My personal experience with prequels has been that too often they have a going-through-the-motions feel to them, as if the author is mechanically connecting the dots, reverse-engineering the novel from characters and events laid out in the original story: Explained why they call that thingamabob a “graggle”? Check. Explained why everyone wears red now? Check. Why Character A is a jerk? Check.
While this may result in some readerly satisfaction—“Oh, so that’s why it’s a graggle. Cool!”—it seldom creates an organically compelling storyline or rich characterization. These problems are compounded by the fact that we know where story and characters are heading, thus robbing the prequel at the outset of narrative tension and reducing the opportunities for those joyful moments of discovery.
So how does Steven Erikson deal with these potential pitfalls in Forge of Darkness, the first novel of a trilogy set before his massive Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBoF) series? He sets the prequel so far in the past—thousands of years—that any lines connecting the dots have either long since faded out of sight over the horizon (because events and people have been forgotten) or have curved out of joint (because events and people were distorted into myth), thus freeing himself from the plot/character constraints that dog so many prequels.
The truly brilliant twist in Erikson’s method, however, is that many of his characters are so long-lived that they actually span that time period. You loved Anomander Rake in Malazan? No problem, he’s still here. But because time has lost and/or distorted so much, a lot of what you thought you knew about him was wrong or wasn’t the full story.
With this singular stroke Erikson frees his creativity, giving himself a nearly blank canvas to work on while retaining the characters that so captivated his audience the first time around. It’s the best of both worlds. As a side luxury, it also highlights two of his major themes—the ways in which story (“made up”) and history (“really happened”) often blur together and the way the present is continuously and eternally reshaping itself in response to the past. It’s sheer evil genius. And it absolutely works.
Readers are treated to favorite characters from MBOF like Rake, Silchas Ruin, Draconus, and others, but there is a wide range in how well they match their characters in MBOF, with some lining up as expected and others presented in a surprisingly different fashion. It’s a fine line to walk, giving us characters who veer from our previous experience without having them seem wholly and arbitrarily changed just for the sake of plot, and Erikson toes that line successfully throughout. The characters were fresh and surprising despite the thousands of pages of previous experience I had with them and never once did I pull back thinking the character had been “broken.”
Of course, a host of new characters are introduced as well; perhaps too many for some though I enjoyed the multiplicity of viewpoints. I won’t swear to a precise count, but I came up with over 30 different point-of-view characters, almost all of who are original to Forge of Darkness (some may in fact complain about the lack of p.o.v.s from the big MBoF characters). We get a broad spectrum of class, age, race, gender, tone, and philosophy, as well as seeing several “sides” of an impending civil war. It all makes for a rich pointillist sort of painting in terms of plot and theme.
The characters vary greatly in page time as well—Erikson doesn’t mind killing off p.o.v. characters—but even those we see only briefly are sharply and fully drawn, and it’s hard to imagine a reader not caring what happens to nearly all of them. Some of the most moving scenes, in fact, involve the most minor of characters.
The plot is complex, but not as sprawling as in many of the MBoF novels, with the overarching plotline tightly focused mostly on the looming Tiste civil war. One needn’t have read MBoF to follow the storyline, but it would probably make for a richer experience.
Pacing is a little slow at the outset, picks up in the middle, then accelerates as we near the end. Contrary to what MBoF readers might expect, the book doesn’t build to the usual huge confrontation or, to use an Erikson term, convergence. But being the first book of a trilogy, it doesn’t really need to. We can feel the storm brewing; it’s fine if we don’t get actual thunder and lightning yet. That said, the closing image is a killer.
Some new readers may find that the pacing is slowed by the characters’ penchant for introspection or philosophizing. (Especially as long-time Erikson readers probably wouldn’t be long-time readers in the first place if it bothered them so much.) Similarly, some might prefer fewer metafictional aspects—the story is framed by a poet telling this tale to another, there’s a painter who thinks a lot about his craft, and lots of other references to the craft of storytelling. For myself, those moments are part of what raises Erikson’s books above a lot of fantasy—these musings on core questions of culture, of civilization, of being.
It’s true, the plot does come to a halt when two characters discuss the purpose and progress of civilization or when one character tries to comprehend the concept of justice. But plot is only one aspect of a novel and for me, examination of these larger issues enhances the story even if it comes at the expense of pace. And Forge is rife with recurring themes to be pondered: environmental deprivation, the creation and role of history, extinction, return to childhood, the costs of certainty, questions of religion, justice, empathy.
MBoF fans will be happy to have some answers to long-debated questions. (“What did it mean that the first children of Mother Dark were not Andii? How did Caladan Brood and Rake get together?”) But getting answers isn’t the best part; it’s just how creatively surprising the answers are. Some questions, of course, remain unanswered, and it wouldn’t be a Malazan book if hordes of new questions didn’t arise.
Those just beginning the Malazan experience might miss the full prequel experience, but in some ways, Forge of Darkness might be a better place to start rather than Gardens of the Moon, the first book of MBoF. For one, it’s the product of a writer fully conversant with his universe and working with all the craftsmanship that years of writing has provided. It also probably eases the reader in more smoothly and gradually than Gardens does. It’s possible this is just a result of my own familiarity with Erikson’s characters and world, but that’s how it seemed to me.
Being the first book of a new trilogy, Forge of Darkness is required to do the table setting, and it’s a pretty large table. Characters have to be introduced or re-introduced, settings need to be explained, and basic workings of the world—politics, religions, etc.— need to be presented. Erikson handles all of this smoothly, with little recourse to clunky exposition. Because of these requirements, though, plot probably moves a little slowly than some might prefer. But the complexity and range of its characters and the way it is willing to examine larger questions more than makes up for this. It’s difficult to judge Forge of Darkness fully until we see the trilogy complete and can place it in better context, but it certainly does its set-up job well and deserves its place on the (extremely long) shelf next to its Malazan brethren.
You can read the first five chapters of Forge of Darkness here on Tor.com