One of the darkest fantasy novels that I’ve ever read since I joined the fray of SFF Genre freaks. The Darkness that comes before is part one of a sweeping ambitious series known as the Prince of Nothing by Canadian author R Scott Bakker and came out quite a few years ago. I got the book a long while back but never did get into it for a long time. Seriously, this book had me baulking at the incomprehensibly “awe”-inspiring prose and yet falling for it through and through. The first few attempts I discarded the book at the epilogue itself - for the high handed treatment and the dense language that refused to worm through my brains.
But this time, I persisted. From what I read on the review world – this book had polarized its readers. It’s a straight 5 or a downright 1. Nothing in between. Hate it –or-love it. And now I understand why. Am glad I persisted with trying to finish this one. It has been a fabulous read – a difficult book I agree –smattered with arcane philosophies that flies over your head if you don’t concentrate, it had me making notes and re-reading passages to get the gist, but after I finished the first book in this series, I was left agape. At the enormity of what Scott Bakker was trying to accomplish and what he has set in motion. It’s rich, it’s dark, it’s fantastic, riddled with philosophy, big sweeping battle scenes that will have you howling for more, complete with an over-arching nemesis who is hinted at and never shown – along with vulnerable three-dimensional well fleshed out protagonist characters who sift in and out through the lands of grey.
So here’s the plot: In the ancient land of Earwa, the world is divided into the two religious factions that have been warring with each other for centuries now. The Inrithis and the Fanim. Most of book one is written from the point of view of Inrithis – the major world religion that has dominated over the lands. By the start of the book, we learn the Inrithi have found a new prophetic leader for their cause – the one known as Maithanet who is now urging them to a Holy War against the Heathen ( Here – the Fanim.)
This war has many factions fighting their own private wars - the pawns in this game vying for their own secret missions. Sorcerers, Prostitutes, Emperors, Generals, Princes. All of them leading to their own plot threads weaving through to enmesh during the climactic chapters of book one. Into this fractioned world comes a monk from the Northern Wastelands – who is part of a group called Dunyain who are disenchanted with the world and are trying to unravel the secrets of the world by following the path of – what they call Logos – ( My suspicion – that’s logic :) ) much of the philosophy that flows through the book comes from the thoughts of this man. The North has been laid to waste and is now under control of the Srancs – devilish bloodthirsty creatures about whom not much is known. Now is this monk a devil or is he a messenger of God? As the world rumbles on towards a catastrophic war uniting the entire lands of Inrithi under this Maithanet’s banner, a larger threat looms over the world of humans. The threat of an evil un-imagined known as the Consult whose only desire is to wreck vengeance and destroy the human world. And the only ones who know about or still persist in trying to unravel this mystery – is the School of Sorcery known as Mandate. One man – besieged by dreams of his ancestors that run red with blood of men killed in the First Apocalypse – is out to unravel the secrets and lay bare a conspiracy that is even bigger than the Holy War. All these threads collide towards the end of First Book.
Each POV is fascinating and riveting as it unfolds. Starting with a sketchy outline peppered with rather straightforward characters that lack any depth, Bakker takes his time unfolding his world. And what a world! (Interviews tell me it took his fifteen years to finish his first book!) the characters are like onions with endless layers peeling off with every new chapter – by the end, I was sufficiently invested in pretty much all of their futures to want to continue this mindblowing series. The detail shines through some brilliant writing that smacks you between your ears pretty hard the first time itself. I had myself scrambling for the thesaurus every few sentences but I settled down for the ride as his vision slowly unfurled through the pages. Trust me, it’s a tough ride but I would suggest you hang on – for the world he transports you to will astonish you with its beauty and depth.
He rivals Steven Erikson in his ambitious world building – throwing us right into the middle of this meddling confusion and slowly giving us glimpses one by one. Characters and revelations are laid bare throughout the book and still you’re left with the feeling there is more to it. The mystery or the aura around the larger evil looms throughout the book gives it an edgy feel – the prose effectively highlighting the dread and desolate nature of this world. Grim and depressing painted rich by a prose that is literary and sometimes pretty obtuse. I am not complaining but it does get a bit weary at times. Especially the meandering thoughts of the sorcerers or the monk in question, trying to understand the ways of the world. If you’re a student of philosophy, then you’re in for a treat. You could probably write your treatise on this book. It almost reads like a historical fiction – recounting of a world gone to waste ages ago. Accurate detailed descriptions that come alive on the pages.
Some people compare the style to Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I would agree – the quotes and anecdotes helping you come to terms with the over-arching plots written from a historian’s point of view, the way Bakker pushes us through the thought-processes of his characters, getting insider their heads, living their confusion and fear – reminded me a lot of Herbert’s style of writing. I think I might just go and give the Dune a re-read now.
But one heck of a beginning to a series I am looking forward to finish. I got four more books now to finish and am looking forward to this jaunty ride. I give it FIVE stars – this is definitely one of my all time fabulous reads of Fantasy. Thank you, Scott Bakker.