The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
I believe it warrants mentioning in the beginning of this review that I find myself in a position where my own review might not be, well, very critical. I have been holding off having to review R. Scott Bakker‘s The Darkness That Comes Before because, to put it bluntly, I love it so much that I don’t think any review I could write would serve its purpose qua review. However, after some insistence from the powers that be — that would be the inimitable Kat Hooper, FanLit’s founder and savior — I decided that maybe I did have something borderline cogent to say about it.
The Darkness That Comes Before is the first book of R. Scott Bakker’s THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy, itself the first of his THE SECOND APOCALYPSE trilogy. Two thousand years have passed since the No-God, Mog-Pharau, and his followers brought about The First Apocalypse and almost caused the destruction of human civilization. It was a time when millions died battling sorcerous monsters, and so vile was the state of the world that mothers delivered nothing but stillborn babies for two years. The passage of time however has the habit of dulling the edge of even the most terrible of memories, and now those events are but stories jotted down in books, told to scare children at night, or told by the mad babbling fool sorcerers of the Mandate School of magic.
Drusas Achamian is one of those supposed fools; only the dreams he has every night, of Seswatha, the Mandate’s founder, being chained up against a wall of corpses, of battling the bone-white Sranc, of witnessing the rise of Mog-Pharau, are not dreams but memories of a long ago time now forgotten. Achamian, Akka for his friends, is one of his school’s spies, tasked with uncovering the machinations of the other magic schools to ensure that the Mandate isn’t out of the loop from the world’s events.
When thousands of Inrithi begin assembling an army to fight a Holy War against the Fanin, and ally themselves with the Scarlet Spires — another school of magic, rival to the Mandate — Achamian is sent by his superiors to shadow that gathering of faithfuls and uncover what strings are being pulled behind the scenes. One thing is certain: for the Inrithi, known to consider sorcerers as damned souls, to ally themselves with those they condemn, something extraordinary must be afoot.
Achamian is only one of the multiple characters Bakker introduces us to in The Darkness That Comes Before, but he is perhaps its most interesting one. That is not the same as saying that Achamian is the only interesting character, as one of the greatest strengths of The Darkness That Comes Before, and of Bakker as an author, is that each of the dozens of characters introduced throughout the books feels and reads as if they are indeed a different person, and here I emphasize person instead of character to underline the idea that each one — especially, as one would expect, the ones used as viewpoints — behaves with their own set of goals and desires, fears and concerns, as well as their own personal history and beliefs about the world and the people that surround him, making each character unique and with their own unique flavor.
An anecdote that I think illustrates this well: I usually have a hard time remembering characters’ names from the books I’ve read, even if not that much time has passed since I’m done with them. Some time after finishing The Darkness That Comes Before, I received a little slip of paper from the post office saying that a package was available for pickup in one of their delivery centers. I knew this to be the two following books of the trilogy, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought, which I desperately wanted to read. I remember it raining hard, I was protecting the cardboard package under my umbrella so as not to damage the contents inside, and as I walked home I kept talking out loud to myself — there was one around so no one thought me mad — about what I thought was going to happen in the story, and I surprised myself when I could easily name at least two dozen characters right off the bat, and some more with little strain. This was when I realized just how good Bakker’s characterization is.
The world of Eärwa is incredibly dark and violent. Bakker focuses on the brutalities people inflict to one another, be it in the battlefield or not, and brings into full focus, as if we are seeing their visceral horror through a microscope. I would not recommend The Darkness That Comes Before, and the subsequent novels, if you’re not comfortable with reading about violent matters, be they sexual, physical, or psychological. Bakker truly leaves no stone unturned in the great repertoire of violence.
Being the first in a trilogy of trilogies, one expects a larger intrigue connecting each book. Anasurimbor Kellhus is one of the Dünyain, a reclusive and secretive sect who have repudiated the base instincts that plague the human soul in favor of finding enlightenment by having absolute control over their own selves. They are bred and trained to have high motor reflexes and intellectual sharpness, and are incredibly adept at discerning the state of mind of those around them by reading their facial cues and listening for the deeper truth of their words. Searching for his father, Kellhus sets out into a world that was previously a mystery to him, after living secluded in the ancient fortress that is home to the Dünyain, thus jumpstarting the events of The Darkness That Comes Before, and THE PRINCE OF NOTHING in general. Kellhus is thrust into a world in which most of it was previously unknown to him, but in which he has the tools to not only survive, but to thrive. He can control man and woman just by saying what they want to hear, but he twists his words in such a way that they see Kellhus as their savior, their father figure, their god. Since Kellhus is master of his own self, he lacks the moral machinery that would typically inhibit one to use those powers.
“What comes before determines what comes after,” Kellhus continued. “For the Dünyain, there’s no higher principle.”
