Title: The Darkness that Comes Before
Series: The Prince of Nothing #1
Author: R. Scott Bakker
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?
Kellhus Anasurimbor is looking for his long lost father.
A sorcerer and spy seeks news of an ancient enemy; an Emperor seeks to expand his territories, while his general dreams of the throne; the leader of the Thousand Temples seeks a Holy War against the infidels; a barbarian chieftain seeks vengeance against the man who disgraced him.
All of them are headed to the same place: Shimeh, the holy city of the Latter Prophet.
But something else is stirring behind the politics and the war: an ancient evil, almost forgotten, that could bring about the Second Apocalypse.
A closer look
This book has been sitting on my TBR for ages. Literally. I kept looking at it at least once a month, thinking “uh, maybe“, and then picking up something else. I finally picked it up on a whim and I’m so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it. It was in no way perfect, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and it was more interesting than I could imagine.
After a prologue that takes place about 2000 years before the story, the book is split into four sections, each mainly following one of the main characters: the sorcerer, the Emperor, the harlot, and the warrior. There are many little scenes throughout the novel that follow the pov of minor characters, but five characters have the spotlight.
Kellhus Anasurimbor is the heir of an ancient line of kings, thought to have been extinguished thousands of years ago. After living in isolation in some sort of monastery for all of his life, he suddenly receives a call in his dreams by his own father, disappeared thirty years before, ordering him to travel south to the city of Shimeh to meet him.
The monks he has lived with have instructed him in the mysteries of the Logos and of what comes before, which is a fancy way of saying that he can guess and influence what other people are going to do and say based on what comes before their actions, i.e. circumstances, cause and effect, and all that kind of stuff. It sounds lame, but I promise you, it’s much cooler when you see it in action.
Then there is Drusas Achamian, a middle aged sorcerer of the School of the Mandate. Schools are like the factions of magic users in this world; while there are quite a few, the one Achamian is part of is one of the strongest, mostly because they remember more of the chants and words they need to use magic. All the acolytes of this school are also plagued by dreams of the First Apocalypse thanks to their founder, a sorcerer who lived thousands of years before and has cursed his followers to relive his life every night in their dreams so that the horrors that he lived through would not be forgotten or permitted to come back.
Mainly, it means that the school Achamian is part of is the only one that still takes the threat of the Consult seriously; after they disappeared from the face of the country for centuries, the worshippers of the No-God are deemed to be no more than a piece of old history by the other schools. But it’s a little difficult to ignore, when every time you close your eyes you live the horrors of their way once again, isn’t it?
Next in the line of the main characters is the Emperor, Ikurei Xerius III, who shares part of his stage time with his nephew Ikurei Conphas, the young general of the Empire, a military genius who is also heir to the throne. Their family relationship is complex and built on a delicate balance of move and countermove: the Emperor is mainly a paranoid idiot who has brilliant ideas from time to time, the general is mainly a genius with moments of idiocy. They are a perfectly matched pair, and when mixed together with the Emperor’s old mother, their family moments are sometimes hilarious.
The Emperor dreams of expanding and annexing all the territories that his Empire has lost in the last few centuries due to incursions from barbarians in the north and west. His opportunity comes along in the form of a Holy War: Maithanet, new head of the Thousand Temples, has declared that the sacred city of Shimeh has to be reconquered from the hands of the Fanim infidels, but he will need help from the Empire, both for supplies and for guidance against the unknown enemy, and it’s the perfect opportunity for the Emperor to ask what he wants in exchange for his support.
We then follow Esmenet for a while, one of the few female characters in the story. She is, as her section announces, a harlot; that’s how she lives her life, even now that her youth is slowly fading. She is also Achamian’s friend and lover when he travels through – or is deployed in – the city she lives in. When Achamian settles with her for a while during one of his reconnaissance missions, she is frustrated at what little interest he has in her opinions; but she refuses to stop taking customs for him, and he refuses to bring her with him when he leaves, even though the separation hurts both of them. But when she meets a horrifying presence that she can only imagine is her lover’s ancient enemy, her first thought is to warn him of what she discovered. After years of living her life only worrying about the next customer and reminiscing about her lost child, she sets off to find Achamian again.
The last character in this list is Cnaiur, the chieftain of one of the barbaric tribes in the north of the Empire. In the beginning of the story, all the tribes are preparing to battle against Ikurei Conphas, and we discover pretty soon that despite his battle prowess Cnaiur receives little respect from many of his peers, mostly because he allegedly helped a foreigner to kill his own father. He was the most interesting character to read from, for me; his struggles were more human than most, and the relationships he develops throughout the story are compelling to follow.
Bakker’s characterisation has room for improvement, but it works for the story he is trying to tell. It mostly suffers in his female characters, who for the most part are victims – and that’s their main personality trait. The one exception is the Emperor’s mother, but she is not a “good” person by any means. Actually, I don’t think there is one good person in the whole novel. Bakker’s world is grim and cruel; thinking back on it, it’s almost unbelievably so.
So let’s talk about the worldbuilding for a second. The author crafts a vast world, then takes the reader by the collar and throws him in without any guidance. It’s a bit hard to follow in the beginning: characters, cities and countries, religions, schools, hundreds of names are put on the page and the only thing the reader can do is nod and keep going. Slowly, things come together and it all starts to make sense, but it takes some time to adjust. There’s a brief glossary at the end of the book that helps; I wished I had noticed it from the beginning but unfortunately, reading the ebook, I couldn’t very well flip to the end and have a look. It helped to clarify some of the most obscure things even after reading the novel, though.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, this is definitely not the book for you. You can tell the author has spent a long time crafting every detail into shape. There are a lot of different cultures, philosophies, schools of thought; history and legends, ancient countries and forgotten dynasties, different kinds of magic, hidden enemies and old prophecies; sometimes it can be a bit tiring trying to keep your footing while wading through all of them, especially when you combine them with Bakker’s rich prose. It takes a while to get used to.
The names are a bit over the top and distracting at times too – some of them are an exaggerated conglomerate of syllables, and I’m not even bothering with the strange accents in this review because I don’t know where to find them on my keyboard – but you get used to most of them after a while.
I realise now that I haven’t really touched on the plot yet, but somehow I feel like saying something would already be too much. It’s kind of complicated. Having this many main characters means splitting the story into a similar number of subplots, and even though by the end of the novel they are finally all weaving together, it’s hard to say something without spoilers.
Maithanet, the spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples – whom we see very little, and even then from afar – wants a Holy War. Achaiman is sent to look for traces of the Consult; Cnaiur is looking for revenge; the Emperor wants his territories back; Esmenet wants to see the world and be with Achaiman; and Kellhus is looking for his father. Somehow, all of them are headed towards Shimeh, the Holy City, where the infidels and Kellhus’s father are waiting for them.
The whole book serves as an introduction of the world and the factions at play, and as a set up for what will come after. It might feel a bit slow at times, even though an entire year – if not more – passes during the book. There are also a couple of jumps back and forth in time, when the authors describes events happening at the same time but in different places and to different characters, but they are announced at the top of every section so at least that’s not confusing.
This book is only the beginning of what might be one of the most epic stories I’ve read so far, if it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. I don’t think I quite managed to give you an idea of just how much is packed in this story, and how much potential there is for the next books in the series; to really find out, you’ll have to power through a good chunk of this book and see for yourself.