Spoilers limited to Gardens of the Moon.
Shortly after writing this essay, I decided to start a YouTube channel where I would share this kind of content. However, it immediately became apparent that this essay would not translate well into a spoken format so I essentially wrote a separate script/essay on the same subject. That video can be found here. It ought to convey the same points as the below since it uses the same examples and some of the same text. Suffice to say, future essays will be written in a more easily read fashion so that I don’t duplicate my efforts.
What’s in a name? In listening to a recent Ten Very Big Books podcast, I chuckled as the hosts complained about Erikson’s penchant for giving characters multiple names and titles. It’s not a practice unique to the Malazan world, of course. Several fantasy series do something similar, and the Malazan novels conveniently have both dramatis personae and glossaries to keep all the names and titles straight. However, as I recently finished a re-read of Gardens of the Moon, I couldn’t help but notice some significance to the way a certain character’s name changed as her story progressed. A character who somehow survived the massacre of her impoverished childhood’s home only to become a ruthless killer. You may be forgiven for assuming that I’m talking about Sorry – the young fishergirl who was possessed by the god of assassins – and indeed I will be talking about Sorry a great deal; however, I was more interested in Adjunct Lorn’s own transformation that begins at the very beginning of the book and ends with her death. Adjunct Lorn is Empress Laseen’s most prized agent, the extension of her will. To use the cliche, she is a judge, jury, and executioner all in one. Like Tayschrenn, Raest, and Sorry, Lorn is portrayed as one of the “villains” of the book. However, unlike these others, I think she’s the only one of these characters that we’re positioned to condemn. After all, Raest was just born bad, Tayschrenn is an overly-zealous bureaucrat who’s in over his head, and Sorry was quite literally possessed against her will by the shadow known as the Patron of Assassins. Lorn, on the other hand, is frequently depicted as choosing, time and time again, to do things that she knows to be wrong. And, also unlike those other villains, Lorn is the only one of the three who unambiguously dies at the end of the novel.
Lorn has always been one of my favorite characters in Gardens of the Moon and it’s always upset me that her story is so short within the context of the series as a whole. It’s also frustrated me that she seems to be one of the few characters in the Malazan universe who is never redeemed. However, in this re-read I’ve come to appreciate that Lorn is a much more complex character – especially in regards to her morality – than I had originally believed and I think any impulse to judge her is misplaced. Take for instance, the two different Malazan plots to capture Darujistan. Lorn agonizes over her decision to release the Jaghut Tyrant and ultimately does so in order to complete her mission – and we see that this decision tears her apart. Fan-favorites Whiskeyjack and Fiddler on the other hand, mine busy intersections to explode during a street festival with little complaint. What we’d call an act of terrorism now is just another job to them. In fact, the only reason they don’t set the mines off as planned is purely out of self-preservation. They realize that a city known for its gaslights is laced with gas lines; a single one of their mines detonated would destroy the entire city and any Malazan agents within it.1
I mentioned the importance of names above and admit that Sorry’s own name changes are much more clear cut than Adjunct Lorn’s in signifying the progression of her character’s story. Indeed, I think these two characters are best positioned to be compared and contrasted and I hope that I will be able to persuade you of that by the end of this essay. To get there, however, I will first attempt to answer some fairly straightforward questions about the characters. What are the similarities between Sorry and Lorn? How do they differ? And, after taking their similarities and differences of character and history into account, what can we take away from such a comparison? For the purposes of this essay, I am confining myself to Gardens of the Moon and ignoring details we learn about these characters in the later books. I justify this willful ignorance on my part by postulating that these characters are best positioned to be compared and contrasted within this book and nowhere else.
Before getting too much further, a note about how I will use names in this essay. You might wonder why I am harping on changes to their names, but I think the text itself makes clear that the distinctions are crucial to understanding the composition of the characters. Take for instance the fishergirl who is possessed by Cotillion becomes Sorry.2 Although we never learn the fishergirl’s name, it ultimately doesn’t matter – she chooses the name Apsalar to signify that she is no longer the young fishergirl nor the possessed instrument of House Shadow’s revenge. Similarly, the woman called Lorn is taken in by Laseen and becomes the Adjunct. To the extent that it’s unclear where the woman called Lorn ends and the Adjunct begins, I’ll simply refer to her as Adjunct Lorn.3 I will talk more about this later, but it’s enough for the moment to note that the distinctions I’ve made above between these names are significant for understanding these two characters’ story arcs.
