The Darkness That Comes Before  - R. Scott Bakker Several years ago, I suffered through a drought of decent fiction (this was my pre-GoodReads period; now I have a surfeit of potentially good stuff and I can’t choose). At any rate, I was saved by discovering not just one but two brilliant new series. The first was Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, whose virtues I have sung elsewhere. The second was R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before, the first book in The Prince of Nothing trilogy. In addition to being a damn good, intricately plotted, interesting story, the Prince of Nothing goes deeper to explore issues of faith, reality and love. And, best of all, Bakker’s work shows an author who has devoted a great deal of thought and effort in creating the world of Earwa and the Three Seas. I know it’s become trite but the series is comparable to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The Background: More than 4,000 years ago, the Nonmen (Cunuroi) ruled what would become Earwa and the Three Seas. Humans were skin-clad savages, and those living in Nonmen territory were their slaves. At some point, a vast “ark” fell from space in the northwest of the world, and the Cunuroi encountered the Inchoroi – a malevolent species desirous of nothing more than to wipe out all life from the earth. This first encounter resulted in bloodshed and Inchoroi defeat but the Inchoroi learned. They corrupted the Nonmen by offering them immortality, becoming their physicians. However, the Inchoroi’s real aims are revealed when the Womb-Plague kills all the Nonmen females. The result is a catastrophic war that seals the Inchoroi in their Ark. But the Nonmen are doomed, and when the human tribes that will become the kingdoms of the Three Seas migrate from the East, the Nonmen retreat to their underground Mansions.

During the first two millennia of the Years-of-the-Tusk, as the era is called, the highest civilization is attained by the Men of the North, where they are tutored by the Nonmen. Yet, as always, the lure of forbidden knowledge is too strong and a group of human sorcerers, led by corrupted Nonmen, breach the Ark and rediscover the lore of the Inchoroi. Allied with the few surviving Inchoroi, some Nonmen and the artificial races created by the Inchoroi (Sranc, Bashrag, Wracu), these humans (the Consult) bring about the First Apocalypse and the utter destruction of the North. Their ultimate creation is the No-God, whose very existence is so inimical to life that in the 11 years of its life no child is born alive. But the No-God is destroyed in the end and the Three Seas (the South) survives to rebuild. The Consult retreats to the Ark to plot a Second Apocalypse, the North is largely overrun by Sranc and the South recovers. The last, and most powerful sorcerer of the North, Seswatha, creates the School of Mandate to guard against the Consult’s return and ensures that they’ll remain true by forcing them to relive his fight against the First Apocalypse every night in their dreams. They await the appearance of the Harbinger, the last of the ancient Anasurimbor Dynasty, to signal the coming Apocalypse.

Whew…that just brings us up to the opening of our story.

There are three intertwined plots and four main characters in our tale. The first plot concerns Anasurimbor Kellhus’ quest to find his father, Moenghus, exiled thirty years before from Ishual, the Dunyain’s sanctuary in the North (more below). In order to succeed in his mission, Kellhus realizes he must control the Holy War.

Which brings us to the second thread in this book – The Holy War: In the 2,000 years since the First Apocalypse, two religions have developed in the Three Seas. Inrithism is a pantheistic creed; what classical paganism might have developed into absent Christianity. It’s rule through the Thousand Temples, led by the Shriah (the parallels with the Roman Catholic Church are palpable). Fanism is a monotheistic religion that has conquered much of the western Three Seas. In gross terms (though not in doctrine), its development parallels that of Islam. Maithanet, the current Shriah, calls a Holy War to recover the lost lands, particularly the Holy City of Shimeh, where Inri Sejenus, inrithism’s prophet, ascended to Heaven. Over the course of the series, this story is essentially a retelling of the First Crusade (AD 1096-1099) with fantastical elements. There’s a “Byzantine Empire” and even an episode lifted directly from the siege of Antioch.

The third strand in the narrative is the overarching machinations of the Consult, which has been manipulating events to bring about the Holy War and the end of Man. Their secret weapons are “skin-spies,” doppelgangers capable of impersonating anyone but undetectable by any means except the special perceptive powers of the Dunyain (see below).

All this revolves around four central characters:

Cnaiur urs Skiotha: A Scylvendi, a barbarian of the steppes and erstwhile chieftain of the Utemot. Thirty years ago he was seduced by Moenghus as that man traveled south, and has spent the last three decades nursing an all-consuming hatred of the Dunyain and what Moenghus did to him. He rescues Kellhus and winds up accompanying him to the Holy War as it’s the only way he can reach Moenghus and extract vengeance.

Anasurimbor Kellhus: Kellhus is the son of Moenghus and a scion of the Anasurimbor Dynasty, whose High King, Celmomas, died fighting the First Apocalypse. A survivor of the family found refuge with the Dunyain. The Dunyain are a monastic sect “whose members have repudiated history and animal appetite in the hope of finding absolute enlightenment through the control of all desire and circumstance. For two thousand years they have bred their members for both motor reflexes and intellectual acuity.” They’ve been perfecting themselves at a hidden sanctuary in the North and have had no contact with anyone else in all that time. The Dunyain’s studies and breeding have made them incomparable warriors (Kellhus easily plucks arrows out of the air, for example) and potential masters at manipulating world-born men, who are controlled by “what has come before.” Kellhus is brilliant and quickly realizes how easy it is to manipulate and control the benighted “children” he encounters in his travels. He also realizes that his father has had thirty years among these people to establish himself, which is why the Holy War must succumb to Kellhus’ control. Kellhus’ only flaw is that he (and the Dunyain, in general) is completely amoral. He ruthlessly uses people, ignoring (and ignorant) of the price he exacts.

Esmenet: A former prostitute, wife/lover of Drusas Achamian (see below) and eventually wife of Kellhus. She’s an extremely intelligent, courageous and beautiful woman trapped by her sex in the misogynistic world of the Three Seas. She lives vicariously through her customers but seizes the chance to do more when Achamian is swept up into the Holy War. Like everyone else, she is ruthlessly used by Kellhus, who makes her fall in love with him to supply children for his line, but accepts it as the price she must pay to matter.

Drusas Achamian: Achamian is my favorite character. Apart from Esmenet, he’s the most human and sympathetic of the four. He is a Mandate sorcerer. The Mandate is the only sorcerous school to survive the North’s destruction. Their lore derives directly from that of the Nonmen (the Gnosis) and is, consequentially, much more powerful than the poorly understood metaphysics of the southern schools (at one point Achamian holds off eight rival sorcerers alone, making a holocaust of the library he’s ambushed in). He’s tortured by the demands of his school, Esmenet, his friends and the knowledge that Kellhus is the Harbinger of the Second Apocalypse.

There is, of course, much more to this novel and its fellows but I hope this relatively brief glimpse of its complexity would prompt a reader to pick up Bakker’s work – it’s well worth the effort.