Forge of Darkness: Absolutely works

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsForge of Darkness by Steven EriksonForge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

My personal experience with prequels has been quite mixed. They too often have a rote, going-through-the-motions feel to them. You get the sense the author is simply, mechanically connecting the dots, reverse-engineering the prequel story from characters and events laid out in the original story: “Explained why they call that thingamabob a “graggle”? Check. Explained why everyone wears red now? Check. Why Character A is a jerk? Check.” While this may result in some readerly satisfaction — “Oh, so that’s why it’s a graggle. Cool!”— I’ve found this approach seldom ends up creating an organically compelling storyline or rich characterization. These problems are compounded by the fact that we obviously know where this story and these characters are heading, thus robbing the prequel at the outset from a lot of narrative tension and making it difficult to offer up to the reader those joyful moments of surprise and discovery one has when reading non-prequels.

So how does Steven Erikson deal with these potential pitfalls in Forge of Darkness, the first book in a prequel trilogy set before his massive MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN series? He sets the prequel so far in the past — thousands of years — that any lines connecting the dots have either long since faded out of sight over the horizon (because events and people have been forgotten) or have completely curved out of joint or become more subtly warped (because events and people were distorted into unreliable myth), thus freeing him, mostly, from the plot and character constraints that dog so many other prequels.

Setting a prequel so far in the past might run the risk of distancing fans of the original material from what they responded so positively to, especially the characters. The brilliant twist in Erikson’s method is that many of his characters are so long-lived that they actually span that time period. You loved Anomander Rake in MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN? No problem, he’s still here. But because it’s so far in the past, and time has lost and/or distorted things, you can still be surprised by him because much of what you thought you knew was wrong or wasn’t the full story.

In one stroke of setting, Erikson frees his creativity, giving himself a nearly blank canvas to work on, while retaining the same characters that so captivated his audience the first time around. He gives himself the best of both worlds. As a side luxury, it also lets him highlight two of his major themes — the ways in which story (“made up”) and history (“really happened”) often blur together and the way the present is continuously and eternally reshaping itself in response to the past. It’s sheer evil genius. And it absolutely works.

Readers are treated to various favorite characters from MALAZAN like Rake, Silchas Ruin, Draconus and others. All are by definition younger, but there is a large range in how well they match up or not with their characters in MALAZAN, some lining up quite well and others presented in surprisingly different fashion. The difference may be a matter of tone, of personality, even of actions (say, if a character is eventually blamed for something it turns out he/she never did). It’s a fine line to walk, giving us characters who veer from our previous experience without having them seem wholly and arbitrarily changed just for the sake of plot, and Erikson toes that line successfully throughout. These difference kept these characters fresh and surprising despite my thousands of pages of previous experience with them and never once did I pull back thinking the character had been “broken.”

Beyond the reappearing characters from MALAZAN, there are a host of newer characters, probably too many for some though I enjoyed the multiplicity of viewpoints. I won’t swear to a precise count, but I came up with over 30 different point-of-view characters, almost all of which are wholly original to Forge of Darkness (Rake, for instance, doesn’t get his own POV). They range wide in status, class, age, race, gender, tone, and philosophy, as well as which “side” they are in the impending Tiste civil war. We have highborn lords and stable boys; children, adolescents, adults and world-weary adults; officers and grunts; philosophers, clowns, drunks, and scholars. It all makes for a rich pointillist sort of painting in terms of plot and theme.

The characters vary greatly in page time as well — Erikson isn’t leery of killing off POV characters — but even those who get only one or two short POVs are sharply if briefly drawn, and it’s hard to imagine a reader not caring what happens to nearly all of them. Some of the most moving scenes, in fact, involve the smallest characters.

The plot is complex, as might be expected, but not as sprawling as in many of the MALAZAN novels. The overarching plotline is tightly focused mostly on the impending Tiste civil war, with characters playing various roles, intended or not, major or not, in whether that war will happen and if so how it will play out. One needn’t have read MALAZAN to follow the novel, but it would certainly make for a far richer experience.

Pacing is perhaps a little slow at the outset, picking up in the middle as events start to move toward climax. Contrary to what MALAZAN readers might expect based on those novels in the series, the book doesn’t build to a huge confrontation or, to use an Erikson term, convergence. But as it is setting up a larger story, being the first book of a trilogy, it doesn’t really need to. We can feel the storm brewing; it’s fine if we don’t get actual thunder and lightning yet. That said, the closing image is a killer one.

Some readers may find that the pacing is slowed frequently by the characters’ penchant for introspection or philosophizing, new readers especially as long-time Erikson readers probably wouldn’t be long-time readers if it bothered them so much. Similarly, some might prefer fewer metafictional aspects — the frame story of this being a tale told by one character to another, the many references to art (one of the POV characters is a painter) and storytelling. For myself, those moments are part of what raises the MALAZAN series (and now Forge of Darkness) above a lot of fantasy — these musings on core questions of culture, of civilization, of being.

It’s true, the plot does come to a halt when two characters discuss the purpose and progress of civilization and how one measures such progress or when one character tries to comprehend the ability of people to perform such horrors on others. But plot is only one aspect of any story and for me, examination of these larger issues enhances the greater story even if it comes at the expense of pace and plot. And Forge of Darkness is rife with recurring themes and images to be pondered: environmental deprivation, the creation and role of history, extinction, return to childhood, the costs of certainty, the effects of the past upon the present, responsibility of the individual to the state and vice versa, questions of religion, of justice.

Long-time readers of MALAZAN will assuredly be happy to have some answers to questions they’ve wondered about (“What did it mean that the first children of Mother Dark were not Andii? How did Caladan Brood and Rake get together?”). But simply getting answers isn’t the best part; it’s just how creatively surprising the answers are. Some questions remain to be answered, such as how do two characters end up opposed to one another when they seem quite friendly now? And it wouldn’t be a MALAZAN book of course if hordes of new questions didn’t arise.

Those beginning the MALAZAN experience fresh might miss the full prequel experience, but in some ways, Forge of Darkness might actually be a better place to start rather than Gardens of the Moon, the first book of MALAZAN. For one, it’s the product of a writer fully conversant with his universe and working with all the craftsmanship years of writing has provided. It also probably eases the reader in more smoothly and gradually than does Gardens of the Moon, where the reader is really thrown into the middle of things. It’s possible this is just a result of my own familiarity with Erikson’s characters and world, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Being the first book of a new trilogy, Forge of Darkness is required to do the table setting and it’s a pretty large table, requiring lots of chairs. Characters have to be introduced or re-introduced, settings need to be explained, and basic workings of the world — politics, religions, etc. — need to be presented. Erikson handles all this smoothly, with little recourse to talky or clunky exposition. Because of these requirements, though, plot probably moves a little slowly than some might prefer. I’d say it’s more than made up for by the complexity and range of its characters and the way it is willing to examine larger questions beyond the simple purposes of the plot. It’s difficult to judge Forge of Darkness fully until we see the trilogy complete and can place it in better context, but it certainly does its set-up job well and deserves its place on the (extremely long) shelf next to its MALAZAN brethren.
(This review originally appeared on Tor.com as part of Bill and Amanda Rutter’s reread of the entire Malazan series)


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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