This is a controversial book. One that does not play safe or is written for comfort. It’s a vertical climb, it is ambitious and audacious. Especially, it shrugs off everything that doesn’t belong to these adjectives. After all the recent discussions about nihilism and the lack of strong, edifying moral messages in Fantasy, what’s written in this book ridicules and disregards the simplicity of the framing of those passing judgements. It goes beyond. The fabric of this book is made of “delusions” and “revelations” locked together in a system with no end: a revelation only becomes set-up for a much bigger and crushing delusion. It’s when one thinks of leading that he’s only lead on a leash.
The basic idea is contained in the title: The Darkness that Comes Before. It’s this concept that originates the locked cycle. It creates a pattern that can then be recognized in different themes. The first described in the book is an anthropological idea. Men create their belief systems, their gods. Before/after signify a position of cause/effect (“what comes before determines what comes after”). If gods are man-made, it means that men “came before”. Like a tool created for a purpose, the tool comes “after”, is built/created by someone. But the complexity of the world is unattainable, so men created the gods in order to frame and explain what was beyond their grasp. They created the gods and put them “before”. They confused what came after (the gods they created) for what came before. This is the first way to interpret that title, the “darkness” is the unknown, the unrevealed gods that created the world and everything else.
This same pattern then “returns” in a context that is more unsettling, because it is far less impersonal as it tears down the barrier of “fantasy” that keeps these stories away, and us safe on this side. It’s about every one of us: if a man is the movement of his thoughts (so the fact of being “conscious”), but what he thinks and does is not cause, but consequence of a myriad of influences, a chaotic complexity beyond his grasp, how can he be certain that his thoughts are his own? Hence the “darkness” again, coming before. Because we have only the illusion of control of ourselves, while in truth we are being moved, like puppets caught in winds. Mockery of conscience. The “delusions” are not one of possible conditions, but the true space we live. We sleep.
This is not the first book of Scott Bakker I read, but the founding idea returns even when he does not write Fantasy. It is not repetition or redundancy, but, not unlike Erikson, it becomes a study, the same idea seen always from different angles. It’s the major theme Bakker writes about and it reminds me a similar obsession and desperation for the need to cling to a sense of awareness that can be found in David Foster Wallace work. Only that Bakker’s revelation is that there’s nothing to cling to, as we live entirely within the illusion, and there’s only horror in the realization. You can’t stay “aware” because you can’t wake up, or see through.
Yet what drives the writing is a desire to show. To awaken. As for “Disciple of the Dog”, Bakker tries to shake the reader, address him personally (metaphorically) so that the book won’t leave one indifferent. It tries to reach through the page, grasp you by the throat, and pull you down in. It’s not the comfortable, lulling, immersive experience of traditional Fantasy, which is why you should read this book. At 577 pages in a large font it is far more “concise” than other epic Fantasy. It is an important trait because this book is extremely focused, determined, ruthless and brutal. While the plot has an “epic” range, it doesn’t sprawl at all. There’s no decoration or elements that aren’t strictly necessary. Worldbuilding is usually seen as a basic and important characteristic of epic fantasy, this book can stand proudly among the very best, yet basically nothing is there to add detail and flavor. Necessity drives every word.
I’d say, thematically it covers a similar space of the Malazan series. It also has a similar approach, mindset. I’ve even read that some readers consider Bakker a “subset” of Erikson to the point that they consider him (Bakker) superfluous to read. This is true to an extent, as I said that they have areas that overlap and do some similar things, and it’s also true that Erikson has more tonal variety in his writing, plays with humor and the song is usually “richer”, with more notes and ranges, a far more vibrant palette. But to me, for my preference, they stand equal. And I wouldn’t do with just one or the other, meaning that reading both actually ADDS to my satisfaction. Bakker is more extreme and ruthless than Erikson, in a few cases outclasses Erikson in what Erikson does best. If one is richer and has more range, the other can thrust deeper.
