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The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing) (original 2004; edition 2005)

by R.Scott Bakker

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Member:AHS-Wolfy
Title:The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing)
Authors:R.Scott Bakker
Info:Orbit (2005), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 656 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:Fantasy, Prince of Nothing, 999 challenge

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The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker (2004)

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English (38)  German (2)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  All (42)
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
"The Darkness that Comes Before" by R. Scott Bakker is an epic fantasy inspired by historical events. Unfortunately, it is a deeply flawed work.

Although the novel exhibits a number of problems, the most severe and obvious might be Bakker's treatment of women. I generally give broad leeway to artists and writers to realize their visions without worrying overmuch about political correctness. But I honestly believe there is no book I've read that is more sexist and misogynist than this one.

The book is set in a extra-dark fantasy version of the Middle Ages, around the time of the First Crusade. (Having read a book on the history of the crusades, it was easy to see the borrowed plot points and characters.) The book has a huge cast: dozens of characters. Among them all, there are only three women. One is a prostitute. One is a sex slave. And the last one, a very minor character, is the elderly mother of an emperor. (The only thing Bakker tells us about the mother's background is that she sexually abused her son when he was a child.) The prostitute, a major character, spends the whole book with almost no agency, being pulled around by events, and doing nothing of significance except serving as a source of shame and emotional comfort for one of the male main characters. The sex slave spends the whole book getting repeatedly raped (and occasionally beaten) and makes no meaningful contribution to the plot whatsoever.

The internal thoughts of each of these female characters are also absurd: they seem to have no hopes or dreams besides being with the particular man each of them fancies, no curiosity about the world, and are mentally oblivious to the great historical events playing out around them. And, of course, they think about sex almost all the time.

The actual Middle Ages didn't grant women anything like equality, but the situation wasn't nearly as ridiculous as in Bakker's world. In the real world, women did make up roughly half the population, after all, and many powerful men had wives, daughters, or sisters. (None of the dozens of men in Bakker's book has a wife, daughter, or sister, and only one has a mother.) Women could be valued for a variety of reasons, including many of the reasons modern couples appreciate each other. There were female rulers (such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Theodora of Byzantium) and Joan of Arc, a military/religious leader. It is saying something when you read a book and the historical Middle Ages look extremely favorable for women by comparison with its setting.

But enough on that. There are two other problems with the book that stand out to me:

The monk, whom we meet in the prologue, turns out to be too skilled at everything with too little basis for being that good. It has a bit of the feel of childish fiction where one character is a perfect person whom the author secretly desires to be.

To say the book is "dark" is true, but it doesn't get across the way that Bakker revels in making things awful, when they don't really have a need to be, to serve the plot or character development. It is sort of like "nasty situation porn," not in the sense of being sexually pornographic, but in the sense of presenting nasty situation after nasty situation, in order to satisfy an appetite to devour descriptions of nasty situations. I've read books that were very dark and that I thought were excellent. "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville is an example. The difference here isn't that Bakker's book is darker or nastier- it's not. The difference is that the darkness and nastiness are pointless.

So, are there any upsides to Bakker's work? Well, I've got to admit that he's a very strong writer. His use of language is skillful, and his book is hard to put down- you want to see what happens next. (It turns out that reading the whole book leaves you unsatisfied, as it cuts off in the middle of the story. You have to commit to reading the trilogy if you want to find out what happens. So it was a disappointment in the end on this score as well.) There is an element of philosophy to the work, mostly the tired question about determinism vs. free will, but nonetheless, it does give the book a certain intellectual flavor that most fantasy lacks. (The title of the book, "The Darkness that Comes Before," refers to Bakker's idea of determinism being a consequence of one's lack of knowledge of the actions and events that led to the current point in one's life.) Overall, the book has a high level of technical craftsmanship, and also considerable dissimilarity from other fantasy fiction. I can see both of these things being appealing to many readers.

If you are interested in political fantasy, consider "The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison. If you're looking for sorcery and adventure, try "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss. Or you can try the "Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin. ( )
  jrissman | Jul 14, 2017 |
The Darkness That Comes Before is the first book of the Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Bakker (which is then followed by the Aspect Emperor trilogy).

Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a monk of the Dûnyain is a descendant of the high kings whose line was thought to have died out millenia ago (he might sound like Aragorn, but trust me, he's really not.) Answering the call of his father, he sets out to find his destiny in the city of Shimeh. Meanwhile, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples (the majority religion) has called a Holy War to recapture Shimeh, which is in the hands of heathens. This Holy War is seen as an opportunity for advancement by many, including the the Emperor Ikurei Xerius III, who hopes to conquer all the lands his empire once held. Drusas Achamian, a sorcerer and spy, is sent into the middle of these events to look for an enemy that hasn't been seen in centuries and that even he hardly believes in. Also caught in these events are the harlot Esmenet, the barbarian warrior Cnaiur, the princes Nersei Proyas and Ikurei Conphas, and hundreds of thousands of others.

The world of Eärwa is well-realised, with a complex religious and political system. Bakker throws you straight into it - you figure out a lot of the history and context through character dialogue rather than exposition. Although this can be a bit confusing at times, overall it's immersive and makes the world feel very real.