Fortuitously (for me at least), the parallels in how their names change as they each become something other than their own persons also illustrates the chief similarities between the characters. Aside from them both being young women capable of tremendous violence, both characters are agents of two factions in conflict: House Shadow and the Malazan Empire. The Adjunct is an instrument of Laseen’s – an expression of the Empress’s will. Whereas others try to guess Laseen’s intentions while distancing themselves at the same time (e.g. Tayschrenn orders the culling of Pale’s nobility but is unlikely to be performing the executions himself), the Adjunct is trusted to work Laseen’s will, and Laseen presumably chose and groomed Lorn personally for this role. On the other hand but in similar fashion, Sorry is an instrument of House Shadow’s, chosen by Cotillion as the object of his possession. While Shadowthrone schemes and negotiates the evolving nature of the conflict at Darujistan, it’s Sorry who sets to the bloody business of pursuing their vendetta against Laseen and her agents. She does whatever is necessary to accomplish Shadow’s goals no matter how many bodies and how much carnage she leaves in her wake.
The most obvious difference between the two characters is that Sorry is the result of the possession of an innocent fishergirl by a god while Lorn chooses to act as Empress’s principal agent. I have up to this point only considered this objectively and with an eye to whether or not condemnation of one character or another is justified. For the subjective impact of these different modes of possession, consider Cotillion, the patron god of assassins who had possessed the fishergirl and became Sorry, and his claims that the nature of his (nearly) complete possession was a mercy. “‘What I did was merciful. I used her, yes, but she knew it not. […] Tell me, is knowing you’re being used better than not knowing?’” (p. 461)4 While we might wonder whether Cotillion’s opinion on the matter is without bias, this is the most obvious difference between Sorry and Lorn. The nameless fishergirl who becomes Sorry is mostly unaware that she is being used during the possession, while the woman called Lorn who becomes the Adjunct is aware that she is being used by Laseen and is aware of what she does. As a corollary to Cotillion’s words, we might also note that someone who is unaware of being used has less opportunity to resist their usage. This seems to be borne out in the story when we apply this notion to the two characters: while the fishergirl has no choice in what Sorry does, Lorn is given multiple opportunities to abandon the Empress’s cause as will be more fully explored below.
However, I think this difference of awareness is an oversimplification and ignores too much of Lorn’s history. We are never told how Lorn comes to be the Adjunct. We only know that after the massacre – the burning of the slums called the Mouse seen from the perspectives of Ganoes and Whiskeyjack in the prologue – that took away everything familiar to her as a child, she became a Claw. As Lorn revealed during the dinner scene: “[..] that night was my last with my family. I was given to the Claw the very next day. The news of my family’s death was kept from me for years. Yet,’ her words fell to a whisper, ‘I well remember that night – the blood, the screams.’” (p .220).
We never see Lorn and Laseen interact, but I can’t help but wonder whether there was a moment analogous to the possession of the fishergirl in which Laseen makes clear to a young Lorn that she is hers to use. Regardless, we certainly see this subversion of Lorn’s will at the dinner scene in Pale at which Lorn confronts Tattersail and reveals to those present the mage’s role in the massacre of her home. In response, Tattersail submits to judgment by the Adjunct and Lorn is ready to carry out the sentence. Of all people, it’s Tayschrenn – a character vilified throughout the book and portrayed as both heartless and treacherous – who prevents the execution.
Tayschrenn spoke softly, ‘The woman named Lorn, the woman who once was a child, who once had a family,’ he looked upon the Adjunct with anguish in his eyes, ‘that woman does not exist. She ceased to exist the day she became the Adjunct.’ […] Standing beside her, Toc watched those words battering her will, crushing the anger, shattering into dust every last vestige of identity. And from her eyes rose the icy, clinical repose of the Adjunct to the Empress. Toc felt his heart pounding hard against his chest. He’d just witnessed an execution. The woman named Lorn had risen from the turgid mists of the past, risen to right a wrong, to find justice and in that last act reclaim its life – and she had been denied. Not by the words of Dujek or Tayschrenn, but by the thing known as the Adjunct.
Ultimately, it’s this moment that makes it easiest for the reader to sit in judgment of Adjunct Lorn. In so far as Sorry was an innocent victim, blameless as she was used against her will and with no hope of resistance to commit horrific crimes by a heartless assassin god, we are led to forgive her because she knows not what she does. On the other hand, we can say that Lorn chose her fate and her ignoble death – stabbed multiple times in an alley and left to bleed to death – is her just dessert for taking the easy road out of moral responsibility by choosing to become the Empress’s Adjunct. Lorn reaped what she sowed and so it goes. Neat enough and even Paran, who knows Lorn best of all the perspective characters in the book, seems ready to accept as much:
“Just another hunt for certainty. […] He recalled discussing this with Adjunct Lorn, at a time when neither had been compelled by the outside world. Just another hunt for certainty, she’d said, in a voice brittle and cynical, putting an end to the discussion as clearly as if she’d driven a knife into the wine-stained table between them.
