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The Darkness That Comes Before, R. Scott Bakker, Penguin, 2003, 589 pp.
Note: This is Book One of a proposed series called The Prince of Nothing.
Epic fantasy is a genre that is strewn with the wreckage of its own success; generally speaking, the closer a book tries to emulate the progenitor of them all, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the more that the book fails, bringing one more sad attempt at imitation to its bitter end. Tolkien is not the only influence on the realm of fantastical writing, and many writers have distinguished themselves with a myriad of other ways. So it's unfortunate that everything about the packaging of The Darkness That Comes Before screams out Tolkien-clone because the book between the covers is actually quite different, a strong and interesting work. The book is more of a historical analogue by way of Guy Gavriel Kay (although Bakker includes more of the fantastic than Kay has been in the habit of using), and it's a much better read for it. The Darkness That Comes Before features a Holy War, transplanting the Crusades into a fantastical realm that is filled with even more warring nations and disparate factions than the historical version. All told, it's a vast and satisfying book.
The book covers a lot of ground, and the story is structured loosely around its five parts. As most such fantasy stories do, The Darkness That Comes Before begins with a prologue. A warrior named Kellhus is trying to survive in the frozen wastes of the north; we learn a bit about him, but he doesn't return in the narrative until much later. Part 1 is "The Sorcerer" and the sorcerer is a man named Achamian; there are several Schools of sorcery, all at odds with one another, but Achamian belongs to the Mandate. Mandate Schoolmen have the peculiar gift/curse of reliving, every night in dreams, an ancient battle against the evil force known as the Consult. Other Schools don't put much credence to any current threat from the Consult, and mostly concern themselves with present events. The Imperial Saik, for example, is attached to the Emperor of Nansur, while the Scarlet Spires is a group that has taken control of its own nation and has become wealthy and powerful. Sorcerers have vast, destructive powers, but those powers can be stopped if the target has a special artifact known as a Chorae. This is already an intriguing set-up, and it's only the first layer of complexity in the book.
As the book begins, Achamian is supposed to find out what Maithanet is planning; Maithanet is the new leader of the Thousand Temples, one of the main Inrithi religious groups, and rumours are spreading that Maithanet is going to call a new Holy War. Achamian's Mandate superiors are worried that the Holy War will be called against the Mandate itself, but the word is soon out: the righteous are called to fight against the Fanim, a group which has occupied the birthplace of the Inrithi religion on the other side of the Nansur Empire. Bakker includes a great deal of interaction between Achamian and a prostitute named Esmenet; both people are more vulnerable than they want to let on, and are much worried about political developments than they think they should be. Achamian and Esmenet are not the typical basis for an epic fantasy, but their roles work well to bring us into this particular world.
Part 2 is "The Emperor" and here Bakker introduces two more sets of important characters. The Emperor of Nansur is desperate to gain control of the Holy War in some way; with the Fanim to the south, he thinks he has an opportunity to manipulate supply lines and so forth in his favour. But he has the problem of the Scylvendi; this barbarian people to the north of Nansur has never been defeated in battle, and the Nansur forces would be stretched too thin if two fronts were to open up, north and south. So the Emperor sends his nephew, Conphas, in a desperate gamble to win a decisive battle against the Scylvendi. Most of this battle is told from the point of view of Cnaiur, one of the most battle-hardened of the Scylvendi, and somewhat of an outcast among his own people because of his vicious and brutal nature. The battle itself is bloody, and might be one of the best bits in the book; we understand the motives on all sides, and the tactics are also made comprehensible but not the focus of the story (a welcome change from other such books). Conphas returns in triumph, and the Emperor has a new edge in his attempt to gain command of the Holy War.
Part 3 is "The Harlot" and it switches back to the point of view of Esmenet, as well as Achamian. Both of these characters are caught up in the mobilization for the Holy War and end up outside the city of the Emperor, Esmenet with a character who might not be who he says he is and Achamian with a prince who was once tutored by him. Part 4 is "The Warrior" and it follows Part 3 in feeling somewhat shorter. The warrior is Cnaiur, of course, and here Bakker tells the story of the aftermath of the infamous defeat of the Scylvendi; the story also catches up to Kelhus, and Cnaiur and Kelhus end up travelling south into Nansur together. Part 5 is "The Holy War" and it tells the fate of the Holy War itself, as all of the character strands meet for a final reckoning. The book ends with a lovely cliffhanger: what will happen now that the Holy War is about to start in earnest?
Despite all of my description, I've barely scratched the surface of this nearly inexhaustible book. The four people who correspond to the titles of the first four parts of the book are clearly the main characters, but as factions and nations multiply, so do the characters and Bakker takes us into the different points of view with dizzying speed and no small amount of empathy. It helps that, despite the overall messiness of factional struggle and infighting, the thrust of the story is clear: a Crusade has been called, and like the historical version, with disasters and deaths along the way, a war will take place.
The Darkness That Comes Before doesn't always escape the traps of epic fantasy. The prologue in particular, and the mysterious origins of Kelhus, paint the book into a good vs. evil corner that the rest of the story tries to belie. Are all of these factions only being manipulated by dark forces? To my mind, that would take away from some of the power of the writing. Bakker, also unfortunately, includes some Tolkienesque maps and a schema of languages and dialects. The book stands quite well on its own, without these appendices.
It's hard to believe that this is a debut novel: Bakker proves quite a talent with The Darkness That Comes Before and I'm looking forward to what comes next in the series.
Last modified: April 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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