A couple of weeks ago I read this review of the recently published The Great Ordeal on Speculiction. It instantly triggered me to read the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy, as The Great Ordeal is the third book of The Aspect Emperor series – a sequel to that first trilogy.
My previous review highlighted Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Theodore Sturgeon and his More Than Human. Coincidentally, R. Scott Bakker begins his book with a quote of Nietzsche from Beyond Good And Evil.
I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact that which these superstitious people are loath to admit – namely, that a thought comes when “it” wants, not when “I” want …
It’s not just some fancy quote to set the mood, as in Before They Are Hanged. It spells out the theme of the novel. Kellhus, the main character, was bred and raised by the Dûnyain, an ancient monastic order that makes it its goal to achieve control over one’s impulses and desires. The title of the book refers to the same theme:
The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?
If you’re not philosophically inclined, don’t let that quote put you off – the book isn’t full of preachy stuff like this – on the contrary: it’s character-driven, and there’s plenty of action and awe.
Whether or not the Dûnyain truly achieve “free will” – I’m sorry there’s that term again – remains to be seen at the end of The Darkness That Comes Before, but it’s obvious Kellhus is a character reminiscent of Dune‘s Paul Atreides – bred and raised by an ancient order too, messianistic, of noble blood, brilliant, and a bad-ass fighter. Put that way, The Darkness… might seem like painting-by-numbers epic fantasy, but let me assure you, such is not the case. It’s too tightly plotted, and conceptually much more interesting than mass-market successes like Abercrombie or Sanderson.
Of course, this is just the first book. It sets the stage, and I’m hungry for more, much more. Conceptually, it remains to be seen if Bakker will solve the paradox of another central theme: the fact that the hinges of history are often moved by small, trivial, accidental things – yet in this series’ world there’s prophecy too, and that prophecy is important. Then again, determinism and coincidence don’t have to be enemies, so Bakker should have an easy way out. We’ll see.
The Darkness… is – obviously – a dark book, both emotionally as physically. Yet most of the violence is understated, without overlong descriptions of what is happening, but instead focuses on minor details, which only make it more hard-hitting. Here’s a soldier wounded right above his groin:
There was a steaming rush across his thighs, the uncanny sensation of being gouged hollow.
Here’s a guy falling to his death:
Again he was floating, but it was so different – air whipping across his face, bathing his body. With a single outstretched hand, Paro followed a pillar to the earth.
The emotional darkness has multiple parts: there’s a rather cynical worldview (“history is only a pretext for power”), an insane character (again, understated, but creepy as hell), a prostitute with conflicting feelings on love, and a sorcerer on the brink of a burn-out.
The prose is good: tight and without hiccups. It’s not overtly poetic, and the book’s 638 pocket pages clearly put story first. That’s not to say there is no poetry or mood. There are descriptions, but not tedious, of every silken, embroidered costume painted with expensive, exotic pigments, as in so much of fantasy’s lesser novels. Bakker’s descriptions serve characterization.
The sun deepened her wrinkles and drew the shadow of her nose across her cheek.
But even as he returned his scrutiny to the parchment, a great hollow opened in the heart of his momentary resolution, like the stillness that chased ripples across the surface of a pool, drawing them thinner and thinner.
I was baffled on page 547, when a certain character turns out to be addicted to a drug that makes him live about a hundred years longer, and causes a few other interesting side effects too. Other authors would have introduced such a cool, fancy drug much earlier in their novels. Not so R. Scott Bakker. As much I thought the first two books in The Stormlight Archive were entertaining, Sanderson’s brand of fantasy just seems bubblegum to the seasoned dried meat Cnaïur chews on his travels over the wide, wild steppe.
Just to be clear: The Darkness That Comes Before is highly recommended. I already ordered The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought before I even finished it.
UPDATE: Much to my surprise, I’m extremely sad to report I abandoned book 2, The Warrior Prophet. I try to explain why in my review.