Steven Erikson entered the pantheon of great fantasy writers with his debut Gardens of the Moon. Now he returns with the first novel in a trilogy, Forge of Darkness, that takes place millennia before the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and introduces readers to Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness. It is the epic story of a realm whose fate plays a crucial role in shaping the world of the Malazan Empire.
Consider this ramble something of an introduction to the Kharkanas Trilogy and the first novel in it, which is due out in a short time. Already on the fan-based site, advance readers are weighing in (beware spoilers) on Forge of Darkness, with emphasis on perceived inconsistencies, none of which I was unaware. But as is often the case with only the first book of a series to arrive, and one drawing elements from a previous series (the Malazan Book of the Fallen), questions will arise, especially when salient details seem at first glance to be at odds. To be honest, a part of me wants to reach through the inter-ether, close hands on neck, and shout TRUST ME!
While another part of me, railing even louder in my mind, wants to add a brain-rattling shake and say IT’S NOT AS IMPORTANT AS YOU THINK!
But more to the point, these particular issues are not ones I will get into here, but in some respects what I will talk about in this little essay will, obliquely, address some of them.
One of the main drives behind the ten-volume Malazan series, was a desire on my part to subvert the traditional tropes of epic fantasy. While some of the impetus behind that desire was born of frustration, or a sense of stultification in the genre (with a few notable exceptions, in Glen Cook and Steve Donaldson), this was not wholly negative in flavour. I grew up reading fantasy, and I adored it, and many of the invitations into an invented world being offered up did what they intended – they stirred my imagination, and awakened possibilities I had not previously considered. So, even as I kicked at tropes, I was also, in my mind, paying homage to what had gone before (with the caveat that it needed, not reiteration or mimicry, but stretching – how else to give free rein to an awakened imagination?).
The series divided and continues to divide fantasy readers. Some jump on board and join in the fun (even as I eventually undermine the ‘fun’ and twist it into tragedy), while others reject the implicit criticism of the genre they love (let’s face it, most epic fantasy is easy to read. In style it follows the dictum that the stranger the world being described, the simpler and more direct the language must be, thereby easing the reader into that world – one of the reasons that we discovered these works so readily in our early teens or at an even younger age, and I have no truck with that at all).
I can hardly resent that divide. While it would have been nice to pull in all the readers of epic fantasy for that ten-volume tale, I soon learned to mitigate such fancies, and assume a more reasonable, more realistic outcome.
Thus bringing me, at last, to the Kharkanas trilogy, and Forge of Darkness.
Every writer, at some point in her or his career, becomes aware (like a creeping doom) of a growing burden of expectation on them. Based on previous works, with fans identifying themselves and defining themselves around those previous works, we become aware of a pressure to conform. And in the lauding of those ‘favourite’ elements of our canon, fans often express, whether directly or indirectly, a desire for more of the same. To compound matters, there is something both simple and inviting to the writer in question, to acquiesce to those expectations, and to deliver just that: more of the same, each and every time, and many do so, and occasionally with great (continued) success, and as a consequence they find contentment in their efforts.
Alas my contrary inclinations. To simply repeat the style and approach of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, with every subsequent fantasy novel that I write, is for me simply unthinkable. Look at it this way: I said what I wanted to say with the big series, with respect to the genre and its tropes, and with respect to my exploration of the seminal roots of storytelling. Why say it again (cue Talking Heads)? Worse, at what point would I end up beating a dead horse, fighting a fight long over with, ranting and raving at already dismantled traditions of the genre? At what point does it all become pastiche?
No no no, I can hear a few of those fans say, it’s not the themes we want to see again! It’s the action! The huge climactic conclusions! Not to mention the (fill in the blank)!
To which I can only reply, you’ll get your action, friends, but if you expect me to somehow condense what I did through ten books and three million words, into three volumes totaling, say, seven hundred fifty thousand words, well … let me say a few words about structure.
But wait, let me go back a bit. Theme, style and structure are not as separable as one might think. Each feeds and is in turn dependent upon the others. They are fused in ways that defy parsing. So, while we can articulate certain details for each, the relationship between them is kind of secret, a thing of hidden currents, and it is that ephemeral quality that hides whatever strength or unity a tale achieves.
The Kharkanas Trilogy is a different beast from the Malazan series. But perhaps many of those defining distinctions are to be found in those hidden currents, the way in which theme, style and structure are bound together. As with the first book of any trilogy, the comprehension of all of that is problematic. Well, it’s virtually impossible, and so it falls to the reader trusting the writer, and taking things on faith. There are reasons for everything.
