The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
2 March, 2010
OK, so here’s the compleat review of The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. I have to say that I struggled to describe this book because of it’s complexity and partly because it is the first in a trilogy. So if you are totally muddled by the end, don’t worry, just read the book. Trust me, you will be awed. There is so much in it, and Bakker is relentless in keeping you guessing as to what will happen next.
What can I say? This first volume in the Prince of Nothing series by R. Scott Bakker comes with a recommendation by Steven Erikson. I’m already sold. And it’s totally justified. R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy world is built on complex philosophical and religious ideas, but he makes it look so easy. His writing style is superior to that of many of his peers. Be warned, it’s passionate, clever and very dark.
I really enjoyed The Darkness That Comes Before, more than I expected. I knew it was going to be good because so many SFF bloggers have been banging on about Bakker. What did surprise me, however, was the quasi-religious aspect of the story. It probably has more religious philosophy in it than violence, and it’s pretty bloody. The plot is complex following several different strands beginning in the First Apocalypse which slowly come together as the book progresses.
Set in the land of Eärwa, we follow the story of several characters as their world hurtles towards the Second Apocalypse. Two thousand years ago, King Anasûrimbor Celmomas is defeated by the No-God and his royal line barely survives. To preserve the memory of the First Apocalypse and their enemy the Consult, Celmomas’ sorcerer Seswatha creates the Mandate School which jealously guards the secrets of the Gnosis. The Mandate Scholars all dream the same dream every night and re-live Seswatha’s horror so that they will never forget. Drusus Achamian is a Mandate Scholar sent out to search for the presence of the Consult who disappeared without a trace three hundred years ago. But his dreams are changing and he fears that the Consult have returned.
Elsewhere, the Dûnyain warrior Anasûrimbor Kellhus is answering the call of a father he hasn’t seen for thirty years and sets out on a long and dangerous journey far away from where his monastic sect dwells. The Dûnyain are students of the Logos, a meditative and rational philosophy which imbues them with a preternatural understanding of the human condition and superior manipulative skills. He is soon joined by the fearless and brutal Scylvendi warrior Cnaiür urs Skiötha who is bent on revenge for a wrong committed long ago which has blighted his life.
As Achamian, Kellhus and Cnaiür struggle with what they must do, a Holy War is brewing, orchestrated by the newly elected and mysterious Shriah, head of the Thousand Temples who revere the Tusk on which all religious knowledge is written. He is intent on taking the city of Shimeh, in the land of the Fanim where the outcast sorcerers, the Cishaurim reside. Add to this the manipulations and treachery of the Nansur Emperor and his mercurial nephew, General Ikurei Conphas; nothing is as it seems.
See, it’s complicated right? Bakker has created a multi-layered and multi-faceted world in which sorcery is blasphemous and religion rules the people. There are so many factions (of people, religion and sorcery) all playing subtle power games with one another and at each other’s throats that you are always kept on your toes. It’s not an easy read, but if you persist, you will be swept away by the epic canvas Bakker has created and marvel at the intricacy of his plotting in which belief is pitted against manipulation.
The only quibble I have with The Darkness That Comes Before is the role of women in the tale. Maybe it’s not meant to be a tale in which women get the best parts, maybe he has based his creations too close to real history (you can see the influence of the Crusades here and women hardly get a look in due to their exclusion from society, warfare and religion – basically everything) but I was slightly disappointed that the main women in the book were prostitutes, concubines or bitter dowager empresses. Not that they aren’t strong. They get the worst deals but desperately struggle to survive. But for me, it would be interesting to see how their stories unfold in the second volume, The Warrior-Prophet.
You can read an interview with Bakker here.