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Forging a Fresh Start: A Newcomer’s Review of Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

The first in a trilogy of three prequels, Forge of Darkness purports to be a new beginning for the Malazan Book of the Fallen, but as ever with the work of Steven Erikson, it is not so simple—an assertion the cult Canadian novelist acknowledges at the outset:

“What I would speak of this morning is but the beginning of a tale. It is without borders, and its players are far from dead, and the story is far from finished. To make matters even worse, word by word I weave truth and untruths. I posit a goal to events, when such goals were not understood at the time, nor even considered. I am expected to offer a resolution, to ease the conscience of the listener, or earn a moment or two of false comfort, with the belief that proper sense is to be made of living. Just as in a tale.”

A tale such as this tale of tales. But where else are we to begin, if not at the beginning?

Even then, one can only wonder: which beginning? Because you could say the Malazan Book of the Fallen began in 1982, when a couple of archaeologists endeavoured, in their off-hours, to excavate a history of their own creation. They did this, according to long-standing anecdote, by playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

So the story goes.

Several years into these sessions, their campaigns had become so complex—and so compelling in their eyes—that Steve Lundin and Ian Cameron Esslemont resolved to share them in some way with the wider world. Together, then, nearly a decade on from the fiction’s first informal flush, the friends collaborated on a film script. The movie would have been called Gardens of the Moon… if it had ever been made.

But it wasn’t. The co-written script didn’t sell and, if you’ll permit me a sidenote, perhaps that’s just as well. Given Erikson’s comments on the matter, Gardens of the Moon the movie would have played the affairs of this death-drenched empire in large part for laughs—an unconscionable thought, is it not?

Of course, the story was far from over, for soon after the screenplay’s failure, Lundin and Esslemont drew a line in the sand and went their separate ways with the canon they had fashioned. The latter author was to take his time developing his share of the saga while almost immediately the former composed a novel based on the ill-fated film script.

Still, it took another age for anything to materialise from this. Finally, in 1999, Bantam Books published Lundin’s first work of fantasy in the U.K., under the pseudonym most of us know him by today, with Tor Books following suit in the U.S. Gardens of the Moon garnered Steven Erikson a modest yet immodestly devoted following, and if not a win then a nomination for the prestigious World Fantasy Award. The book was seen as self-contained at the time, but soon it sparked a bidding war for further adventures in and of its empire. Thus, the Malazan Book of the Fallen series as we understand it was born.

Twelve years, nine additional novels, seven to ten thousand pages (depending upon your preference for paperbacks) and approximately three million words later, Erikson’s saga drew to a close with The Crippled God in 2011. The outspoken author lately allowed that he would die a happy man, knowing that the tale has been told to completion… however I’d really rather he hang on a little longer—not least because Forge of Darkness is, quite frankly, remarkable.

As aforementioned, it marks a new beginning for the Malazan Book of the Fallen—indeed the Malazan Empire entire—and Erikson has himself stressed that Forge of Darkness could and should be viewed as a jumping-on point for readers unfamiliar with the series. Readers like… me!

I should explain, before we descend any deeper into this literary labyrinth, that I’m not a complete newcomer. I have read Gardens of the Moon, albeit years ago, and yours truly has had occasion—many occasions, as a matter of fact—to gaze longingly at the various other volumes of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, all of which I own because I recall the first so fondly. That said, I did not come away from Erikson’s darkly sparkling debut with terribly many questions, and a ten volume epic asks a lot more than does a single standalone fantasy. To wit, Deadhouse Gates and its successors have languished, as yet unloved, on my shelves ever since.

A trilogy, on the other hand—even if it is a trilogy of tomes, and I can’t imagine The Kharkanas Saga is apt to take any alternate shape—should be rather more manageable.

Well, it is… and it isn’t. It is, insofar as it has reignited my interest in the shelf I have dedicated to this series and the untold others that share its epic setting, including co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont’s eventual efforts—although I admit I am rather less certain of the strength of said.

At the same time, however, it isn’t—rather more manageable, I mean—to the point that it would be folly for me to attempt, in the course of this overview, even a serviceable synopsis of the ensemble of characters and narratives arranged (if not contained) within the tightly-packed pages of Forge of Darkness. Instead, suffice it to say that the first part of this prequel series takes place not years or decades or centuries, but many millennia before the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Old gods are awakening; new resentments take shape with every passing season; a civil war between the peoples of the Tiste Andii appears inevitable—and all this will converge in Kharkanas, the broken and abandoned citadel which I gather plays a pivotal part in the final volume of that vast saga. For the moment, though, it is a seat of power in full force:

“Think of Kharkanas as a beast crawled up from the river. Perhaps to the sun itself, or perhaps only to glower at the world. Think of the long-tailed, beaked turtles—the ones the river foll bring to the markets. Gnarled and jagged shells, a savage bite and thick muscles upon the long neck. Claws at the ends of strong limbs. Skin tough as armour. An ugly beast […] foul of temper and voracious. Hear its hiss as you draw close!”

Forge of Darkness’ Kharkanas is home to the ungodly goddess Mother Dark, who has only just begun to realise her boundless power; to the court historian Rise Herat; and to his young student, Legyl Behurst. Furthermore, it is church to the competing High Priestesses, Emral and Syntara; to the priest Cedorpul; and to his baby-faced acolyte, Endest Silann.

