The long-awaited (and what should have been the final installment in The Aspect-Emperor trilogy, but has since then been split into two volumes) The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker will finally be released this summer. It's been five years since The White-Luck Warrior, the second volume, saw the light, so you can understand why Bakker fans are rejoicing. Problem is, it's been a very long time in between books. And for a midlist genre author, one that never was marketed much by his publishers to begin with, this can make things difficult. Sadly, it appears that an entire generation of SFF readers have never heard of him and some of us have been wondering about what we can possibly do to give Bakker some much-deserved exposure.
I'm not sure what sort of impact this will have down the line, but I've decided to reprint my reviews of R. Scott Bakker's first two series to help raise awareness in what I consider to be one of the more ambitious fantasy sagas ever written. Hence, every couple of days for the next little while I'll post reviews of all three installments of the Prince of Nothing trilogy and the first two volumes of The Aspect-Emperor series.
Hopefully, these reviews will entice potential readers to give these novels a shot. Love them or hate them, these are powerful works of fiction that deserve to be more widely read than they are at the moment. Check them out!
So here's my review of Bakker's debut and opening chapter in the Prince of Nothing trilogy, originally posted on May 5th, 2005. For a more recent take on The Darkness That Comes Before, fantasy author Mark Lawrence reviewed it on Goodreads a few weeks back. Follow this link to see what he thought about the book.
Here's the blurb:
A score of centuries has passed since the First Apocalypse. The No-God has been vanquished and the thoughts of men have turned, inevitably, to more worldly concerns...Drusas Achamian, tormented by 2,000 year old nightmares, is a sorcerer and a spy, constantly seeking news of an ancient enemy that few believe still exists. Ikurei Conphas, nephew to the Nansur Emperor, is the Exalt-General of the Imperial Army and a military genius. He plots to conquer the known world for his Emperor and dreams of the throne for himself. Maithanet, mysterious and charismatic, is spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples. He seeks a Holy War to cleanse the land of the infidel. Cnaiur, Chieftain of the Utemot, is a Scylvendi barbarian. Rejected by his people, he seeks vengeance against the former slave who slew his father, and disgraced him in the eyes of his tribe. Into this world steps Anasurimbor Kellhus, the product of two thousand years of breeding and a lifetime of training in the ways of thought, limb, and face. Steering souls through the subtleties of word and expression, he slowly binds all - man and woman, emperor and slave - to his own mysterious ends. But the fate of men - even great men - means little when the world itself may soon be torn asunder. Behind the politics, beneath the imperialist expansion, amongst the religious fervour, a dark and ancient evil is reawakening. After two thousand years, the No-God is returning. The Second Apocalypse is nigh. And one cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten...
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.