SPOILERS: Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates.
This is a spin-off from an unfinished essay on the portrayal of history in Deadhouse Gates. There are a few reasons I’ve not been able to finish it, but the only one that wasn’t shorthand for laziness was that I kept getting distracted by the topic of this essay. So I’ve tried to make it stand on its own though I’ll be repeating some of the points of the other essay when necessary.
As far as spoilers go, this essay assumes that you’ve read both Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.
There is a saying that goes something like those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Deadhouse Gates is a book about history and what happens when history is forgotten, confronted, or ignored. Two of the primary character of the book are the historians Duiker and Heboric. However, while the book is driven by these character’s perspectives and, in some cases, their actions, they have been both been cast aside. In the case of Duiker, his observation that Laseen is indifferent to his presence at court is countered by Mallick Rel’s question: “unheeded historian or unheeding of history?”
Duiker is likely the most revisited point of view in the entire book. We witness virtually all of the lead-up to the rebellion and the Chain of Dogs from his perspective and Coltaine’s esteem for him can’t be overstated – he’s directed to witness several pivotal moments from particular vantage points so that he can witness the history unfolding before him. Furthermore, Duiker is so important that Coltaine passes up his own resurrection in favor of the historian’s. This importance both to us as readers as well as to one of the major figures of the book is juxtaposed with how he’s introduced to us as a character who has been discarded by the Empress or, at least, ignored to such an extent that his absence at court has gone unnoticed. Which brings me to the question that I hope to explore: why save the historian?
So before we can answer this question, we need to talk about Duiker’s own history. He was once a soldier who somehow became a favorite of the former Emperor and was promoted – or maybe it is better to say – transferred into the role of Imperial Historian. His removal from the “front lines had been the Emperor’s reward” and he was also given alchemical treatments that extended his life span and increased his ability to recover from wounds. The reason for this special care is as enigmatic as the man responsible for Duiker’s re-assignment. ‘No-one who’s grown up amidst scrolls and books can write of the world,’ Kellanved had told him once, ‘which is why I’m appointing you Imperial Historian, soldier.’ Query whether Kellanved would also doubt that someone who’s grown up on scrolls and books can learn of the world. Also, keep in mind that the same person who charged Duiker with writing the official history of the empire was reported – by Duiker – as opining that “History comforts the dull-witted.”
Duiker participated in several important campaigns during the expansion of the Malazan Empire under Kellanved and his participation was somewhat more involved than what one might expect of a historian. Explaining why he was unarmed in a battle that saw him seriously wounded many years before, Duiker says “‘If I am to record the events of this Empire, I must be in their midst.’” Since that time, however, Duiker preferred to take more precautions: “‘These days I wear armour when attending battle, and a short sword and shield. And helm. Surrounded by bodyguards, and at least a league away from the heart of the fighting.’”
While we learn a bit about his involvement in some of the military campaigns during Kellanved’s reign, we don’t get much information on what kind of history he’d been writing during Laseen’s reign. In fact, we as readers actually know next to nothing about the contents of Duiker’s histories. We know that he was present for some parts of the Wickan rebellion and that he also possessed an incredibly nuanced understanding of Seven Cities culture so we might assume that he was present during its conquest.
Despite his portrayal and reputation in this book as being an on-the-ground eye-witness reporter, the reader would do well to question the nature of his written histories. After all, official history can at best be subject to bias and at worst oxymoronic. In fact, the only substantial characterization of his work comes from Heboric who admits that he had “more than once denounced his written histories as deliberate lies.” Interestingly enough, while we know relatively little about either historian’s work and despite Duiker’s penchant for up-close-and-personal recording, it’s Heboric’s investigation and account of recent history that we know to be closer to the truth. He earned his exile, after all, because he questioned the official account of Kellanved’s death and also conjectured that the emperor and his companion Dancer survived the assassination attempt. In other words – more specifically Baudin’s words – in his revised history, he called Laseen “a murderer, and then had the gall to say she bungled the job!” So if we wonder who is the more accurate of the two, we only really know that Duiker’s history was called official lies on multiple occasions by a historian who we know to have been right about at least one very important event.
To the degree that we do learn anything about the Malazan history Duiker was likely writing about, it’s from the perspective of Malazan veterans like Fiddler, Kalam, and Gesler who all have somewhat nostalgic memories for Kellanved’s reign. And they come by their preference for Kellanved over Laseen honestly since they all have good reason to believe that Laseen has tried to kill them in the past. Of course, this isn’t out of character – she’s after all the former head of a secret police organization and this is the second out of two books that starts off with her having just ordered a cull of a particular population.
The cull of course here is of the nobles who to me are the most likely audience of written history. After all, Pella attempts to give Felisin a secret message by referring to the history lessons that she’s assumed to have had. And this cull goes beyond just the readers of history but also includes the historian Heboric who had the audacity to write his controversial revised history.
So putting these two observations together and without considering her intent, I think we can say that Laseen is removing individuals as well as parts of the military who are aware of the last several years of the Malazan Empire. However, I’m not sure to what extent, if any, Laseen is trying to re-write how she came to the throne. We haven’t had any points of view from the everyday Malazan citizen, but from the Malazan perspectives that we’ve had, existence and her use of the Claws is well-known and I don’t think it would be out of character for Laseen – based on what little we know about her – to be comfortable with the assassination of her predecessor being public knowledge. So if it is the case that Laseen is removing both history as well as those who read it, why does she do so? I think an explanation it is increasingly becoming clear that not all is well in her Empire.
