While working my way through Steven Erikson’s ten-book fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, I’d heard that he was also writing a prequel trilogy. I remember wondering how much more of this world Erikson possibly had to explore that ten books didn’t already cover.
Well, it turns out there’s a lot more.
After I finished the tenth and final book of the main series, I immediately began reading the first of the prequels, Forge of Darkness, which takes place several hundred thousand years before the events of The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Prequels by their very nature are tricky beasts. We already know how the story ends, so what’s the point in telling it? If we’ve seen where these characters end up, then the journey to get there must either be entertaining enough on its own, or there must be new information revealed that changes our perspective on the original story. And Forge of Darkness does exactly that. Since the events of this novel have become myths and legends by the time the main series takes place, we’re given a new perspective on characters who appear later on as well as learning what really happened with certain storylines. One of the major themes in Erikson’s work is how history changes over time and that’s certainly played with here. In fact, the structure of the novel is set up as one poet telling a story to another poet, who in the prologue wonders at the natures of truth and stories.
This structure allows Erikson not only to experiment with themes of storytelling and history, but to write some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Characters speak as if reciting Shakespeare, battles are described with the epic, larger-than-life feeling found in classics like The Iliad. Every word carries weight, the kind of writing that you can’t rush through.
“We are all interludes in history, a drawn breath to make pause in the rush, and when we are gone, those breaths join the chorus of the wind. But who listens to the wind?”
This also leads to a much darker tone. In Malazan, we meet the Tiste Andii, an ancient and powerful race (Erikson’s twisted take on elves) whose home has been destroyed and whose goddess has abandoned them. We know this story ends in tragedy and Erikson revels in every ounce of it. The entire book is shrouded in gloom and an uneasy sense of foreboding as their civilization heads to civil war. And although this is trademark Erikson, in Malazan there were enough breaks of humour that he allowed us to smile and laugh in between breaking our hearts, but that’s hardly the case here. This is a Shakespearean tragedy written with the grittiness of A Song of Ice and Fire and the grandeur and myth of The Silmarillion.
And it’s beyond brilliant.
“There is but one god, and its name is beauty. There is but one kind of worship, and that is love. There is for us but one world, and we have scarred it beyond recognition.”
It was incredible seeing the forging of swords we see in later novels and meeting characters we only know as myths and legends being shown as moody, immature teenagers. And as always, Erikson balances intricate and expansive worldbuilding with intimate character development.
However, I can’t recommend this book to everyone. I’ve written before about why Erikson’s style isn’t for everyone on The 400 Project and the same applies to this novel. And I’m not even sure this novel would have the same impact being read before the main series, so if I were to recommend Forge of Darkness to casual fantasy readers, they’d have to read ten books first.
But in my opinion, it’s worth it. No other author is writing like Steven Erikson and no other fantasy series compares to the scope and intensity of his world. If you’ve already read The Malazan Book of the Fallen, don’t discount this prequel trilogy like I almost did.