The Darkness That Comes Before
is R. Scott Bakker's first novel, the beginning of a large-scale, swords and magic fantasy trilogy. It's a book with historical depth by an author as interested in exploring the philosophy of his world as its violent, conflicted politics. The novel begins a bit slowly as we're introduced to the characters and the world they live in. There's Kellhus, a warrior-monk from a city hidden away for 2000 years, and Achamian, a sorcerer and spy from the Mandate school, whose members all have recurring nightmares of an ancient war. There's an emperor who longs for godhood, a barbarian warlord, and assorted other schemers. And lingering in the background is something truly evil.
When a newly arisen leader declares Holy War, the story brings everyone together. From that moment, the narrative takes off, and Bakker's prose carries the story right along. There's a fair amount of graphic violence, broken up by occasional flashes of humour. Bakker is working a combination that's currently also being explored by Steven Erikson and Sean McMullen: big fantasy worlds with long, deep histories, and characters who can think as well as act. It's a potent mix that elevates The Darkness That Comes Before well above most of its competition and bodes well for the rest of the series. --Greg L. Johnson
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From Publishers Weekly
Canadian author Bakker's impressive, challenging debut, the first of a trilogy, should please those weary of formulaic epic fantasy. Bakker's utterly foreign world, Eärwa, is as complex as that of Tolkien, to whom he is, arguably, a worthier successor than such established names as David Eddings and Stephen Donaldson. Bakker creates an extraordinary cast of nationalities and races involved in an enormous holy war set off by an unseen prophet, Maithanet. (Appendices help keep the history and personalities straight.) He casually drops for half the story an increasingly important character, Anasûrimbor Kellhus (aka "the Prince of Nothing"), who finally returns without a breath of exposition. The amiable and wise sorcerer spy Drusas Achamian binds the myriad narrative threads together. Drusas's love for Esmenet, a too-experienced prostitute, provides some tenderness amid the abundant slaughter. In the book's most harrowing scene, which fans of gentler fantasy will find too graphic, Esmenet is raped by a creature who, despite its human appearance, is likely demonic. If this ambitious novel lacks the beauty of Tolkien as well as the sense of pure evil that suffused Middle-earth with genuine terror, its willingness to take chances and avoid the usual genre clichés should win many discriminating readers.
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