The previous book established a kind of juxtaposition between the outsider’s perception of the Empire, or at least its military, and the insider’s perspective. To the outsiders in Darujistan, it was an unstoppable force – consider Baruk’s map and the imagery of the expansion of the Malazan Empire’s borders being like the spilling of ink on a page. However, we’re also aware that Dujek’s army is barely holding his military campaign together after the siege of Pale and that word has reached him that Seven Cities is on the verge of rebellion. We see this in the very beginning of Deadhouse Gates, where the Malazan governors are oblivious to the signs of Seven Cities’ imminent insurrection despite the writing being quite literally on the wall.
I think we can over-simplify this juxtaposition by saying that the outsider sees Kellanved’s Empire with the trappings of Laseen’s ambitions and cruelty while the insider sees Laseen’s Empire without the trappings of the Emperor’s ingenuity. And I think it’s this internal view that Laseen wants to destroy; that there was some characteristic present during the Old Emperor’s reign that’s now absent. I am not sure what this characteristic is, but Bult proffers one view of the disappearances of the Emperor’s Old Guard – what Duiker calls “forbidden history” – as being an abandonment of Laseen by her comrades: “You assume they were murdered at Laseen’s command, […] but imagine a circumstance where the Empress’s most able commanders simply… disappeared. Leaving her isolated, desperate for able people.”
In Deadhouse Gates, we begin to see the tension between the reality of events and the official record of history. This is, after all, the dynamic between Heboric and Duiker. Now, at this point, we don’t know the complete official history of how Surly became Empress Laseen. However, we have bits and pieces of it. Dassem died, Dancer and Kellanved were assassinated, Urko and Cartheron Crust drowned, and Laseen, the only one of the old guard who cared about running an empire was the only one left standing. However, we’re also given evidence to the contrary for almost all of this: we learn that Dancer and Kellanved survive the attempt on their lives and Urko and Cartheron Crust were really good at swimming. These, of course and as mentioned before, are the details that were stricken from the official histories and what lead to Heboric’s banishment. With her official history secure, Laseen maintains her grip on power through purges of nobles and magic-users as well as her own secret police force of assassins and spies. Despite these things, however, the conclusion of Deadhouse Gates suggests that her hold is not as secure as it appears. Her attempt to stave off the Seven Cities Rebellion is a failure and she loses one of her most capable generals, largely due to the ineptness of her chosen governor. And despite having founded the Claws, she reveals to Kalam that she can not command them to stop hunting him.
A recurring theme in the Book of the Fallen is that imperial expansion is inherently flawed in that they begin to collapse as soon as they can no longer expand. In other words, Empires are kind of like pyramid schemes – they have to continuously expand in order for their leadership to retain their power base. Maybe Kellanved figured out the magic formula that allowed his Malazan Empire to achieve a kind of growing homeostasis. Maybe, though I think it’s more likely that he just had a particularly elaborate Ponzi Scheme that was better than most at delaying the inevitable, and Bult – and likely Coltaine by extension – recognizes this since he questions whether they were truly effective rulers. So I don’t find movies about corporate intrigue or organized crime interesting, but I have to believe there’s a movie out there in which a particularly ambitious go-getter engineers a hostile take-over only to learn that the company’s books have been cooked, there’s no liquidity, debts are coming due, and the only people who were somehow able to get it this far without collapsing have disappeared. That’s the position that Laseen finds herself in and it’s easy to see why she prefers her image as the dominating assassin-queen whose absolute control over her empire is enforced by culls and the Claws and why any counter-narrative is so brutally suppressed. Anything that could possibly weaken her control – whether it’s a charismatic leader, an overly influential class of nobles, or a troublesome history – are done away with. However, in another scene and within a completely different context, the Bridgeburner Fiddler laments that “without history there’s no growth…” That’s as apt an observation about the Malazan Empire as it is about Icarium. I think this is something that Coltaine and Bult are likely to have recognized: that by trying only to hold on to control, to her armies, and to the instruments of her power at the expense of her Empire’s history, Laseen is insuring that the Empire will reach the limits of its growth sooner rather than later.
I’m going out on a limb here, but history is sometimes communicated as something like a recipe. Growing up in the USA, the outbreak of the Second World War was often explained as the combination of an inexplicably charismatic figurehead, rising antisemitism as well as xenophobia, and a severe economic depression. It’s a simple enough formula and may have some heuristic value though it has some obvious flaws. Nonetheless, and especially in the last several years, the recognition of similar elements raised concerns that history could be about to repeat itself. And that brings me back to that axiom about being doomed to repeat history. I understand that saying to be about the repetition of failures, however, I see no reason why it can’t apply to successes as well. If you want to relive a success, look to your recipe for success. If you want to avoid a past failure, then avoid those ingredients. This view of history is admittedly simplistic, however, and it hinges upon your history being accurate. If the history you created – your recipe – is fake and you find yourself really needing some successes like you had before, then you’re in trouble. And I think some of Coltaine’s last words to Duiker drive this point home. In this scene, Duiker is offering Coltaine the charm that will allow for his resurrection and preservation. If Coltaine had taken it, Laseen would not have lost this great general and leader. However, Coltaine refuses it and insists that Duiker use it instead, saying “This tale is yours, Historian, and right now, no one is more important than you. And if you one day see Dujek, tell him this: it is not the Empire’s soldiers the Empress cannot afford to lose, it is its memory.” The present isn’t what Laseen must draw on, but rather the accurate memory of how the present was made into reality through actions taken in the past.