Then there are those characters who do not come from, but come to the titular citadel in the first volume of The Kharkanas Saga. Foremost amongst these pilgrims: returning favourite Anomander Rake, known to all as the First Son of Darkness, and accompanied, as ever, by his brothers Silchas Ruin and Andarist. Then there’s T’riss, an Azathanai who emerges—impossibly—from the Vitr sea. Also Caplo Dreem and Warlock Resh of the Shake, and the frustrated captain of Urusander’s legion, Hunn Raal, who will prove crucial in the layered affairs that Forge of Darkness chronicles. Last, though very far from least, we have Mother Dark’s current consort, Draconus of Dracons Hold. Admittedly, he’s a little late to the party.

Already we have quite the cast, but know that I’m neglecting to mention at least as many others. And while Kharkahas is key, we spend as much time, and meet as many new characters, in five or six other Holds. Not counting those folks who have no home: nomads who wander the world’s width in service of one master or another, whose own stories intersect with and ultimately bring together otherwise separate threads.

You begin, I think, to see how incredibly ambitious this book is—and why, in turn, I must abstain from a complete account of its characters and narratives. I warrant we’d be here all day otherwise!

And be we newcomers or old hands, it follows—like dawn after a night long drawn—that Forge of Darkness demands a great deal of its readers. Even now, on the eve of a new beginning, there can be no dipping of toes into the elaborate Malazan canon. This novel also demands your all, and if you cannot give it, whatever efforts you may make, you make in vain.

Luckily, I went all-in on Forge of Darkness, yet even then I found the first few chapters rather a hardship. The panoply of perspectives introduced in each came in such quick succession that I began to wish I had graph paper handy, or even better: a copy of the long-promised Encyclopaedia Malaz.

“It was a conceit to imagine that they knew the world; that they knew its every detail. Forces ever worked unseen, in elusive patterns no mortal mind could comprehend. She saw life as little more than the crossing of unknown trails, one after another. What made them could only be known by following one, but this meaning surrendering one’s own path: that blazing charge to the place of endings. Instead, a person pushed on, wondering, often frightened. If she glanced to her left she could see the wall of black grasses, shivering and rippling and blurry in the heat; and she knew there were countless paths through Glimmer Fate. Perhaps, if she could become winged as a bird, she might fly high overhead and see each and every trail, and perhaps even discern something of a pattern, a map of answers. Would this offer relief?”

With only my memory and my imagination to aid me—still no wings, sadly—I made painfully slow progress through the first third of Forge of Darkness. Just as I had begun to grasp a single, solitary thread, there was the next to contend with, then the next. Upon the first repetition of these perspectives, however, things began to come together. Come the second, I couldn’t have stopped reading if I’d wanted to—and I most definitely did not.

Given the staggering breadth and depth of this author’s vision, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the occasional critics who do discuss his work tend to steer clear of the little things. As above, so below: a bird’s eye view is usually the most you can hope for, and though some superficial exposure is certainly better than none at all, this remains an issue, because Erikson shines on the sentence level as well. There is a precision to the construction of each and every paragraph in Forge of Darkness—a sense that attention has been paid to the look and the sound and the significance of the language used—that feels, finally, as typical of poetry as prose.

At the risk of knocking a genre I hold near and dear to my heart, let me simply say that one rarely sees such careful composition in vast volumes of fantasy, and when we do, especially when it is so sustained, we are surely beholden to make it known. To wit, Steven Erikson should be raised up as a standard bearer, representing the best of the best of those books we would love to be more loved—those that are intellectually nutritious as well as artistically delicious.

I came away from Forge of Darkness in awe of this author’s ambition, moved as much by the miniscule as I was astonished by the massive, but while it won me over, I was willing, and its spell still took some time to take effect. Erikson’s incremental development of character and narrative stymied me in the beginning, and though he eventually relents—at least to an extent—even then this novel is a far cry from accessible. Thus, I wonder whether it is truly as suitable a starting point for new readers as the author has asserted.

Be that as it may, if you come to the first volume of The Kharhanas Saga prepared to do more than a little lifting, the rewards it offers are immeasurably more satisfying than the pretty baubles of most novels. And as this early excerpt suggests, ultimately:

“Things should make sense. From one end to the other, no matter from which direction one elected to begin the journey, everything should fit. Fitting neatly was the gift of order, proof of control, and from control, mastery. He would not accept an unknowable world. Mysteries needed hunting down. Like the fierce wrashan that had once roamed the Blackwood: all their dark roosts were discovered until there were no places left for the beasts to hide, the slaughter was made complete, and now at last one could walk in safety in the great forest, and no howls ever broke the benign silence. Blackwood Forest had become knowable. Safe.”

Unfortunately, while the majority of the narratives it initiates are left to dangle, Forge of Darkness itself does end eventually. Given the almighty investment the entire requires of readers, for the multifarious plot to pause when it is finally in full swing is… a pain. Once you’ve gone and gotten into it, I assure you: you truly won’t want this book to be over. 

Of course, the finiteness of the form is no fault of the author’s—though I would allow that too much of the first volume of the Kharkanas Saga is reserved for set-up. For slaughter in the forest, so that we may travel, one day, in some semblance of safety, to its deepest, darkest reaches.

Well, the sooner, the better.

For a new beginning from a phenomenal fantasy author, Forge of Darkness is a little more difficult to recommend to readers unfamiliar with the series it aims to lay the foundation for than I had hoped. But cast your minds back. Recall that I was such a one, once upon a time. And know now that this twisted fairy-tale has a happy ending, because I plum loved this book, such that I expect to be amongst the first in line for the following volume.

Indeed, all I can think is: in the interim between Forge of Darkness and the next book in the series, Fall of Light, however long that lasts, I have at least nine more Malazan novels to help keep my mind off the acute pain of anticipation.

So… see you in a few years!

Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for, Strange Horizons and The Speculative Scotsman. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.


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