I’ve blogged a lot recently about various bits of writing news, but it’s been a while since I just talked about my first love: books. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning to start a new series of posts, talking about ‘epic reads’ – in other words, longer books that are far beyond the word counts of most published fiction.
I have a real fascination with these weighty tomes. For a start, fantasy – more than any other genre – is absolutely littered with them. Some series are even book after epic book, and run to millions of words when taken together. Whilst there’s something of an expectation that fantasy novels will be longer than the norm, it takes a skilled writer to really pull that off and to keep the reader invested in a story that might take years to tell.
My first ‘epic read’ in this series, then, is Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson. Erikson is best known for his Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which – at 10 books and over 11,000 pages in paperback (thank you Wikipedia!) – came to an end in 2011. Since then, Erikson has started a new, related series, the Kharkanas Trilogy, which is a prequel of sorts to his earlier work but also stands alone.
As this isn’t an official review, I won’t relate the plot of Forge of Darkness here. Goodreads has the usual blurb, along with a good set of reviews. Instead, I want to talk a bit about some of the things Erikson does in the novel, both the highlights and things which are perhaps a bit more problematic.
First of all: just how epic is Forge of Darkness? The quick answer to that is ‘very’! Erikson has weaved a plot of extraordinary complexity, with a vast cast of characters, many of whom provide their own POV. It’s quite clear, too, that plotting really is where Erikson excels, and the story never gets away from him. Whilst Forge of Darkness is a long book, virtually every scene pulls its weight, adding some new detail of plot or character that adds to the overall tapestry. Remove even a single strand, and the story loses some of its vital depth – every piece of the book really is necessary to understand the whole.
Erikson is also a very skilled writer. Forge of Darkness is, at times, almost poetic, and the prose flows perfectly. However, this is something of a double-edged sword. Poetic is one thing, but this is a novel brimming with philosophies and musings on the way the world works. This is, at times, as dry as it sounds, and I sometimes found myself wishing certain characters would stop thinking and start doing.
Still, a certain level of thoughtfulness is perhaps needed with a book of this length. Nothing but action would be just as tiring, and – as is the case with many long, complex books – the pace here is generally slow. As a result, we get a chance to get to know a good number of the characters, despite the fact there are so many of them; those that blur together in the early chapters generally become more distinct as the story goes on, as we get a better sense of their personalities, motives and histories. It’s difficult to pick out a single protagonist, or even a handful of them – which might bother some readers – but Erikson does a good job of explaining each new character, often with surprising subtlety.
And this is a subtle book – for the most part. I felt Erikson’s deft storytelling fell apart in just one or two instances, where moments of extreme violence were suddenly thrown into the story. Whilst I understand these moments are intended to show how Kurald Galain (the world of Forge of Darkness) is starting to fray, they felt unwieldy and out-of-place against the otherwise steady pace. This is, I’m aware, partly a personal preference: I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted with violence in ‘grimdark’ fantasy, and its inclusion here spoiled sections of this book for me to the point where I considered not finishing it at all.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Forge of Darkness, though, was its seriousness. There’s hardly a single joke or moment of lightness in the entire book, which very little to leaven the grimness. The serious tone, along with Erikson’s baroque writing style, makes it feel almost po-faced at times, with some scenes coming off as unintentionally hilarious. I’m not a great fan of ‘funny’ fiction (now there’s a subjective term!), but for a book of over 900 pages, Forge of Darkness is so, well, dark that it occasionally verged on being hard work.
That’s not to say I disliked the book, though. Overall, Forge of Darkness is an accomplished work, by one of the most impressive writers working in fantasy at the moment. For writers, there’s a huge amount to learn from his stories, particularly with regard to dealing with huge casts of characters and plot complexity. For readers, this is a book (and a series) to really get your teeth into, whether you’re already a Malazan fan or not – and when it comes to the darker variety of epic fantasy, Erikson’s work is some of the most intelligent and immersive fiction around.