I’m back from vacation, at least for a few days ;). And thus I can give you the first review from my summer readings :).
The first installment in the famous grimdark sequence The Prince of Nothing, The Darkness That Comes Before, is as long and convoluted as its title. An almost 650 pages long, heavy piece of literary work (both literally and figuratively), Bakker’s debut had been a resounding one as well.
A time of Second Apocalypse is nigh… Sounds captivating, doesn’t it? It means that the First Apocalypse had already happened, that it wasn’t as all-encompassing as to kill everyone, and that survivors managed to carry the knowledge of that terrible event through the centuries to come. Unfortunately those in the know are few and far between, and do not enjoy any kind of esteem from their contemporaries. So it doesn’t come as a big surprise that they somehow failed to share their knowledge with others, and in the consequence, the majority of the humanity is heading blindly and meekly, like lambs, to their slaughter.
Bakker based his story on the real history of medieval crusades. His research cannot be faulted; it had been truly extensive and its results had been nicely – and thoroughly – incorporated into the fantastical setting of Bakker’s world. The amount of detail created – and borrowed – by Bakker is indeed staggering; his world is rich and varied, the many cultures and beliefs fitting nicely together. Most of them are variations of European and Near East cultures and beliefs; the Christians and the Muslims, the Byzantium and the feudal kingdoms of medieval Europe, the countless philosophical schools of Middle Ages – all is there, only slightly altered to fit the world built with magic. And indeed, if not for the presence of magic and non-human beings, The Darkness That Comes Before would read like an amateur rendition of the first crusades.
Wow, I’ve read what I have written so far and realized that my intended praise is undistinguishable from my criticism. And that sums this book up quite nicely – I’m rather divided over it ;). Don’t get me wrong – it’s written really well, Bakker certainly has a way with words. He writes musically, consciously, paying attention not only to the overall feel of the prose, alternatively emotional and clinical, but also to the construction of sentences and the words he uses. His vocabulary is rich and varied (or his dictionaries, as suggested by some reviewers), and on the very technical level it’s a real pleasure to read The Darkness… As I mentioned before, he did his research and it shows in the book. I’m a sucker for good medieval settings, that’s one of the reasons for reading this novel, but it turned out to be also a part of the problem here – I know a lot about Middle Ages, and I really don’t take kindly to gross omissions or outright mistakes. The crusades are an immensely interesting topic, especially today, when religious or semi-religious fanatical movements once again take the main stage. The psychological, social and economical mechanisms driving such movements remain basically the same, a thousand years in the past or today. It could have been a riveting, mind-blowing interpretation of that time, but Bakker sacrifices the reality for the sake of getting more grim and dark – and I’m not talking about magic or otherworldly beings, I’m taking about history and psychology.
Grimdark’s definition is a subject of much controversy – we’ve covered it before, more or less, so I won’t jump into that quagmire again ;). Suffice to say, almost everyone has their own definition of the word. Bakker’s definition seems rather simple. Grimdark = lots of blood + cruelty + slaughter + emotional detachment + psychopaths. Oh, and one more thing: a woman = a whore. There are 3 women on those 650 pages. One is an outright prostitute, and, according to a twisted, rather adolescent logic of Deep Throat, simply loves her job, climaxing every time someone bumps her. Which is often and rather detailed, I can assure you. She is a typical hooker with a heart of gold, but even though she truly loves one of the main protagonists, she still takes clients and takes pleasure in them. R. Scott Bakker, are you serious?! But wait, there are two other women, surely the author can create a three-dimensional, realistic character… Well, the second is so beautiful and stupid that everyone wants to claim her as a prize. And that means, surprise, surprise, that she is nothing more than a sex toy. A weeping one. The third one should be someone wielding great power. A mother to an Emperor, old and wise, a hidden mover and shaker… And yes, she is – what she mostly shakes is her son’s cock.
But that’s not the end of problems. The male protagonists are not better by much. With one exception, all of them are either sociopaths or psychopaths. The Emperor and his nephew, the Emperor’s mother, various sorcerers and advisors, the infidels and the barbarians… Pick your character, you have something like a ninety-eight per cent chance of picking a socially or psychologically deficient individual. Cnaiür, the archetypal barbarian, is psychotic. As a barbarian should be, I guess, looking at the literature – even Logen Ninefingers was, when you analyze his berserk rages through the psychological lens ;). The main, Christ-like figure of the Dûnyain monk, Kellhus, is a true sociopath, additionally endowed by Bakker with special powers of reading and manipulating human emotions on a supernatural level. Of course, he alone remains immune to the emotions and the general “Darkness that comes before” – the hidden, often illogical and irrational motives driving human activity. Yes, I realize that on the course of the two subsequent books he may well become the main villain, but still – his character is a pain to read, especially because everything comes so easily to him. In contrast to the only likeable protagonist, Drusas Achamian, a middle-aged sorcerer whose suffering and general degradation we must witness throughout most of the book. More of Bakker’s definition of grimdark, I guess. The end result is rather disappointing. The emotional detachment coupled with the unrealistic psychology of the protagonists makes it difficult for the reader to get attached or to root for any of them. The people in this novel are superfluous.
So why have I read it? And why am I going to read the next book? Have I uncovered a masochistic streak in myself? No, although I cannot absolutely rule it out :P. But The Darkness That Comes Before actually is a decent novel. It’s intriguing. The separate plots are nicely interwoven, creating a rich, complex world. If you gloss over the sexism and the homemade, completely improbable philosophy of the Dûnyain, if you don’t care about the psychological deficiencies of the (almost all) protagonists, and if you have a strong stomach… The rest is pretty good. And I like Achamian 😉