The characters, on the other hand, weren't as great. The protagonist, Kellhus, is cold and manipulative, focusing only on his mission to get to his father, and he doesn't have any personality otherwise. His ability to predict and persuade people is supposedly based in the logic imparted in him through his Dûnyain training, but that's extremely implausible, so I just thought of it as superpowers. In any case, he gets whatever he wants whenever he wants it, and he isn't even likeable.

Out of the other main characters, Esmenet is self-pitying and cloying, Ikurei Xerius III is paranoid and self-absorbed, Ikurei Conphas is smarmy and power-hungry, Crainur is a murderous rapist, Serwë is a dimwit, Proyas is a zealot... I could go on. These aren't just one facet of the characters - they are almost all defined by them. Drusus Achamian was the only compelling one - his internal conflicts are the most lifelike, his love for his ex-students versus his duty as a Mandate Schoolman, his inexplicable attraction to Esmenet, and his teetering faith in the existence of his enemy all make him sympathetic.

A lack of good women characters isn't always a bad thing - especially in books with otherwise strong characters (for instance, in The First Law trilogy). However, Bakker's treatment of women is absolutely atrocious. Every woman is a harlot - from dowager to street whore. The two main women, Esmenet and Serwë both make their living via sex. There are some very unpleasant revelations in the story made about the emperor's mother, Ikurei Istriya. None of them are portrayed as intelligent, either. Even women mentioned only in passing are loose or sad - Cnaiur's wives are constantly crying and his mother was easily seduced, Serwë met with nothing but jealousy from other women - that's all we even hear about them.

All this makes for a pretty depressing book, and I'm still not sure if the worldbuilding and plotting makes up for it enough for me to want to continue with the series. ( )
1 vote kgodey | Apr 11, 2017 |
this was a callously cold and brutal book. Some of the violence and most of the graphic sex seemed to be there just to shock the reader at how pathetic the characters were. Gods, wizards, warriors, politicians, all coming together for another apocalypse 2 thousand years after the previous apocalypse. Nothing in this book made me want to read the next book in the series. ( )
  BookstoogeLT | Dec 10, 2016 |
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 series – and I want to catch up badly.

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.

(...)

Please continue reading on Weighing A Pig... ( )
  bormgans | Nov 6, 2016 |
Well, apparently I got over my sci-fi kick and finished this after all.

It's a big sprawling book, and as some of the other reviewers mention it has some fairly unlikeable central characters, but I found that part of it's charm. I also suspect the ones that others found sympathetic, are the ones I wanted to smack and vice versa. Esmi, for instance, is so annoying, Cnaiüs is fascinating, and I could have done with more Kellhus.

Although it switched POV fairly often, I think the number of pov characters was manageable, and it was clear who was speaking when. So the style didn't bug me as much as it sometimes does.

There's a lot of politics and conspiracies and plotting, and a lot of war. I found it interesting that although sorcery and it's use or not, is a major central plot of the world itself, it was rarely used in the books, making it much less of the deus ex machina that it can turn out to be, and making it much more dramatic when it does show up.

Overall, a solid winner, and very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series. ( )
  krazykiwi | Aug 22, 2016 |
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I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact which these superstitious people are loath to admit -- namely, that a thought comes when "it" wants, not when "I" want ...
Friederich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
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To Sharron - before you, I never dared hope
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(Prologue) One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten.
All spies obssessed over their informants.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143013742, Paperback)

Many centuries ago, the world was nearly destroyed by the dark wizards of the Consult, and the High King's family was wiped out--or so it seemed. Then from the wild, uncharted north comes a mysterious and extraordinarily powerful philosopher-warrior, Anasurimbor Kellhus, descendant of the ancient High Kings. But the return of the king's bloodline is little cause for rejoicing. For Kellhus's appearance may signal the overthrow of empires, the destruction of the sorcerous schools, the return of the Consult demons--and the end of the world.

The Darkness that Comes Before is a strong, impressive, deeply imagined debut novel. However, this first book of an epic fantasy series is not accessible; it reads like a later volume of a complicated ongoing series. Author R. Scott Bakker has created a world that is very different from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, yet in depth of development comes closer than most high-fantasy worlds. In addition to providing five appendices, Bakker attempts to make his complex world clear to readers by filling the prologue and opening chapters with the names of characters, gods, cities, tribes, nations, religions, factions, and sorcerous schools. For many readers, this approach will have the opposite effect of clarity. It's like demonstrating snowflake structure with a blizzard. --Cynthia Ward

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:57:50 -0400)

Two thousand years have passed since Mog-Pharau, the No-God, last walked among Men. Two thousand years have passed since the Apocalypse. In a world wrenched by holy war and devastation, a sorcerer, a concubine, and a warrior find themselves captivated by a mysterious traveller from lands long thought dead, a man who makes weapons of insight and revelation. Unable to distinguish the passion that elevates from the passion that enslaves, they fall ever deeper under his thrall, while what begins as a war of Men against Men threatens to become the first battle of the Second Apocalypse.… (more)

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