And now I fear that I am not unusual, not cursed into some special maze of my own making. I fear that we are all the same, eager to make strangers of the worst that is in each of us, and by this stance lift up the banners of good against some foreign evil.

But see how they rest against one another, and by opposition alone are left to stand. This is flimsy construction indeed. And so I make masks of the worst in me and fling them upon the faces of my enemies, and would commit slaughter on all that I despise in myself. Yet, with this blood soaking the ground before me, see my flaws thrive in this fertile soil.

Reading this book was for me a stimulating experiment. “Forge of Darkness” is the first tome in a prequel trilogy, to a series that is ten books wide. Naturally it would be read by fans who went through all the ten, huge books building the Malazan series. I’m one of them, but I read at my own pace and I’m exactly halfway through that series, ready to pick up “The Bonehunters”, the 6th volume. I decided instead to read this one first. It was an occasion to read the book when it came out (or at least within a few months) and to make a contrast between books that shared themes but separated by some meaningful years. So that I could see more clearly how Erikson’s writing changed and if that direction was one I “approved”. About a year ago I read “This River Awakens” that, while not Malazan, I considered his best book, and it was written years before even the first volume in the Malazan series. It was not exactly an encouraging perspective. So I’m glad to say, bluntly, that in my personal Malazan ladder, this book comes first, above the other five in the main series that I’ve read (it goes like this, for those who recognize these codes: FoD > HoC > MoI > DG > MT > GotM).

I read the book holding some kind of three-way perspective, which was not forced. Usually when I try to write down a review my goal is to give a sense of that book, especially about why one should read it, instead of millions of other books out there. Like a sense of urgency. What sets it apart and gives it its uniqueness of flavor. In the case of long series there are three perspectives. First there’s my own, the very personal and emotional response that rises spontaneously and that one has then to struggle to rationalize in clear patterns, then there’s the perspective of readers who know well if not the book, at least the series, author and setting, and finally readers who are completely new. In the case of this book all three are particularly interesting since it’s a prequel, and so, already in the intentions of its writer, a possible starting point for brand new readers (as well veterans who still have not finished the main series).

Is “Forge of Darkness” a good starting point for readers who have yet to pick up the Malazan series? Initially I thought it was. The writing is measured and careful, so easy enough to follow without feeling lost. The problem is that from the middle point onward there are a number of mysterious scenes steeped in myth that were confusing even for me, who ravel in that kind of thing. So I would say that reading this book first is definitely possible, even recommended, but it comes with some conditions. It is not an easy book. It is extremely demanding. From one side it will make understand a reader what’s the (real) deal with the Malazan series, whereas “Gardens of the Moon” is nowhere as clear about what is that sets this series apart from everything else. But from the other it could discourage a reader even more than GotM because it’s a steep climb that demands a lot from the reader, and to engage with it deeply. The story has better hooks and it can be more seducing, it isn’t baffling, impersonal and confusedly crowded as GotM was, but it also lacks the lures one expects in epic fantasy: the journeys, visiting places, meet peoples, big setpieces. All these do exist, but are twisted in the unique Malazan way.

Erikson said that, as the Malazan series was conceived as an homage to Homer, the seed of epic fantasy, these prequels would be another homage, but to Shakespeare, the bard. Pretentious claim, everyone would say. Whether deserved or not, I recognized this particular air (and the setting is also particularly suited). The PoVs and scenes in this book have a perceivable theatrical quality. Sometimes I perceived that “enter” and “exit” lines that built a scene, characters coming on stage, facing each other. Erikson always used this style, this time slightly different because often the next scene follows logically the one before, and so reducing the jumps in context typical of Malazan, but this time it gives a sense of a play and contained space. These scenes remain intimate, usually not more than an handful of characters interacting. Malazan was more sweeping wide, panoramic and movie-like.

This time things are personal and stay lodged tightly with the characters even if events have a big import. “Worldbuilding” is interesting because built in a false way. This is not a typical fantasy backdrop, here less than Malazan proper, that objective world that is stated with certainty. The fantasy, secondary world built as an independent, whole thing. One of the lures of reading fantasy can be this escapism, the seduction of a different, fascinating world finely detailed and precisely described. Instead I call what Erikson does “false worldbuilding” because it stays on the characters. The world shifts and blurs, is shaped and defined by the characters who live within it and that observe it. Things either have subjective value and meaning, or do not appear. And it is only in the opposition of the many PoVs that you can perceive it as something whole.

