Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson made his mark on the fantasy genre with his 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series (review) and now he returns with Forge of Darkness (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), the first in a trilogy that can be equally regarded as a prequel to the Malazan series and as a good place to start if you’ve been too intimidated to jump into a 10-book series.
Anyone who has read this blog for long enough (or simply read the review I linked above to the Malazan series) knows that I’m a big fan of Erikson. I think Malazan (even with all its faults) is one of the best and most significant fantasy series ever written and it’s no surprise that I feel that Forge of Darkness continues that tradition of excellence. So, you now know at the start of this review that I am a fan and I’m inherently biased toward really liking pretty much anything that Erikson writes. And for those who are concerned with such – there are no spoilers in this review for either the Malazan series or Forge of Darkness.
Forge of Darkness begins The Kharkanas Trilogy, taking places at least several hundred-thousand years prior to the events of the main series. It’ set in a world that is best characterized as the original realm/dimension of the world that Erikson later explores in the Malazan series. It centers on the Tiste people prior to their eventual division into Tiste Andii, Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan in a time of impending civil war. Other races/beings (and even characters) are seen to varying degrees that readers of Malazan will recognize. However, the focus on this novel is really the self-destruction of a society and the advent of inescapable change in the reality of their world.
I imagine that most readers of this review want to know one of two things, both of which really boil down to ‘should I read this book’. Those initial two items are 1) ‘I’ve not read Erikson before, can I start with Forge of Darkness’ and 2) ‘I’ve read Malazan (or at least some of it) and how does this relate and is it worth it for me to read Forge of Darkness’. For the first, I do believe that those who haven’t read Erikson could start with Forge of Darkness. All of the characters (even those that play supporting and even starring roles in the Malazan series) are introduced as if the reader knows nothing of them (and indeed, this is actually a very neat issue that I will tackle later in this review). The setting is introduced as if the reader knows nothing. It is new (or so old so that it is new for those who have read Malazan), and more importantly, it shows Erikson’s writing style, what he values in his writing and even what he hopes readers will focus on. The narrative organization is a bit more traditional than Erikson uses for Malazan with a clear introduction to the series in Forge of Darkness and linear progression through the narrative. But the writing style is entirely consistent with what I recognize as Erikson’s style, all the way down to the deliciously meta dialogue, dark, brooding philosophical musings and the use of too many points of view.
For fans of Malazan, many of the characters of Forge of Darkness are well known from their roles in the Malazan series. Foremost of course is Anomander and his two brothers, but there are many other of the Tiste that we’ve only seen hints of before, many of the elder gods (though before they are recognized as elder or even gods), a few Jaghut and there is mention of such races/species as the Thel Akai, Forkrulkan, Jheck and Jhelarkan, the Shake, and the dog runners (Imass). I predict that really hardcore fans will be both ecstatic and a bit enraged by Erikson’s handling of characters long known and loved (to varying degrees). The characters that we see here are different – first and foremost, they hundreds of thousands of years younger, and quite often, very literally young. They are in development, they haven’t yet seen the millennia of hardship and pain to come, the power of magic has not yet come into the world, the gods are relatively unknown, and the realities of mortality and immortality are not comprehended. Memories from the original series are likely not as factual as fans would like, perspective is always key and Erikson immediately plays a ‘get out of jail free’ card at the start with a Prelude that explains that this text is a story told by a poet who happily admits to presenting it the way prefers to so that the thematic goals are properly achieved. Oh how this enrages fans and brings me joy (but much more on this here).
But, to bring the circle back around, I believe that this is a must read for fans of the Malazan world. I imagine that most fans are like myself and have forgotten many of the details of the massive, million-work plus series. The generally small supporting roles played by and often vague references to the Tiste we see in Forge of Darkness are equally, forgotten, misremembered and remembered in the fog of the aftermath of the Malazan series. And that’s fine – we get to meet them all again for the first time and in addition, we get to see the shattering of the ancient world and the birth of the one the series takes place in. And it’s all told though Erikson’s brilliant writing.
