“The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?”
“The Darkness That Comes Before” (Book One in the “Prince of Nothing” Trilogy) R. Scott Bakker’s debut novel, is one that has become quite well known and revered in dark and epic fantasy circles. I must say, after hearing a bit about the book, and the series it was part of, it gained traction on my radar, because of the amount of recommendations from friends who raved about Bakker’s writing.
The author had a reputation for writing stark, dense, and at times confusing books, that warrant patience, but that are worth the struggle. Well, after beginning to tackle “Malazan Tales of the Fallen” recently, I figured, it can’t be any more difficult than that.
Or can it?
Well, while it was not (for me anyway) as daunting as “Malazan”, there were certainly some similarities. Yet ultimately, I absolutely loved this book, and it truly left an impression on me.
What is the book about?
At it’s heart, it’s about a religious crusade, a chosen one, and potentially, a new apocalypse.
Two millennia have gone by, since the First Apocalypse almost completely devastated the world of Eärwa. The enemies of First Apocalypse were the dreaded No-God, Mog-Pharau, and the No-God’s abominable minions born of twisted sorcery, called the Consult, who caused the death of millions in battle.
Thus, the cost of Mog-Pharau’s defeat was high. But two thousand years is a long time, and many have forgotten the tales of how horrible the ancient catastrophe was. Many have forgotten, but not the sorcerers of the Mandate School of magic. They could not forget even if they tried.
Because EVERY night they dream of the venerated sorcerer Seswatha, the Mandate’s founder, who lived in the time of the First Apocalypse. And is not just the frequencies of the dreams that characterizes these dreams as pervasive. Those dreams are beyond visions. Those sorcerers who experience the dreams actually feel like they are not just seeing but RELIVING events in Seswatha’s life through his own eyes, and his own senses. All the final battles, in all their horror and glory, of the First Apocalypse. The dreams are lurid, frightening, and startlingly and disturbingly real.
Most unsettling, the dreams seem to be intensifying. This increasing of intensity signals, in the minds of the Mandate sorcerers, the coming of a new Apocalypse, putting the Mandate on highest of alert. But sorcerers (which are split into several schools, not just the Mandate, though the Mandate are one of the most powerful) are considered anathema by many nations, post-First Apocalypse, and it is unlikely anyone will listen to their concerns of another impending catastrophic event.
Such warnings would be considered the ravings of the insane at worst, or fables to frighten children at best. The Mandate sorcerers are particularly derided for their belief in the Consult. Since the Consult has not been seen since the First Apocalypse, it would seem they have been destroyed, and passed into legend.
Meanwhile, an inspiring and idolized religious leader of the Inrith faith, declares a Holy War upon the realms of the Fanim people. This zealot has whipped the Inrith devotees into a frenzy, to take back the land of Kian, especially at all costs the city of Shimeh, considered the most holiest of cities, from the grasp of the Fanim, who are considered infidels.
The charismatic leader, called Maithanet, Shirah of the Thousand Temples, is determined to bring fire and sword to Shimeh, and eradicate what he believes is the filth of the Fanim that infects the holy ground. Such a war appears unwinnable for Maithanet, based on the strengths of the Fanim, but Maithanet is convinced victory is assured, and manages to draw an impressive following to rally to the cause.
Enter our main characters, of which primarily there are six, led by Achamian. Achamian is a mid-level sorcerer and spy with the Mandate. For me, Achamian was the protagonist, if there is one, of the novel. He appears innocuous, and uses this to his advantage, in his spy duties.
When Achamian’s superiors in the Mandate learn of the Holy War that is being planned, they initially fear that the real purpose of the Holy War is to destroy the Mandate itself, any of the other schools of sorcery that Maithanet might despise. Therefore, as one of Achamian’s former pupils (to whom Achamian was an uncle-type figure) is now a priest in the Inrith sect, Achamian is dispatched to use his former pupil as a conduit to learn more about what Maithanet’s true intentions are.
The next main player is Esemenet, a prostitute, who Achamian is in a relationship with. Esemenet is trapped by her station in life, but is clever, and wants to be part of world affairs beyond the paid trysts she must endure to earn a living. While her feelings for Achamian are genuine, she also sees him as a vehicle to be something greater than what she believes she is unavoidably destined to be.
Another major POV is that of the paranoid and Machiavellian-like Emperor of Nansur, Xerius III. Xerius backs Maithanet’s Holy War, but for his own unscrupulous purposes. The emperor wants to restore the former glory of his empire, and cleverly, he agrees to fund the Holy crusade to take back Shimeh. IF all the countries who sign up for the crusade agree not only to be provisioned by Xerius, but also to grant him the lands of the Fanim once they are defeated.
Figuring prominently as a POV is Xerius’ nephew Conphas. Conphas is a highly popular war commander and brilliant strategist, and is the leader of Xerius’ armies. But Conphas is also Xerius’ heir, and he would not mind ascending to the throne a bit ahead of schedule. Shortening his uncle’s life prematurely might fit well into his plans to claim the title of Emperor expediently.
The fifth main player is Cnaiür, and indomitable warrior and chieftain. Despite his fame in battle, he is disgraced, and dubbed a kinslayer. Cnaiür burns for revenge against those who have wronged him, and he refuses to be denied.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting, yet most ominous principal perspective is that of Anasûrimbor Kellhus. Kellhus is a Dünyain monk. The Dünyain are a stoic, cloistered, and mysteriously powerful sect. Kellhus previously was confined for his whole life to the fortress of the Dünyain, but now has embarked on a quest to find his father, which brings him to the centre of the mustering for the Holy War.
