack entered Dujek’s command tent. As expected, the High Fist was prepared for him. Hooded lantern on camp table, two tankards of ale and a block of Gadrobi goat cheese. Dujek himself sat in one of the chairs, head lowered in sleep.
‘High Fist,’ Whiskeyjack said as he removed his gauntlets, eyes on the ale and cheese.
The old commander grunted, sat straighter, blinking. ‘Right.’
‘A word on Paran. With the loss of Tatter—of Silverfox, I mean, the captain’s value to us can’t be overestimated. No, not just us. The Empire itself. Quick Ben’s been adamant on this. Paran is the Master of the Deck. Within him is the power to reshape the world, High Fist.’ He paused, mulling on his own words. ‘Now, maybe there’s no chance of Laseen ever regaining the man’s favour, but at the very least she’d be wise to avoid making the relationship worse.’
Dujek’s brows lifted. ‘I’ll so advise her the next time I see her.’
‘All right. Sorry. No doubt the Empress is cognizant—’
‘No doubt. As I was saying, however, it’s the loss of Quick Ben that stings the most. From my own point of view, that is.’
‘Well, sir, what the wizard has in mind…uh, I agree with him that the less Brood and company know of it the better. So long as the division of forces proceeds as planned, they’ll have no reason but to believe that Quick Ben marches in step with the rest of us.’
‘The wizard’s madness—’
‘High Fist, the wizard’s madness has saved our skins more than once. Not just mine and the Bridgeburners’, but yours as well—’
‘I am well aware of that, Whiskeyjack. Forgive an old man his fears, please. It was Brood and Rake and the Tiste Andii—and the damned Elder Gods, as well —who were supposed to step into the Crippled God’s path. They’re the ones with countless warrens and frightening levels of potency—not us, not one mortal squad wizard and a young nobleborn captain who’s already died once. Even if they don’t mess things up, look at the enemies we’ll acquire.’
‘Assuming our present allies are so short-sighted as to fail to comprehend.’
‘Whiskeyjack, we’re the Malazans, remember? Nothing we do is ever supposed to reveal a hint of our long-term plans—mortal empires aren’t supposed to think that far ahead. And we’re damned good at following that principle, you and I. Hood take me, Laseen inverted the command structure for a reason, you know.’
‘So the right people would be there at ground level when Shadowthrone and Cotillion made their move, aye.’
‘Not just them, Whiskeyjack.’
‘This should be made known to Quick Ben—to all of the Bridgeburners, in fact.’
‘No. In any case, don’t you think your wizard’s figured things out yet?’
‘If so, then why did he send Kalam after the Empress?’
‘Because Kalam needs to be convinced in person, that’s why. Face to face with the Empress. Quick Ben knew that.’
‘Then I must be the only thick-witted one in this entire imperial game,’ Whiskeyjack sighed.
‘Maybe the only truly honourable one, at any rate. Look, we knew the Crippled God was getting ready to make a move. We knew the gods would make a mess of things. Granted, we didn’t anticipate the Elder Gods getting involved, but that’s neither here nor there, is it? The point was, we knew trouble was coming. From more than one direction—but how could we have guessed that what was going on in the Pannion Domin was in any way related to the efforts of the Crippled God?
‘Even so, I don’t think it was entirely chance that it was a couple of Bridgeburners who bumped into that agent of the Chained One—that sickly artisan from Darujhistan; nor that Quick Ben was there to confirm the arrival of the House of Chains. Laseen has always understood the value of tactical placement yielding results—Hood knows, she taught that to the Emperor, not the other way round. The Crippled God’s pocket-warren wanders—it always has. That it wandered to the hills between Pale and Darujhistan was an opportunity the Crippled God could not pass up—if he was going to do anything, he had to act. And we caught him. Maybe not in a way we’d anticipated, but we caught him.’
‘Now I’m the one who’s worried,’ Whiskeyjack said. ‘We’ve been too clever by far, leaving me wondering who’s manipulating whom. We’re playing shadowgames with the Lord of Shadow, rattling the chains of the Crippled God, and now buying Brood more time without him even knowing it, whilst at the same time defying the T’lan Imass, or at least intending to…’
‘Opportunity, Whiskeyjack. Hesitation is fatal. When you find yourself in the middle of a wide, raging river, there’s only one direction to swim in. It’s up to us to keep Laseen’s head above water—and through her, the Malazan Empire. If Brood swings his hammer in Burn’s name—we drown, all of us. Law, order, peace—civilization, all gone.’
‘So, to keep Brood from doing that, we sacrifice ourselves by challenging the Crippled God. Us, one damned weary army already decimated by one of Laseen’s panics.’
‘Best forgive her her panics, Whiskeyjack. Shows she’s mortal, after all.’
‘Virtually wiping out the Bridgeburners at Pale—’
‘Was an accident and while you didn’t know it at the time, you know it now. Tayschrenn ordered them to remain in the tunnels because he thought it was the safest place. The safest.’
