Friday, October 11, 2013

Book Review: The Darkness That Comes Before

R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before is fantasy for the thoughtful, and those tired of standard fantasy tropes (boy meets wizard, finds magic sword, defeats dark lord) will likely find much to appreciate. The novel is the first book in a three-part series, focusing on an unfolding religious war in a fantasy world that seems loosely based on southern Europe in the early middle ages. Like other recent epic fantasy novels, the events portrayed happen on an enormous scale, told through the lens of a cast of characters on different sides of the conflict. Unlike other fantasy, Bakker doesn’t stop at weaving a gripping story, but also uses his world to ask some powerful questions.

Bakker has a background in philosophy, and it shows in his work. There are layers in The Darkness that Comes Before to be unpacked by the discerning reader. For example, the first introduced protagonist is a monk of an order dedicated to understanding the relation between cause and effect. After leaving his secluded monastery, this character soon finds that he understands cause and effect well enough that, by learning the motivations of the people around him, he can almost completely control their actions. However, when he encounters sorcery for the first time, something he was never taught to understand, he can only run. Though Bakker never explicitly states it, he seems to be questioning the role of free will, both in the face of god-like beings and charismatic leaders. Even the more standard fantasy elements have a decidedly philosophical nature. While there is magic in The Darkness that Comes Before, it is based on philosophical abstractions – the most powerful sorcerers are those who can create abstract points, lines, and curves out of energy, while second-rate schools of sorcery must rely on metaphors, such as conjuring a dragon’s head in order to create flame.

The world that Bakker constructs is uneasy; nations shift and chafe against each other, religions quarrel, monarchs scheme, rival schools of sorcerers debate all-out war, and the main characters of the story are caught in between. Underlying everything is the constant uneasiness of an impending apocalypse, which some characters feel, and others chose to ignore. Every faction has an agenda, and while certain characters (and creatures) may rightfully be called “evil,” there are no groups or individuals one could easily label as “good” – certainly not the protagonists.

The novel is a challenging read. The main characters are scattered and disjoint for the first two-thirds of the book, and the plot doesn’t quite come together until the last third. This was deliberate on the part of Bakker, since his series is so epic in scope that he needs that time just to properly set up his world. His books also lack any form of strong female characters. This (according to Bakker) seems to be a deliberate statement, both about the fantasy genre and about the social role of women within the time period of the book. To many, however, the book will come off as sexist. The names of his settings are long, and complex, and difficult to pronounce, even in one’s head. Like Tolkien before him, it seems that Bakker has gone to the trouble of creating is own language(s) to flesh out his story. Bakker also pulls no punches when it comes to the cleanliness of his world. Unlike Tolkien’s or Terry Brooks’ work (where everything is clean, and characters either seem to get scratches or mortal wounds) Bakker’s world is never a clean, neat place. When armies march, there is bickering, and filth, and starvation, and disease. When the main characters are wounded, mentally or physically, there is never a magic potion that makes them all better. There is sex and violence, often graphic. For those who have read a great deal of standard fantasy, this comes as a refreshing change, but many may find it to be a turn-off.

That said, I really cannot recommend this book enough. The best books, fantasy or otherwise, are those that make us think, and The Darkness that Comes Before does exactly that. It’s fantasy with layers of philosophy, or perhaps philosophy with a veneer of fantasy. Bakker uses a gripping story to ask powerful questions, and really, what more could one want?

Submitted by Tor Odden

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