Coincidentally, it was Kellhus’ predecessors who were the leaders of the fight against the No-God. This fact only exacerbates Achamian’s belief that the arrival of Kellhus on the scene signals the coming of a Second Apocalypse, and his apprehension about the enigmatic Kellhus.
Each of these characters are very engrossing, and while of course every reader will have their favourite, I found that I was equally drawn to all of their storylines. To affirm, these characters are EXTREMELY grey. In some cases, they are downright detestable. From Xerius’ shallowness and cowardice, to Conphas’ avarice, to the sociopathy of Kellhus, this is largely an awful bunch of people, but they are awful in a compelling way.
Self-interest reigns supreme amongst this group, and the closest we have to sympathetic characters, for me, were Achamian and Esemenet. Most of the characters were driven by either the dogged pursuit of their own desires above all else (irrespective of collateral damage), their faith (or lack thereof), their greed, their lust, or their desire for vengeance. Many are very smart in a conniving sort of way, and one will admire their intelligence, while being appalled at many of the choices they make, despite that intelligence. No one is completely trustworthy.
The REALLY dangerous villains, the Consult, are very very creepy. The reader may be hard pressed to cheer for anyone in this book; there will be more pity, perhaps, than actually rooting for anyone.
Bakker’s character work is excellent. For a cast of so many, all the book’s main characters had their distinct voices, and they all felt real.
Of note, Kellhus was my favourite character.
“A prince of nothing…”
Kellhus’ near invincibility in combat made for some fantastic (if predictable) action moments, but it was his ability to influence people, and the thought process behind it, that will grab the reader’s attention. Watching Kellhus clinically and dispassionately manipulate those around him, his magnetism, his cold-blooded plotting and faking of emotions to gain trust and eventual dominance was disturbing, chilling, and enthralling.
“‘How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?'”
Bakker’s worldbuilding is stellar. The primary parts of the vast world Bakker has created can be described as Middle-Eastern inspired, reminiscent of Mesopotamia or Egypt. The northern portions of the realm seem to be more European.
The history, languages, religions, and philosophies of the various realms and cultures Bakker creates is extremely detailed and carefully interwoven to make a vivid, rich tapestry of a world that feels highly authentic. The novel comes with great references to help the reader keep things sorted, including maps, lists of characters and the different rival factions. I was engrossed by the politicking, intrigue, strategy, and very dark, sinister sorcery that Bakker teases us with, but never fully explodes. I am very much looking forward to seeing more of it in future books.
There was a very philosophical tilt to Bakker’s writing (think Nietzsche’s moral philosophy), and a poignancy, that really worked for me. The writing is extremely layered, and in combination with the complex, intricate worldbuilding, and periodically the lack of elucidation about much of what is going on (what some would consider info dumping), as a reader one may feel, at times, that they’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons or a life preserver (à la Malazan).
Still, I was able to keep up, and I found the plot much more straightforward than Malazan, to the point where I was completely immersed and really enjoying my read, for the vast majority of the book. The large scale battle scenes are stirring, and the smaller one-on-one combats exceptionally done. And when magic is thrown into the fighting sequences, it REALLY pops.
In terms of themes, look away, dear reader, and find different reading, if you are uncomfortable with violence and utterly reprehensible acts of almost every nature. Early in the book, sexual molestation of children occurs, and throughout the novel, there are depravities committed that will continue to make your skin crawl.
There are tender moments, and there is kindness and compassion, and unquestionably there is extreme courage, and a lot of moral introspection. But the sum of things is that Bakker gives us a VERY dark, violent, and amoral world, filled with religious fanaticism, irony, pathos, usury, caste systems, slavery, torture, elitism, misogyny, extreme poverty balanced against opulence and excess.
Women in the novel do not hold much agency in the novel beyond selling their bodies. Even the clever, scheming Empress, the mother of Xerius, who does have somewhat of a role in terms of being a political player in the court intrigue, is implied exert her influence mainly by being a whore (according to her nature as per Bakker), with some very disquieting incestuous overtones further marring her image (and that of Xerius and Conphas). Many readers may take umbrage with how the arcs of the female characters are dealt with by Bakker.
That said, there is an argument that it is merely the lot of women in the highly patriarchal, sexist society that Bakker has drawn, which completely dehumanizes them, turning them into little more than chattel. Bakker seems to imply that the women in “The Darkness that Comes Before” use the only tools that seem to be in their toolkit, given the context, just to survive.
Still, it is difficult to read a book without female characters being able to defy the expectations and limitations that society imposes on them, as they do in real life, and as I have read in many of my favourite fantasy books. I am curious to see how Bakker handles his portrayal of women moving forward in the series, and if this aspect will be improved, because this was the one part of the novel that didn’t work for me, and knocked the rating down a quarter mark from a complete five star read. I am certainly willing to give Bakker a chance in this regard, and will continue reading this fascinating series.
The pace of the novel is slow and immersive, which I adore, however it won’t be for everyone. But for me, the writer’s powerful, thought-provoking, philosophical prose, the amazing character work, the enthralling politics, love, sex, and battle, framed by the Holy War, and the sense of impending disaster, make this book one of this year’s most interesting reads for me.
This novel is ambitious, engrossing, and overall, exceptional. 4.75 stars for “The Darkness That Comes Before.” I am very captivated and intrigued, and can’t wait to see what comes next in the series.