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.