In Brief: R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before, Book 1 in The Prince of Nothing series, an unconventional yet familiar cast of characters clash and plot amidst a coming apocalypse.
Pros: Rich, dense, world-building, with interesting multi-faceted characters, thought provoking spiritual and religious dilemmas, and compelling mysteries.
Cons: Dedication to non-traditional naming conventions and place-names makes tracking the details harder than necessary. Frank portrayal of the lot of pre-industrial women as explored through two main characters will anger some.
Review: TDTCB comes highly recommend by readers and admirers of the kind of dense, complex epic fantasy by writers such as George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson. Call it Big Boy World Building, because these kind of writers don’t pause to see if you’re paying attention and can absorb all the connotations. Nor do they appear bothered by gruesome and troubling situations or subjects.
The narrative follows a handful of key players from across a vast ancient land as a Holy War/Crusade breaks out in the cradle of spiritual power, Shimeh. Portents abound; ancient beings begin to stir. If the arch-plot seems familiar, Bakker’s cast of characters and approach to this material are anything but.
Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is two parts mystical monk, one part pscho-analyast. He comes south from his secluded home, ostensibly in search of his father, the first of his monastic sect to have entered the outside world in many generations. Kellhus’s training and discipline afford him abilities equal to any Hong Kong theater monk. His philosophy espouses the practice of seeing the many paths possible from any given moment, any given action. This makes Kellhus deadly in a fight, and also gives him the tools to assess and manipulate other men and women with relative ease. Because Bakker has an advanced degree in philosophy, Kellhus and his beliefs seem particularly well realized and thought provoking.
Kellhus meets up with a plains barbarian clan leader, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, of the dreaded Syvelendi. Cnaiür is reeling from his peoples’ recent defeat at the hands of the Fanim Empire. He’s also carrying deep emotional scars from a meeting with Kellhus’s father 20 years earlier; a situation in which he found himself manipulated by the monk’s abilities into killing his own father. Cnaiür is as savage as they come, unyielding and deadly. He’s certainly a close literary descendant of Conan the Cimmerian. The fact that he may also be something of a self-loathing homosexual makes him even more interesting.
Cnaiür and Kellhus move towards the great continental religious conflict, a Holy War to take back the home city of the First Prophet. Our main character for learning of these events is wizardly spy called Drusas Achamian. Achamian is a member of a mage school known as the Mandate, cursed like all his Mandate brethren with unyielding dreams of the fall of the first empire 2,000 years earlier. Achamian searches for bits of information about a cult known as the Consult, beholden to dark forces of the No-God, for which his order is sworn to oppose. Except no one has seen any evidence of the Consult in hundreds of years, which makes the Mandate seem like odd zealots. Achamian’s lot in life is to recruit, bribe, and manipulate spies, which has taken him into some of the finest noble households as a scholar and teacher but also left him with a healthy sense of self-loathing.
Other characters in the forefront include the paranoid Emperor of Nansur, whose intrigues to control and profit from the Holy War, and his nephew, a great Alexander-like general. Achamian’s true love, a whore named Esmenet, who decides to follow after him and becomes a ‘guest’ of some of the crusaders.
The plot is complex and weaves in a heavy dose of history, culture, and intrigue, yet it never seems to lag too much or become burdensome. Bakker has deftly planted enough mysteries, pay-offs, and new questions into this vast book to keep the reader rolling along. The magic system is somewhat understated in this volume, but it’s logical while seeming otherworldly. If the characters are a bit bleak and depressing at times, they also demonstrate loyalty, sacrifice, and other virtues that make them worthwhile. Some might find themselves wishing for a bit more action or a little more resolution at the end, but the good news is, Bakker followed TDTCB with two more books (which I’ll be checking out soon).
Bottom Line: Complex and intriguing, this dark and unconventional epic will reward those with the patience and curiosity to stay the course.