Three things I left out the review

I’m not really satisfied with The Darkness that Comes Before review. But also not sure how to go in there and change things. There are at least three points I wanted to explain better.

1- The prose. I think Bakker writes well, a good, flowing prose that is easy and pleasant to follow. Stylistically more traditional and so more accessible than Erikson, whose style is hard to digest for some readers. The only problems I could perceive is that sometimes he “overstates” and dramatizes, sounding a bit too dramatic or forcefully “poetic” (the opposite of Glen Cook, if you need a reference). I also had a problem with the description of the battle in the first half of the book. I couldn’t pinpoint the relative positions of certain elements (for example what is on this side of a river if I can’t pinpoint if the river cuts north to south, or west to east) and so the action developed in a confused way that required a lot of backtracking, sometimes unsuccessfully. Nothing relevant, and this book is still a debut even if I haven’t found anything that gave me the idea of writing that still needs to develop.

2- Characters. Their motivations are moved to the front and the story develops from their point of view in a way that is easy to follow and grasp. Though, there are two aspects that make characterization “unfriendly” and likely to turn off many readers. The first is that of the four main PoVs none makes an easy “access point”. For access point I mean a “likeable” character that drives the narrative.

Kellhus is a super human, or non-human. He’s not “evil”, but he’s described in a way that makes him somewhat unnerving. It’s a fascinating character, but not a pleasant, comfortable one. Cnaiur, well, he’s a barbarian done without compromises. He is brutal and what he does to Serwe can be considered plain rape. Not sweetened at all. So not exactly a character you’re going to sympathize with. Esmenet, well, she’s the best character in the whole book from my point of view. But she’s also a prostitute whose role is again not exploited to make the reader pitiful and compassionate. In more than one occasion she acts in a way that the reader is going to “condemn” (but the narrative wants this). Achamian is maybe the most “safe” PoV. There are a few dark spots here and there, but they aren’t underlined and so he comes off as the most sympathetic one.

The other problematic aspect of characterization is an undertone that affects all characters, but it is more evident with Achamian and Esmenet. It is this tendency of the writing to be slightly “above” the narrow PoV. I’ve said in the review that Bakker undoes the characters to show how they work (and in this he goes further than what other writers would find comfortable). It means that there’s a space between character and reader. You aren’t “in there” because the text makes you aware of a character’s shortcomings. It shows them as broken toys, their mystery torn open. Sometimes reading about them make you cringe because you know what are their limits. Bakker shows you some of that “darkness” that drives them and that chains them. Both Esmenet and Achamian are prisoners of themselves and their obsessions. They are so well described and so feel real, but since everyone is trapped in delusions there’s a certain claustrophobic feeling, and you see those characters not respond to the higher level of awareness that the reader has. For example you’re trapped inside Esmenet’s own desperation and see her plunge deeper in her misery. This, again, doesn’t make a comfortable, friendly experience.

3- Themes. Religion and philosophy aren’t a turn-off (just) because of their nature, but because they demand that you engage with the text and share at least a fascination for those ideas. You don’t sit back and enjoy the movie passively. You have to grasp the ideas the book spins, think about them, absorb them for what they tell about you. Fantasy, as in Erikson’s case, is not used by Bakker as a way to build a barrier between this and another world. It’s instead a way to bring down the world to a level that is more deeply connected with the human being. We do not understand through math and science, but language. Our level of perception is the symbolic one, and Fantasy speaks on that level without any filter. It can be truer than what we perceive a real. It’s a description of the world that comes from within, a better connection with ourselves. So all the religion and philosophy that Bakker brings or develops in the book is not to give the illusion of truth to a made-up world that does not exist, it’s not “fictional” and distant, it’s instead a mean to be significant and go deep, to what is that really moves things. But the typical reader who’s a fan of the genre as “escapism”, or to lose himself in the plot can be turned off by these themes and the “serious” tone. It’s not easy and safe entertainment that can appeal to a wide public.

There would be also a fourth point that is problematic but that I consider quite ridiculous. It’s about the names. Lots of readers have a problem with non-anglophone names, especially those that are long, with odd accents or nestled vocals: Anasûrimbor Moënghus, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, Skeaös.

I personally love Bakker’s names :)

The Darkness that Comes Before – Scott R. Bakker

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.

Life is

This is for me one of the most beautiful passages in Bakker’s “The Darkness that Comes Before”.

It is so accurate, and resonates on many levels. That last line seals it:

“Some say men continually war against circumstances, but I say they perpetually flee. What are the works of men if not a momentary respite, a hiding place soon to be discovered by catastrophe? Life is endless flight before the hunter we call the world.”

Erikson’s Midnight Tides and Bakker’s Darkness That Comes Before

Some redundancy in this post, but I’m at it.

In a forum discussion I suggested to someone who couldn’t suffer Erikson writing style to instead try reading Bakker. There’s a reason for this. I believe that both have a similar approach to certain themes. Yet, they do it on the page in a completely different style and someone who can’t digest one may have a good chance of enjoying the other.

I know that either writer would cringe if aware I’m drawing parallels, but I do this not to put them on a ladder of quality, but to try to underline qualitative differences.

