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Forge of Darkness is Erikson’s Anthropological Thought Experiment

Steven Erikson and I have a similar background. We’re both anthropologists by education and roleplaying gamers by inclination. Those two things are self-reinforcing, I find; studying how the world works and creating imaginary worlds are natural complements. Worldbuilding provides infinite opportunity to run anthropological thought experiments, and to extend the theories we apply to human beings to weird cases, to fictional species and imaginary histories.

Despite sharing those two things, I’ve never read any of Erikson’s Malazan novels… until now. I picked up Forge of Darkness, since it is a fresh jumping on point for new readers, and looked at it from the paradigm of a roleplaying gamer and an armchair anthropologist.

Steven Erikson likes throwing fantasy conventions to the wind; another thing we have in common, though I think we have different approaches. I don’t quite know how to pinpoint it; maybe it is a matter of degrees? I want to see orcs treated as people and he…creates orcs as the omnipotent philosopher kings of an arctic tundra? My perspective is skewed from only reading Forge of Darkness, I suspect: this is Erikson’s Silmarillion, his tales of the great demi-gods, striding the land. In some cases, actual literal demi-gods. It is hard to get a “boots on the ground” perspective from there, though Erikson does an admirable job of bringing individuals perspectives into focus. I guess the best comparison is to say it is The Silmarillion as told in the style of A Song of Ice and Fire.

As a first time reader I found myself reeling with the wealth of names and terminology. There is a deep font of detail, which hints at Erikson’s worldbuilding skill; Kharkanas is a setting of cultures in conflict, with species negotiating the subtle allure of self-annihilation and ancient history. More than just “history,” as we think of it; most of the races in Forge of Darkness are incredibly long-lived, some effectively immortal, so what would be history is a muddled combination of politics and memory.

Imagine a world where, if one of the political parties of America feared losing an election, they could go and appeal to a living George Washington to run again; where America and England could never be allies, because too many lived who remembered the Revolutionary War. Now, imagine some even remember Rome and Carthage at each other’s throats. Or that the people of England were in fact inhuman, another species entirely, aliens whose psychology could only be guessed at. It is to Erikson’s credit that he doesn’t try clumsy exposition; he simply throws the reader into the deep end. Sink or swim.

The central plots of Forge of Darkness center around the Tiste. Now, to my gamer’s eye, the Tiste seem to be Erikson’s inverted elves. They live a long time, but instead of living peacefully with nature, they are…well, human in their appetites. The forests of their world have been cut to feed the forge fires, the great beasts of the plains have been killed to prove their hunting prowess, and still the Tiste’s thirsts are have not been slaked. It looks, to the roleplaying geek in me, like Forge of Darkness is the origin story of the drow; elves choosing to side with their new goddess, Mother Dark, or to rise up against her, to follow older gods, or the heretical ex-priestess, the avatar of Light. That is very much simplifying things, but those are the tropes of the genre I see Erikson playing with.

To the anthropologist in me, I say: well, the Tiste sound like a particularly nasty invasive species. In fact, I once ended a campaign by having my goblin gunslinger argue that goblins—who were established to be as long-lived as elves and to be born in litters—had a charisma penalty to compensate. They couldn’t cooperate, they could only compete violently with each other. It was the evolutionary check on their growth. My goblin made that argument to the strange guild of post-human transmuters he met on another plane, saying that if infinite planes existed, goblins who would work together could afford to grow infinitely…and thus hobgoblins were born, and so began the Great Wars of the Goblin Hegemony. Which—if what I’ve heard about the other Malazan books is correct—sounds like what might be happening here.

The Jaghut are where Forge of Darkness shines the brightest, for me. I just have a weakness for philosophical arguments taken to their logical extreme. The Jaghut are Erikson’s “orcs,” at least insofar as they have grey to green skin and tusks, though I imagine their tusks being more like the “tusks” of the Tharks in the John Carter movie. Supernaturally powerful, the Jaghut used to have a great civilization… until one day one of them, a Jaghut now called the Lord of Hate, made a thoroughly convincing argument that having a civilization would be their doom. You know, just a rational, well-researched thesis. And so the Jaghut just… walked away. From each other.

I just find that incredibly charming. Similarly, one of the Tiste is obsessed with the Forkrul Assail, a race off-screen but mentioned as the enemies of a recent war. He studies their code of law and finds meaning in it. These are the sorts of things that appeal to the worldbuilder in me, both the anthropologist and the gamer. I like anthropological hypotheses played out in fiction. Fantasy is a place where philosophy can really spread its wings. Forge of Darkness is, in many ways, Erikson’s thought experiment. A world where he sets up the conditionals and then lets the chips fall where they may.

The big mystery of in the book are the Azathanai. From what I understand, they are a big mystery for Malazan over all, so consider everything past this point a spoiler. For real, I mean it, get out of here if you don’t want spoilers.

Are they gone? Okay. At first, the Azathanai seem like the “dwarves” or “giants” of Forge of Darkness, but increasing exposure to them disproves that; it was a matter of a small sample size leading me to jump conclusions. The Azathanai seem, once you get into the nitty gritty, to be sort of “divine clay.” They are proto-gods, ready to be shaped by belief into full-on deities. They can influence how that worship starts, but it quickly spirals out of their control. I can’t help but feel a heavy Planescape vibe coming off them; the “belief shapes the gods themselves” theme is heavy there; I also thought of comics like Sandman and Earth X, where faith has the power to reshape the object of veneration.

It is much more complex than that, of course, and the struggles surrounding the complexities are at the root of Forge of Darkness. Not just for the Azathanai, but for the Jaghut and the Tiste, as well. This is Erikson dissecting the gods and mythology of his world, retroactively taking them apart to find out what makes them tick. And I get it. Of course I get it. I share a lot of the same impulses; using a prequel as a chance to retroactively explore the deeper mysteries of what you created makes sense to me. It is that anthropology and roleplaying talking, I guess.

Mordicai Knode’s campaign is more about Neanderthals and space elevators, but deranged philosopher kings and morally ambiguous night queens would be right at home there. You can find him on Twitter and on Tumblr, if you want.

Mordicai Knode is a Macmillan employee.


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