Review: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Book info:

Form: pdf e-book
Genre: epic fantasy/dark fantasy
Target audience: adults


It is really a complex book, as hard to summarize as e.g. the ASOIAF saga of George R.R.Martin or Jordan’s Wheel of Time  series. It is segmented into different parts, almost each of them following a different character and often set in a different country – overall not an easy, casual read.

Drusas Achamian is a Mandate sorcerer, plagued by  terrible and bloody nightmares. It is the Mandate school’s mission to fight against the mysterious Consult, an organization whose existence has not been seen in decades and which is evil. Achamian is commanded to uncover information about the plans of Maithanet, the Shriah of The Thousand Temples which is like the major religion of the region. Maithanet has recently declared the formation of a Holy War, a war that will take back the holy land of Shimeh and its aim will be to liberate their most sacret place, situated there. What Achamian discovers is a mystery that might potentially stain this newly-declared Holy War. His beloved, a whore from Sumna called Esmenet, gets involved into his spying activities and so she is propelled forward, right into the very middle of gathering armies and into the arms of another man, a knight and a high commander called Sarcellus. Will their love be strong enough to survive it?

Cnaiur is a Scylvendi barbarian, a survivor of the tremendous military defeat of his people at the hands of the martial prodigy, Ikurei Conphas. Soon, he meets Anasûrimbor Kellhus ,a 33 year-old Dûnyain monk and the son of Anasurimbor Moenghus. Moenghus was a man who, in the past, lead Cnaiur to revolting actions aimed at his father that still torture his soul. Kellhus recruits or rather mentally manipulates Cnaiur to be his guide through the lands of Earwa; they make their way to Momemn to join the forces gathering for the Holy War, both with the agenda of finding Anasurimbor Moenghus.

What I liked:
Firstly it is a massively epic fantasy novel based strongly on the Crusades and rooted in modern, philosophical discourse full of moral relativity. My inner geek loved every single historical and philosophical reference I could find and believe me, there were plenty of them, perhaps even too many. I suppose even if you dilluted this book you would get something highly original and memorable although not exactly nice.
 The world is so originally constructed and richly drawn that, let me repeat it once again, would fill several separate novels without any problem. What’s more the narration was executed flawlessly – the style of writing, especially compared to many other fantasy positions, was on a high level. It was such a relief to read a story written by somebody who actually can tell a story beautifully even if the events constituting that story are rather ugly.
The main characters are complex and three-dimensional and conflicted to say the least of it. No, they are not easy to relate to or to like, you would hardly wish to befriend any of them but they are interesting to read about. You would be hard-pressed to find many redeeming qualities in Achamian, a man who condemns his beloved pupil, Inrau, and leaves behind a woman he loves although he knows she might face a destitute life or even starvation. Esmenet cheats on Achamian time and again knowing fully well that he suffers and suffering with him but she simply cannot break the ‘whore’ mould. And, of course she must eat. Kellhus, a lonely monk with a mission is a Christ-like figure (of course appropriately skewed to fit in)  but he murders and manipulates people around him like his dear daddy, never sparing a thought for those he doesn’t need. He might be a great warrior with superhuman skills but he wouldn’t recognize an act of altruism even if it bit his bottom. A bunch of sweeties, aren’t they?
What I didn’t like:
I don’t have any problems with my memory but I admit I sometimes got lost among all those strange men, exotic names and places. Practically in every chapter you meet not one or two but several dozen new characters which might stop existing afer several pages or might reappear after a while. I do appreciate a creative, detailed world building but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing as well and I suppose this book was such a case, at least for me. After some time I didn’t even try to remember all those people apart from the ones who, like Achamian or Esmenet, appeared often enough to become more or less memorable.
You deal here with a multiple POV narration and I am not exactly a fan of such a solution either. When the perspective jumps between several characters constantly I become frustrated. It is not completely bad when you deal with just two-three narrators but when their number is increased to 5-6 characters or more I get a headache and my reading progress slows down significantly.

Finally let me tell you that I can’t get over how the book portrays women. There are two more or less important females in the main cast, one is a slave and a concubine called Serwe, the other, Esmenet, is a call girl. I found them both rather cynical and selfish. While Esmi could be clever, sympathetic and a bit more human from time to time, Serwe is a weak, blithering idiot. Just two women and several big armies of men – not a nice conclusion from my point of view. I know that it is in perfect accordance with the history of that era (11th century and later) but hey, fantasy is an area where you can change things, right?

Final verdict:
I never felt comfortable about this book which is a compliment of a kind. It’s interesting, layered, and populated with bastards who murder other bastards, maybe better and maybe worse than themselves. It is a fantasy world with enough differences from the norm that I felt like I was discovering something new.Still if you ever get in the mood for an intelligent fantasy read with a philosophical bent this one will suit perfectly.
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5 Responses to Review: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

  1. heidenkind says:

    How many pages is this book? It sounds great but I do have issues with long books.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    Ohhh I can see your page again

  3. Melissa says:

    This is a completely new one to me. Hmmm, I'm curious and I could consider it to read at one time. Sounds like I'd need lots of sticky notes too. ;)And I found you again!! You are on the list once more. Hopefully Feedly doesn't mess anything up and I can get use to a new reader. 🙂

  4. Thanks for your effort, Melissa ! When it comes to this series – I admit it can be a hit or miss. I would recommend borrowing it from your library.

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