It is in my nature to wear masks, and to speak in a multitude of voices through lips not my own. Even when I had sight, to see through a single pair of eyes was a kind of torture, for I knew – I could feel in my soul – that we with our single visions miss most of the world.

The value in what Erikson does, compared to other Fantasy writers who don’t always have it in focus, is in the “metaphor made real”. This could become just a tiresome trick on its own when simply repeated, but the strength is about knowing what you write about. The reason why it’s so important is that it builds a true resonance with what’s meaningful. A story grips a reader when it builds a bridge, between what happens on the fictional side and what’s deep in the reader (and that’s also the distinction with escapism, wish fulfillment and all that). You could fashion clever magic systems and cool looking demons, show epic battles, but those demons only have true power if they come deep from one’s true soul. In this book even more effectively than anything else I’ve read, Erikson turns the human being inside out. What is shown is the dark side of the human landscape. Those true demons. Those that truly scare you and won’t go away, ever, when you turn on the light or when you grow up. It is done without rhetoric and embellishment. Without spectacle and complacency. From my point of view, this is Erikson at his apex.

Erikson at his best, excellent prose. Filled to the brim with beautiful and meaningful lines. It is a pleasure to read, but it also rather dense and can discourage readers who do not engage on this level and prefer something that has a brisk, lighter pacing. Or something that doesn’t take itself so seriously. Erikson is known and often criticized for heavy-laden introspection and one either has interest in it, or this book can be incredibly daunting and tiresome (especially with it moves toward the cosmogony of myth, which is a theme of this book I simply love and find, oh, so incredibly interesting). I’d also say that this is the one that the most gets close to the work of Gene Wolfe (without any of that artificial affection that I see in Wolfe), also admired for beautiful, meaningful prose and criticized for lack of ease of access and flow of plot. Lots of interesting, pivotal things happen, but as I said this is colored by what the characters see and their thoughts. The landscape has a dream-like flavor and also gives it an haunted atmosphere.

Many times Rise Herat had seen a face stripped back by the onslaught of loss, and each time he wondered if suffering but waited under the skin, shielded by a mask donned in hope, or with that superstitious desperation that imagined a smile to be a worthy shield against the world’s travails. These things, worn daily in an array of practised expressions insisting on civility, ever proved poor defenders of the soul, and to be witness to their cracking, their pathetic surrender to a barrage of emotion, was both humbling and terrible.

It is not an easy book because it’s often, always, a punch in the gut. It is not simply bleak to the point of being mono-tone. As usual Erikson shows the full range of emotion and there is humor and lighter scenes. But that human warmth and friendship is always a very narrow ledge that opens on a Abyss of miasmatic chaos, always eroded. A frightful thing. Like a candle light in a forest of darkness. There isn’t (anymore) any conceit about what Erikson does with his writing, and no attempt to reassure the reader after an hard experience. Those decorative curtains are torn away. Reading this book is like drinking wine on a empty stomach. There’s is lots of beauty, but it’s also mean and bewildering. This is thick and heady wine, the kind that takes quite a toll.

I’m still answering that question, the answer is: read it if you dare. Expect an exhausting book. The reward is an unique one because I’m simply not aware of another writer who achieves as much. Simply. You think it’s “hype”, for me it’s being honest. What Erikson writes contains the breadth of the world. Any world. And as far as I know no one has ever attempted to do the same. What Tolkien did was incredible, especially in the latter part, post-LotR, and Erikson indeed sits on the shoulder of giants, but he sees further away and describes that he sees better than anyone else. This book is a distillation of all the qualities the Malazan series possesses (and none of the flaws and growing pains I recognize in it), by a writer who’s now probably at the very top of his skills and is no more struggling to find his voice as he was in “Gardens of the Moon”. If you want to know right from the start what Malazan is about, then this book is ideal, but if you want to take it easy without being plunged on the very deep end, then start from the beginning of the series.

I also believe, contrary to what everyone would say, that this book is perfectly self-contained and doesn’t necessarily need the two upcoming books that will complete the trilogy. Some (most?) PoVs are left hanging, but but not in a frustrating or dissatisfying way, and the book has its cohesion.

