The Darkness That Comes Before is the first book of the Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Bakker (which is then followed by the Aspect Emperor trilogy).
Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a monk of the Dûnyain is a descendant of the high kings whose line was thought to have died out millenia ago (he might sound like Aragorn, but trust me, he’s really not.) Answering the call of his father, he sets out to find his destiny in the city of Shimeh. Meanwhile, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples (the majority religion) has called a Holy War to recapture Shimeh, which is in the hands of heathens. This Holy War is seen as an opportunity for advancement by many, including the the Emperor Ikurei Xerius III, who hopes to conquer all the lands his empire once held. Drusas Achamian, a sorcerer and spy, is sent into the middle of these events to look for an enemy that hasn’t been seen in centuries and that even he hardly believes in. Also caught in these events are the harlot Esmenet, the barbarian warrior Cnaiur, the princes Nersei Proyas and Ikurei Conphas, and hundreds of thousands of others.
The world of Eärwa is well-realised, with a complex religious and political system. Bakker throws you straight into it – you figure out a lot of the history and context through character dialogue rather than exposition. Although this can be a bit confusing at times, overall it’s immersive and makes the world feel very real.
The characters, on the other hand, weren’t as great. The protagonist, Kellhus, is cold and manipulative, focusing only on his mission to get to his father, and he doesn’t have any personality otherwise. His ability to predict and persuade people is supposedly based in the logic imparted in him through his Dûnyain training, but that’s extremely implausible, so I just thought of it as superpowers. In any case, he gets whatever he wants whenever he wants it, and he isn’t even likeable.
Out of the other main characters, Esmenet is self-pitying and cloying, Ikurei Xerius III is paranoid and self-absorbed, Ikurei Conphas is smarmy and power-hungry, Crainur is a murderous rapist, Serwë is a dimwit, Proyas is a zealot… I could go on. These aren’t just one facet of the characters – they are almost all defined by them. Drusus Achamian was the only compelling one – his internal conflicts are the most lifelike, his love for his ex-students versus his duty as a Mandate Schoolman, his inexplicable attraction to Esmenet, and his teetering faith in the existence of his enemy all make him sympathetic.
A lack of good women characters isn’t always a bad thing – especially in books with otherwise strong characters (for instance, in The First Law trilogy). However, Bakker’s treatment of women is absolutely atrocious. Every woman is a harlot – from dowager to street whore. The two main women, Esmenet and Serwë both make their living via sex. There are some very unpleasant revelations in the story made about the emperor’s mother, Ikurei Istriya. None of them are portrayed as intelligent, either. Even women mentioned only in passing are loose or sad – Cnaiur’s wives are constantly crying and his mother was easily seduced, Serwë met with nothing but jealousy from other women – that’s all we even hear about them.
All this makes for a pretty depressing book, and I’m still not sure if the worldbuilding and plotting makes up for it enough for me to want to continue with the series.
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