For such words to have come from a woman no older than him, Paran suspected then, as he did now, that her particular view had been no more than an easy, lazy mimicry of Empress Laseen’s. But Laseen had a right to it and Lorn did not. At least, in Paran’s mind. If anyone had a right to world-weary cynicism, it was the Empress of the Malazan Empire.
Truly had the Adjunct made herself Laseen’s extension. But at what cost? He’d seen the young woman behind the mask just once – as they’d looked out over a road carpeted with dead soldiers then proceeded to pick their way through them. The pale, frightened girl that was Lorn had shown herself in a single frail moment.” (p. 349)
It’s worth noting here that Paran is quite literally judging Adjunct Lorn for her actions. He is after all headed to Darujistan to kill her. He is also unaware of Lorn’s personal history and likely does not believe any past event relevant to carrying out her execution with his sword Chance. Well, it’s easy enough for Paran to look down his nose at Lorn – he did it before in the prologue. After all, at the same time that Lorn’s childhood is being ended by the nightmare massacre that leads her to ultimately become the Adjunct, a young Paran is happily watching soldiers burn the ghetto – it’s Lorn’s home that he’s looking down upon – and gushing that he wants to grow up to be a soldier himself one day. For all we know, Lorn is down in the burning Mouse at the same time that Paran mistakenly believes he’s smelling burnt pork.
I just can’t be satisfied with this just dessert explanation and several parallel passages in the text itself persuade me that the differences between the characters explored above – what essentially boils down to Lorn having a choice where the possessed fishergirl doesn’t – are ultimately irrelevant and that chasing a moral to Lorn’s story is, well, futile.
Grant me a little poetic license here for this next part because I intend to bend facts and freely associate concepts to selfishly make my point. Consider the moment leading up to Lorn’s failure (and death): she is conscious of how she is beginning to crack under the pressure of pursuing her purpose. She has single-mindedly carried out the Empress’s will at the expense of her own lingering morality and it has cost her greatly. As she observes, “the woman called Lorn” is dead and now there is only the Adjunct, a title but not a person. She sees the coinbearer Crokus, and with great relief understands that by killing him she will finally be done.
We see similar moments of wavering resolve as Sorry follows Crokus to the D’Arle estate. She knows that she must kill him and yet she holds herself back and lets him go. When Sorry is again in control of herself, she is determined to rectify this and follows Crokus out of the city. She witnesses Lorn – in a rare moment of agency5 – spare Crokus and his friends and begins the final advance to the killing strike.
Consider for a moment the parallels set up by Erikson. Both see Crokus, their target, and both adjust their weapons and rush forward:
“Sorry rose slowly into a crouch, then moved forward in silence, her garotte in her hands.” (p. 329)
“[Lorn] adjusted her grip on the sword, padding in silence not fifteen feet behind him […] She drew a long, deep breath, then surged forward, sword’s point extended.” (p. 469)
Crokus’s death is assured. Yet both are thwarted by, well, ascendant intervention. In the case of Sorry, Anomander Rake commands Shadowthrone to abandon Shadow’s plans for Darujistan. Lorn, on the other hand, is attacked and immediately overmatched by Blues of the Crimson Guard who is there on behalf of Caladan Brood. Interestingly, both of these interventions, or both Sorry and Lorn’s moments of failure, are witnessed by Crokus:
“Crokus stared at the woman, who stood at the summit’s edge. […] He’d never seen anyone look so bewildered, so utterly at a loss.” (p. 339)
“As good as the woman had shown herself against Coll, she was now being driven back as a flurry of attacks swept around her. They both moved so quickly that Crokus could not even see the parries, or the blades themselves, but as he watched, he saw the blossoming of wounds on the woman – her arms, legs, chest. Her expression held complete disbelief.” (p. 469)
As chance would have it,6 Crokus is the target of both women and he also sees both women in the moments just after they have each failed in their missions. We see them through his eyes as they have become so far removed from the nigh unstoppable killing machines we’ve come to know throughout the course of the book. The parallels end here though. While Sorry becomes Apsalar once Cotillion abandons her, the Adjunct is rendered defenseless in her deus ex machina encounter which directly leads to her death moments later.
