Last night I decided to finish Forge of Darkness no matter what. Hence, I am a bit sleepy at work today. But it was worth it, if only for the satisfaction of actually reading a book from beginning to end without interrupting the read by reading other books at the same time. Like Martin, Erikson manages to pull me into his world and keep my attention focused on his writing from beginning to end, leaving out the desire I often have of reading something else in-between.
And yet there is a world - several worlds - of difference between the two authors. Where one is easily accessible, with plot at the forefront, the other is hard to grasp, more experimental with regards to plot and characterization. I have no trouble understanding that Martin's books are much more popular because they are much less demanding - but the more Erikson I read, the more enamored I have become of his unique style, which admittedly has changed a bit over the course of his eleven Malazan works. I find myself, as I have mentioned before, continually thinking about the Malazan empire even when I'm not reading, the same way my thoughts used to be occupied by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader when I was young, and later pushed into a corner to make room for Gandalf and Aragorn, and after them Tyrion and Daenerys - and now, joining the crew, not characters but the entire mythology that is Malazan Empire: it is not so much about great individual characters (though there are qualifying participants) but a complex tapestry of made-up history, geography etc.
Forge of Darkness then is another fine addition to the mythos, although it is, in some respects, quite different from what Erikson did with his ten-book cycle of the Book of the Fallen. This book is, as the title suggests, much darker, with less room for banter and humor; there is an almost Shakespearean slant to it, what with the way dialogue is (carefully) constructed, and it is at times deeply philosophical. Most of the action takes place inside the characters, making Forge of Darkness feel very literary for a fantasy book, if you know what I mean. Characters muse on life and death, faith and sacrifice, and all the other big stuff. It feels profound. Erikson masterfully weaves together such a rich presentation of the early days of his setting, it leaves me in awe and wanting to re-read almost immediately to get a better understanding of it all - which could be considered a weakness, and which is perhaps the main argument from those who've tried to read his work and couldn't finish: You really have to pay attention, be mentally awake so to speak, to get under the skin of these books.
I admit that reading Forge of Darkness, a lot has probably passed me blissfully by. There are so many characters, many of them never given traits to make them stand out especially (perhaps the biggest difference compared to Martin, where most characters have very distinct personalities or traits or physical clues to make them unique), many with similar names, and though I often recognized characters mentioned or appearing in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, such as the awesomely named Sukhul Ankhadu, I could not remember much if anything about them even though I've been reading Erikson continually since January 2010. Even so, it remains an enjoyable thing to read because the experience - in that moment of "being there" with Erikson, sharing his thoughts and enjoying his commentary on the present state of the world (which is pretty evident at times) - the experience goes deep anyhow. There are some truly horrific things happening to people in this book, but there are always implications, consequences, things to consider. The new characters in the book were better defined, though. One thing Erikson remains is being elusive. He never goes into much description when it comes to places and people - he is really steadfast at seeing things through the eyes of his characters and if that means a character would never pause to consider just what the city of Kharkanas looks like (because the character has been there all his life), so be it - no description of Kharkanas. It leaves more to the imagination, but I am not sure whether I appreciate this particular aspect of his writing or not. Depends on my mood, I guess. Interestingly, it doesn't really matter what Kharkanas looks like. What matters is how the Tiste will face all the troubles besetting their realm of Kurald Gulain in this first book in Erikson's new trilogy. I know I can't wait for the sequel, Fall of Light, even though by the time that book is published (at a guess, next year) I'll have lost much of the material I've been trying hard to grasp. Whole scenes pass by with characters talking to each other and I am but an observer on the sideline, not really knowing what they are talking about and nobody cares to explain. It adds authenticity, but takes away some immersion if you're not really focusing (well, for me anyway).
The plots, then, aren't spectacular - but the creativity on display - still, after so many books - definitely is. There are strange places, like the Vitr (first introduced in Esslemont's Stonewielder I believe), stranger characters (lots of them), peculiar scenes that hopefully will make more sense once the story is finished, some authorial intrusion done on purpose, experimental writing all over the place, several subgenres and genres mixed up (the subplot of Envy, Spite, and Malice feels like a more horrific Roald Dahl, while Anomander Rake has a whiff of Elric of Melniboné about him, there is tragedy reminiscent of Shakespeare's plays, perhaps in particular Romeo and Juliet, both in Draconus and Mother Dark's story and in Andarist and Enesdia's), there is a hint of the hardcore military fantasy from the Book of the Fallen but on a smaller scale, and so on and so forth). It all adds up to an exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, read. This is like nothing else in fantasy literature, and I have no problem understanding there is and will probably always be a love/hate divide for these books. Erikson realizes this too, when he, somewhere in Forge of Darkness, through the character Haut, explains what he is aiming for with this novel and that it is not up to him whether you buy into his concept or not - the telling of tales can take many forms, after all.
Personally, I rank it neither above nor below other Malazan books; to me they are all pretty much similar in terms of content, the later books perhaps leaning a little more toward philosophical / meta writing (but still good), and each book is so full of epic goodness that it makes little sense for me to try and rank them. Some awesome sequences appear in most books, like Coltaine's march in Deadhouse Gates, or the defense of Capustan in Memories of Ice, or the breath-taking Y'Ghatan sequence in The Bonehunters, and Forge of Darkness similarly has a number of memorable scenes, only the scale is smaller - but the intensity of, say, Cryl Durav's last scene, invoking a range of emotions both in the characters and the reader, equals the intensity of outward action sequences just fine.
I'd give Forge of Darkness a 9 out of 10, docking one point for the somewhat ponderous sections here and there, and for the fact that I personally would enjoy this stuff even more if Erikson could just put a little more meat on the bones and not be so elusive about so many things.