Ask me what the I think the most impressive work of fantasy is, and I will answer — The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Steven Erikson’s ten novel series is astounding, challenging, interesting, riveting, and it’s often an awful mess. I say that last with a smile on my face. Erikson meanders through points of view, intersects plots, forgets plots, leaves others intentionally dangling, and rarely provides satisfying conclusions. His answer to this charge would be: history’s a mess too. That’s a perspective he embraces like never before in his newest novel, The Forge of Darkness.
I’ve heard Forge of Darkness referenced as a new entry point into Erikson’s work, and a prequel to Malazan. Such classifications are problematic. To begin, it’s quintessential Erikson — not easier to read, or more direct in its approach. There are also seemingly infinite numbers of points of view characters, so many in fact that keeping track of them often requires note taking. I point these items out not to denigrate, but to highlight it as a challenging read, and one that is in no way a departure from Erikson’s past work.
It’s this continuation of tone and purpose that makes reading it, for the experienced and dedicated Malazan reader, a revelatory experience. Where most prequels flesh out a story that the reader already knows, Erikson tells a whole new story, at times ignoring his own created ‘history’. With just enough Easter Eggs to keep the die hard Malazan reader reeling, Erikson’s new work is an ever changing landscape that defies easy classification.
Set thousands of years before Malazan, Forge of Darkness tells the story of the Tiste people and their civil war that sundered the realm. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Anomander Rake, and his brothers — Andarist and Silchas Ruin — who all play significant parts in Malazan. It is not, however, told from their points of view, instead relying on new characters and a handful of lesser Malazan retreads. The most notable of the new are Arathan, bastard son of Draconus, and Korya Delath, a mhybe companion to the Jaghut, Haut.
As the use of the word mhybe (vessel for souls) indicates, the very nature of the novel relies on an understanding of what has already been sent into the world. If the Malazan Book of the Fallen were the story of Jesus Christ’s life, then Forge of Darkness would be Christopher Moore’s Lamb (sans hilarity), a complete wholesale reordering of everything we thought we knew as truth. Erikson reminds his reader that history is a narrative created by those who survived to tell the tale, rarely showing the confusing and often irrational behavior of the men and women who made it. Readers lacking that certainty of truth from Malazan, are sure to find Erikson’s tweaks irrecoverably lessened.
Given that, I can’t help but assume that a new reader would be lost, confused, and all together frustrated by the ever expanding narrative scope, much of which seems to contribute almost nothing to the progression of the story. Lacking the constant questions who this character might be, or how this is related to what I already know, I may too have found my interest flagging. That isn’t to say the novel is filled with pointless meandering. Everything Erikson writes has a point; there’s purpose behind his prose. Nevertheless, that purpose is not always to tell a great story. Forge of Darkness invests in exploring themes, and, perhaps even more so than any previous novels, the use of language.
I presume the latter is Erikson’s point. Every scene seems to digress into a new aspect of the human condition, from Korya’s musings on godhood to Arathan’s speculations on the sins of the father. Each contains some cutting truth or insightful revelation, but none seem to connect into a cohesive communication by Erikson to his reader. Instead, it seems the means of that communication is a point in and of itself. In this exploration of phrasing are powerful set pieces, but I found the completed work less than the sum of its parts, bogged down as it is by its own weight.
All of that goes to say that Forge of Darkness is another excellent addition to the Malazan ethos, carrying all the baggage that entails. Is it brilliant? Yes. Is it a hot mess? Absolutely. Anyone who loves Malazan will love this new work, and the inverse is also true. I see nothing here that will change opinions on Steven Erikson. His work remains as opaque as it is transparent. In spite of, and because of, that fact, I highly recommend that everyone at least try to read it, starting with the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and continuing on to The Forge of Darkness and the Kharkanas Trilogy.