Friday, 7 May 2004

The Darkness That Comes Before

R. Scott Bakker
Simon and Schuster UK
ISBN: 0-7432-5668-9

Two thousand years have passed since the destruction of the old world and mankind has rebuilt what it can. The No-God that brought about the First Apocalypse has long been forgotten, those who warn of his influence dismissed as scaremongers and paranoid fools. The game of politics is the primary concern now, not the invisible agents of an ancient and vanquished foe, and as the Shriah of the Thousand Temples declares a Holy War against the infidel the nations jostle for position.

Amid the political manoeuvring and the religious fanaticism, however, something darker is beginning. For the first time, one of the schools of magic has allied itself with the men of the Thousand Temples, those who would burn them at the stake. What do they want? Are they there to help or hinder the Holy War? The heir to a kingdom destroyed two thousand years ago has stepped into the limelight, claiming dreams of the Holy City, and joined the crusade. But he is the prophesised harbinger of the Second Apocalypse, and as the fate of the Holy War hangs in the balance the servants of the No-God move freely among the devout and the blasphemous alike, forgotten by all but a few…

In “The Darkness That Comes Before” R. Scott Bakker has begun something extraordinary. The world he has created is a fully functioning mirror to our own, intricate and detailed. It is at once familiar and alien, filled with both commonplace reality and fantastic wonder, the characters who inhabit it as human in their flaws and virtues as any one of us, but also capable of strange and terrible things. The situations they find themselves in strike a chord with the reader in their gritty realism, yet are still capable of provoking awe and horror as the author requires. This is a real world, populated by real men and women, yet it is at the same time a place where miraculous and terrifying things can happen. Being able to create such a living, breathing, and above all natural framework within which the magic can still flow from the page unhindered is a rare talent, and R. Scott Bakker clearly has it in abundance.

As the first part of a larger tale, “The Darkness That Comes Before” is obviously concerned a great deal with setting the scene and introducing the characters. While this could have rendered this first book rather tedious, the exposition is slowly and skilfully blended with the action and while this does slow the pace of the tale it never brings it to a dead halt, and the background information interesting enough in itself that boredom is never going to be a problem.

The only negative point that could be raised about this novel is a small thing, really – there is no real sense of completion as the book draws to a close, no milestone passed. As a teaser designed to keep the reader keen for the second book it also fails – there’s no cliffhanger to hold you, either. The book ends seemingly in mid-stride, as though cut inadvertently short. Like one of those advert breaks that interrupt your favourite TV program halfway through a scene, it is an inexplicable thing.

Despite the cut-off ending, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next book in the series purely on the strength of the writing and the tightly wound plot, so no real damage is done. This minor flaw can do little to offset the sheer scope of the novel, how it is as the same time both epic in scale and deeply personal to the characters involved. R. Scott Bakker writes with an effortless and refreshing style that brings the images evoked straight to the mind’s eye, while the material is philosophical in nature and intellectually fascinating. As such, “The Darkness That Comes Before” is granted a place of honour on my ‘When does the next one arrive?’ shelf, and a space beside it lies empty, waiting for book two.

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Saturday, 1 May 2004


L. E. Modesitt Jr.
ISBN: 0-765-30704-9

This second volume in the Corean Chronicles starts, as you would expect, where the first left off. The immortal ruler of Madrien has fallen and that country is no longer a threat to the beleaguered Iron Valleys. Alucius, now a Captain in the Valleys Militia, longs for nothing more than to return to his wife and farmstead in the wintry north, but it seems greater things are in store for him. The war with Madrien has bankrupted Alucius’ small country and when the larger nation of Lanachrona begins raiding across the border the Iron Valleys cannot afford food, arms or wages for its men and has no choice but to accept the rule of Lanachrona’s Lord Protector.

With the Militia absorbed into Lanachrona’s armies, Alucius finds himself and his men marching east to defend that country’s ally, Deforya, from the forces of a barbarian invader who would conquer all of Corus. Treated as expendable by his new commanders, Alucius and his men find themselves fighting ancient magical beasts thought little more than legends. Struggling to deal with threats from all sides, Alucius learns more about the Corus’ dark history and the sinister powers behind the shadow that threatens to overwhelm the continent. Forced to fight to protect the quiet life he longs for, Alucius becomes embroiled in an ancient conflict between good and evil and finds himself battling for the survival of life itself…

‘Darknesses’ is, I am happy to report, a significant improvement on the first book in the Corean Chronicles. While being - at least at first - a typical story of fantasy warfare, it cuts out much of the tedious description of everyday minutiae which plagued ‘Legacies’ and instead concentrates on the action, whether it be battle, intrigue, or Alucius’s worries about the future of both his men and his country under a new ruler.

However, in the latter the reader is granted only slight insight into the hero’s thoughts and motivations, just as before, leaving Alucius something of an enigma. While it may be that the author intended his hero to be so lacking in personality, it makes Alucius difficult to sympathise with as his single-mindedness and permanent calm give him an air of unreality. In a book where there is only really one major character, this is a serious problem. Excellent interludes written with subtle wit and style shed new light on the events unfolding behind the scenes, but they just act to reinforce the hero’s lack of character, as they are often populated by minor players granted far more depth in a few lines than Alucius is in the whole novel.

The failings of the major character aside, ‘Darknesses’ is an example of the old fantasy standby “the Return of an Ancient Evil” given a fresh coat of paint and with one or two new ideas inserted. The presence of high technology from a fallen realm in what is otherwise a very generic fantasy setting breathes new life into the setting while the magic, or ‘Talent’ as it is known, is vividly and powerfully described, but by themselves these slight innovations are not enough. Simply put, ‘Darknesses’ stands or falls only by the quality of Modesitt’s writing, so it is fortunate that his mind is capable enough to bring such vision and depth to the novel. Particularly in the final section of the book, following Alucius’ realisation of the enormity of the threat Corus is facing, the pace is thunderous and the narrative irresistible. The slow build-up pays off in a great rush of storytelling that keeps the pages turning until the epilogue, loose ends tied off and yet still a hint of menace remains, an ever-present threat that the battle is never over. As such, I am happy to carefully place ‘Darknesses’ on my ‘Worth the wait’ shelf.

This review was originally written for