Fall of Light by Steven Erikson
I decided recently that the Malazan series is the Dark Souls of books. Comparing everything to Dark Souls is popular at the moment so I thought I’d get in on the action. The comparison seems apt to me though; both are challenging and dense with a steep barrier to entry. However, if you persevere there comes a moment that clicks and it becomes the best thing ever. My relationship to the Malazan series borders on the fanatical, so the last four years between Steven Erikson Malazan books has been hard. Fall of Light is a dense, complex sequel to the dense, complex Forge of Darkness. In the earlier chapters it can be a bit of a slog, but as things went on I found myself bowled over all again by the ambition on display here.
Fall of Light follows two storylines. The first is the Tiste civil war; the race is now split into two, the Andii and the Liosan. The army of Vatha Urusander, newly crowned Father Light, is marching on Kharkanas to wed him to Mother Dark. Urusander’s control over his Legion is weak, with the brutal drunk Hunn Raal committing atrocities in his name. Mother Dark is ensconced in a strange realm with the consort Draconus and war seems inevitable. The obvious Andii leader for the resistance to the Liosan, Anomander Rake, the First Son of Darkness, is indisposed journeying Kurald Galain to find his brother Andarist. The third Purake sibling, the brash albino Silchas Ruin is left in charge of mustering the defence of Kharkanas. This storyline flits between three factions; the Andii loyalists, the Liosan rebels and a loose group combined of the Shake and the Deniers, those who worship the ancient spirits of Kurald Galain rather than Mother Dark. The other half of the book follows Hood’s war on death following the murder of his wife at the hands of Errastas and Sechul Lath. Far to the west, a loose army of Jaghut, Thel Akai, Jheleck and many others has gathered to wage the ultimate war. Alongside all this, magic has been loosed unto the world by K’rul, beginning to blur the boundary between mortal and god. Finally, a rent into Starvald Demelain has unleashed the Eleint, dragons, upon the world, bringing on an ancient and terrifying power not seen for an age.
Obviously, there’s a staggering amount going on in Fall of Light. Forge of Darkness touched on wider elements of the Malazan world, but the focus was very clearly on the Tiste. Fall of Light broadens the scope and in fact covers huge swathes of how the Malazan world came to be, from the introduction of the Warrens, the nature of the Azath to the origins of the Imass and Toblakai races. Fall of Light perhaps covers a little bit too much ground, particularly after the recent release of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s much more focused Dancer’s Lament. Don’t get me wrong, the ambition is what makes this series so special, but at times it feels like pretty much every Tiste in Kurald Galain gets a PoV at some point. Early on, the writing feels bogged down in the lengthy discussions of philosophy. This is a classic Erikson trope, but one he can sometimes do great things with. The problem is that when every character, from the noble highborn poet to the court historian to the hardened guerrilla warrior pontificates at length it can make them feel indistinct and makes some characters blur into one.
Erikson in fact does this much better with the Jaghut, particularly with Gothos, a much heard from but not much seen figure in the main series. We finally get a good indication of what he’s all about and the ramifications for Jaghut civilisation and it’s actually pretty fascinating. In fact, civilisation could easily be named the core theme of this novel, with the question as to whether a society built on the subjugation of the wild and the killing of enemies can ever really call itself civilised. The Tiste and Jaghut are implicitly compared; the Jaghut abandoned civilisation and live in relative isolation, nonetheless often filled with joy and laughter when they do come together. The Tiste hold the pretence of civilisation but are plunging themselves into a pointless and violent civil war.
These ideas are expressed when allowed to come through organically, through action and story and dialogue rather than the didactic approach Erikson favours in the earlier chapters. That said, patience is rewarded and it isn’t long until Fall of Light unfolds into one of Erikson’s most dazzling, ambitious works yet. Not all of his vast numbers of storyline hit, but the majority do. This series has often been labelled ‘Shakespearean’, which I’m not sure if this is a term which means a whole lot. One area where this may apply is in the grand notions of tragedy and melancholy which can suffuse the book as well as moments of supreme joy. The comic moments are generally found away from the Tiste (although possibly the funniest line of the novel takes place in the Liosan camp) and focus on the Jaghut and Thel Akai. A somewhat bizarre storyline is a sexual farce between a group of young Thel Akai, centred around the beautiful polygamous Lasa Rook. I found it hilarious personally and there are plenty of moments like that.
In a way, love is at the core of this novel. The controversial love between Draconus and Mother Dark, the fraternal love between the Jaghut, the twisted and obsessive love of Sandalath Drukorlat for her son Orfantal and, most moving to me, Hood’s love for his murdered wife which is so strong that he declares war on death itself. There’s a grandeur to Fall of Light which is paired with time given to the intimate, to humanising characters who are closer to Gods. In the Malazan world, everyone suffers, everyone hurts and everyone feels. The characters of Fall of Light are driven by emotion and feeling rather than cold reason and that it what makes it so special. Characters which seem stoic, such as Anomander Rake and Caladan Brood are in fact deeply emotional and tormented figures. It is this focus on grand emotion which makes Erikson so special and Fall of Light does this incredibly well.
Fall of Light isn’t a perfect book; it has a slow opening and can be too didactic, but it is a staggeringly ambitious and moving piece of work. It hits all the important prequel beats, with some incredibly fan pleasing references and cameo appearances from fan favourite characters and fascinating insights into the Malazan world. Most importantly though, it is a book of deep feeling and coherent narrative themes. Steven Erikson definitely isn’t the easiest fantasy author to read, but he may be the most rewarding.