Suggested reading:
Larry’s review of the book, because he did this time a so much better work than me, whereas I always try to be spoiler free that my own end up being so generic and bland.
This on Tor site, because it’s a newcomer perspective (even if plagued by way excessive retconning to familiar canons, which doesn’t help at all understanding Malazan) and because I like “The Silmarillion as told in the style of A Song of Ice and Fire”, only that Erikson ends up writing better than both of those writers ;)


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful review, but I am compelled to offer up some clarity on one small comment you made. It would indeed be pretentious (and presumptuous) to be writing in homage to Homer or Shakespeare: rather, I’m fairly sure the word I have used is ‘inspired.’ Which of course is a very different thing. Seeking inspiration, why wouldn’t one set sights on the best writers who ever lived? This is not to say I would ever imagine that I could reach such heights, but inspiration stokes the fire in the belly, and has a way of sinking into the bones, which I can’t help but welcome.

    It’s also curious that you continue to elevate ‘This River Awakens’ among my canon, when after two re-releases, the novel stirs not a ripple. As for Forge of Darkness, it too has not garnered the attention some might have expected. In terms of progression, however, best you hold off on reaching any conclusions, until you’ve read the rest of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. For myself, I see a very discernible progression, leading up to Forge of Darkness. Alas, it may not be the one many fans want, but there it is. The ten book series drove me outward, but this new trilogy is driving me inward — in that, the landscape is indeed similar to ‘This River Awakens,’ although, hopefully, my writing is better.

    Anyway, thanks again for this.


  2. Then I could trust my feelings because I was going to say that Forge of Darkness reminds me This River Awakens more than everything else in Malazan. I really do feel that and it’s one strong reason why both these books, despite the years that separate them, stand at the top of my preference. So this association wasn’t just due to the fact that I read them within a year.

    I don’t know which book I liked more between Forge of Darkness and This River Awakens. I can see that the first is definitely superior from every point of view, including the writing, but the latter is obviously easier to connect with, and so on the personal level I enjoyed more reading it.

    The two being not so successful does not surprise me. I see it as a technical thing. This Rivers Awakens doesn’t have a genre to propel it, so it’s like you are starting from scratch and no one knows you, and BOTH are coming from an author who’s so prolific that reading his books is an hobby on its own. Even long TV series, beside their quality level, ALWAYS have dwindling public. So I’m not surprised if someone who has already read ten books of that size decides that his curiosity is quenched. Then you write a “prequel” and suddenly you evoke the idea of an optional, side-story kind of thing that is aimed at the true hardcore fans. As far as I know Forge of Darkness was rather well received and recommended in forums. But recommended to other fans, so already diminishing returns. And then there’s the fact it’s not an easy read and it’s not that gripping tale filled with adventure and spectacular setpieces.

    I think the issue with Forge of Darkness is that it’s a good book for readers who aren’t likely going to be aware of it and read it. More a problem of being unheard, than being heard but not appreciated. You naturally move toward more complex, subtle, “literary” stuff and some readers are turned off. I guess it’s also a matter of getting older, and things like a silver-haired guy going around on a flying mountain doesn’t have the same amount of appeal it had at the time ;) This book has still a so strong display of imagination, but it is also in a subtler and inward form. I’m definitely glad this book exists in this form, even if it’s not so palatable for a broader public (otherwise you mimic the Wheel of Time and use teen romances to hook on that public, and it works so well, I’m sure).

    On that matter, it’s not probably worth pointing out but I will anyway, the only slight dissatisfaction I sometimes have is still when you don’t bring along all the descriptive power you have, when there are those big scenes. You probably do this for a reason, like having the reader’s imagination do the work. Anyway, in this case the scene with the dragons at the end seemed somewhat confusing, with this wall of fire hovering the Vitr. It didn’t seem the usual portal opening like a wound, it didn’t seem coming or being related to the Vitr itself, since it came from above. So I feel the more the scene is rich with fantasy elements, the more it needs descriptive power to bring it down to a believable, solid feeling (and since imagination doesn’t need a budget you can also push it as far as you want).

    Lots of questions/arguing about the cosmogony and the Azathanai, but I’ll restrain myself from bringing you there. I’ll wait for your books ;)

    Now that I’m reading Dune by Frank Herbert I find amusing that, ALL THE TIME, the reviews of those books have the exact same complaints that are aimed at your later books also (though with even more emphasis). Too much philosophy, not enough plot, pages and pages of dense and convoluted introspection. Everyone seems to hate those books, and for that reason I decided to start.