In Forge of Darkness Erikson shows a deeply moving and tragic beginning of the end of a civilization. In many ways this story belongs in the Dying Earth sub-genre. Not only is the Tiste civilization moving toward a civil war, but the entire world is in the beginning stages of being remade. And the forces behind this inevitable decent equate those of the human condition that Erikson writes to in everything he does. The Tiste civilization is destroying itself through all of the realities of human motivation – power, segregation of society, religious fervor, neglect, ambition, etc. The land has been destroyed, used up. The spoils of a great victory in war prove to be poison. And as always, the best of intentions have tragic consequences.
The most evident of the frameworks that Erikson chooses to explore the death of a people and world is through family. Almost every relationship shown in the book boils down to that of family – parenthood, mothers, fathers, kids, bastards, father and mother figures, absence, brother, sister, grandmother, etc. This exploration of family is powerful and not easily pinned down, but everything comes down to it. From the over-arching rise of the religious figureheads (and gods) of Mother Dark and Father Light, to the evil daughters of Draconus, to the his troubled bastard son, the Purake brothers and their devotion to each other, the unhealthy love of a painter for his sister, and so on. Civilization and indeed the entire world is presented as an extended family, though not necessarily a traditional one. All of the pain, love and dysfunction coalesce into something tragic, though, if I know Erikson as I think I do, ultimately hopeful.
Through this Erikson explores some of the concepts that human nature (and the fantasy genre) tends to hold in high regard – justice, grief, vengeance, right vs. wrong, aristocracy, sexuality, sacrifice and others. These explorations often come from the minds and conversations of people that many would not associate with such deep explorations – the young, the soldiers and even the servants.
But, no worries for those craving action, there is plenty of action, though it flows at metered pace. There are quests across alien, desolate lands. Creatures emerge from the Vitr. Battles are fought, slaughter rendered. Death comes, magic descends and a proud son greets the Lord of Hate, who writes an unending suicide note.
One of the aspects I found most interesting in Forge of Darkness is just how Erikson deals with his characters – particularly with characters who many of his readers feel that they know from the Malazan series. In this, Erikson introduces us to them as if the reader knows nothing about them. And for the fans who feel that they do know something about these characters – well, in many ways Erikson shows them that they actually don’t know anything about them, at least at the time when this series is occurring. The time difference between the two series in not a few years, but a few hundred-thousand years. All too often, we think that we know someone, and we never expect them to change. Especially our favorite characters from books. In this case Erikson is dealing with characters who have unending life-spans, though they are mortal. However, the intellects of his characters essentially human. In hundreds of thousands of years, things change, people change, details forgotten or misremembered, perspectives alter and what was once important is not so anymore and vice versa. Erikson plays with the perception, anticipation and assumption of his readers. Some will cry foul, but I am enjoying the contrast and relish my musing their journeys between events of the series..
Erikson has often been charged with composing long beginnings that ever so slowly build to an unrelenting and action-packed convergence of events. Forge of Darkness is the long, slow build up for The Kharkanas Trilogy. Resolutions are not provided, nor is the triumphant ending of most opening books of trilogies. It informs, it reveals the tragedy and sets the stage for what is to come. In many ways, it is Erikson writing at his best, and only slightly less confusing. It is the writing I crave to read, a writing in which I find equal parts joy, melancholy, and sadness that are (thankfully) shaped by a wit that makes me laugh. I am satisfied, yet I crave more.


sakura said...

I really enjoyed reading this book and yes, the anomalies bugged me and made me go back and check on the Malazan books, and yet I can't wait to read more! A lovely post and overview which has made me think a bit more about Erikson's world.

Kev said...

Yep - a great review. Fantastic to see some of the characters from way before their time in MBoTF.

Love the Azathanai - makes them seem much more solid/real to me seeing them in this light.

Erikson remains my favourite Author and this book is an amzing treat for fans of his previous books!


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