The OF Blog: PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness That Comes Before

Monday, May 10, 2010

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness That Comes Before

Ever since I first read The Darkness That Comes Before in May 2004 (I first imported the paperback from Canada, then bought a hardcover when the US release occurred a month later), The Prince of Nothing trilogy and the sequel trilogy opener, The Judging Eye, have been some of the more erudite epic fantasies that I have read.  However, I never really have written much in the way of commentaries or reviews (outside of two very short and spoiler-free pieces on wotmania, since lost when that website shut down last year).  Part of the reason why is because I got to meet Bakker at a Nashville booksigning in June 2004 and we began a very long and enjoyable email exchange/friendship (which tends to put a damper on the critical front, which is why I hesitate before commenting on certain others' books, until I have worked things through in my head) and part is due to trying to figure out a way of discussing the book without revealing too many possible thematic spoilers.  I think I have an idea now about how to go about doing this without being too certain of my claims (a point that I suspect the author, if he were to read this, would chuckle over).

Unlike my other commentaries, where I had very little to no interaction with the authors prior to reading/commenting on their series, much of what I have to say will be informed by some of the discussions and email debates that Bakker and I had over a few years' span.  This is not to say that I will be claiming what I say is in any shape or form "definitive", but rather these are takes derived from about 4-5 re-reads and some of the interviews and Q&As I arranged with Bakker (as seen in the links to the right under Interviews).  But enough with the justifications, now on to analyzing certain aspects of this novel (and some will be held back for the other volumes) that occurred to me while re-reading this book yesterday.

Examine the book's title:  The Darkness That Comes Before.  What can this possibly mean?  Is it a reference to an external EVIL force, or to something much more insidious and amorphous?  Or is it a combination of both, perhaps with the result (if not "intent") to draw readers into the story and then to rip away some of their assumptions about what the book may "be about"?

Each time that I re-read this series, I find myself thinking more about this book's title and especially the key thematic point of "what comes before determines what comes after."  And once that occurs, I "know" that I am no longer in a "safe" setting, where I can be a passive reader content to read the adventures of Kellhus, Achamian, Esmenet, Proyas, Conphas, and others.  No, I am now actively engaged with the text, wondering what content buried within the narrative could apply to me.  While this engagement certainly is nothing unique to this series, I believe (a very dangerous word in this milieu) that Bakker, more so than any other current epic fantasy writer, depends upon the reader being willing to take an "active" role in "participating" with the narrative, questioning assumptions and challenging assertions, for the unfolding story to have a strong impact.

The basic structure of the novel is deceptively simple.  Kellhus, a descendant of a lost-lost royal dynasty, is the product of nearly two thousand years of breeding and training by a secluded monastic sect called the Dûnyain.  Imagine some of the opening scenes from Kung-Fu or Enter the Dragon and some of the aspects of Kellhus' training can be understood more quickly.  He receives word of a dream message sent by his father, Moënghus, calling him out to the southern city of Shimeh.  The Ruling Council, the Pragma, sends him forth and then, contaminated, as they see it, by the Outside, commit mass seppuku.

Kellhus has grown up in a "conditioned" environment, where virtually all aspects of life, from emotions to muscular twitches to judging how a leaf will fall, have been controlled and analyzed to the point where the Dûnyain have heightened responses and the ability to master their environments.  It is a wonder to Kellhus when he encounters the unconditioned world and he quickly grasps how easy it is to master it, and its people.

Against this is a setting of oncoming holy war.  Some have criticized Bakker for following the major aspects of the First Crusade closely, but I suspect this is a deliberate similarity done in order to make several points about that world and our own.  In the novel, several characters think or say that "war is intellect."  But beneath it, there is something stronger.  There is the sense that war is certainty made concrete.  This is especially true for religious faith, which depends upon certainty for its bedrock.  And what happens when an individual schooled in the ways of mastering environments encounters those who are "certain" of their causes?

In re-reading this novel, I was struck by just how different in tone and feel Kellhus's scenes were with those of the leaders of the Holy War.  He is, for good or for evil, or rather, beyond good and evil, a Nietzschian übermensch in a world populated by unquestioning, non-skeptical humans.  The manipulations that Kellhus begins to manifest in this novel seem at first to be a bit much, but is it really different from the Bene Gesserit "Voice" used in the Dune Chronicles?

Several readers have found Kellhus's character to be repulsive and question why anyone would want to read a series full of "unlikeable" characters.  I have always wondered if in part the unspoken question is "Why would anyone want to read a story that makes me - and perhaps you - uncomfortable?"  There is much, of course, that is unsettling about this novel and its setting.  Take for instance, the way women are portrayed in this series.  They are seen as objectively "inferior" to men, with lesser souls, and it is evident within the text.  This runs so counter to modern perceptions of gender roles as to make several legitimately question as to why Bakker would create such a misogynistic society.