That was thematically, what the books are about, how they feel, what they want to say and how (and why). Instead stylistically, meaning how they are written, Bakker is at the extreme opposite of Erikson and much closer to, say, Martin. It means that one doesn’t really need to adjust to the style, which is more traditional and accessible. A good (but occasionally over-dramatic and “turgid”), flowing, descriptive (but without any redundancy) prose. In the first 100 pages only an handful of characters are introduced, and even less PoVs. You have only what is sensible of the story, and time can pass without describing every move of the characters (it’s not Jordan). Beside a few occasional pages, there are five or so major PoVs that drive the narrative. The structure maybe resembles more to “The Way of Kings”, meaning that these PoV don’t regularly alternate, but follow more directly the need of the story, so a PoV may hang suspended for more than a hundred of pages. Thankfully without resorting to cliffhangers, so when a PoV closes it usually doesn’t frustrate the reader and leave him wanting.
The structure of the plot may remind of Lord of the Rings. The wider frame of the narrative, not the content. There was a big war (the First Apocalypse) some two thousands years before the current events, only leaving the trace of a lingering legend in present times, like something remote and unreal, basically forgotten (which from this broad level can be considered a trope of the genre). Then patterns that re-emerge, hinting that something on that scale is coming again. “The Mandate” in this book fits a similar role of the “Night’s Watch” in “A Game of Thrones”, with the difference that Bakker thrusts deep in the mythology to drive the full impact of his themes. As the plot develops more layers are revealed and what is set into motion is obviously going to gain momentum without endless delays. What I mean is that there’s a sense of being right in the heart of the whirlpool of the events, instead of edging indefinitely at the periphery, waiting for something “big” to happen as can be typical of the genre. In this first book you are already there. It’s still the first of a trilogy, also letting you see where things are moving, but it didn’t give me the impression of waiting for something else.
Characterization, another of those fundamental axis that one typically uses to judge these books, is the best I’ve seen. From my point of view Bakker has no contenders. His characters are very distinctive without losing anything of realism and plausibility. They are defined extremely well and viscerally, in a way that respects them, while also using them for the purpose of the story. There’s far less “wishful thinking” than in Martin’s work. Which is also a problem when it comes to accessibility and reaching out to a wide public. Martin’s books have a wide appeal because there are plenty of hooks for a reader. Even if the characters are complex and not “pegged” into roles, they still exploit and rely on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Bakker instead seems to take no prisoners and not look in the face of anyone. There are no easy and ready “access points”. I said he’s ruthless, and uncompromising. This means that his characters aren’t done to win the reader the easy way. They are not sympathetic and in some cases even those characters that are the hinges of the book seem to spit right in the face of the reader. Another aspect of characterization to point out is that part of Bakker’s style is the habit of “undoing” characters, of unfolding them. Usually writers keep a mystery and “magic” that helps the identification, as we chase after our feelings without truly grasping them. Instead Bakker disassembles some characters directly in the text, also meaning that sometimes they appear “broken”, non-functional, showing the cogs inside and provoking more a sense of pity than sympathy. Maybe even shame. The book is challenging and defies who’s reading. The very opposite of accommodating. You’d risk of dozing off, while Bakker wants that you wake up.
In the end this is the true value of this book. I have this contradicting habit of delaying the best stuff. I read this book after years I’ve bought it, left the best last. Expectations were met. For me Bakker and Erikson both are the APEX that Fantasy has to offer, and between them and all the rest there’s a certain gap. Neither of them are easy to recommend and and to enjoy. Both are challenging for different reasons, and due to completely different writing style it’s also possible that one could hate one but enjoy the other and vice versa. If you read this is because you want to explore or even breach a genre instead of being caged within it. You don’t read this book because you’re looking for more of the same. That’s what it offers, something challenging and uncompromising. Something that cuts deeps and that can’t leave one indifferent.
The problems are choices. There’s not a trace of comedy or lighter, relaxing scene (or none that stick out). The only humor is through a harsh and cynical perspective. Abrasive and scornful. No kind, loving words, if not ones that are meant to deceive. The book is brutal, there’s violence and sex, most often without any romance in both. There are no filters or censorship about what is “proper” to show and what to leave unsaid. You have to come without prejudices of any kind, or the book refuses you (metaphorically speaking). But it is important for me to underline that violence and sex in this book do not have a “pornographic” intent. They aren’t artificial stratagems to be edgy and gritty, or to titillate. Or to shock and gross the easy way. They are part of the nature of the story, which you have to trust. It’s not entirely grim and monotone, though. There are exceptions that are meaningful as they shine so much in the rarer occasions when sentiments are true and without hypocrisy.
EDIT: A follow-up.