REVIEW: Forge of the High Mage by Ian C. Esslemont

Last Updated on February 14, 2024

Esslemont continues his early empire Path to Ascendancy sequence impressively with the fourth instalment, Forge of the High Mage. This series is a prequel to the events of Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen and Esslemont’s own Novels of the Malazan Empire, with this entry seeing Kellanved (The Emperor), Dancer (Master Assassin), Dassem Ultor (The Sword), Tayschrenn (High Mage) and their armies advancing into Falar. Awaiting them in or approaching their destination are a powerful religious faction that worships the elder god, Mael, the tribes of the Jhek that includes soletaken wolf and bear warriors, formidable Crimson Guard mercenaries, and something mysterious and ancient that, if left unchecked, could cause devastating damage to the surrounding environment and those within the vicinity.

Forge of the High MageForge of the High Mage is a book that I have been eagerly awaiting since I finished my early review copy of Kellanved’s Reach in January 2019. Fortunately, due to the fact that Esslemont’s prowess and talent as a writer is ever increasing, this novel was worth the wait. Whereas Dancer’s Lament only featured three point-of-view perspectives, Forge of the High Mage has approximately a dozen. These present a varied mix of interesting characters whose thoughts and feelings we are given witness to. The Path to Ascendancy novels are shorter, being more concise and focused, than the sweeping epics of the two main series. When reading Forge of the High Mage, like previous entries in this series, it is easier to keep track of the people, places, and the plot.

One minor criticism that I have with Forge to the High Mage, though, is that we spend less page time with the duo of Kellanved and Dancer, whose interactions are always memorable. However, by Esslemont taking them away from the absolute forefront of this narrative, he is adding to their infamy and legend, when other perspectives are deciphering the rumours or contemplating the reputation of the pair.

Readers of the two main series will be familiar with around fifty percent of the dramatis personae. Some of the finest moments of this tale occur when following a recognisable magic-wielder, the titular High Mage, Tayschrenn. The book’s title is perfect in describing his character arc: which includes his doubts and concerns, trying to understand his place within the military, his working relationship with Nightchill and Dujek Onearm, as well as his magical potential, leading to mastery. In addition to Nightchill and Dujek, other main series players that stand out include Bellurdan and Cartheron, with new members to the ensemble such as Seven Cities warrior Imanaj and faith runaway Gianna having excellent moments too.

Forge of the High Mage is a fast-paced and gripping epic fantasy read. It is loaded with set pieces, contains wonderful dialogue, witty exchanges, explosive showdowns, unlikely alliances, and features some of the finest character creations that the genre has to offer. As ever, the excellent magic system (through the use of warrens) is finely showcased here and, for the most part, I found my reading experience to be extremely rewarding; leading me to score Forge of the High Mage an 8/10 rating.

There are a couple of final points I would like to raise before finishing my review:

As mentioned, Forge of the High Mage frequently features showdowns, sometimes between some of the most powerful beings in the Malazan Universe. One such occasion, unfortunately, left me feeling frustrated as it was a blink-and-you-will-miss-it, over-in-a-page encounter. I understand that this segment was at a heightened stage in the book with regards to pacing, yet, even so, I think the breakneck speed wasted the potential of what should have been a legendary confrontation. This led me to reflect, are these set pieces truly engrossing me as much as they could as I know which characters survive (having read eighteen Malazan books so far) and have already concluded who I should be rooting for prior to these exchanges? This must be an interesting consideration for an author when creating drama for particular scenes in prequels to a popular series.

Finally, it is worth noting that there are a couple of big-name cameos in Forge of the High Mage with characters who are not directly involved in the action taking place (yet). I found that these were handled brilliantly, with a few special easter eggs for Malazan fans who read closely. These special appearances seemed more organic and purposeful than those in The God is Not Willing.

I received a finished copy of Forge of the High Mage in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Ian C. Esslemont and Bantam Press.

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James Tivendale

James Tivendale

Reviewer. Sober. Runner. Peer Mentor. Pool Player. Poker Player. Fitness. Metal. Rap. Mario Kart. Zelda.

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