The Darkness That Comes Before opens a rare epic. Review by S.K. Slevinski

Book Cover

It is when I read books like R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before that I realize how rare truly good fantasy is. Of course, I'm talking about "good" according to my definition—but the opener of Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy fits that definition precisely.

First count in Bakker's favor? His fantasy world is inspired by non-Western historical cultures. As much as I like knights and manors and all the trappings of medieval England/France/Germany, I can find those types of worlds in about 90% of fantasy novels. Bakker's world is, rather, evocative of the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean and the tribal inland cultures to its north—only this is not the world of a newly crumbled culture, but rather of centuries' old tradition. The Shimeh, leader of the confessional followers of the Scripture of "the Tusk", is intent on waging a holy war against heresy, including tribal societies and sorcery. Drusas Achamian, a sorcerer of the order of Mandate Schoolmen, is torn by his allegiances and his loyalties—not least of which with his former pupil, Inrau, now dedicated to serve the Tusk. Meanwhile in the neighboring Nansur Empire, the members of the royal family despise one another as much as they despise the Shimeh—but they are uneasily united by their common interest in using the Holy War to reassert the dominance of their dwindling empire. Among the warlike tribe of Scylvendi, chieftain Cnaiür has a crisis of his own. If politics among the nearby tribes were not enough, he is haunted by a mysterious philosopher from his youth who compelled him to kill his father and to question their tribal traditions.

In this novel, Bakker creates an epic fantasy of the highest quality. The characters, first off, are all adults. Why the majority of fantasy writers feel compelled to write adolescent viewpoint characters, I will never know. I can only applaud Bakker for avoiding the trend and giving us an adult story with adult characters. And by "adult" I mean sophisticated and attuned to complex character conflict—the sex and violence is affective but not gratuitous. Bakker keeps to the side of economy in his descriptions, much to his advantage. The characters lead this storyline, and they are morally ambiguous characters who lead the plot in unpredictable directions. Not 'unpredictable' in the sense that there are a dozen surprising twists or obvious formula reversals, but rather the plot carves its own path, and not one that has already been taken by a zillion other authors. This novel is an epic fantasy about characters who make decisions in reaction to given circumstances, whether for good or ill fortune. This is not a story about good guys and bad guys, but rather characters who are engaging to watch, likeable as much—and sometimes more—for their flaws as for their sympathetic qualities. Bakker also manages to avoid the exhausting "population explosion" that plagues much modern epic fantasy. He sticks to a limited number of main character groups in this novel. I can only hope this trend will continue in the later books.

I think that all fans of epic fantasy over the age of twenty should read this book. Just as the classics of epic fantasy first captured your imaginations of as young adults, Bakker's novel will cultivate (or sate) your tastes for sophisticated and complex adult fantasy.

S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.

Alternative Reality Web Zine: ISSN# 1559-3037

All materials on these pages (including fiction, poetry, essays, articles, interviews and opinion pieces) are copyrighted to the original authors and may not be reproduced without permission.

See who's visiting this page.View Page Stats