I’m going to admit a few things up front here.
First, I didn’t finish The Darkness That Comes Before. I got about three quarters in before saying “No, R. Scott Bakker. No, I don’t want to read your gritty faux-biblical fantasy historical novel any more”. It may very well be that every criticism I’m about to lob at this book is shown to be misguided in the pages I skipped, but I very much doubt it.
Second, this isn’t really going to be a proper review, partially because a proper review would go something like “it could have been good but it’s not, don’t fucking read it” and partially because I don’t think it deserves that much effort on my part. Also spoilers.
The world of
EarwigEärwa is in something of a bad state. 2000 years ago the incredibly metal-sounding First Apocalypse ravaged the land, loosing armies of OrcsSranc and bowel-shredding pestilence and other assorted nastiness on the planet. The Three Seas are now ruled by factions of wizards, warriors and priests who fight among themselves in wars covert, barbaric and Holy. Only the Mandate, a school of magi whose members dream every night of their founder’s struggles and death during the Apocalypse, stand apart from the earthly concerns of the other factions and instead hunt for the Consult, the minions of the No-God who they believe are trying to bring about a Second Apocalypse. But the Consult haven’t been seen in over 1000 years, and the Mandate’s quest is viewed as a joke by the other factions. When the spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples declares a Holy War to retake the city of Shimeh an agent of the Mandate discovers possible evidence of Consult involvement behind the war and sets out to uncover the conspiracy. Many other players are pulled into the Holy War for their own ends, creating a complex interplay of politics, religion and personal vandettas with Shimeh at it’s center.
I’m going to spend a long throwing rocks at this book so let’s get the good out of the way first. Riffing on biblical times instead of Tolkien or Arthurian legend or whatever makes for a fairly unique and interesting setting. Bakker is pretty good at creating an evocative world without spending a lot of time on overt description (note that I said description, not world building- there’s more than enough of that to go around, as we’ll see) and the Three Seas at its best reminded me a lot of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag in terms of sprawling hive-like cities and vast political entities that the reader only ever catches a glimpse of. There’s a fairly big chunk of the book following a war and the associated political maneuverings of a Roman Empire-esque civilization that actually made me think the book was going to be pretty good. Bakker takes a sort of historical novel approach of jumping around the viewpoints of various important players in the conflict and manages to whip up some fairly gripping battle sequences and political intrigue, even if it does occasionally lapse into rich assholes standing around saying “ah yes, but have you considered this political maneuver?” or “but surely you jest!!!!!”. At times I felt like I was reading Death Note after it had really gone off the rails. But still. Fairly good stuff. If the book had just been about that I probably would have given it a thumbs up.
Unfortunately this turns out to only be a 100+ page diversion sandwiched between tedious bullshit on one side and disgusting tedious bullshit on the other. Where do I even start with this?
[Note: several people in the comments have pointed out that my assessment of the Islamophobic themes in the book are probably based on an incorrect interpretation of certain plot elements. As such I recognize that the following paragraph isn’t a valid criticism]
First of all,Bakker, when you want to write disparaging things about Muslims you should maybe think about making it a little less obvious. We’ve got a faction of intensely religious zealots who refer to their deity as “the God“, gather in their thousands in white open plazas to be whipped into pious fury by the proclamations of bearded spiritual leaders in the name of waging war to retake an occupied holy city which is linked heavily to the life of one of the religion’s prophets. Subtle. Oh, and they’re actually being partially manipulated into this by what are essentially the forces of Satan. To be fair the metaphor isn’t absolute, the holy city of Shimeh isn’t being occupied by anything resembling the state of Isreal- instead it’s being occupied by scary black people who love murdering white people. Hm.
In fact white people- or more specifically Aryan people- get something of a raw deal in Bakker’s fantasy world. Take for example the Scylvendi, vaguely Mongolian-ish (but not, as far as I can tell, actually Asian looking at all) nomadic warrior types who love taking slaves. Particularly blonde-haired, blue eyed slaves! This is reiterated several times over the course of the novel when a certain character I’ll talk about later gets himself capture by Scylvendi.
Let’s take a little detour to talk about Bakker’s writing. “Incoherent” would be a good way to describe it. It aims for weighty and magisterial and frequently just ends up not making a whole lot of sense. Mr Bakker, please take the stand and explain why you shouldn’t be thrown into Writer Jail. Could you please explain to the assembled men and women of the blogojury what exactly “a calligraphy of cries” sounds like or what “A curious halfness deadened the man” is supposed to mean. Really, Mr. Bakker? “Halfness”? I’m now going to read some quotes. Those of you with a sensitive disposition may want to cover your ears.