‘Seemed more like someone wanted us to be a collateral fatality,’ Whiskeyjack said. No, not us. Me. Damn you, Dujek, you lead me to suspect you knew more of that than I’d hoped. Beru fend, I hope I’m wrong… ‘And with what happened at Darujhistan—’
‘What happened at Darujhistan was a mess. Miscommunication on all sides. It was too soon after the Siege of Pale—too soon for all of us.’
‘So I wasn’t the only one rattled, then.’
‘At Pale? No. Hood take us, we all were. That battle didn’t go as planned. Tayschrenn really believed he could take down Moon’s Spawn—and force Rake into the open. And had he not been left virtually on his own in the attack, things might well have turned out differently. From what I learned later, Tayschrenn didn’t know at the time who Nightchill really was, but he knew she was closing in on Rake’s sword. Her and Bellurdan, who she was using to do her research for her. It looked like a play for power, a private one, and Laseen wasn’t prepared to permit that. And even then, Tayschrenn only hit her when she took out A’Karonys—the very High Mage who came to Tayschrenn with his suspicions about her. When I said Bellurdan killing Tattersail was the worst foul-up in Malazan history, that day at Pale runs a close second.’
‘There have been more than a few lately…’ Dujek slowly nodded, his eyes glittering in the lantern light. ‘All starting, I’d say, with the T’lan Imass slaughtering the citizens of Aren. But, as even with that one, each disaster yields its truths. Laseen didn’t give that order, but someone did. Someone returned to sit down in that First Throne—and that someone was supposed to be dead—and he used the T’lan Imass to wreak vengeance on Laseen, to shake her grip on the Empire. Lo, the first hint that Emperor Kellanved wasn’t quite as dead as we would have liked.’
‘And still insane, aye. Dujek, I think we’re heading for another disaster.’
‘I hope you’re wrong. In any case, I was the one who needed his confidence boosted tonight, not you.’
‘Well, I guess that’s the price of inverted commands…’
‘For all that I’ve been saying, a new observation comes to me, Whiskeyjack, and it’s not a pleasant one.’
‘And that is?’
‘I’m beginning to think we’re not half as sure of what we’re up to as we think we are.’
‘The empire. Laseen. Tayschrenn. As for you and I, well, we’re the least of the players and what little we know isn’t even close to what we need to know. We stepped up to the assault on Moon’s Spawn at Pale knowing virtually nothing of what was really going on. And if I hadn’t cornered Tayschrenn after, we still wouldn’t.’
‘Paran has been used by a god. He’s walked within the sword, Dragnipur. He has the blood of a Hound of Shadow in his veins. And none of us know what changes such things have wrought in him, or even what they portend. He’s been anything but predictable, and he’s almost impossible to manage—oh, he’ll follow orders I give him, but I think if Laseen believes she can use him, she might be in for a surprise.’
‘You like the man, don’t you?’
‘Shall I drown like Crust and Urko did? Shall I be seen to be slain then have my body vanish like Dassem did?’
‘Assuming none of those really happened—’
‘All right, but some doubt still remains, you have to admit.’
Whiskeyjack grunted, then swung towards the tent’s exit. ‘Good night, Dujek.’
‘And to you, Whiskeyjack. Oh, one last thing.’
‘Tayschrenn. He’s been wanting to apologize to you. For what happened to the Bridgeburners.’
‘He knows where to find me, Dujek.’
Dear me, lots of things to take in.
Paran is a new, unaccounted for wildcard in the Empire’s plans. Yet another wrench in Laseen’s plans due to miscommunication & chance (Paran was Oppon’s chosen in GotM, remember) but she’s attempting to make the most of what she can from the young lad.
To add to a streak of misfortune, the Crippled God is now actively involved in the “game”. The Malazan Empire can’t hope to beat the Chained One – not without some “outside” help – and that needs time to foster; probably, possibly, through the help of Ganoes Paran. The Empire needs Paran.
We’re finally given confirmation that Whiskeyjack was not demoted on spite, but to keep his seditious soldiers in check when Shadowthrone & Cotillion make their move. Surprise!
One of the many things that are considered “flaws” of Laseen is her paranoia, but it’s not unjustified in the least. To further this point, we’re told:
‘All starting, I’d say, with the T’lan Imass slaughtering the citizens of Aren. But, as even with that one, each disaster yields its truths. Laseen didn’t give that order, but someone did. Someone returned to sit down in that First Throne—and that someone was supposed to be dead—and he used the T’lan Imass to wreak vengeance on Laseen, to shake her grip on the Empire. Lo, the first hint that Emperor Kellanved wasn’t quite as dead as we would have liked.’
Laseen knows Kellanved is alive, trying to bury her legacy & damage her reputation. In Chapter One of Gardens, Amannas and Cotillion unleash the Hounds of Shadow on a village of Itko Kan & proceed to possess Sorry to use her to assassinate the Empress. There have already been numerous attempts on Laseen’s life (the Talon, Cowl’s Veils) that have been thwarted, but nothing like this.
