Wow, there's something in the water up in Canada, and US publishers are really missing out. Good thing for the Internet! Manitoban Steven Erikson, still without distribution in the states, has established himself as the penultimate epic fantasy writer of the day (except for maybe G.R.R. Martin). Now along comes 'The Darkness that Comes Before, an unequivocal stellar debut by Ontario native R. Scott Bakker.
All of the usual superlatives apply. Simply put, TDTCB is incredible, and any fan of epic or high fantasy should already have it on order. Bakker is an expert craftsman...his world is rich and believable, the characters godlike, and the plot constantly engaging and in motion. Toss in the requisite humor, flawed leads, sex and betrayal, and a true gem emerges from the fantasy morass.
Brief plot summary annotated from the book sleeve: Two thousand years have passed since Mog-Pharau, the No-God, last walked among Men. Now the Shriah of the Thousand Temples has declared Holy War, and untold thousands gather, determined to wrest Shimeh, the Holy City of the Latter Prophet, from the hands of their heathen kin. Among them, one man stands apart, a man who uses redemption to deceive, and passion to elevate and enslave... Anasurimbor Kellhus. Two couples, a barbarian chieftain and his concubine, a sorcerer and his harlot lover, share his trials and tribulations, each compelled by what they think they see: the possibility vengeance, the promise of redemption, the threat of apocalypse, or the hope of escape. As the violent fortunes of the Holy War transform Kellhus into an all-conquering prophet, they finally begin to ask: What is he really?
References have been made to Tolkein, but this novel is far more postmodern and machiavellian than LoTR. Bakker has more in common with Erikson, Stephen R. Donaldson, Martin or early Robert Jordan. There are multiple threads and disparate points of view (hence 'epic'), but as the book progresses they are wound tighter and tighter until the gripping conclusion.
Don't be misled by self-admitted Marxist reviewers.... Modern philosophies don't easily translate to fantasy novels (witness Goodkind's terrible slide), and Bakker himself wrote a great short article on sffworld.com about the current role of the fantasy genre in modern life (Why Fantasy and Why Now?). Bakker may come across as an educated, intelligent writer, but more importantly, he's a talented one. Avoid this debut at your own peril.