“The bright eyes of Anasurimbor Celmonas II, White Lord of Tryse, High King of Kunuiri, went blank. And with them, the evening faltered, plunging the bronze-armored glory of the Norsirai into twilight.”
Everything was so agonizingly tight, as though the flesh of the world had been dried taut across the gaps between bone: the net against the stone, the grid of shadows cast over the hollows, the watery beads cupped between the flex of tendons in his hands- so clear! And within this tightness, the sensation of inner blooming, of the collapse of seeing into being, as though his eyes had been wrung into the very heart of things. From the surface of the stone he could see himself, a dark child towering across the disc of the sun
[Bakker appears to have a certain obsession with things being outlined against the disc of the sun]
“[the name of the Thousand Temples leader] meaning would be unknown to you. Mai’tatana is Thoti-Eannorean, the language of the tusk.”
He possessed, Esmenet thought, the attractive vulnerability of young men in the shadow of the world’s bitter hammers.
Every great faith was a labyrinth possessed of innumerable small grottoes, half-secret places where the abstractions fells away and where the objects of worship became small enough to comfort daily anxieties , familiar enough to weep openly about petty things. Inrau had found his grotto in the shrine of Onkis, the Singer-In-The-Dark, the Aspect who stood at the heart of all men, moving them to forever grasp far more than they could hold.
This writing has all the hallmarks of an author operating under the mistaken belief that complicated prose is the same as quality prose. It’s all window dressing, communicating nothing except that the author isn’t nearly as intelligent as he thinks he is. There’s also a heavy propensity for repetition here- prepare to have the phrase “perfumed eunuchs” tattooed onto your cerebral cortex after reading this book. And the world-building. The constant, never-ending world building. Within the first 50 pages you’ll be lost if you can’t learn to differentiate your Trinkets from your Choraes or divine how the Scarlet Spires and the Mandate differ from each other and the other Schoolhouses, what the Imperial Saik is and why Emperor Xerius of the Nansurium must take steps to avoid Shrial Censure during his manipulations of the Holy War.
I’ve written before about the trend toward “gritty” fantasy, often described derisively as grimdark because to many critics it represents a genre that isn’t so much growing up as going through a particularly obnoxious adolescence, with characters and stories seemingly designed to make Uncle Tolkien turn in his grave more than anything else. Bakker has earned a reputation as being something of an innovator in this field, and with good cause- the world he’s created here is almost unrelentingly dour and slimy, regularly visiting all quarters of the grimdark spectrum. If women and children aren’t being cut down in pointless wars then people are shitting in chamber pots and traipsing through alleyways filled with maggoty fish and intestines. Slaves are castrated and have their eyes put out off-screen, wives are raped and beaten, children are barely ever brought up without reference to them being savagely whipped by their parents. I have to wonder why people fall over themselves to praise this sort of writing as bold and genre-defying when a writer of contemporary fiction who repeatedly described characters recalling their abusive upbringing while having explosive diarrhea next a slaughterhouse effluent pipe would probably not receive critical acclaim simply for being disgusting.
It goes well beyond grossness, though. Grimdark is woven into the very fabric of the story, down to the particular viewpoint characters Bakker chooses. We spend chapter and chapters in the heads of monomaniacal emperors who torture their servants at the drop of a hat and monomaniacal generals who torture their enemies at the drop of a hat and monomaniacal tribal leaders who torture their slaves at the drop of a hat and monomaniacal warrior-monks who interact with people only as far as they’re useful before leaving them to die at the drop of a hat. The screaming apex of this is Cnaiür urs Skiötha, a Conan the Barbarian rip off who is at one point betrayed by his clan and left for dead. In retaliation he tracks down the man who usurped him and slaughters his children. Just straight-up murders them all horribly and painfully, at one point throwing the fingers of a young boy at the tent of his adversary to lure him out into the open. I’m sure Bakker’s defenders will point to the numerous passages in the book describing this character as “insane” and monstrous, but while the characters may recognize he’s an evil bastard, the novel itself doesn’t seem to as we’re clearly supposed to still care on some level about Cnaiür and be interested in what happens to him, even though after reading about him impaling a little girl on the end of his sword all I wanted to read about was him getting drop-kicked off the edge of a cliff. I might as well say now that this character is what ended up killing the book for me- there’s a scene where he bests several rival Conan knock-offs in a fight and then takes one of the women they had been intent on enslaving as his prize. One of the other women, who he frees (don’t worry, we’re assured they won’t last long before meeting their untimely deaths) starts to hurl abuse at his new plaything. This is how Cnaiür The Barbarian responds:
He nocked and loosed an arrow in one effortless motion.
