THERE WILL BE PEACE.
The words were carved deep across the lintel stone's facing in the ancient language of the Azathanai. The cuts looked raw, untouched by wind or rain, and because of this, they might have seemed as youthful and as innocent as the sentiment itself. A witness lacking literacy would see only the violence of the mason's hand, but surely it is fair to say that the ignorant are not capable of irony. Yet like the house-hound who by scent alone will know a guest's true nature, the uncomprehending witness surrenders nothing when it comes to subtle truths. Accordingly, the savage wounding of the lintel stone's basalt face remained imposing and significant to the unversed, even as the freshness of the carved words gave pause to those who understood them.
There will be peace. Conviction is a fist of stone at the heart of all things. Its form is shaped by sure hands, the detritus quickly swept from view. It is built to withstand, built to defy challenge, and when cornered it fights without honor. There is nothing more terrible than conviction. (p. 3)
Prequels are tricky to review. Does one pretend that it exists in a vacuum, not dependent at all on the works that came before it, even though such in narrative terms must come afterward? After all, there will be readers who will be fully aware of the "main series" to which the prequel work/s is/are appended and to neglect these readers' prior knowledge would be of a disservice to them. However, there are opportunities provided within certain prequels to view the author's creation in a new light, to ignore what has come before (after) and suspend narrative knowledge of what follows in order to focus on newer possibilities, different interpretations.
Steven Erikson's first novel in his prequel The Kharkanas Trilogy, Forge of Darkness, does not make things easy for either the reviewer or reader. Structured as a tragedy, replete with characters whose mores compel them to fission clans and friendships into warring parties, Forge of Darkness derives much of its tragic tone from readers who already know the general shape of things to come. Yet it would behoove readers of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series not to have too much faith in what they have read before regarding the Tiste, Caladan Brood, or other ancient races/individuals that appeared in that ten-volume series. Forge of Darkness overturns several of these preconceptions in a fashion that makes sense within the context of the novel, yet it might be somewhat of an advantage for one who is not well-versed in the prior series to read Forge of Darkness first.
Forge of Darkness opens with a portentous carving on the lintel stone of a Tiste lord, Draconus. "There will be peace." The sad irony of that phrase appearing before the unfolding scenes of betrayal, hatred, distrust, war, and rapine violence of the subsequent 300,000 or so years foreshadows the conflict between the belief in peace and the conviction of certainty that too often betrays that faith in peace. It is this symbol, the carving into stone of faith and the blood that is split on another such carved stone, that gives the novel a sense of pathos that makes this 662 page novel a trainwreck to read. The reader may be saddened or horrified by what she is reading; she almost cannot help but to pause and go through these pages slower than usual to take in what is transpiring.
The novel deals with two main subplots, with several related topics spinning off from them. The first is the mystery surrounding a bastard son of Draconus and his father's sudden interest in him after nearly two decades of neglect. In the travels that the two undertake to the west, a whole host of creatures and individuals who are in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series appear in different guises. For readers familiar with the series, seeing these characters in their older, less (in)famous façades may be fascinating, while for neophyte readers, sometimes the import of what is transpiring is lessened due to the lack of foreknowledge of what portents occur through some of their actions. The second subplot, which here in Forge of Darkness takes nearly half of the novel to begin to take full shape, deals with the tensions between the Tiste factions regarding the preference that their ruler, Mother Dark, has given to her new Consort, Draconus, and to the three that she has adopted as her "first children," the three brothers of the Purake Hold.
Erikson largely does a good job in developing the political and religious tensions that splinter the Tiste. Characters that later head the other two "races" within the Tiste are shown here as being opponents of Mother Dark's plans. But what is surprising is to see how a mysterious ocean-like substance, which is described to some extent in collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont's Orb Sceptre Throne and briefly in Erikson's The Crippled God, the Vitr, vomits from its depth someone who provides the impetus for the first division of the Tiste. It takes some time for the first fruits of this division to ripen and perhaps some who are less interested in the semantics of the fault lines and who crave perhaps more "action" will be frustrated at the deliberate pace with which the action unfolds, but by novel's end, the stage is set for a series of atrocities much worse than the singular act roughly two-thirds into the novel that acts as a précis for what likely will follow after.
Forge of Darkness is intended to be the beginning of a tragedy and several of the narrative passages take on the language of the tragedy: the hubris of the protagonists, the hurts of the antagonists, the portents of doom, etc. Yet it is inevitable that when a tragedy is meant to unfold over three books (acts?) that everything is left in a state of suspension by novel's end. The first acts of civil war have occurred, but very little of what was hinted at in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The mysteries surrounding the blood magic of the Azathanai have yet to be revealed (it is, however, somewhat expected, as Erikson and Esslemont often keep their trump cards close to their vests) and the power of certain scenes could be strengthened or reduced depending on what unfolds in the next two volumes in the trilogy. Yet on the whole, Forge of Darkness is a novel that promises to be one of the saddest, most poignant openings to an epic fantasy series (provided that one does not just lump it in with all of the Malazan-related writings of Erikson and Esslemont) in decades. It may leave many feeling uneasy, as if there is something that they have somehow "missed" while reading it, but that I suspect was planned by Erikson all along. Now to await to see what the next volume brings before my qualified high praise proves to be prescient or unfounded.