I’m getting ahead of myself so let’s return to earlier scenes where both Adjunct Lorn and Sorry have moments of uncharacteristic hesitation and doubts and each character has a moment that neatly parallels the experience of the other. Both are following Crokus the coinbearer and both are aware that it is their mission to kill him, yet they both are pulled up short by uncertainty. In Lorn’s case, she is trailing Crokus down the street as he runs away from what was once Lady Simtal’s estate:
Like a drowning voice, deep within her mind, came a question heavy with dismay and despair: What of your doubts? What of the woman who’d once challenged Tayschrenn, in Pale? Has so much changed? Has so much been destroyed?
The Adjunct shook her head, dispelling the plaintive cries. She was the arm of the Empress. The woman called Lorn was dead, had been dead for years, and would remain forever dead. And now the Adjunct moved through these hollow shadows, in a city cowering in fear. The Adjunct was a weapon. Its edge could bite deep, or it could snap, break. She might once have called the latter ‘death’. Now, it was no more than the misfortune of war, a flaw in the weapon’s design. (p. 464)
Adjunct Lorn has already spared Crokus once and is poised to do so a second time now that she has dispelled those “plaintive cries.” In an analogous scene, Sorry, having already passed up one opportunity to kill Crokus, is likewise following him, unaware, down a street at night. However, there is one factor missing from Lorn’s moments of doubt and present in Sorry’s case; the conclusion that arrives with this factor’s absence may be damning, should we still be in the mood for such things:
She knew that the boy would have to die, yet something within her seemed to be fighting that conclusion, and it was a part of her she could not recognize. She’d been taken, born a killer two years ago on a coastal road. The body she dwelt within was convenient, suitably unmarred by the events of a dramatic life – a young girl’s body, a young girl whose mind was no match for the power that overwhelmed it, obliterated it. But was it obliterated? What had the coin touched inside her? And whose voice was this that spoke with such power and determination in her head? It had come upon her before, when Whiskeyjack had uttered the word Seer. She tried hard to remember any dealings she might have had with a seer in the last two years, but none came to mind. (p. 294)
For Sorry, a chance reference to a seer – an interaction the fishergirl experienced and remembered but hidden from Cotillion – was enough to keep the normally focused assassin distracted by doubt. Where Lorn interprets and accepts her doubts as evidence that she is no more than a flawed weapon that must break in her final strike, the oblique reference to Riga the seer is just enough to leave Sorry struggling with her uncertainty and unable to act.7
And it’s Riga’s absence that I think makes the difference in Lorn and Sorry’s outcomes. Although Riga knows of and is known to the fishergirl, the words of her prophecy don’t quite fit Sorry as well as they do Lorn:
‘Mark this truth, child, else the Cloak of Lies blinds you for ever.’ Rigga’s voice took on a droning cadence, and all at once the girl stiffened. Rigga, Riggalai the Seer, the wax-witch who trapped souls in candles and burned them. Souls devoured in flame— Rigga’s words carried the chilling tone of prophecy. ‘Mark this truth. I am the last to speak to you. You are the last to hear me. Thus are we linked, you and I, beyond all else.’ Rigga’s fingers snagged tighter in the girl’s hair. ‘Across the sea the Empress has driven her knife into virgin soil. The blood now comes in a tide and it’ll sweep you under, child, if you’re not careful. They’ll put a sword in your hand, they’ll give you a fine horse, and they’ll send you across that sea. But a shadow will embrace your soul. Now, listen! Bury this deep! Rigga will preserve you because we are linked, you and I. But it is all I can do, understand? Look to the Lord spawned in Darkness; his is the hand that shall free you, though he’ll know it not—’
To my knowledge, we only rarely see Sorry ride any kind of horse – no mention of whether it’s a fine horse or not – and we never see her with a sword in her hand (though she wears the one presumably issued to her, Sorry only ever wields daggers and a garotte.) Indeed, it’s Adjunct Lorn who is frequently described with or appreciative of a fine horse and characterized by her otataral sword. Riga the Seer might as well be describing Lorn as the one who was swept under a tide of blood and whose soul would be embraced by a shadow – this imagery is particularly poignant if we recall that drowning voice and how Lorn shakes it off before she “moved through these hollow shadows.” We might also connect that tide of blood with Lorn’s childhood and the night in the Mouse that forever changed her life: “She remembered blood, blood everywhere, and the empty faces of her mother, her father and older brother – faces numbed by the realization that they’d been spared, that the blood wasn’t their own.” (p. 216)
But Lorn has no seer to preserve her and at the end of the day, that is the most meaningful difference between Lorn and Sorry. It’s not a matter of agency on their parts nor of the completeness of their possessions by greater powers, just a matter of luck that one had a Riga with her “prod and pull” and the other did not. Consequently, Lorn’s death is brought about by chance just as much as it would have been if she’d been killed by Paran and his Oponn-imbued sword.