  3. ha, the Dune thing — that novel was one of my main inspirations for how I structured the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It figures.


  4. Just thought I’d drop in to mention a book I have only belatedly come across, but one which has had a profound effect on me, in that it slipped like a perfect key into a lock I’d been struggling with for a very long time (to whit: what the fuck’s going on with these main characters in The Iliad? Or in the Old Testament, for that matter? Or, in Gilgamesh?). As someone who’s gone through the whole academic indoctrination on the archaeological, historical, psychological, mythological front of the human condition (in which it is assumed that the essence of humanity, our consciousness, was a given), the book I’m about to cite was/is an eye-opener, and it occurred to me that, of all my readers, you would be the most likely to find it interesting.

    So: ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicamaral Mind’ by Julian Jaynes.

    If you know the work, then forgive me my newby enthusiasm (the book was published in the late seventies). If not, then I hope you track down a copy, read it, and then offer up an opinion via this forum (or by personal contact with me). I see now how its hypothesis relates, even if inadvertently, to what I’m up to in this new trilogy (the Kabbalah diagram of the inverted tree is so pertinent!), but even moreso to how I fashioned a kind of dialogue with the world of The Iliad, in the main series (in addressing the notion of the ‘heroic’).



  5. I don’t know it but Jaynes’ ideas are frequently brought up in “The Wayward Mind” by Guy Claxton, which I’m sure I’ve recommended to you at some point ;)

    (and that covers that aspect along with more modern ideas, but usually just follows that line, including the idea that I extracted from “Midnight Tides” and that I recently brought up here: )

    Consider, though, what R. Scott Bakker said about the book, including mentioning Julian Jaynes:

    So it’s possible that some of those ideas, while quite beautiful, may not be so accurate scientifically.

    That said these days I was looking into the issues between the evolutionists and creationists, and learned that even in Darwin’s case the great majority of Darwin’s theories are today considered false by the established science. Yet, on a broad level the overall idea of evolution seems to hold and so, even in Jaynes case and as Bakker also suggests, it is possible that “his master narrative could very well be true”.

    Though I’m not quite sure in what way you’re seeing all this (or which part of Jaynes book is also appearing in The Wayward Mind).

    I also find curious that you now come up with this “bicameral mind” when I thought you were already playing with this directly when in Forge of Darkness you made a couple of character enter “Burn’s skull” (and voice her thoughts, creating a nice paradox of subject/object and observer/representation).

    This past month I also watched almost all movie and documentaries by Werner Herzog. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, but I arrived at the conclusion that he’s a kindred soul with you. He has the same artistic interest, the same compassionate but merciless vision, and he’d probably be the only one who could do justice to a Malazan movie, if he was younger and immortal. I’m convinced that in some alternate universe it happened.

    It’s hard to recommend something specific because the stronger themes come up only in resonance when you see all the deliberate echoes and references between his movies, but maybe “Fata Morgana”, “Lesson of Darkness” (that reminded me of the Vitr), and also the better known “Aguirre”, “Stroszek” or “Heart of Glass” (where most actors play their role under hypnosis, as if to make them archetypes, or people acting as puppets moved by those archetypes).

    But especially the documentaries, from the more recent “The White Diamond”, to the pivotal “Land of Silence and Darkness” (which is soul destroying since it deals with people who lost both sight and hearing, and so are almost completely closed to the world, including some who are like that since they were born and so live as within an inconceivable, intolerable state, for us) or “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” which deals directly with some themes here, including what I think they call the “spiritual man”, at the time of those almost 40.000 years old cave paintings, that they describe as “fluid”, permeable (the men, not the cave paintings). With an idea of the world made of things that can shift and blur, as if always in shadow, and that reminds me of what you told me about the “Protean” mythology. And so an axis of evolution/progress, that you also describe in House of Chains when Heboric is tripping and sees some people trapped in a Jade giant that seem coming from a future.

