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.

This review was originally written for