Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
Ok, in terms of spoilers, this review is spoiler free for Forge of Darkness, but I didn’t make any effort to avoid spoilers for the other novels. I don’t think that there’s anything too bad in there, but if you’re very sensitive about spoilers and haven’t read the others, I’d give this one a miss.
I just want to make this very clear straight off the bat. I am absolutely, head over heels, passionately in love with the Malazan books. Even weaker instalments such as Orb Sceptre Throne fill me with glee at every little titbit of detail about a setting unrivalled within the genre, so news of a trilogy of prequels focusing on one of the most interesting elements of Malazan history naturally had me giddy with excitement. As is so often the case with Erikson, this was not the novel I was expecting, but something ultimately better.
Upon finding out that we would be receiving a trilogy set in Kurald Galain before the Tiste invasion there was really one character on everyone’s mind; Anomander Rake. In a series positively dripping with immortal badass swordsmen, Rake was the one which always seemed to prove the most popular. Perhaps it was his unforgettable introduction at the opening of Gardens of the Moon, slinging sorcery at the Malazan forces atop Moon’s Spawn during the Siege of Pale which earnt the character his legions of fans. For whatever reason, Rake is undoubtedly one of the most popular characters in the series. Many people will be initially disappointed to learn however that Anomander, as well as his brothers Silchas Ruin and Andarist, receives relatively little ‘screen time’, with the focus of the novel laying much more with those close to these characters rather than the characters themselves. A similar approach is taken with Draconus, with our primary window into his character coming from his bastard son Arathan. In fact, the majority of the characters that I suspect people most desired POVs from have small roles; Tulas Shorn and Scabandari Bloodeye among them. Several characters from the main series do have prominent POVs, notably Sandalath Drukorlat and her son Orfantal, but the focus is very much on the wealth of new characters that Erikson has introduced to is. Although frustrating at first, I firmly believe that this was the right approach. To see inside the heads of Anomander Rake or Draconus would be to utterly drain the mystique from characters that we love. Don’t get me wrong, we still learn a lot about these characters, particularly Draconus, but not enough to take away the mystery and render these characters boring. This is no Phantom Menace. This may not be the novel people wanted, but since when has Erikson pandered to fan-service? Remember when we left the characters and world well established in the first four novels and went to some random continent filled with characters we’d never met? Remember how Midnight Tides was completely goddamn brilliant?
Erikson doesn’t exclusively focus upon Kurald Galain either, with the revelation that, rather than the distinct little realms which we believed made up the Elder Warrens, they are in fact on one shared continent. Whether this continent is on Wu or not is unclear, although I personally suspect that it is, and possibly attached to the north of Lether due to the presence of Jheck in the south, but that’s just my own hunch. A parallel story involving the Jaghut in Omtose Phellack sets up Hood’s War on Death, a narrative strand which I personally find even more interesting than the eventual downfall of Kharkanas which is at the centre of the narrative.
The novel is fundamentally centred around the grievances of ‘The Legion’, an army who had excelled in a war against invading Forkrul Assail (so you KNOW they’re tough) under Vartha Urusander. They feel that they have been shunted aside by a society that desires to forget it’s veterans and what they represent, and wish for their leader to take the hand of Mother Dark, but as us long term readers will know, her heart is with another; The Consort, Draconus. Despite being a prequel, and long term readers pretty much knowing the broad beats of what is going to happen, Erikson still manages to pack in plenty of surprises and interesting revelations. The whole novel has a delightful sense of impending doom, and at times it can be rather tragic. Enjoying the banter of Silchas Ruin and Scara Bandis, presumably the man who will one day be known as Scabandari Bloodeye, becomes bittersweet as us veterans know the violence and hatred each will visit upon the other.
This novel is structured rather differently to the other Malazan novels, which typically ended with a massive convergence as the multitude of different plot strands are bought together. This novel instead follows the more traditional ‘first novel in a trilogy’ structure, in that it is mainly focused upon setting up events to come rather than showing the events themselves. This leads to a novel which is decidedly slow paced, even by Erikson’s standard, hardly an author known for brevity. There’s a lot of different squads of soldiers wandering around Kurald Galain, and whilst this approach worked in latter Malazan books, these distinct squads were still unified Bonehunters under Adjunct Tavore, part of a coherent whole whilst retaining other entertaining idiosyncrasies. Although they may not have had the psychological depths of characters such as Fiddler or Kalam, figures such as Kindly, Pores and Hellian offered some wonderful levity from the characteristically dour tone of the series. Erikson has stated two of his greatest influences as Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, and a merging of the strengths of these two interesting, but flawed, series offered something greater than either achieved independently. As someone who seriously struggled with the Thomas Covenant novels, I was uncomfortably reminded of Donaldson during this novel. Every character is suffering, every character is a philosopher, and we will endure their (rather similar) views for much of the novel. I actually believe this philosophical depth is Erikson’s greatest contribution to the genre, raising profound and fascinating ideas in a way which no other author in the genre has achieved. However, in earlier novels, for every lengthy brooding inner monologue from Udinaas, we were treated to hilarious scenes with Tehol and Bugg which in my opinion rival those of greats such as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Even Toll the Hounds, a novel which is (unfairly in my opinion) criticised for its pace and focus upon philosophy had the great mule charge between Kruppe and Iskaral Pust (my vote for funniest scene in the entire series). Such moments of levity are pretty much completely absent in this novel, and I must say that I missed them. Although this all sounds negative, I must make clear that this is a very well written novel. Erikson’s ability to evoke tragedy never feels as if it’s simply for the sake of it, as is in my opinion the case with Donaldson, achieving some fantastically complex moral ambiguities which challenge the reader against their own preconceptions and judgements.
Forge of Darkness is not Erikson’s greatest book, and will do absolutely nothing to convert his legions of detractors. The novel is slightly too Thomas Covenant and not enough Black Company, but for fans such as myself who are utterly enthralled with the setting it’s an absolute must read. To finally bear witness to events which I have imagined and built up in my mind as a reader is an absolute treat, and is a rare prequel that succeeds in not draining the sense of wonder evoked in earlier novels. I loved this book, and am eagerly anticipating the follow up, Fall of Light, as well as Esslemont’s next novel Blood & Bone coming later this year.