Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Take the philosophical concept of the original Dune trilogy, sprinkle in some basic plot devices from The Lord of the Rings, and mix with a coherent system of magic, a handful of strong lead characters shaded in gray, wholly original races, cultures, and settings, and voila, you will have R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series in a nutshell.  A lucid concoction, the trilogy holds no punches, leaving the reader wide-eyed for its brutal adherence to the realities of pre-industrial life and probing of the darker crevasses of the human psyche.  No fuzzy hobbits picking flowers and discussing what variety of pipe tobacco they prefer, instead, Machiavellian scheming, deep-seated fear, ever-inflating egos, and pushes, risks, and clashes to obtain power are unveiled as ugly truths in humanity.  Underrated, the Prince of Nothing is one of the best epic fantasy series available today, The Darkness that Comes Before (2003) its first volume. 

The Darkness that Comes Before is a strong trilogy opener. Patiently revealing bits and pieces of Earwa, giving the reader strong, distinct characters to wrestle with, creating tension from the social and political setup, developing a layer of intellectual depth to the underlying motivations of the story, and most importantly, giving purpose to the overarching narrative, there are few opening volumes in epic fantasy as successful.  A critique of human fear and ego the series’ roots, Bakker’s narrative is appropriately character and dialogue based, but should not be mistaken as a hero’s journey.  It’s dark. In fact, the novel holds much more in common with Peter Watts’ hardline views toward the human psyche in Blindsight than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings silven elves and magisterial forests and mountains.  Another way of saying this is, it’s epic fantasy minus the good guys. 

For those tired of fantasy authors stringing readers along with excellent plot build up only to close the series in a dissatisfying 25 pages, fear not; Bakker delivers.  The Darkness that Comes Before sets a full, detailed stage, The Warrior Prophet escalates the various storylines in critical fashion, and The Thousandfold Thought brings the house in conclusive and, most importantly, more grandiose fashion. Heightening this climax is the involvement and transitory feelings one experiences in their regard for the main characters.  From understood to hated, loathed to pitied, the strong characterization likewise deserves notice for its integration with story, and the fate of those involved.  Much rumination invested in making sure the puzzle pieces fit snugly together (Bakker has taken years to write the series), this is not just another fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants fantasy series out to cash in on the current market.

Regarding character portrayal, many reviewers have been critical of Bakker’s treatment of women, up to and including Benjanun Sriduangkaew and her interesting tirades on Requires Only that You Hate.  While it might be easy to identify the novel/series as a non-progressive text on the surface, certainly Bakker’s gender presentation goes deeper than good and bad.  The men generally portrayed as shallow, greedy egos not a golden soul among them, why shouldn’t the women also hit the black list?  It’s thus important to understand that the underlying current to Bakker’s narrative is, as already mentioned, to examine the deep-seated psychological issues each person deals with on a daily basis, regardless of gender. A very bleak picture painted, it’s a challenging narrative to swallow from either a humanist or feminist perspective.

The dialogue attentive, action constructively paced, and setting and main characters having depth, these factors move The Prince of Nothing to vie with the other major works of epic fantasy on the market today.  Pushing it near the top is the focus with which Bakker writes.  From the first page onward, planning and structure are obvious, events falling naturally into place as character motivation dictates, and in turn, the themes of power, paranoia, and megalomania rise to the surface.  Unlike Erikson, who perhaps conceals too much from the reader, or Jordan, who divulges too much, Bakker balances on the tightrope wonderfully, revealing his world in just enough chunks to pull the reader along, while at the same time expressing his literary objectives in a hard fashion.  Though reviews of the series are divisive, for scope and content The Prince of Nothing truly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Erikson and Martin as the masters of modern epic fantasy, and The Darkness that Comes Before is the strong opening volume.  


As an indirect, and perhaps better way of introducing the Prince of Nothing series, I will examine in details the complaints of LibraryThing member BayardUS.

“…this series botched the characters, plot, and story structure so badly that it isn't worth reading. Whether you're looking for good writing and deeper meaning or just an entertaining fantasy story, you'll find neither here. …this series is a waste of time.”

And yet, somehow, BayardUS read and reviewed all three books…  But to the specific complaints in the review (paraphrased in italics, below):

1. “The series’ structure does not allow any of the books to stand alone.”  What to say?  Isn’t that the one of the main ways to develop an epic fantasy series?  No reader finishes The Fellowship of the Ring thinking: “Well that was a satisfying book.  Time to move on to something else.”  If the story was interesting, then of course they want to pick up The Two Towers to learn how the scenarios Tolkien created are resolved.  With the break points occurring at appropriate intervals, the three books of The Prince of Nothing are organized along the same principle. 

2.The series feels like the prologue to a larger story.”  Yes, that’s because it is a prologue to a larger story!  Not a deficiency, it’s a fact. Bakker building the world, presenting the rules, and setting its pieces in motion, The Prince of Nothing presents the Holy War preceding the Second Apocalypse depicted in the follow-up series, The Aspect-Emperor.  From a different perspective, the reader is shown how the “hero” ascends in the first series, and in the second, descends.

