Sunday, March 2, 2014

Forge of Darkness - Steven Erikson

After finishing the monumental job of writing the ten volumes of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson must have wondered how to continue. The series is one of the most complex and demanding works of Fantasy I've come across. The scope and depth of the history of the world of Malaz is simply way beyond anything encountered in other fantasy series. It leaves plenty of options to tell other stories of course but the temptation to start something fresh must also have been present. In a way Forge of Darkness, the first novel in the Kharkanas trilogy is a bit of both. The story is set so far back in history that it might as well be a different world despite the familiar characters that show up.

Forge of Darkness takes us to the realm of Kurald Galain, back to the time when the Tiste were one people. In recent years the cult of Mother Dark has gained prominence in Tiste society and this is not to everybody's liking. As her darkness spread through the Tiste lands resistance against her and her chosen consort Lord Draconus is growing. Most of the major players are aware that civil war is about to erupt and precautions are being taken. Outside the borders of the realm things are stirring too. Especially along the shores of the mysterious Vitr sea things are happening that will change the world.

In a way, Erikson takes a bit of a gamble here. Despite the vast gulf of time that separates this story form the ten book series he wrote before, the fate of the Tiste people is known. We've even seen some of it in one of the flashbacks in the later Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. To keep things interesting Erikson uses a technique not often encountered in Fantasy. Where most series strive for internal consistency and time lines that sometimes are know from day to day, Erikson leaves things fuzzy on purpose. He often employs unreliable narrators, people who were present at events in the distant past, people who have stakes in these events or have reason to want them to be remembered a certain way. In short, what Erikson chooses to show us our knowledge of history is flawed, sometimes corrupted and often unreliable. Nothing that can be gleaned from the Malazan Book of the Fallen novels can be taken for granted. To stress this point, the novel is essentially a frame story. In the prologue Erikson introduces us to the narrator of the book, who readily admits his own bias in telling it.

The shape of the story is what we've come to expect from Erikson. He uses a great number of point of view characters to show events in a lot of different locations, patiently working his way to the climax of the novel. Where many of his books have a military campaign at the heart of at least one major story line, this novel has a slightly different focus. There are armies on the move and a few battle scenes are included but civil war is much messier than an outright military conflict. Nobody appears in control. While everybody can feel the momentum building and an eruption of violence approaching, the immediate goals of the characters seem limited. There is no Kellanved with dreams of an empire, no Crippled God aiming to shake up the pantheon. It is epic fantasy but somehow a shade more manageable than the sprawling series that made Erikson's name.

Another very interesting touch is that while the religious tensions appear to tear Tiste society apart, they are fast approaching an ecological crash too. There are lots of references to deforestation and the extinction of animals. Beyond the loss of good hunting game, nobody seems overly concerned about it. Erikson is clearly exploring more than one way in which a culture can doom itself. In that respect, the Tiste are certainly being thorough.

Besides the Tiste, Erikson shows us a number of other elder races in this book. The Jaghut show up as they were before a war of genocide was unleashed on them and before Hood's ascension. The Jheck make an appearance, there are references to the Forulkan and their eternal pursuit of justice and the Eilent crash the party. For the established reader the opening chapters of this book is a feast of recognition. Before Erikson pulls the carpet from under you and lays out a very different history from what we thought we knew anyway. The Azathanai, which I assume are linked to the Azath houses of a later age, are perhaps the most interesting. They already seem to have a very long history and struck me as gods living among their own creations. They seem to have already distanced themselves from their creations though. Their whole stance made me wonder where Erikson is going to take that particular part of the story.

As you will probably have realized by now, there is plenty that ties this book the to the Malazan Book of the Fallen. For an established reader it will be a treat. Erikson also wanted to make it an entry point into the series. One that didn't need the reader to commit to ten large volumes. Having read all ten Malazan books, as well as five novellas and five novels by Ian C. Esslemont set in the same world, it is hard for met to answer the question if it is successful in that respect as well. The story itself should be no problem but I do feel you get an awful lot more out of this book if you've read the series. Of course Gardens of the Moon (1999), the other obvious entry point into the world of Malaz is not without it's flaws. The series is notoriously difficult to get into. With so much more experience, Erikson has delivered a better written book and a much smoother read. There is something to be said for starting here.

Carrying on after completing such a huge series as the Malazan Book of the Fallen is quite a challenge and Erikson proves up to it with Forge of Darkness. He manages to create a new chapter in the story that is both fresh and different from what has gone before but retains the kind of messy complexity and immense tragedy that characterize his previous novels. I was quite impressed with the opening novel of the Kharkanas trilogy. Erikson is clearly not finished with the universe he and Ian C. Esslemont created. I for one, look forward to seeing where he will take this trilogy. I may have to wait a while to find out though. It looks as if Fall of the Light won't appear until next year.

Book Details
Title: Forge of Darkness
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 662
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06217-3
First published: 2012


  1. Damn fine review! Seeing these reviews really makes me want to give the 10 book series another shot. I made it to book 4 and then just had to put it down halfway through and move on. I enjoyed it all immensely, but I just didn't have the time to focus on it. I was also unaware of all of the forums out there. I think the next time I try to complete the series I'll be printing out chapter summaries and really try to study what's happening! I think that would be cool to blog about the journey of trying to read all 10 books! Seriously though, awesome review!

    1. Thank you! I always find Erikson difficult to review because there is so much going on in his books that I often simply don't know where to start.

      The reread is nearing completion, that is definitely something to keep in mind if you do decide to start again. There are some might fine books later on in the series so I definitely think you should give it a go.

    2. Yeah I'm going to for sure, and this time around I'll be better prepared!

  2. This is the best review of Forge of Darkness I've read yet. You have a really informed perspective that comes out in the review. Moreover, it's the first review that's made me think waiting until the series is finished is not in my best interest. :)

    I know that Erikson intends to finish the Kharkanas at three books. I've read in interviews that Erikson also plans to continue Karsa Orlong's story. When looking at the less than conclusory end of his story in The Crippled God, it would seem almost necessary to continue it, particularly whether his quest for revenge is ever achieved. Have you heard any news about a future Karsa Orlong novel or series?

    1. I know Esslemont is going to do at least one more novel that is set after or during The Crippled God.Maybe he will wrap up some dangling storylines. That one should be out later this year.

      Erikson plans to finish this trilogy fist However, the second volume has been delayed because the novel grew too large. From what I understand it would follow but the Jaghut struggles (Hood's ascencion?) and the Tiste civil war and apparently he can't fit it in one volume. I think he's decided to leave the Jaghut part of the tale for another book so the trilogy might turn into four. It's all a bit unclear. I don't think we'll see book two of this trilogy before 2015 though.

      After that he plans to write the Karsa trilogy. Given the progress on his current project I'd say it will be a few years before we'll see any of that.