The answer I would posit is more unsettling than the possibility that Bakker himself sees women as being inferior (I don't believe so for a moment).  In a world (imagine the late movie trailer guy reading this aloud) where Faith is True and Evident, where Scriptures come to life, this happens.  But consider our own religious faiths and how women, slaves, people of "other" descent are portrayed.  Is what is shown to be "true" in an imagined setting more unsettling because it is grounded upon certain core beliefs of this world's major religious faiths?  I believe that it is.  What "darkness" comes before our belief of what will come after?

The prose is at worst serviceable and at times is well-written.  As hinted above, sometimes the dialogues feel a bit stilted due to the shifts back and forth from Kellhus's more "modern" perspective and those of the other characters.  The characterizations I found to be well-drawn, although Kellhus certainly can be hard to swallow at times due to how "alien" he is compared to the others.  Although there is little more than scene-setting and character introductions in this nearly-600 page novel, Bakker does a good job in establishing just how dangerous of a character Kellhus is and here, more so than in the latter novels, the direct impact of his manipulations can be seen.  There are also elements of mysteries, in particular about the nature(s) of the enemy, the Consult, and of the other sentient species living on the planet, the Non-men.

On the whole, The Darkness That Came Before was an enjoyable re-read, my first in over three years.  It still has the power to make me stop and question what I might believe to be "true" about the setting and its characters.  While there are times where the prose did not live up to the quality of its themes (as I said, it was serviceable at times and not spectacular), overall this was an enjoyable re-read.  Much more to say when I finish The Warrior-Prophet in the next couple of days.

9 comments:

Harry Markov said...

I believe that reading something that makes you uncomfortable has to do with the looker-on syndrome. You see a train wrck happen. You see it unfold and you know you shouldn't be looking, yet you can't stop.

Chad Hull said...

I tried this book a few years ago but the writing was too stiff for me; perhaps 'cold' is a better word. I never got far enough into the book for the characters to make me uncomfortable.

Larry said...

Chad,

I think the series is meant to have that "cold" feel to it. But there are some beautiful turns of phrase in it as well, especially in the second volume, which has always been my favorite in the series. But I will agree that at times, the narrative feels too distant for what Bakker may have wanted to achieve.

Harry,

This is more than just a train wreck sort of event. This is more akin to sitting in on a counseling session and listening to others laying out what deficiencies you have as a human being.

Harry Markov said...

Ah, then this sounds like a tough swallow for some people. I'm in the mood for something like this. I would like to experience something other than a plot, you know. A theme and perhaps even make me think and or reflect.

I enjoy the creative entrepreneurship with plot and world building, but I have other needs as a reader as well.

Larry said...

If you like extrapolations from Nietzsche and neurochemistry, then Bakker's series may be just the thing for you!

Harry Markov said...

I think I need to read Nietzsche as well. I think I have reached that level of maturity and patience.

Larry said...

He's not that hard to read. To process/argue? That's a different matter, as I discovered in grad school :P

Wise Bass said...

This was my favorite book in the series, and I enjoyed it immensely both on my first read, as well as my re-read.

He is, for good or for evil, or rather, beyond good and evil, a Nietzschian übermensch in a world populated by unquestioning, non-skeptical humans.

That's a good point. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, more than any other character I've read in fantasy, Kellhus is simply

beyond ordinary moral conceptions of how a person should be. There are plenty of monstrous characters in fantasy, "gray" characters, and "good" characters, but not, in my experience reading, many wholly amoral characters (that aren't something strange, like aliens or the like).

This runs so counter to modern perceptions of gender roles as to make several legitimately question as to why Bakker would create such a misogynistic society.

That was one of the two major issues raised in the gigantic "Bakker on women" debate at Westeros, if I recall correctly. The other was "maybe Bakker did intend it as symbolic and/or meaningful, but the visceral impact of it was so harsh that most women simply recoiled and dropped the series."

Anonymous said...

I am several years late to this discussion, having almost just completed the book. I found this thread after various searches on Baaker's portrayal of women. I am struggling, feeling exhilarated at the ideas and complexity of this world but also repulsed and even disgusted at the fairly uninteresting and powerless female characters, never ending rape. The women: hooker with a heart of gold, sex slave, and crone. The things done to and said about the women are disgusting. Conflicted about reading the rest, am I the only woman out there who likes to read fantasy?

 
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