    And Herzog is interested in that deep soul. All his movies are filled with beautiful scenery of mountains, forests, deserts. It’s an obsession. In his first movie the main character becomes mad after seeing a valley completely filled by windmills. So real landscapes as well as weird ones that seem impossible on earth, and so become fantasy landscapes, of the soul, holy. Yet, despite this obvious fascination and love for nature, in interviews Herzog describes nature as horrifying, as massacre, filled with decay, putrefaction, the birds singing as a cry of pain. With no beauty. Also specifically saying: stupid, obscene, wrong. And so carrying that kind of duality. His movies are always about the human point of view and says explicitly that all his work, including the documentaries, are all about creating something, manipulation and so on. Hence, he says a landscape completely changes if you add a particular music, and so it becomes a point of view. A meaning, a story and so on. Making it tolerable.

    Included in all this he also plays with a theme of complete futility. Of stories that repeat cyclically, always the same. Always ending in disaster. And there are even characters who remember stories that don’t belong to them, as in a sort of collective unconscious.

  6. I have been a Herzog fan since the very beginning (right back when I was minoring in film studies at UVic, during my first writing degree), so I’m with you on that one. Regarding Scott’s riff, etc. I’ll have to give that some more thought, although it struck me as somewhat self-indulgent and tautological (but then, so is the subject he was discussing, in that he was discussing it … consciously, and besides, it’s late at night and I’m tired after a full evening of fencing, so maybe I’m being uncharitable). Jaynes takes it much further, far more eloquently, and what I appreciate the most in it is his analysis of early literature.

    The notion of Jaynes’ thesis has been known to me for some time, although not in any depth. I kept running across references to it in other books, and picked up a few summaries. But none did him justice, in my mind (I certainly was skeptical). That said, as soon as one delves into the evolution of consciousness, the self and self-actualization (and by that I don’t mean the hokey new age usage of that term), the sense of the ‘other’ (the internal other, actually), can’t help but rear its grisly head. So, in a number of my novels, I find I was skirting a pool — knowing it was deep, wandering into the shallows here and there when I needed interesting imagery, curious notions, etc. So it’s not surprising that there’s some echoes with the bicamaral stuff already in place.

    I’m not one to shy from the notion of synchronicity: the strange timing of things arriving when they arrive. My visceral response to Jaynes’s book was one of peculiar relief (that click of the key, the truth of the lock). Perhaps it was belated, but I try not to think that way (eyes forward, always). And as for Olar Ethil and related scenes/characters, this just adds a new layer, and one that I can explore much more mindfully.

    cheers for now

  7. Consider that Scott has written A LOT on this topic, on the blog, for a couple of years. And it’s all quite dense, requiring lots of work to figure out because it’s filled with technical terms and unintuitive ideas. Sometimes he does a sort of summary posts, but they still require quite a dedication. I often restrain arguing with him because all I can offer is all stuff he already figured out or that isn’t helpful at all.

    He has an “agenda”, but be vary of judging it superficially. It’s really complex stuff that can’t be easily dismissed.

    The point is that he wants to explain consciousness, or explain it out, from the outside. Having a sort of natural description of it. That’s why he theorizes a post-semantic world. His thesis is actually that everything that enters consciousness could be useless, or in any case too distorted to be meaningful. An evolutionary dead end, or a “spandrel”. All of this can sound ridiculous but there’s a lot to it (and I fail at explaining it in three lines).

    I use to think that your work and his are very similar because they share similar themes. But his way of dealing with them is the absolute opposite of yours. You stay on man and man’s nature. The anthropomorphic, even poetic way. So you look at it from the side of meaning (superficial and deep). While he aims to tear apart this layer completely in a more horrific and brutal view.

    So you find the answers by pushing the meaning and symbolic to the extreme. It’s not important the scientific truth, but the story it carries and the way everything is woven as a story.

    Herzog does exactly the same. For example he criticizes “cinéma vérité” as something pointless, and says that even his documentaries are always “staged”. He knows that cinema is always “fake”. He’s not interested in “truth”, because he’s interested in finding a human value, and in interpreting that truth in a subjective way. Reaching for an ideal world, or at least a symbolically charged personal one. So he can take a real story and elevate it to its ideals and universal aspects. As if the level of reality has then been “written”, and before it is written it doesn’t exist (and it is not understood/seen).

    And that’s why the “fantastic” part is important. They are ideals and meaning, archetypes and symbols that speak in a language we understand.

    So, considering the opposite approach, I’m not sure I’d /suggest/ you to read the type of work Scott is doing on his blog. It’s incredibly interesting, but it would also clash with the kind of path you are on… Or at least it’s the perception I got.

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