Review: Fall of Light Book Two of the Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson
If you liked Forge of Darkness then you will like Fall of Light. Same Shakespearean style and tone, although this time there are more elements of comic relief and respites from the darkness. The civil war continues, the factions become more delineated and yet messier, and the War on Death gets some more attention. What can I say? It is a book two, so it follows on from Forge.
(Spoilers for the first chapter, but no further)
With Forge of Darkness, Steven Erikson launched into the mythic history of the Tiste and began the story about the sundering of their civilisation and the creation of the distinct races. Fall of Light continues this epic fantasy narrative by delving even deeper into the tensions that run rife in a civil war, and by exploring the various factions and how the individuals within those factions often have their own agendas. It is always easy to see the grand sweeping movements that alter societies, but part of the focus of Fall is on how individuals actually shape and alter the course of history, almost without knowing it. Some events seem inevitable, others can be changed, and the reader is in the privileged position to see how individual ambition, pride, and simple mistakes, cost the realm dear.
For those that simply want to know whether or not it is ‘good’, you can rest safe in the knowledge that Erikson does not disappoint. Fall of Light delivers in terms of action and story. Once again the story is told from multiple perspectives with the narration taking a tight subjective focalisation. As we have come to expect from Erikson, few of the ‘central’ characters are given point of view chapters, rather he uses secondary characters as witnesses to the events. This allows many of the ‘main’ actors to maintain an air of mystique, while at the same time giving us glimpses into their decisions and the turmoil of their lives.
Broadly speaking the book is divided up into two major storylines, the Tiste Civil War, and the Jaghut War on Death, but that is a rather simplistic description of the structure. It would be more accurate to say that the three factions of the civil war all get significant page time, thus creating an intertwined narrative that ebbs and flows throughout the book. One of the nice techniques that Erikson employs is moving the perspective slowly outward from one point, say Kharkanas, touching base with the perspectives along the way, before returning again like a tide. This constant movement throughout the book gives a solid structure and flow that allows for the story to slowly unfold and never leaves you too long without returning to important characters and points of view. The world is fleshed out and explored as the perspective moves through the land and back again. It also gives a real sense of the ebb and flow of events and their ramifications as they ripple through the world.
Added to this is the investigation of this conflict, not only from the various factions, but also from various perspectives within those factions. So there is a broad accounting of the events from high to low society, from the common soldier to the nobles in command. This breadth of vision gives a global appreciation of the events while maintaining a sense of intimacy and personal importance.
The March on Death also gets a good amount of time, as Erikson explores the dry wit of the Jaghut and the ‘army’ that has heeded Hood’s call. This of course ties in with the storylines of Arathan and Korya Delathe. Perhaps, more importantly, it brings in several Thel Akai characters. The Thel Akai, more than anyone else in the book, provide great comic relief and their sections offer fantastic respite from the dark and sombre tone that permeates the main civil war storyline. But they also have some interesting parts to play in other aspects of the story that should be a revelation for a lot of readers. Perhaps more than Forge, Fall is revelatory about several important and key aspects of the world of the Malazan stories and there is plenty here for fans to sink their teeth into and to speculate about.
Erikson also takes some time to continue to explore K’rul’s actions with the warrens and provide further glimpses into how the warrens were formed and what that means for the realm. Of course this aspect is also interwoven with the awakening of magic in the Tiste realm and what that means for the coming conflict. So the interlacing of the narrative threads is once again a key component of how Erikson has structured the novel. The awakening of magic in the realm is another aspect of the story that leads to several great moments within the book. Certainly, how magic is explored and how it manifests itself form some of the central nuggets of Malazan lore that should intrigue and satiate fan interest. Fall also begins to address and answer some of the major questions posed by Forge. We begin to see the fallout and ramifications of the creation of the Andii and the Liosan, and what that means for those that were sitting on the fence. There is also some exploration of the religions that grow up around these massive racial changes, and what that means for the respective sides in the war. Plus, on top of all this, are the expected introspective and philosophical discourses that add weight and depth to the story.
Picking up shortly after the events of Forge, the story opens with mounting tensions as there is an imminent clash brewing between the newly ‘blessed’ Liosan of Urusander’s Legion, and a force of Wardens. (The opening chapters are available on Tor.com). But to set the tone the story actually starts with Renarr taking a vantage point of the battlefield and watches as a young girl chases down a young boy and kills him with a rock. This brutal opening reinforces the barbarity of the conflict to come and the cost to innocent lives, both directly and indirectly, across the whole of the realm. Erikson never shies away from the horrors of war, and also those moments of personal heroics and sacrifice. It is an enduring aspect of his writing that few characters are wholly evil or completely good, but rather they display a range of moral complexity that permeates everything they do.
I don’t want to go into any further details about specifics for fear of spoiling aspects of the novel, and so I will focus a bit more on generalities and observations. The dark tone of Forge is still present, but as I said above, there are several sections of respite, which makes this an ‘easier’ read than Forge. Of course, perception of humour is subjective, but for me the use of these more light-hearted and comedic sections, and the sections that focused on other aspects of the world, helped balance the overall feel of the novel. So rather than being tonally dissonant, they actually work as neat tonal contrasts. In conjunction with the echoing narrative structure as Andii sections move to Liosan and back, there is generally a sense that Erikson wanted to create a more fluid dynamic to this narrative than that of Forge. The pattern of comparing and contrasting the two main sides of the civil war really brings a strong focus on the insanity of the conflict and how social inequality might drive the need for change, but it can be co-opted for individual ambition.
More so than book one, we get to see the events that really change the characters that we come across in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Fall gives us a real insight into how those characters came to be. The mythic backstory that seemed so far removed from the events of MBotF suddenly starts to make a lot more sense, and gradually the events take shape that will alter the realm into something more recognisable as Malazan. So this book really delves deep into some key aspects of the world building that will be revelations for fans. So if development of the world is what you are after, then Fall delivers this.
As with so much of Erikson’s writing, the strength is truly in the characters, and he does not disappoint. Time and again I found myself deeply immersed in one character’s story only to be dropped into another that I was equally invested in. There are so many characters within Fall that I wanted more and more time with. But it is a strength of the writing that I did not feel short changed by any of them, I just wanted the book to be several thousand pages longer. The range of characters also provides a broad perspective on the conflict as Erikson is careful to choose points of view from the various social strata as well as the different sides and factions. Because of this there is a real sense of the complexity of the conflict, and yet it seems accessible and understandable. The majority of the characters also give the conflict a real sense of immediacy and importance on a personal level, beyond that of the global ramifications. So Erikson creates a nice balance between earth-shattering events, and those moments of intimate importance and resonance.
All in all this is a brilliant read. It builds on the ground established in Forge. It adds further depth and complexity to the world. It fleshes out the conflict and characters and bodes extremely well for the third book, Walk in Shadow. Fall of Light is epic fantasy done well. Powerful characters, a riveting story, an amazing world to act as a backdrop, and key themes and concepts that give the story force and weight.