3.The world is not fleshed out—despite that being Bakker’s intent.”   Must disagree.  Bakker’s main intent with The Prince of Nothing is not to worldbuild, proven by the fact the minority of the narrative is caught up in setting or exposition.  Most significant content is found in dialogue, which is only natural as the characters and their positions relative to one another are the root of the story.  Unlike Robert Jordan and many others, Bakker does not bog his books down with unending, spurious details about how a character puts on a belt, the morning sun on the fields, clothing or food, etc. Considering how much the darker side of neuroscience occupies the narrative, it’s highly questionable that Bakker only wanted to build a world. 

4.”Backstory is slowly fed to the reader rather than explained at the outset.”  Seems more a compliment than complaint.  Rather than dumping huge amounts of backstory and setting onto the reader in massive chunks of exposition, Bakker plays it out, building suspense, revealing key elements here and there through dialogue and character interaction, etc.  This tactic allows the plot to take precedence, streamlining the story, and thus more steadily engaging to the reader.  Rather than moving in fits and starts between info dumps, more epic fantasy should be integrating in this way.

5.”None of the main characters care about the Holy War; battles subsequently become background only.” Another fact, not a deficiency.  The story is not about the battles and wars, it’s about the people (men, mostly) behind the wars, and the egos and fears that drive them to waste the lives of millions for personal gain.  As such, it’s only natural that protection of status, reputation, or resources, chest-bumping, etc. take precedence over “little details” like how many soldiers died, who amongst the commoners suffered, or lengthy descriptions of battle formations.  There are grand battles in the series, but they are not the main focus.  Another way of putting this is: were Crusaders in it for God or money or glory or prestige?  Asking the same of Bakker’s characters results in a similar answer, thus putting into question the expectation that every character needs to believe in the Holy War for reasons of faith.

6.”The Holy War’s purpose is incomprehensible.”  Soviet Russia’s takeover of the surrounding countries to create the USSR bloc is a classic example of a situation wherein attack and conquer creates “unity”.  While this unity was never truly tested in a world war scenario, it can be reasonably assumed that the bloc states would have fought more for Mother Russia than against her if war did arise.  The Holy War in Bakker’s series uses a similar principle, and is therefore comprehensible.

7.”Kellhus makes the series a mess due to his unbelievable qualities.”  I will not argue that Kellhus is presented as a ‘superman,’ or that some of the scenes involving his intellectual dominance and manipulation of others are dependent on authorial tricks.  They are.  Without Kellhus, however, there is no need for the series.  Anti-hero supreme, the violent, disastrous events of Earwa that pass come to hinge upon his actions and words to the point without him there is no story.  As mentioned in point #2, his story is the backbone. 

I hope these points bring the potential reader closer to understanding Bakker’s world.  The series, while certainly violent and unforgiving, is not a glorification of war, rather something more nihilistic in its critique of humanity and our flaws that allow mass war and destruction to happen in the face of history.  It’s thus only natural that the darkest minds populate the narrative.  Rather than Abercrombie’s contrived 
sensationalism, this is real grimdark.


  1. Hmmm. Now more then ever I think I need to take a crack at this series, let's see if it can topple the real King of Grimdark off her throne - Robin Hobb.

    1. I have only read The Farseer trilogy by Hobb, and so may not have a good enough sample of her work to judge it, but I would think it only dark fantasy. However, I can see why you and others call it grimdark. Bakker's books are the absolute blackest, bleakest, most nihilistic epic fantasy series I've ever read. Even Steven Erikson's Malazan series has moments of brightness compared to Bakker's, and his is dark.

  2. I cant wait until you review the judging eye. I found the "The Darkness" to be the weakest of the series(debut). I definitely think that Bakker has matured as a writer, his skill on full display in the Judging Eye.

    On an unrelated note. I really enjoy your reviews. Please keep it up


    1. Thanks, Mike. To be honest, I've already read and posted a review of The Judging Eye. When I originally started this blog, I posted one entry for the Prince of Nothing series. In the lead up to the publishing of The Great Ordeal and The Unholy Consult next year, however, I'm going back and re-reading of The Prince of Nothing and posting reviews for each book.

      Darkness may be the weakest, but it fits perfectly into the larger story structure and provides a nice counterpoint to the exciting climax of The Thousandfold Thought. There are far more debuts in epic fantasy worse than better, and I enjoyed my re-read more than the first.

      Review for The Judging Eye:

      Are you excited for The Great Ordeal?

  3. Hi Jesse

    Don't know how I missed it. I agree regards structure etc. Should probably do a reread myself before TUC comes out. Bakker is one of the few epic fantasy authors that offer some depth to prospective readers. I'm off to read your review of the Judging eye...