Monday, March 20, 2006

The Darkness That Comes Before by R Scott Bakker

Not since my introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin or The Malazan Tale of the Fallen by Steven Erikson has a new ‘epic fantasy’ series been recommended so highly. So, does Bakker live up to the hype? Yes. The first installment in the Prince of Nothing trilogy, The Darkness That Comes Before, earns Bakker the right to be named with the likes of Martin and Erikson, in the new breed of ‘epic fantasy’. I can only hope that the remaining installments, The Warrior Prophetand The Thousandfold Thought, continue the trend – and the hype indicates this is so.

Bakker takes the traditional ‘epic fantasy’ model and molds into something familiar, yet strikingly new. There is a young man of noble lineage from a far corner of the world seeking his destiny, sort of. There is a dark lord that threatens a new apocalypse, maybe. A seasoned warrior of unquestionable loyalty faithfully follows our prince, kind of but not really. A wise sorcerer guides our prince to his destiny, umm…not quite. Beautiful maidens are rescued and complete the characters, or not. All the usual players are present, but roles differ.

The Mandate School of Sorcery protects ancient, coveted secrets and guards against the return of the Consult – nonman followers of No-God who destroyed ancient civilization. However, the Consult has remained silent for centuries and only the Mandate even believe in its existence. Now a holy war is brewing and Mandate Schoolman Drusas Achamian must negotiate a fine line to stay alive and answer the most important question: Is the Consult involved.

Dûnyain monk Anasûrimbor Kellhus journeys south at a mysterious summons from his long absent father. His training of the mind allows manipulation of common men with little effort, and his training of the sword allows removal of obstacles with ease. Warrior-chief of a warrior society of the steppe, Cnaiür survives treachery in a great battle. Cnaiür discovers Kellhus at a scene of carnage and a connection is realized, Cnaiür knows Kellhus’s father. He joins Kellhus in his quest into uncertainty.

Bakker’s characters are flawed and simple determination of good guys versus bad guys remains illusive. Philosophy abounds with central characters of a monk and a sorcerer of schooling and the back-drop of holy war and Bakker achieves surprising depth in a story that is relatively easy to read.

What makes The Darkness That Comes Before difficult to rate is its clear place in a larger work – but a single part of a whole. So…on my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-novel that is generally not recommended and 10 is an unsurpassed novel, The Darkness That Comes Before rates 7.5 to 8. This is a must read for any fan of the genre, and a read that can capture fans traditionally opposed to ‘epic fantasy’.

The Darkness That Comes Before is part one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy – a very important distinction. While the end is not a cliff-hanger, it is in many ways an arbitrary ending without any resolution. This book is a beginning, but the good news is that this is a completed trilogy, not another unfinished series, and I look forward to its resolution.

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