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The Darkness That Comes Before: Book 1 of The Prince of Nothing
R. Scott Bakker
Penguin Canada, 584 pages

The Darkness That Comes Before
R. Scott Bakker
R. Scott Bakker is a student of literature, history, philosophy, and ancient languages. He holds a BA in English language and literature, an MA in theory and criticism, and is presently completing his PhD in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He lives in London, Ontario. The Darkness That Comes Before is his first novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
Article: Why Fantasy and Why Now? by R. Scott Bakker

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

One of the most rewarding aspects of book reviewing is encountering new voices -- not established authors whose books you haven't read before (though that can be thrilling too), but brand-new writers whose careers you know you're going to want to follow. Reading R. Scott Bakker's debut novel, The Darkness That Comes Before, I had that feeling of discovery -- tempered, it has to be said, with a certain amount of frustration, for this fascinating, occasionally brilliant book is also overwritten and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, it's an impressive start to what looks likely to become a noteworthy epic fantasy trilogy.

In a world two millennia beyond an Apocalypse precipitated by the followers of the No-God, Mog, the high prelate of the Inrithi church calls a Holy War against the Fanim -- a people who follow a heretical variant of Inrithism, and whose mages practice a deadly magic the sorcerer Schoolmen of the Inrithi kingdoms don't understand. For centuries the Fanim have held Shimeh, the Holy City of Inri Sejenus, Latter Prophet of Inrithism; it is time now to take it back.

The forces of the Holy War begin to assemble in the city of Momemn, an army of the faithful unlike any ever seen, but also the focus of vicious secular power struggles among the Inrithi elite. At the same time, five very different individuals are drawn together: sorcerer and spy Drusus Achamian, sent by his superiors to gather intelligence on the strange alliance between the Inrithi church and one of the sorcerous Schools; Esmenet, a prostitute in love with Achamian, who knows Achamian is in danger and wants to warn him; CnaiŁr, a chieftain of the barbarian Scylvendi, a spectacularly brutal man burdened by the guilt of an old wrong; SerwŽ, a former concubine whom CnaiŁr has taken as a battle-prize; and AnasŻrimbor Kellhus, DŻnyain monk and descendant of ancient kings, who is in search of his father. The DŻnyain are bred for intellect, and trained, through an absolute apprehension of cause, to unerringly predict effect; in the short term, they're functionally prescient, capable of totally commanding the unfolding of circumstance and manipulating the hearts and minds of those around them in whatever ways they wish. Kellhus, passionless and without prejudice, is as near to superhuman as any human man can be, and part of his gift is that no one can perceive this. Only CnaiŁr, who in his youth met another man like Kellhus, understands what Kellhus is, and can resist him.

Meanwhile, a less human force is stirring: the Consult, the mysterious cabal of generals and sorcerers who woke the No-God Mog and precipitated the Apocalypse. The Consult has been absent from the world for so long that, apart from Mandate sorcerers like Achamian, almost no one believes it still exists. But Achamian, to his horror, has found evidence that suggests the Consult is not only abroad and active, but enmeshed somehow in the Holy War. Could the predicted Second Apocalypse be at hand?

The Darkness That Comes Before features an extremely complex cultural background, a multitude of characters, and a plethora of exotic names, places, terms and concepts. Bakker makes no concessions to his readers, plunging directly into the story with only the briefest of explanations for the many unfamiliar details of his setting. Fortunately, there's a glossary at the back of the book, with capsule descriptions of all the factions and religions and nations; still, reading the first few chapters feels a bit like trying to find your way through a strange city where you don't quite know the language. This dense narrative is made denser still by an abundance of descriptive detail, lengthy interior monologues from the viewpoint characters, and many intricate conversations, all of which read beautifully but often take the long way round to whatever point is being made. This ornamentation, obviously the product of much careful world building, certainly adds texture and atmosphere -- but there is too much of it, hampering the pace and getting in the way of story flow. Too, like many trilogy first installments, in some ways The Darkness That Comes Before is just a prelude -- assembling the main players, laying out the major themes, defining what's at stake. These threads braid together slowly; the end of the novel finds the characters only just setting out on the larger portion of their quest. For readers with short attention spans, or those who aren't willing to yield to Bakker's narrative style, it may simply be too much to cope with.

More determined readers, however, will find it's well worth coping, for once you find your feet in the story, it's a really compelling tale. The elements may sound familiar -- the ancient evil, the world-threatening Apocalypse, the band of mismatched companions -- but Bakker realizes them in surprising ways, with an unusual setting that recalls the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, unconventional and richly-developed characters, and a host of intellectually challenging themes -- including the complex religious background against which the action plays out (I'm sure many readers will be moved to compare Inrithism to Islam -- an impulse encouraged by the vaguely Arabic-looking designs on the dust jacket -- but it's actually more reminiscent of the sort of faith that produced the Crusades), and the philosophy of the DŻnyain, whose vaguely Nietzschean precepts provide an unusually convincing basis for a practice that confers upon its adherents almost superhuman powers.

Bakker also offers an interesting explanation of sorcery as a violence done upon the world, an interference with the divine order. The Inrithi faithful regard sorcerers as blasphemers; sorcerers (whose ability is inborn) regard themselves as criminals, and recognize one another by the stain of their sin, which they bear upon their hands. Epic fantasists don't always adequately explore the socio-political implications of their magics, often doing little more than grafting sorcery onto cultures that would be exactly the same if magic didn't exist; but Bakker has clearly given this considerable thought, and convincingly portrays not just the ways in which magic is an integral part of his society, but the ways in which that society has, necessarily, found ways to limit and control it.

As mentioned above, characterization is very rich. Occasionally this gets out of hand (some characters have an excess of back story), or doesn't quite come off: despite the wealth of detail that's lavished on the two female protagonists, they're both a good deal less interesting than their male counterparts (especially SerwŽ, who obviously will play an important part in the series' continuation, but here isn't much more than a crybaby). But the other principal players are impressively delineated, and even minor characters are vivid and distinct. CnaiŁr is particularly good, a seething, self-loathing conjunction of opposites -- rage and regret, cruelty and perception, ruthless violence and subtle intelligence -- who remains strangely sympathetic despite the atrocities he commits throughout the book. Kellhus, though, is the novel's triumph. He's really only barely human, devoid of passion, pure of intellect, absolutely innocent -- not in the sense of blamelessness or sinlessness (he's neither), but because he exists outside of human custom and convention, beyond human notions of good and evil. That such a character isn't completely unconvincing or totally hateful -- that he is, in fact, both believable and understandable -- is a testament to Bakker's writing skill. And of course, Kellhus does have failings: for instance, he's wrong about certain things and doesn't realize it, the only circumstance his training can't control. I suspect this will prove important to the story as it unfolds.

Flaws and all, The Darkness That Comes Before is a strikingly original work, the start of a series to watch. For readers who enjoy being challenged, or those looking for epic fantasy that explores beyond the typical tropes and themes, it's very much worth seeking out.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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