If the Malazan series emphasized a postmodern critique of the subgenre of epic fantasy, paying subtle homage all the while, the Kharkanas Trilogy subsumes the critical aspects and focuses instead on the homage. Early on, somewhere in the writing of the eighth or ninth novel in Malazan series, I decided on making the upcoming trilogy traditional in form. The trilogy is a dominant story structure in fantasy (yes yes, it’s been stretched many a time, never mind that). For the epic fantasy, it begins with Lord of the Rings, which was always envisioned (by the author) as a single work, but one deemed unmanageable by the publishers at the time (and for profit reasons, this is now entrenched). But set aside, for the moment, that three-volume book-seller side of things, and go back to the original desire of the author – the telling of a story of such length and substance as to require the equivalent of three books. This is the tradition I wanted to return to.
Needless to say, I gave it a lot of thought, and mused long on two elements in particular: the expectations of my established fan-base, and the prospect of inviting new readers to my works, through a more traditional, immediately recognizable form, and on how to satisfy both sets. At which point I realised that I had reached an impasse of sorts. Those two groups of readers are already at odds with respect to my canon; and the ones bearing the most expectation (of the same as what came before) are of course to be found in my pre-existing fan-base, while the other side might well have already written me off no matter what I wrote next.
So … it was time to gamble, time to try and offer up a peace branch, and voice a modest invitation. As for my fan-base, well, once again I was going to have to ask a lot of them. Beg forbearance, in fact.
Bringing me back, at last, to those notions of theme, style and structure. The Malazan series used a two-handed mallet when delivering the necessity of ‘read this carefully!’ And I am not quite as unapologetic about that as I used to be (ah, the bravado of youth, you fade fast from my mind’s eye!). Maybe I’ve learned something, after all those books. So, mallet set aside, broken up and used for kindling … and there is a suitable metaphor for what I’m trying to say to you about Forge of Darkness. Imagine that kindling, the shreds and splinters of that old battered mallet, gathered now in a small heap, and page by page see me striking sparks, seeking the slow smoulder, the first tendrils of smoke. Hmm, this takes time, and great care to keep the sparks on target, rather than waywardly scattering – to glow bright then wink out to no purpose…
Oh, you still need to read with care. Actually, perhaps more than ever, to actually see what I’m doing. But honestly, this time it’s different. If I could do it any other way … or not.
Then, once the fire is lit … surprise! Warmth! Blessed warmth!
The traditional form of the trilogy in epic fantasy, is a slow-building fire. The above metaphor is the fusing of theme and structure. Now, to style. The Malazan series displayed, on many occasions, an almost cavalier dismissal of tropes, or even a cruel casting away, and with each of those deliberate gestures, there was more than a little glee in my heart.
Another analogy comes to mind. As a long-time fencer (thirty-plus years) I occasionally fight a bout against a beginner. They are all enthusiasm, and often wield their foil like a whip, or a broadsword. Very hard to spar with. Enthusiasm without subtlety is often a painful encounter for yours truly, and I have constant ache in (both!) hands from fractured fingers and the like, all injured by a wailing foil or epee. A few of those injuries go back to my own beginning days, when I did plenty of my own flailing about. Believe it or not, that wild style can be effective against an old veteran like me. It’s hard to stay subtle with your weapon’s point when facing an armed Dervish seeking to chop down a tree.
The Malazan series wailed and whirled on occasion. But those three million words are behind me now. And hopefully, when looking at my fans, they are more than willing to engage in a more subtle duel, a game of finer points. If not, well, I’m screwed.
So much for style.
The Kharkanas trilogy is a self-contained entity. It can act (I hope) as an introduction to the mythos behind the Malazan world. It possesses elements that existing fans will recognize and with luck find satisfaction with (in the long run ‘cause who am I kidding? The trilogy needs to be completed before any real wash-back), while at the same time adhering to a traditional form. It is a precursor tale, but the manner in which it is bound to the Malazan series is not always direct, or even subservient.
With the excerpts being offered here on Tor.com, I hope something of the tale’s style will show through, offering my existing fan-base a flavour slightly different from the Malazan series (if you read with care!) (; ) while inviting new readers to this modest campfire. You’ll get warmth, folks, to counter the tragic story being told. And I hope, in all humility, that you’ll join me.
Optaija, Croatia, 2012