The shaft caught the noblewoman in the mouth, shattering teeth and embedding itself in the moist hollows of her throat. She fell forward like a doll, thrashed amid grasses and goldenrods.
At which point I said “fuck you and your edgy bullshit, I’m not reading another page of this”. I am sure that Bakker will cry fowl at this point, insisting that he wallows in hideous violence only to highlight the tragic plight of the disenfranchised like women (more on that in a bit) in his world, but why then are we so consistently placed into the viewpoint of the perpetrators of this violence? If someone wrote a book they insisted was about the plight of Jews during World War II and yet focused almost entirely on the inner thoughts and feelings of Nazi officers, their hopes and fears and the events that had shaped them, while actual Jewish characters were one-dimensional non-entities who showed up from time to time to be horrifically slaughtered in graphic detail, wouldn’t the reader be justified in wondering where the author’s actual interest lay?
Skilled writers can often make unpleasant or even evil characters interesting and sympathetic, but there’s a line. Bakker sails blithely across it and then expects us to follow him, something I was unwilling to to do. You can say that makes me a prude if you want, but I prefer to see it as an unwillingness to tolerate juvenile nonsense in the fiction I consume.
How else does Bakker plumb the fiction mines for premium grade Grit? Naturally women are involved, because if there’s one thing Serious Fantasy authors love to do it’s degrade women in their fiction. This is very much a man’s world Bakker has made, where people of all cultures and nations equate weakness with being “womanish” and women are inferior, filthy whores to be possessed and cast aside when one is done with them. Of the women or female-identified mythological beings who appear in the book it took more than 280 or so pages- more than half the novel- to encounter one who wasn’t literally a “whore” (Bakker’s word, not mine), figuratively a whore in the cosmology of the world, or degraded by being referred to or compared to a whore. It’s just wall-to-wall whores, “whoreish manners”, women “acting like whores” or being called whores for annoying the male protagonists. The fact that the sole female viewpoint character in the book is a prostitute really makes me wonder just what Bakker’s obsession with this particular concept is. Oh and needless to say, rape is involved, because rape is the easy go-to solution for an author who wants to make his world gritty and real.
Last of all I want to talk about Kellhus, who from what I can gather is actually the main character of this thing despite not appearing all that much. He’s part of a vulcan-like sect of reclusive monks who operate on pure reason and follow a philosophy that allows them to instinctively read the facial expressions of other people to work out their thoughts and motivations. Somehow this also makes them super badass fighters able to pluck arrows from mid air and kill scores of people single-handed (hello, obvious nerd power fantasy). Their whole shtick is analyzing the culture of anyone they meet and then coming up with revolutionary-sounding guru-like proclamations that will win them devout converts that they then use to further their own, usually highly amoral aims. Unfortunately the things Kellhus actually comes out with through the course of the book are either trite, obvious notions that any reasonably intelligent member of a culture would probably have thought up on their own or just don’t make any sense, so you have characters standing around gasping and saying “such wondrous insights!!!!!” in response to shallow bullshit. Remember what I said earlier about an author believing he was smarter than he really is? Well.
We can talk about this book’s iffy thematic content and idiotic grimdark elements all we want, but at the end of the day the book’s biggest flaw is that it’s just dull. Characters sit around endlessly contemplating their navels for chapters at a time, frequently seguing into multi-page flashbacks mid-conversation, most of the time to give information that has already been conveyed or wasn’t necessary to begin with. Our old friend Nothing Fucking Happening rears his head throughout the book, such that by the halfway mark I was working hard to resist the urge to skim. The oppressively adolescent grittiness pushed me over the edge soon after.
In the end The Darkness That Comes Before sums up all of the problems of the fantasy genre, both those that have been with it since its inception and those that have cropped up during its recent growing pains. It’s a deeply juvenile experience cloaked in a veneer of respectability and grandiosity that only serves to further emphasize how bankrupt of any real worth it truly is. I honestly believe this could have been a good story. There’s some worthy material here, but it’s buried under tedium and over the top violence, pointless and sometimes sickening misogyny and the pretensions of an author who can’t write at nearly the level he’s aiming for.