The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing S.)
by R.Scott Bakker
Review by Steve Saville
Orbit Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1841494089
Date: 02 June, 2005 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In this day and age fantasy fiction has been battered into big fat (dare I say flabby) shape by the Jordan's and Goodkind's of the genre, heavyweight hitters who are just too easy to take cheap shots at. Another writer of these sprawling epics, Steven Erikson, blurbs Bakker's debut novel with an impressive "something remarkable has begun".
Now, we all know well enough never to pay any actual attention to these blurbs don't we? I mean they are full of hyperbole and most often written by friends or by writers on the publisher's list, so it is accepted that they are beholden to say something nice, something marketable. In reality, very few things can live up to claims of being "stunning" or "brilliant" or "unique" or "remarkable" or "flawless" yada, yada, yada?
All this aside, it turns out that Erikson's praise is well deserved for The Darkness That Comes Before is remarkable in so many ways. This is a thinking man's fantasy. It is intelligent, full of philosophical gems and cogitations on the human condition. Without doubt this intelligence is Bakker's greatest strength but it is also his greatest weakness in terms of drawing the reader in and sharing that intimacy that is the one-to-one reading experience. It's a covenant we make as the writer to the reader - we promise for however long you are immersed in our world, to entertain and provoke thoughts, to tell the truth, the whole truth and so help me No-God, make it fun. After all, we are aware that the reader has picked up our book instead of a packet of cigarettes or a beer or a trip to the cinema. So we do a deal. Here we are, entertainers, let's do some entertaining. It is a pretty simply pact. Share a few hours with us, we promise to make it worth your while.
Some books are easy reads, you roll through them in a matter of hours or days depending on your voraciousness - others are not. The Darkness That Comes Before is not an easy read. Far from it. The first 200 pages are so dense and tangled with words like "Anasurimbor", "Ganrelka", "Kuniuri", "Ishual" and "Sranc" appearing on the first page, and "Gilgotterath", "Eleneot" and "Dunyain" following on the next! There is an amount of world building and layering going on in this novel that is staggering - in several meanings of the word. It batters down your mind and you can't help but bow to it, or bend beneath its weight. Before one meaning becomes clear, three more fantabulous words are being assimilated into your vocabulary as Drusas Achamian's story comes to life. More than once I laid the book aside exhausted after fifteen minutes 'gentle' reading. But for all that, let me make it clear that I ADORE this book, and think of Bakker as a literary equivalent of The Levellers with their discordant fiddles and bagpipes doing the best they can to defy every 'rule' of musicality and still producing something not only melodic but unique and beautiful to behold.
So what's the story here? Well, two hundred or so pages go by setting up back story to this world, introducing us to the lone heir to a Kingdom which fell during the First Apocalypse, and planting the seeds of Holy War where the church, led by Maithanet declares war on Fanim, the False Prophet. We've got societies riddled with dangerous magics, trinkets lethal to sorcerers, spies out there gathering information, as the various schools of magic seeking to find angles of security and to cement their power. Betrayal is a watchword in this complex warren of a story.
Bakker has created a vast ensemble novel. We have Achamian, sorcerer and spy, plagued night after night with the dreams of the dreaded No-God that brought about the First Apocalypse two thousand years earlier. The Holy Shriah, Maithanet, who declares war against the followers of the false prophet, the Emperor Ikurei Xerius III, a conniving so and so, plotting wildly to bend the Holy War to his own fell purposes, and many others besides.
This is one BIG book, but in this case, justifiably so - it needs to be big to actually come to terms with the audaciousness of its writer's vision. For those who find the first two hundred pages daunting and slow going all I can say is do bear with it, you need this information to better lose yourself in the truly wonderful story that follows. I'm a Bakker fan now, and really can't wait to see where this series goes next in Warrior Prophet. It may well be that we are looking at a new landmark in Big Fat Fantasy, one that the likes of Jordan and Goodkind, Eddings and Brooks, can only dream of aspiring to. The Everest of Big Fat Fantasy?