Opening the pages of an author’s first novel can be a daunting endeavor, or at least one mitigated with amounts of joyful anxiety and trepidation. On the one hand, you tend to temper your judgment a bit knowing this is the author’s first novel, but on the other hand one hopes to be amply rewarded for taking the time and gamble in reading an author’s first novel. In so many ways, this novel truly is the author’s most important, it is the novel that will establish their voice and hopefully bring back readers. Blurbs from well-respected authors are always a good way to draw in that potential reader, and considering the glowing blurbs by both Steven Erikson and John Marco on his book, R. Scott Bakker would seem to have all the right components for a successful debut novel. Having said all of that, I do have one major criticism of The Darkness Comes Before. It is that it is being touted as a debut novel. Or rather, not so much a criticism but a nod towards Bakker, this novel reads like the work of an experienced veteran writer who has honed his skills over the course of many a novel.
In comparing this impressive debut with other work in the genre, I’ll initially cite Steven Erikson, since he has praised the novel. Having read only the first two of Erikson’s equally sprawling Malazan epic, I can say where Erikson may have a slight edge in terms of the vastness of epic, Bakker has tempered that scope with an adeptness at not revealing his full hand. The epic feel of Bakker’s work, the granduer of the sweeping events grab the reader. Again, this is not so much a criticism of Bakker or Erikson, but rather another jolt of praise in Bakker’s direction-Bakker gives the reader an Epic scope of events and illustrates the points of view of a handful of characters of these events in a personal, impressive manner. While this is indeed an epic work, Bakker does not throw a thousand knives of plot and character at the reader. The world of Eärwa, which this saga takes place, is lavishly detailed and Bakker’s keen eye and hand hints at a world with immeasurable depth are emminently on display. The only recent novel and world that has the amount of detail and depth is the world of Crotheny in Greg Keyes The Briar King. Both show aspects of their world, but allow their characters to more fully reveal how resplendent with life their world truly is. Both worlds immediately draw the reader into its comforting and imaginative clutches. In both cases, they introduce real characters, characters that inform of us of the world they inhabit–we get to know the world and its populace together, through their intimate and necessary relationship. Some authors overlay paragraphs and nearly pages worth of details of in hopes of illustrating a fully detailed world. While Bakker does imply details, he doesn’t burden the reader with niggling descriptions but instead fills his pages with character and plot development, making for a solidly engaging work that you will not want to simply scan over, a work you will want to contentedly read and read again.
I jokingly hesitate to truly call this a work of fantasy considering how absolutely convincing this novel reads as a historical account-a historical account of a land at war. True that this has come to be a cliché in the fantasy genre, but really, do we as readers want to read about the mundane events between those great times of upheaval? Those daily events which we as the reader deal with in every day life and seek to escape from when we plunge, often, head first into a work of fantasy? No. Bakker unashamingly grabs the bull by the horns, leaves enough room for the reader to hold on as well, clamps his hand over yours and simply does not let go. There is much depth to this world, glimpses and hints are dropped in places that only serve to give a slight indication of the history of Eärwa. From the opening pages, we are shown a world 2,000 years after an apocalypse. As importantly, a world with a rich history prior to that apocalyptic event. One thing I often enjoy seeing in an author’s work is resonance, whether it be resonance within the novel or work itself or with outside works of myth and what have you. Here, Bakker shows the deep echoes of the past of his world, of the possible future in both referring to the Apocolyptic past as well as the quotes that open each chapter.
While there are many characters in this vast novel, here those that serve as the point characters, those whose eyes we see most of the events and the world through. Kellhus, a mysterious warrior monk, who appears in the opening scenes and whose place in the world is not fully revealed. An engaging character to say the least, every page of the book he appears opens more of a mystery than answering any previous mystery about the man. While we initially see Kellhus at the outset, the novel then follows Achamian, a sorcerer from one of the many houses of magic. Achamian is a flawed character, one who has made mistakes through his 47 years, but a character who we can identify with because of his flaws and his good qualities. What could be considered one if his “flaws” is his relationship with the prostitute Esmenet. While she lays with many men, there is something deeper between her and Achamian that cannot be denied by either party. Cnaiür chief of one of the barbarian tribes is more than he appears to be, initially in his scenes with his tribe and later with Kellhus. Much of the barbarian tribes is alluded to and shown, their savage ways of living in the harsh land and their violent rituals. All four of these characters are richly drawn and have a depth paralleled by the depth of the history hinted in the novel. While these, again, may seem clichéd characters, Bakker twinges the cliché enough to make the characters his own, make them truly apart of Eärwa and not simply cardboard cutouts that can be fit in like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Adding to his skills in displaying the epic-ness of chaotic transition through the eyes of breathing characters weren’t enough to satisfy the reader, there is enough philosophical underpinning here to keep the most thoughtful of readers on their proverbial toes. Many of the chapters are introduced by quotes from historical books in the world of the novel and philosophical quotes. This plays into the overall structure of the novel, bringing an even pace and sense of resonance throughout. Each quote echoes in the chapter it opens and the grand scheme of the events of the novel.
In summation, R. Scott Bakker has given eager readers of fantasy a great series to follow. Though there were minimal instances of roughness of a first novel in The Darkness that Comes Before, it reads refreshingly complete and holds much promise for further novels in this saga. No doubt that this a complex novel. Again, it is not a novel to simply breeze through, but readers looking for a novel that probes deeper than what they’ve come to expect, Bakker is amply up to the task. Amid the cluttered shelves of the Epic Fantasy genre, Bakker is a name that stands out amongst, not just the new writers in the crowd, but established and recognized names. The Darkness that Comes Before may be a line pulled from the novel of greater and larger things to come; hopefully, that can be applied to his future work as well. I heartily recommend this novel and eagerly await the next installment of The Prince of Nothing.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford