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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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Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Despite a promising beginning, this series botched the characters, plot, and story structure so badly that it isn't worth reading. Whether you're looking for good writing and deeper meaning or just an entertaining fantasy story, you'll find neither here.

Let's start with story structure: despite ostensibly being a series, none of the three books here stand by themselves, instead each abruptly ends and then immediately starts up again in the next volume. Thus, The Prince of Nothing is a single book divided into three parts. Even taking this view, however, The Prince of Nothing is still an unsatisfying story because there is no resolution to speak of. Bakker proves incapable of writing a beginning, middle, and end even when given over 1,800 pages to do so. Instead, this whole series feels like one big prologue to whatever book set in this world he writes next.

Considering the pure tonnage of writing here you would expect the world to be fleshed out, since that's the only thing this massive tome actually seems to try to accomplish. Instead the world is strangely muddled, as Bakker chooses to hide elements of the world from the reader for no sufficiently good reason. There is, for instance, a chronicle of an event known as the First Apocalypse that is widely known in this fictional world, even by characters that can't read the chronicle itself. Thus, every character in the book knows the full saga, but instead of Bakker allowing the reader to know about these events as well, he gives a trickle of information that never edifies. When a writer keeps the reader ignorant in a way that a character is also ignorant then that can create sympathy. When a writer keeps the reader ignorant where all the characters are in-the-know, at best it's an unnecessary irritation and at worst it creates a hole in the world building. Apparently Bakker doesn't realize this. He also keeps the reader in the dark for a huge number of pages concerning the magic system on this world, though that seemingly stems as much from his own lack of understanding of the system as it does his desire to give the reader only scraps of information.

Moving on to the plot: there are machinations between characters here, but the main plot is a fantasy take on the Crusades, where a Holy War is launched by the fantasy Christians to retake the land occupied by the fantasy Muslims. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages are devoted to depictions of the battles of the Holy War and the trials and tribulations of the army. The problem is, none of the main characters of this novel care about the war at all. They use the war for their own interests, or follow it as part of an unrelated mission, and have no personal investment as to whether it succeeds or fails. The lone character who genuinely believes in the Holy War is a character named Proyas, a second-tier character who is fleshed out little. Thus, for the hundreds of pages of battles it's impossible to care if the army takes that city or fights off that cavalry charge or if troop morale is low or high. What was Bakker thinking, making every major character care about revenge, power, control, knowledge, love, every conceivable motivation except for the one motivation of faith that actually would drive a Holy War? Thus, all the battles are mere background to the different plots of the characters.

This flaw is magnified by the fact that we learn early on that this whole war between the fantasy Christians and fantasy Muslims isn't important, because the battle between good and evil is right around the corner. The passages where dreams explore the First Apocalypse are actually interesting, and have stakes, compared to the Holy War where it seems of little import who wins or who loses- the real battle is up ahead. The fact that the real battle is never reached (is never even begun) further emphasizes the prologue nature of this series.

When the final volume "explains" the Holy War, it makes very little sense (if I'm understanding it correctly the idea was that it would allow for the world to be unified against the great evil that will soon emerge. How exactly does the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people based on religious and ethnic differences lead to unity?). The main overarching plot is a huge mistake on Bakker's part.

Finally, on to the biggest flaw of this book, the characters. Specifically one character, Kellhus. Kellhus is at first presented as preternaturally good at manipulating people. Fine, though I think it strange that Bakker identifies homeschooling as the path to extreme social competence. But then it's revealed that he's also the most amazing fighter ever, capable of beating the best warrior in the world in single combat having only suffered one blow. Later on someone mentions that the only thing he lacks is the ability to use magic. Then it's discovered that he is one of the very, very few who can use magic, and he's the best ever at it. He's also an incredibly quick learner of everything, and even designs some siege weapons that makes everyone's jaw drop, because why not? In short, Kellhus suffers from superman syndrome, being so good at everything that he's unsympathetic, there's no dramatic tension to anything he does, and in general he's not so much a character as he is a plot robot.

I don't mean to suggest that Kellhus would be a better character if he had fewer strengths, though, since as soon as Bakker granted Kellhus the ability to manipulate people this whole character was hopeless. An author has certain limitations on what characteristics he can write, and those limitations are based on the author's own characteristics. Thus, if an author isn't smart, that author won't be able to write very smart characters. He can write characters that are quicker with a comeback, or who know a lot about a topic, because for the former the author can take time writing something that he or she wouldn't be able to think of on the spur of the moment, and for the latter the author can do research and put that in the character's mouth. How smart a character is, though, is limited by how smart the author is, since if an author were able to successfully answer the question "hmm, what would someone smarter than me do?" then that author would be the smarter person. That's not a loop that happens. In this case, the relevant limitation is that an author can't believably write a character who can understand and manipulate people better than the author can. Bakker is clearly no savant at manipulating people: the chapters showcasing Kellhus's mastery over others are thoroughly unconvincing, the theoretical underpinnings of that mastery are laughable as well. Instead we have a character mentioning bland "truths" about people and then those people begin licking that character's boots. It reminded me a bit of Ayn Rand, who populated her books with selfish lazy parasites to make the characters espousing her philosophy look better by comparison. Here we have a world populated by easily manipulated idiots in order to try to convince us that Kellhus is truly a master manipulator (and thus that Bakker can convincingly write such manipulation and understanding). Because of this the character that serves as the keystone of this narrative is not written believably or interestingly. It makes the book a mess.

This book raised my hopes in the beginning, depicting a dying world filled with monumental ruins of ages past, populated by strange creatures and a few humans struggling to survive. Then it turned into generic fantasy stuff, even including the cliche of a game with unexplained rules that symbolizes whatever the author needs it to. Then it turned into below average fantasy as the character of Kellhus gained more prominence. When it became clear that this book was going to focus on a war that no one cared about, while hiding some of the only interesting parts of the world, that it would blatantly serve as a prologue and not a complete book, and that it would take 1,800 pages to do it, it was revealed as yet another crappy fantasy series. Don't let the opening chapters fool you, this book is a waste of time. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
Ha! I love the reviews for this book. If you're older than 14, and have ever read anything the cover of which does *not* feature embossed gold lettering and a fire-breathing dragon Goddess, you love it. People who don't understand the 'show' vs 'tell' distinction but use it anyway, people who have the vocabulary of a 12 year old, and people who are unwilling to put in any effort whatsoever hate it. I don't read much fantasy, just because I can't take much description in prose, let alone the stilted, turgid style that seems to dominate the genre. But that's not a problem here.

Simply put, this is beautifully written, very intelligent and suitably imaginative. Reading it is a pleasure thanks to Bakker's style; it's engrossing thanks to the characters and the story; and it's funny if you can train-spot all the historical references. They range from the first Crusade (Xerius = Alexius I; Maithenet = Urban II) through a whole range of philosophical schools from the Eastern and Western traditions.

Most of the book is written in varying degrees of free indirect style, and occasionally Bakker's need to stuff information into a scene is a bit too noticeable. But given how much information the reader needs in order to understand the world she's being thrown into, it's not too outrageous. Sometimes Bakker has too many fragments, but they weren't too obtrusive. The real problem here was pointed out by another reviewer: the women are all whores or shrews. I don't mean 'in general.' I mean there are three women in the book, and they are whores or shrews. I'll give Bakker the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he's trying to point out a fact about our world's (deplorable) treatment of women by highlighting how badly they're treated in the world of the novel - the narrator is definitely sympathetic to Esmenet, at least. I hope he's writing those characters with something clever in mind; it's more than a little obnoxious otherwise. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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 | Sep 22, 2013 |
This book, and the series, is fantastic. Do yourself a favor and read them. A spectacularly well thought out world, characters, magic system, plots etc.


( )
  MitchHogan | Jul 25, 2013 |
While I think this book sets the stage for an interesting series I had a lot of problems really getting into the book itself. Bakker seems to be reluctant to build any real depth to his characters. Because of the general shallowness of the primary characters I have had trouble caring what happens to any of them.

For example, the character Kellhus - the first one we meet, is introduced in a very detached way and even though we get to see things from his perspective at times I just don't care if he lives or dies. There have been a few glimpses of what he is capable of martially and, because of that, I am anxious to see him in later battle sequences but, if he dies off in one, I don't really think I'll care.

It doesn't get any better with the rest of the characters. Each goes through some pretty substantial emotional trials but not once am I left caring how they make it through them. There was never any connection between me and them.

Even with all that though I'd still read the next book in the trilogy just to see what happens with the story line because the world itself is interesting and, perhaps, is the only character I am curious about at this point. ( )
  finalcut | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Epigraph
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
Dedication
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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:40 -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)

(summary from another edition)

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