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The Darkness That Comes Before: Book One of The Prince of Nothing

by R Scott Bakker

(Simon & Schuster, 10.99, 577 pages, trade paperback, published 1 March 2004. Orbit, £7.99, 644 pages, paperback, published June 2005.)

Review by John Toon

It's been two thousand years since anyone heard cover scanfrom the Consult, occult disciples of the No-God, and for all anyone knows they're just a myth. Only one school of sorcerors, the object of its peers' mockery, still keeps watch for the signs of Consult activity. When an enigmatic new religious leader, Maithanet, seizes control of the Thousand Temples and declares a Holy War against the enemies of the Inrithi, the sorcerors send Drusas Achamian out into the world to gather information for them; the last thing he expects to find is evidence that the Consult still exist, and are preparing for the No-God's return. His chief friend in the dark days that follow is Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a man whose coming presages the end of the world ...

Yes, this is the stuff. The marks of conventional fantasy fare are upon it -- although the character list, pronunciation guide and maps have been discreetly shunted to the back of the book, and the abuse of vowel accents is kept to a tolerable level -- and the apocalyptic backdrop is straight off the peg, and yet The Darkness That Comes Before is far from ordinary. It has a murky, textured atmosphere that allows us to really feel the intrigue in the Nansur Imperial court, the religious fervour building in Sumna, the exposed ruggedness of the Scylvendi lands. Its richness of detail complements this richness of ambience, ensuring that foreground and background alike catch the reader's attention. Complexity is the watchword here.

Clearly we have a prodigious talent in R Scott Bakker. He has a canny eye for character and a genuine flair about his prose; The Darkness That Comes Before is riddled with engaging personalities and deeply satisfying turns of phrase. My one complaint is that, having established Kellhus early on as an important part of his novel, Bakker then neglects him completely for half the book's length, to the extent that I forgot who the character was and what he was supposed to be doing when he finally turned up again. Every so often some foreshadowing of his arrival would nudge my memory and I'd have to recheck the back cover blurb to remind myself. And then I'd forget again for a couple of chapters. Then again, it's nice to have a "mysterious saviour" fantasy story that doesn't (yet) revolve entirely around said saviour's actions. The other characters and their exploits were, by contrast, highly memorable.

It's not often that I so thoroughly enjoy multi-volume epic fantasy novels, and Bakker is to be commended for a first-rate performance.

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