Never before have we had to wait this long for a new novel by Steven Erikson. Four years is a long time between installments for the author, which made Fall of Light the most eagerly anticipated fantasy novel of 2016. In this house at least.
And although Forge of Darkness differed in style and tone and did not feature the sort of convergence that always allowed Erikson to cap all of his novels off with style, there was more than enough secrets, questions, and revelations within its covers to satisfy even the most demanding Malazan fans. I was expecting nothing less of this second volume, which is probably why it turned out to be such a disappointment.
Fall of Light was the most difficult Malazan book to get into since Toll the Hounds. Yet unlike that novel, whose ending featured a mind-blowing convergence that totally saved it, the second installment in the Kharkanas trilogy doesn't have that kind of pay-off at the end. Unfortunately, the first part of Fall of Light moves so slowly that I had to pause reading it twice, first to read R. Scott Bakker's The Great Ordeal and then Mark Lawrence's The Wheel of Osheim. Things get better in the second portion of the novel, true, but it's not enough. I'm sad to report that Fall of Light is Erikson's most disappointing Malazan work to date.
Here's the blurb:
It is a bitter winter and civil war is ravaging Kurald Galain. Urusander’s Legion prepares to march on the city of Kharkanas. The rebels’ only opposition lies scattered and weakened - bereft of a leader since Anomander’s departure in search of his estranged brother. The remaining brother, Silchas Ruin, rules in his stead. He seeks to gather the Houseblades of the Highborn families to him and resurrect the Hust Legion in the southlands, but he is fast running out of time. The officers and leaders of Urusander’s Legion, led by the ruthless Hunn Raal, want the Consort, Draconus, cast aside and their commander to marry Mother Dark and take his place at the side of the Living Goddess. But this union will be far more than simply political. A sorcerous power has claimed those opposing Mother Dark: given form by the exiled High Priestess Syntara, the Cult of Light rises in answer to Mother Dark and her Children. Far to the west, an unlikely army has gathered, seeking an enemy without form, in a place none can find, and commanded by a Jaghut driven mad with grief. It seems Hood’s call has been heard, and the long-abandoned city of Omtose Phellack is now home to a rabble of new arrivals: Dog-Runners from the south, and Jheck warriors. From the Western Sea strange ships have grounded upon the harsh shore bearing blue-skinned strangers to offer Hood their swords. And from mountain fastnesses and isolated valleys of the North, Toblakai arrive to pledge themselves to Hood’s seemingly impossible war. Soon, they will set forth – or not at all – under the banners of the living. Soon, weapons will be drawn, with Death itself the enemy. Beneath the chaos of such events, and spanning the realm and those countless other realms hidden behind its veil, magic now bleeds into the world. Unconstrained, mysterious and savage, the power that is the lifeblood of the Azathanai, K’rul, runs loose and wild - and following its scent, seeking the places of wounding and hurt where the sorcery rushes forth, entities both new and ancient are gathering . . . and they are eager to feed.
Once more, Steven Erikson's worldbuilding remains top notch and was by far my favorite aspect of this book. As was the case with Forge of Darkness, even though this second volume raises a panoply of new questions and provides very few answers, discovering more and more regarding that distant and mysterious past is utterly fascinating. Revelations concerning the Thel Akai, the Jaghut, the Dog-Runners, the Eleint, K'rul and the new Warrens, Draconus, and much, much more, prove yet again that the Malazan universe resounds with more depth than any other SFF environment ever created.
On the other hand, the characterization is the facet that leaves the most to be desired. I felt that Forge of Darkness unfolded through the eyes of a great many disparate characters, a lot more than I felt was necessary. Only time would tell, I opined, if such a high number of POV protagonists was indeed required in order to convey the story in full. Fall of Light demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that this tale suffers from so many different perspectives. This enormous amount of points of view bogs down the narrative and often brings little to the overall story arc. Moreover, every single character goes through unending bouts of introspection, and it appears that they all have their own thoughts on the rise and fall of civilization as we know it. There is so much introspection in this book that it makes R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before feel like a page-turning thriller. Yes, it is that bad. The Thel Akai plotline and the one focusing on Prazek and Dathenar are meant to provide comic relief from the dark and depressing undertones that imbue the entire novel, but they fall short and come across as a bit silly, all things considered.
If you can see beyond all that self-examination, philosophical meanderings, and soul-searching, there are a number of storylines that stand out from the rest of the pack. Chief among them would be the Jaghut and Hood's war on death, K'rul's revelations regarding what spilling his blood has engendered, the Hust Legion, the Shake, Anomander Rake's quest, as well as Draconus' apparent love for Mother Dark and its repercussions. But in the end, Fall of Light suffers from way too much contemplation and from its Shakespearean style and tone.
The pace is atrocious. There is no other way to put it, and its a world away from the sort of rhythm Erikson has accustomed us to in the past. The author usually starts slow, gradually building up the plotlines, and then going all out for a mind-blowing finale. Virtually all the Malazan installments were like that, so fans have come to expect such structure from Erikson. With Forge of Darkness, it was the complete opposite. The book featured a strong beginning, and then an even stronger middle portion. Yet instead of the exciting ending that we have come to love, Erikson came up with a somewhat weaker and anticlimactic ending. Fall of Light follows a different pattern. This one features an interesting but slow-moving beginning, a so-so middle portion that gets better as we get closer to the end, and a decidedly lackluster ending that fails to save the book.
This mostly has to do with the fact that the long-awaited civil war showdown against Urusander's Legion doesn't take place per se. Instead of making the great battle a part of the narrative and thus ensuring a grand and rousing finale, Erikson elected to briefly summarize it. Given the fact that the majority of the plotlines from the last two installments all led to this confrontation, failing to make this engagement a part of the narrative pretty much killed the story and robbed the ending of any emotional impact it was meant to convey. Hard to believe that Steven Erikson made such a decision, as few speculative fiction writers can come up with such amazing action sequences and battl scenes.
In the end, Fall of Light features too much introspection and too little action. The tale moves forward at a snail's pace and offers too little in terms of pay-off at the end. As such, it is Erikson's weakest Malazan book to date and a major disappointment. Let's hope that the final volume will be a return to form for the author. . .