The philosopher Everlast once astutely postulated “you know where it ends, yo, it usually depends on where you start.”8 With the ends being largely determined by the beginnings, everything that lies between has less relevance than we generally like to believe. We know how Lorn and Sorry end, and I hope that I have made the case that their starting positions have more in common than not. It’s not for her choices along the way that Lorn ends up on her back in a bloody pool9 while the girl who was once the fisher girl and Sorry is remade as Apsalar. Both were made into weapons and used by powers greater than themselves. However, unlike Lorn, Sorry is only barely aware that she is losing herself during the possession. Adjunct Lorn is all too aware of the price she has paid in being used by Laseen how much distance has been placed between her and the child taken by the Claw when the Mouse Quarter burned. While both characters lose their beginnings, only Lorn is aware of how much she has lost. Perhaps this is the mercy that Cotillion spoke of; only the mercy is not in the knowledge or ignorance of being used, but rather not knowing how far the use has taken Apsalar away from who she had been and, more speculatively, who she could have been. Lorn, however, remembers herself as “the woman called Lorn,” she is haunted by the visions of her family and her home, and she must repeatedly try to bury her past self to become nothing more than the Adjunct. Maybe by the end of the book she finally succeeds and the possession of Lorn by Laseen is complete and she becomes the Adjunct just as the fishergirl is possessed by Cotillion and becomes Sorry. We never learn the fishergirl’s name and the fishergirl admits that she can’t remember it; instead she chooses a new name for herself which lets her take the fragments of herself and move on. Unfortunately for Lorn, she had no wax witch10 to preserve her and she is never given the chance to choose a new name for herself. In pursuing her mission and ever putting Laseen’s will before her own, she – as her name implies – is lost.
So what’s in a name? When we first meet Adjunct Lorn, we only learn her title because the unnamed captain keeps addressing her as “Adjunct” until they crest the hill leading to the remnants of the fishing village. As Lorn comes upon the site of the massacre where she and Paran first meet, when the captain next calls her by her title, she interrupts him to state “I am named Lorn.” (P.38). When Paran comes upon the site of Lorn’s own massacre, I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a small amount of mercy to be found in Adjunct Lorn’s final words: “no . . . glorious end . . . for the Adjunct.” (p. 471). This is one of the very few times – I counted three – that Adjunct Lorn refers to herself by title. At her end, the transformation is complete, the dying woman only recognizes herself as the Adjunct, and, unequivocally, “the woman called Lorn was dead, had been dead for years, and would remain forever dead.” We can only hope she’s right: that the dying woman is just the Adjunct and that the long-dead Lorn was already resting in peace by then.
1. Amusingly, mining the combustible city plan was the alternative to the original plan that seemed too tailored to their own destruction.
2. Apropos of nothing, the first words the fishergirl speaks in the novel foreshadow her name: “Slowly the fishergirl realized that a question had been asked of her. She pulled her attention from the soldiers and smiled down at the old woman. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘the horses are so loud.’” (p. 32)
3. I can’t tell if there’s something significant as to when the character is referred to as the Adjunct, Lorn, the woman called Lorn, or Adjunct Lorn. Given the added complexity of how other characters refer to her as well as how she is named when the narrative sticks to her perspective, I am content to admit that – if indeed there is a pattern – I’m not clever or caffeinated enough to discern it.
4. For an interesting counterpoint to Cotillion’s justification, consider Tattersail’s assessment of why Whiskeyjack seems so unwilling to believe that Sorry is possessed, or at least, an agent of Shadow: “[Whiskeyjack’s] needs were clear to [Tattersail] now: he wanted Sorry to be just human, just a girl twisted hard by a hard world. Because that was something he understood, something he could deal with.” For whatever reason, from Whiskeyjack’s perspective, knowing that someone else is being used to do terrible things is somehow worse than those terrible actions being the results of terrible life experiences.
5. An act that Lorn herself considers to have been random and essentially human.
6. I’m just awful, I know.
7. RotCG Spoiler (highlight to view): This is yet another example of Sorry’s (relatively) good luck. At the time that Sorry is trailing Crokus, the latter is being shadowed and protected by members of the Crimson Guard, notably Blues and Cowl who are both high mages with powers rivaling those of ascendants. Whether or not he was his equal at the time of Gardens of the Moon, Cowl’s past familiarity with and grudge against Dancer could have made a fight against Sorry very interesting to say the least.
8. “What It’s Like” is perhaps the most Malazan song out there.
9. I refuse to feel shame for writing this sentence.
10. The wax witches she most likely knew were killed in the burning of the Mouse.