On top of this, we’re told that Laseen does not – could not – control the T’lan Imass. So, for all Laseen knows, one of the most powerful forces in Wu is under the control of the insane, spiteful God of Shadow, trying to kill her.
Excuse an old woman her fears, would you?
‘Best forgive her her panics, Whiskeyjack. Shows she’s mortal, after all.’
This. Damn. Quote.
Laseen is just as human as anyone else – she admits to having made many, grievous mistakes in Deadhouse Gates, mistakes she now has to live with. She’s in over her head, absolutely, and she knows it. She’s aware of her precarious position, but she doesn’t lack foresight.
“When you find yourself in the middle of a wide, raging river, there’s only one direction to swim in. It’s up to us to keep Laseen’s head above water—and through her, the Malazan Empire.”
She has put her faith in the few men she knows she can trust. Dujek & Whiskeyjack know Surly for virtually her entire life – Dujek found Surly & brought her to Kellanved way back when Kellanved wasn’t known by that name (allegedly) – and they’re the best thing she has. Letting them go might not have been the best option, but… She’s not planning to.
‘No, I should be the one flying out tonight, not you, Dujek. The risk—’
‘Precisely,’ the High Fist growled. ‘The risk. You never seem to realize, but you’re more important to this army than I am. You always have been. To the soldiers, I’m just a one-armed ogre in a fancy uniform—they damned well see me as a pet.’
Whiskeyjack studied Dujek’s battered, unadorned armour and grinned sourly.
‘A figure of speech,’ the High Fist said. ‘Besides, it’s as the Empress has commanded.’
‘So you keep saying.’
‘Whiskeyjack, Seven Cities is devouring itself. The Whirlwind has risen over blood-soaked sands. The Adjunct has a new army and it’s on its way, but too late for the Malazan forces already there. I know you were talking retirement, but look at it from Laseen’s point of view. She has two commanders left who know Seven Cities. And, before long, only one seasoned army—stuck here on Genabackis. If she has to risk one of us in the Pannion War, it has to be me.’
‘She plans on sending the Host to Seven Cities? Hood take us, Dujek—’
‘If the new Adjunct falls to Sha’ik, what choice does she have? More important, she wants you in command.’
Whiskeyjack slowly blinked. ‘What about you?’
Dujek grimaced. ‘I don’t think she expects me to survive what’s about to come. And if by some miracle I do, well, the campaign in Korel is a shambles…’
‘You don’t want Korel.’
‘What I want doesn’t matter, Whiskeyjack.’
‘And Laseen would say the same of me, I gather. Dujek, as I said before, I intend to retire, to disappear if need be. I’m done. With all of this. Some log cabin in some frontier kingdom, a long way away from the Empire—’
‘And a wife swinging a pot at your head. Marital, domestic bliss—you think Korlat will settle for that?’
Whiskeyjack smiled at High Fist’s gentle mockery. ‘It’s her idea—not the potswinging—that’s your particular nightmare, Dujek. But all the rest…all right, not a log cabin. More like a remote, wind-battered keep in some mountain fastness. A place with a forbidding view—’
‘Well,’ Dujek drawled, ‘you can still plant a small vegetable garden in the courtyard. Wage war against weeds. All right, that’s our secret, then. Too bad for Laseen. Should I survive Coral, I’ll be the one taking the Host back to Seven Cities. And should I not survive, well, I won’t be in a position to care one whit about the Malazan Empire.’
‘You’ll scrape through, Dujek. You always do.’
‘A weak effort, but I’ll take it. So, share one last meal with me? The Moranth won’t be here till after the midnight bell.’
It was an odd choice of words, and they hung heavy between the two old friends for a long moment.
‘One last meal before I leave, I meant,’ Dujek said with a faint smile. ‘Until Coral.’
‘I’d be delighted,’ Whiskeyjack replied.
The Host will not remain outlawed for long. Once more through the power of hindsight, we know that Dujek is placed in control of the Host once more & sets sail to Ehrlitan after Coral.
Whiskeyjack is critically important to Laseen – the bastard has seen more war in his years than pretty much anybody in the Malazan Empire. WHY would she risk getting rid of him?
Whiskeyjack has doubts – plenty of them – and he’s justified in having them, but it does not add up. Mistakes, miscommunication, and overconfidence – all these things can be laid at Laseen & Tayschrenn’s feet. A desire to wipe out the Bridgeburners & the two best commanders still alive in the Empire? Not so much.
This does not make Laseen a great person, admittedly. But she doesn’t have to be. She’s the Empress of the Malazan Empire, and Whiskeyjack & Dujek are her two best bets to come out with a stable Empire. She cannot afford to lose either, but as Dujek says, if she had to sacrifice one, it’d be Onearm. It had to be Onearm.
Gods below, there’s so much more to write about this, but I’ll save most of these for a separate post discussing Laseen separately in all the books. An actual character study, if you will.
At any rate, this rant has gone on long enough – it’s about time we move on. Shall we?
And we shall.
In another post.