When I held a poll which was to determine the best "ongoing" fantasy series, I was expecting some surprises. Indeed, that was the very reason which encouraged me to organize the poll. As expected, I wasn't disappointed. But one series in particular received a vast number of votes, especially from the members of the wotmania.com "Other Fantasy" message board. R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing garnered so many rave reviews that I knew I had to inquire about this one. For, like most fantasy fans, I had never heard of him or his books. Several people were more than a little surprised by his series' presence in our list of top "ongoing" series.
Nearly everyone on wotmania.com encouraged me to read Bakker's novels. I was thus quite happy when Penguin Canada accepted to send me review copies of both The Darkness that Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet. Hence, it was with eagerness that I plunged into this one, especially since the author is Canadian. And as a fellow Canuck, it's the least I can do to promote the great works of my countrymen!;-)
So what's the verdict? Well, to put it simply, this is an impressive debut. One of the very best debut novels I have read in years. An intelligent work, in every run of the mill. Which is probably satisfy purists in a way that is seldom seen. Bakker has created something quite special. But the philosophical and religious aspects of this tale will indubitably prevent the series from becoming mainstream. Which, in the end, might allow it to retain its uniqueness in the fantasy genre.:-)
The Darkness that Comes Before is a rare cross between Dune and The Lord of the Rings. It's obvious that Frank Herbert's epic has been a major influence on Bakker, both in form and on a deeper level. The format also follows that of the Dune books. But fear not, this is by no means a Dune rip-off. Bakker, although influenced by the master, has created a truly original universe.
It is quite apparent that the author has worked on this book for well over a decade. To claim that it's richly detailed would be a gross understatement. It's a lot more than that. The worldbuilding is of the highest order. Bakker has created a living and breathing universe, detailed and authentic. Not since I've read Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World in the early 90s have I come across a work that resounds with such depth. And it promises a lot more to come! At times, the back story appears to be fascinating enough that one wishes he could learn more. The few glimpses the author provides pertaining to the past and the Apocalypse bring even more depth to his work.
The prose is of high quality, for those few of us who actually attach some importance to this detail. The dialogues ring true. While the narative is consise and flows well, a barbarian actually sounds like a barbarian. The problem with most good writers is that a simple villager often speaks like a doctor. Not so here.
One of the only problems with this novel is that the pace is at times very slow. That wasn't a problem for me, because I could still appreciate the content, the worldbuilding, and everything else there is to like about this book. And the author has a lot of groundwork to initially set up, especially with the characters. But this could be a problem for a number of people, especially those who like a lot of action, fight scenes and brisk rhythm.
The characters are well developed. Each has his or her own back story, and those who can read between the lines know that there is a lot more to come. I can't say that one is more memorable than the others. To me, it was the tapestry that these characters and their actions wove that kept me turning those pages.
As I mentioned, this is an intelligent work, one that will appeal to readers who need more than the fluff produced by a majority of fantasy writers today. Philosophy and religion play a big role in this tale, which imbues it with a depth that is seldom encountered on the current market. The Darkness that Comes Before is for a mature audience. As a matter of fact, I think that only such an audience can appreciate the novel at its just value.
As is often the case nowadays, this book is one vast introduction for a much larger story. The ending offers little in the way of resolution, providing us with more questions than answers. But it certainly opens the door for a lot more to come! Indeed, I can't wait to read The Warrior-Prophet, especially since everyone appears to agree that it's much better than its predecessor. If true, that makes it quite a novel!
So if you are looking for a new voice, an original series, set in a world that is fascinating and different than what is currently the norm in the fantasy genre, populated by deeply realized characters and societies, then The Darkness that Comes Before is definitely for you!
This could well be the beginning of a saga that could become a "must read!" work. . . We will have to wait and see if it lives up to those high expectations.
The final verdict: 8/10