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Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson

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To be honest I’ve never been much for prequels. Even the name given these titles of books or movies that tell the story of what came before bothers me. It’s just a little too cute tying together previous and sequel into one word that actually means nothing at all. Aside from my abhorrence for all things cute, prequels are usually just blatant attempts to cash in on a title’s original success. Nine times out of ten they nowhere near as good as the original and usually they turn out to be a waste of money. However, there are exceptions to any rule and Forge Of Darkness, the first book in Steven Erikson’s new The Kharkanas Trilogy, published by Random House Canada, detailing events taking place prior to those depicted in his The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is one of those rarities.

Forge Of Darkness tells the story of the Tiste Andii, the mysterious dark-skinned immortal race who seemed almost godlike in their powers when compared to the mortals of the previous series. Here, at some time in the distant past, long before the creation of the mortal realms, we are introduced to the Tiste in their realm of Kuruld Galaim. Mother Dark rules over them in her citadel in Kharkanas, but the realm is seriously divided. The noble families vie for political and social power and conspire against Mother Dark’s chosen Consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus. Considered an upstart of no real noble lineage, the majority of the nobility feel him unsuitable for the position of lover to their queen. However they dare not move openly against him for not only don’t they know the extent of his power, he also has the support of Mother Dark’s chosen sons, three brothers; Anomander, Andarist and Silchas Ruin of the Purake family.

While the nobles make noises, a more tangible threat is shaping up in the form of disbanded soldiers who served in the wars defending Kuruld Galaim against threats from beyond its borders. Fuelled by the resentment of a few officers, who feel they were never properly recognized for their contributions, bands of soldiers have started reforming in secret. Claiming to be protecting Mother Dark, they start killing those they call the Deniers, ones who they accuse of refusing to worship her and what she represents. The only trouble is she doesn’t know what they are doing in her name. Soon their killings become indiscriminate as they attack both noble houses and other legions who fought in the wars. In reality their ambition is to see themselves elevated to nobility and the former leader of their forces, Vartha Ursander, wedded to Mother Dark, whether he, or she, wants to or not.

Those who have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence will start to recognize the history being described from hints and clues dropped during that series. This is the beginning of the schism that would eventually see the Tiste divided into three: Tiste Andii, children of dark; Tiste Liossan, children of light and Tiste E’dur children of shadow. Although that’s jumping ahead of the story told in this book as it only sets the stage for the first division between light and dark. Along the way readers will meet characters whom they first met at various points in the original series and learn something about their history and origins.

We also learn more about some of the peoples who are were known as the elder races, the ones who were around before mortals. As well as races with the familiar names of Jaghut and Forkul Assail, we are introduced to an even older race called the Azathanai. Known as renowned masons and able to work incredible magic with earth and stone, they are also builders of another sort, as we’re soon to find out. For among their number are other character names from the earlier series, the most important of which is K’rull – who created the warrens which are the repository of the magic humans draw on for sorcery and healing. There are also specific Azathanai who are given responsibility for shepherding each of the other races, acting as protectors, gift givers and the instigators of change.

What separated Erikson’s work in the past from others was not only the detail he would bring to his world building, but the humanity he brought to his characters. Whether or not the characters in question are technically human doesn’t really matter; they are created in an manner so we can identify with them emotionally and intellectually. None of this has changed in his latest creation. However, in some ways this book has depths to it that previous works lacked, and lends it a weightiness some might find disconcerting at first. For it raises issues about faith, belief and religion that one wouldn’t normally expect to find in a fantasy book. Or at least the level of discussion rises to a level one doesn’t normally find in works of fiction.

While some might question the appropriateness of having such a discussion in a fantasy novel, the story of the Tiste and their schism is all about questions of faith and belief. In order to create the level of verisimilitude required to make their world and its reality believable there needs to be a philosophical underpinning to all that happens. Otherwise it’s just a series of actions carried out for no reason. That may be sufficient for an action adventure story, but not if you’re looking at telling the story of the growth and evolution of a people and a world. We’re not talking about a simplistic fantasy story here after all; this is a world as complex and unsettled as our own.

What’s even more impressive is the manner in which Erikson is able to incorporate this discussion seamlessly into the natural flow of the book and make it a natural extension of the action. Characters, whether attempting to justify their actions or questioning the actions of others, put forward arguments and counter arguments without it ever impeding on the actual narrative. It’s not like they stop in the middle of a battle to engage in a philosophical debate or anything like that. To be honest I’m not even sure how he managed it, but as you reach the end of the book you’ll realize he’s managed to create the variety of philosophies needed for a schism of the size he’s portraying to occur.

Trying to capture a moment of crises in amber is almost impossible as there is never only one reason or event that pushes things past a point of no return. It not only takes a wide array of people acting in a various different ways and a variety of events all just happening to occur in the right sequence to precipitate a seemingly singular and momentous occurrence. Our own world’s history is rife with examples of how a series of apparently unconnected events led to a calamity. There might have been one amongst them that is most remembered now because it was the one that proved the tipping point, but if it had occurred in isolation, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.

What Erikson has done with Forge Of Darkness is very carefully show how events and actions, from the trivial to the major, all play a role in contributing to a society’s descent into chaos. Those who had grown accustomed to the humour salted through the previous series may find the harshness and bleakness a bit unexpected, but there’s nothing much funny about a world tearing itself apart. In the Malazan Book of the Fallen we were introduced to the three races of Tiste. We knew at one time they had all been one people; this is the story of how the schism began with the birth of the first two; Dark and Light. I’m sure as the trilogy continues so will the story and out of Darkness and Light will be born the third people Shadow. In The Malazan Book of the Fallen we heard various myths on how the three people of the Tiste came to be, this is that history brought to life.

This is fantasy on a level that few have ever attempted and fewer still would have the ability to carry off. Erikson is one of the few who can. It might be not be to the taste of those who only want sword and sorcery in their fantasy, but anyone looking for something a little more intellectually taxing and fulfilling will love it. Erikson should be made a genre onto himself, because nobody else is quite like him or equal to his abilities.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.