It can be absurd to think I see Erikson series doing certain similar things to Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, so I’m giving one example of what I see.

Specifically in the titles of the books, and their theme. Midnight Tides and The Darkness That Comes Before.

“The Dünyain,” Kellhus said after a time, “have surrendered themselves to the Logos, to what you would call reason and intellect. We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

There are tides beneath every tide
And the surface of water
Holds no weight

-Tiste Edur saying

On narrative linearity (Erikson Vs Bakker & Martin)

Just a passing thought. In this blog post Bakker says he’s currently writing his next, and last in the series, book “The Unholy Consult” and that specifically he’s working and jumping between fifteen chapters without having completed any yet.

This “process” is similar to how George Martin writes. He jumps around and works at the same time on a number of disconnected chapters without following a narrative linearity, which also means that it’s not possible to pinpoint how much of a book is completed since there’s not a linear progress. The writing proceeds sparsely across the whole body of work.

Erikson instead is a special case. From one of his recent comments it can be deduced that he writes linearly not simply because of restraints due to deadlines, but because it’s structural to his peculiar process of writing. He writes linearly, page after page, with the scenes following exactly the final order they’ll have on the published book. And he specified that jumping back and forth, rewriting and moving scenes, switching order of chapters and so on, would feel like “cheating”, and that this way of doing allows him to stay true to the characters and context, providing that limited perspective in which he thrives.

My thought was about the result, which is quite odd. Both Martin and Bakker jump all over the place when they are writing, but then the finished book has a strictly linear narrative. The scenes are ordered in chronological order. Erikson on the other side writes linearly, but the final structure delivers the opposite: scenes are scrambled in chronological sequence AND narrative direction. You can read an outcome in book 1 whose “cause” appears in book 5. How can he do this?

It’s like all three of them work by fighting what would come natural: Bakker and Martin have to restore a linearity after they “built” the whole book in a non-linear way, while Erikson has to have his mind jumping around an do the extra work so that he can set up the roots of the narrative complexity that he is going to realize.

Am I the only one finding this curious?

Prince of Nothing maps

I hunted around for good copies of the maps printed in the “Prince of Nothing” trilogy, same as I did for Malazan.

The US edition of the book is rather badly done, the map is printed on two pages and the central part is missing. So here are the two maps in the best resolution I could find. These are better even than the official ones Bakker provided on his site (which I think is now offline).

The Western Three Seas

Very tall series on narrow foundations

Accessibility, in books.

Because the world is all the same. One of the themes of this site has been about accessibility in games, now the theme comes back even if I’m dealing with fantasy books.

From an interesting interview with Scott Bakker, on Steven Erikson:

Steve Erikson and I had a conversation about this very thing at the ICFA a couple of weeks ago. Both of us are building very tall series on narrow foundations simply because of the sheer complexity of our first books. My bold prediction is that Steve’s next series will be every bit as successful as A Song of Ice and Fire.

At first I was misled by the “very tall series on narrow foundations”, as it sounds as the first book wasn’t well planned enough to sustain a huge series (10 tomes, in the case of Erikson).

It probably means the opposite: they aimed too high with that first book, make it too complex and intricate, and so too dense for a lot of readers. For a series this long this means that you bleed a majority of readers soon, and only a very small group will stick to it and make to the end.

In fact in that interview Bakker says he should have simplified his book, reduce the introspection and the philosophical essays. Make it easier to read. More welcoming. More accessible.

More popular.

Scott Bakker on worldbuilding

What a kickass interview:

As a diehard grognardian world-junkie myself, I obviously disagree.

Worldbuilding either is or is not “necessary” depending on the effects the writer is hoping to achieve. Of course Harrison would say that worldbuilders, such as myself, are trying to achieve the wrong effects. Detailing a world beyond the technical requirements of the story, the implication is, simply turns readers into literary shopkeepers with inventories to keep and no meaningful choices to make. Thus the frightening psychology: apparently the worldbuilder’s goal is to cretinize their readers, keep’em dumb and distracted so that they can be better exploited by the powers that be.

For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with “representational expectations” (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the “bargain”) by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an “upscale” version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.

We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. “Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this…”

Also some infos about the upcoming duology, now a trilogy (first book probably not out before 2009):

Well, I can’t say it’ll be a duology anymore, because in the course of writing it ended taking a parallel form: the story breaks into three natural parts. The first book, The Judging Eye, does the same kind of frame-setting work that The Darkness That Comes Before does in The Prince of Nothing – only without the super-steep learning curve! The second, The Shortest Path, will be a travelogue, much like The Warrior-Prophet, and the third… well let’s just say we’ll be a long time cleaning the fan! One difference, I think, is that the relative lengths of the books will be inverted. The Judging Eye will be the shortest, and I anticipate the final book will be far longer than The Thousandfold Thought, which picked up on the doorstep of Shimeh. This could complicate things, since I would like to include an updated Encyclopaedic Glossary. Maybe I’ll have to break down and do a separate omnibus – but that just feels like a cash grab. Cheesy.

There’s more to read beside these quotes.