Forging Forward: Reviewing Steven Erikson’s Forge of Darkness

Posted: December 20, 2012 in Book Reviews, Fantasy
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This entry marks the first in a series of book reviews I intend to write as I work my way through various texts. Ideally I will write a review for every book I read but time and laziness will assuredly conspire against me. Since we have got the “this is a book review” mumbo jumbo out of the way, I don’t think I need to warn you that there might be spoilers. No matter how hard I try to keep them out, they’re going to creep in. Just start this and any other review I write with this in mind and we’ll save each other the mutual pain of having to read/write “Warning: Spoilers!” over and over again.

So, without further ado…

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

You might wonder, “How can Steven Erikson possibly follow-up his 3-million+ word Malazan Book of the Fallen series?” Or, “Wasn’t 3.3 million words enough?”

Luckily for Erikson, the world he and Ian Cameron Esslemont created in 1982 – and originally imagined as a role-playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons – has too many characters, too much history, and too many intertangled plots to satisfy a mere 3 million words. That the finale to the Book of the Fallen series, The Crippled God, left readers simultaneously satisfied and scratching their heads is testament to the depth of the Malazan world.

Steven Erikson came back from the dead – proverbially – with 2012’s Forge of Darkness. In FoD, Erikson delves into the history of the Tiste peoples and in particular the city of Kharkanas. This story is set many millennia prior to the events of the Book of the Fallen, and, in some ways, provides readers with a little bit of satisfaction insofar as they get a further glimpse into the mythos of the Malazan world.

Now, my creative writing teachers, when explaining how to workshop someone else’s work, have always told me that one should always lead with a good comment before diving into anything critical. While I do believe that any self-respecting adult should be able to take constructive criticism without having to be wined-and-dined first, I’m going to stick with this piece of advice for this review…as much as I really want to get into the criticism.

The first compliment I want to pay to Forge of Darkness is that it is ambitious, and a lack of ambition has never been one of Erikson’s faults as a writer. If I were Erikson and had just penned the greatest work of fantasy ever written, I would likely be content to set that world and those characters aside for fear of damaging the fragile word-child I had produced. Instead, Erikson decided to dive right back in and tackle the stories of some of his most beloved and most hated characters – namely Anomander Rake and Errastas. Whether he is able to pull it off – remember, there are still two books remaining in this trilogy – is irrelevant at this point. Kudos are in order for even trying.

Secondly, the device Erikson uses to frame this trilogy is nothing short of ingenious. Those who have read the Book of the Fallen will be familiar with the poets Blind Gallan and Fisher Tel Kath. These readers will also be familiar with Gallan’s Road used by the Shake and Fisher’s epic poem “Anomandaris.” To put it quite simply, this trilogy is “Anomandaris” made into prose, or properly speaking Gallan narrating to Fisher the events that comprise “Anomandaris.” Thus, what we get is Erikson writing a history within the context of his own created world. This isn’t a history textbook written to simply fill a void in the canon of Erikson’s works. FoD is a history as related to a great poet. It has purpose within the Malazan world. In other words, this tale is necessary even when to our, non-Malazan, eyes it isn’t.

Those who know me will know that I don’t like my literary criticism in the “Nice” flavour with a side of a pat on the back. Thus, I wouldn’t really be able to respect myself as a reviewer if I didn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t enjoy FoD quite as much as anything from the Book of the Fallen.

An artist's representation of Anomander Rake

An artist’s representation of Anomander Rake

First, and this touches upon some of the things I commented on in the “positive” section of this review, when reading FoD it sometimes feels as if Erikson is trying too hard to write a historical narrative and not enough on making it a compelling read for those of us in real life who spent real money on the book. While, as a lover of Erikson’s work, I do appreciate the frankness with which Erikson relays some historical details, a part of me pines for the days where you couldn’t tell if Silchas Ruin was going to hug you or run you through with twin keening swords. The book still seems satisfying, but it’s a “hey, I read something new” satisfaction and not a “holy crap, I didn’t see this coming but it all makes sense now that I think about it” satisfaction.

Speaking of satisfaction, another frustrating element of FoD is the lack of resolution with regards to the Malazan world creation myth. This may be a case of unrealistic expectations, but I had assumed coming into the novel that Erikson would be treating me to some great revelation about the creation of the Malazan world. I expected to learn about where the magical power comes from and where the gods themselves come from. Given the place on the timeline that the Tiste cultures fall this was a rather slim hope to begin with, but I was still hoping for something more than the classification of what were previously ‘gods’ as Azathanai. As far as meaningless revelations go, this might just take the cake. And it still doesn’t explain much of anything…

Lastly, as I was reading this novel there felt like there was something missing from it that made other Erikson novels unique. While FoD is assuredly an Erikson text, it read like it could have been written by a rather skilled imitator and not Erikson himself. It took me a while to pinpoint what this was and then, like a an assassination by Cotillion himself, it hit me: the military fiction – think Bridgeburners, Bonehunters, Coltaine’s Army, Paran’s Host, etc. – is non-existent. Gone are the scenes of banter between squad mates while on a march to a battle no one wants to take part in. Gone are the battles themselves. The only inkling of military fiction we get are in brief patches following squads sowing anarchy in Kurald Galain – and the characters that populate those scenes aren’t even like-able a la Fiddler, Quick Ben, Kalam, Bottle, Smiles, Corabb, et al. The trademark Erikson style, learned from Glen Cook and improved upon immensely, just isn’t there.

That being said, I shouldn’t let my eagerness to criticize overshadow the fact that I did, ultimately, enjoy the book. Those who are familiar with Erikson will certainly find it to be a worthwhile read while those who are new to Erikson might find it a more accessible starting point that the Grand Canyon-esque drop off that is Gardens of the Moon.

And, at 700-odd pages, it isn’t quite as daunting as Erikson’s other binding-stretching works.


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