“And just what comes before?” Cnaüir asked, trying to force a sneer.
“For Men? History. Language. Passion. Custom. All these things determine what men say, think, and do. These are the hidden puppet-strings from which all men hang.”
Shallow breath. A face freighted by unwanted insights. “And when the strings are seen…”
“They may be seized.”
Some have argued that Kellhus is the typical Mary Sue figure, one who can’t do wrong, but, in his defense, if Kellhus is to work in the story on the level that he does, it couldn’t have been otherwise. It’s also worth noting however that we do not have a clear view of what Kellhus’ ultimate goal is; we have hints of it, but as those that are manipulated by Kellhus’ words, we too are victims of some of that manipulation to an extent. There are also some problems in the way Bakker handles female viewpoints in The Darkness That Comes Before, where it became too common for Esmenet, a whore from Sumna and former lover of Achamian, to end up crying in each and every chapter where she was the focus. It became so bad that my immersion was broken because whenever she came up I expected that she would be crying soon, and sure enough, she would.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I think The Darkness That Comes Before is a fantastic book. Some people will be repelled by the grotesque world Bakker depicts, and others will be put off by the nihilistic motif that runs through the book — though in that case I would advise staying away from Bakker’s books altogether. Reading The Darkness That Comes Before, and the subsequent novels, is a commitment; you will be asked to learn about the world’s history, the different cultures and worldviews, the character’s motives and personal history, and it certainly won’t be a gentle journey. The payoffs are there for the reaping, however, and I give this novel my utmost recommendation.
The Darkness that Comes Before is the beginning of yet another epic fantasy. It stands out a bit with its more gritty feel, its lack of frequent overt magic, the relative lack of supernatural creatures, and its more full use of religion and philosophy. Those with some awareness of history will also see clear parallels (though not necessarily in one on one fashion) to the Crusades, another nice twist. Like many of the more ambitious works in the genre, there are a plethora of characters and places with the book’s narrative shifting back and forth between them and there is a grand sense of time, with events from thousands of years ago playing out in the present.
The Darkness that Comes Before shares with some of those other works the same highlights and lowlights. The plot is complex enough to remain stimulating throughout and the shift in point-of-view offer up a more interesting story while allowing more in-depth characterization. Bakker handles the narrative shifts smoothly and has a good sense of when it’s time to leave one character for another. The characters are also nicely balanced in terms of interest so that there is no drop-off for the reader as we move along. The same is true, mostly, for the various storylines, though some are more compelling and better paced than others.
The negatives, while not outweighing the positives, are a noticeable drag however. Because the book must recount history over the course of several thousand years and set up the reader for the coming conflict, there is a lot of exposition that must be handed out. It is rarely done in clumsy or uninteresting fashion (a few places here and there), but so much information does slow the book now and then. The number of characters also sometimes serves to dilute their individual impact. If they are well-balanced in terms of none are truly uninteresting, they are also well-balanced in that none, so far, really stand out. The sorcerer Achamiam is the best drawn and so far carries the best potential, but even he is not really forcefully compelling. The good thing though is that Bakker has truly laid some good character groundwork so the potential is obviously there.
The Darkness that Comes Before therefore is a solid if not particularly inspiring introduction to the series. It didn’t sweep me along; it didn’t make me frantic to try and get a jump on the second book, as has happened with other series where I’ll pay extra shipping or even go international to get hold of the next work. But it did hold my interest throughout and left me with enough interest to keep reading. And it is different enough from so much of the formulaic fantasy that is out there that the difference alone makes for a more pleasurable read. My guess is now that the foundation has been so neatly laid out in all sorts of ways — plot, character, history, politics, religions, etc. — the next book will move along more speedily and will offer up more intense and compelling scenes. Not a rave review, not a “you’ve just gotta read this” review, but a solid “this is good intelligent fantasy that breaks out a bit from all the other stuff and has potential to become even better” recommendation.
The Second Apocalypse: The Aspect-Emporer — (2009-2017) Publisher: Some twenty years have passed since the events narrated in The Prince of Nothing. Anasurimbor Kellhus now rules all the Three Seas, the first true Aspect-Emperor in a thousand years. The masses worship him as a living god, though a few, the Orthodox, dare claim he’s a walking demon. With Proyas and Saubon as his Exalt-Generals, he leads a holy war called the Great Ordeal deep into the wastes of the Ancient North, intent on destroying Golgotterath and preventing the Second Apocalypse. His wife Esmenet, meanwhile, remains in Momemn, where she struggles not only to rule his vast empire, but their murderous children as well. And Achamian, who lives as a Wizard in embittered exile, undertakes a mad quest to uncover the origins of the Dunyain.
It’s clear you’re a fan, but you also see the book quite clearly. This is a great review; really lets me know what to expect. Thanks!