In the Valley of Drums…

For lack of a more sensational beginning: Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy fiction series is the best piece of writing I have ever encountered. Erikson’s experience as a archaeologist and an anthropologist is brought to bear in every line of the 10-book epic, producing a tale that is vigorously gripping yet mercilessly sophisticated. But once you are those requisite 30 to 40 pages in, you will come to understand why such sophistication is important, rather can be, because you will suddenly be aware of how much other works of fantasy fiction have chosen to leave out. Many readers of the series have criticized him for making his narrative so complex, so “unreasonably” intricate, but I find it tremendously gratifying that when I read his work, I feel as if I am drawn closer to the helplessness that Erikson himself feels… a kinship founded on knowing how much can go left unsaid for every plot concluded.

Right now, I’m re-reading the Malazan series for, I think, the third time. During each iteration, there has been room for profound discovery. In the seventh book, Reaper’s Gale, consider the example of a valley described by Erikson where two armies are due to meet. One army, that of the Letherii, employs sorcerers of considerable power, while the other, the tribal Awl, are reliant solely on the edges of iron. The valley, called Bast Fulmar – “Valley of Drums” – was chosen by the Awl warleader for the clash because it has been sapped of its ability to support magic. And how did it lose its magic? Here is how the Awl warleader, the enigmatic Redmask, describes it.

When the world was young, these plains surrounding us were higher, closer to the sky. The earth was a thin hide, covering thick flesh that was nothing but frozen wood and leaves.The rotted corpse of ancient forests. Beneath summer sun, unseen rivers flowed through that forest, between every twig, every crushed-down branch. And with each summer, the sun’s heat was greater, the season longer, and the rivers flowed, draining the vast buried forest. And so the plans descended, settled as the dried out forest crumbled to dust, and with the rains more water would sink down, sweeping away that dust, southward, northward, eastward, westward, following valleys rising to join streams. All directions, ever flowing away.

The land left the sky. The land settled onto stone, the very bone of the world. In this manner, the land changed to echo the cursed sorceries of the Shamans of the Antlers, the ones who kneel among boulders.

Such a piquant evocation of the living world we occupy I have not read elsewhere. Redmask, then, goes on to describe what went wrong with the world, with a valley in particular, to leave it so ghastly and raw (in context).

Bast Fulmar, the Valley of Drums. The Letherii believe we hold it in great awe. They believe this valley was the site of an ancient war between the Awl and the K’Chain Che’Malle – although the Letherii know not the true name of our ancient enemy. Perhaps indeed there were skirmishes, such that memory survives, only to twist and bind anew in false shapes. Many of you hold to those new shapes, believing them true. An ancient battle. One we won. One we lost – there are elders who are bold with the latter secret, as if defeat was a knife hidden in their heart-hand.

Bast Fulmar. Valley of Drums. Here, then, is its secret truth. The Shamans of the Antlers drummed the hide of this valley before us. Until all life was stolen, all waters fled. They drank deep, until nothing was left. For at this time, the shamans were not alone, not for that fell ritual. No, others of their kind had joined them – on distant continents, hundreds, thousands of leagues away, each and all on that one night. To sever their life from the earth, to sever this earth from its own life.

Bast Fulmar. We rise now to make war. In the Valley of Drums, my warriors, Letherii sorcery will fail. Edur sorcery will fail. In Bast Fulmar, there is no water of magic from which to steal. All used up, all taken to quench the fire that is life. Our enemy is not aware. They will find the truth this day. Too late. Today, my warriors, shall be iron against iron. That and nothing more.

Bast Fulmar sings this day. It sings: there is no magic. There is no magic!

There is of course an obvious reality mirroring this scene, an allusion to how we are draining this world, severing it from its own life.

Ah, Bast Fulmar…

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