Twenty years ago, epic fantasy writers wanted to be Tolkien. Today, they want to be George R. R. Martin. But in separating the wheat from the chaff, the same standards apply today as applied in the past. An author who finds his own voice amidst his influences, and delivers a story that is, in the end, a product of his own imagination is an author who earns respect. Brooks and Jordan proved being derivative can be the path to the highest sales figures. But a writer who thinks long-term about leaving his own legacy gains a respect all the bestseller lists in the world can't buy. Canadian R. Scott Bakker is that guy.
Take a deep breath — here we go. The Darkness That Comes Before is the account of a colossal religious crusade. When the charismatic new leader of the Inrithi faith, Maithanet, whose religion is pre-eminent along the northern and eastern shores of the Three Seas of Eärwa, declares that the western land of Kian ruled by the heretical Fanim is to be retaken, nearly the entire world erupts in righteous fervor. But it isn't long before different political factions line up to use the new Holy War to their own ends. This is a world in which literally no one seems to trust anyone, even one's own relations and heirs.
The most Machiavellian of these is the Emperor of Nansur, Ikurei Xerius III, in whose realm the Inrithi holy city of Sumna lies. Xerius sees the upcoming war as an opportunity to rebuild his shattered empire, which used to include all of Kian. He promptly manipulates events so that neighboring Inrithi nations who join the Holy War are compelled sign his Indenture (for all armies need Xerius to provision them before marching to Kian), ceding to Nansur all reconquered Fanim lands. As the whole point of the Holy War is to sieze these lands for the church, the demand is naturally rejected. However, Xerius' nephew Conphas has recently defeated the barbarian Scylvendi (they're kind of like Mongol hordes) on their own turf, the first time any general has done this in living memory. This gives Xerius the military credibility to back up his demands.
So single-minded is Xerius' determination to control the Holy War's outcome that he deliberately allows an inadequately prepared early march, consisting mostly of devout peasants and rabble, to head west with meager provisions, where they are promptly slaughtered. With Maithanet now thoroughly alive to the strength of the Fanim in battle, Xerius calls his bluff. Sign the Indenture, and the armies of the Holy War get Xerius' provisions and Conphas' invaluable military leadership. Maithanet can still compel Xerius to provision all of the Inrithi armies upon pain of excommunication. But will he dare?
As Xerius is a ruler so paranoid he thinks a sparrow's pooping on his cheek is some kind of omen, it isn't long before his intricate plans are challenged in ways he never expected. First, Maithanet secures the aid of one of the Three Seas' Schools of sorcery, the Scarlet Spires. This is a shocker, as the Inrithi church and the Schools are mortal enemies, the Schools having arisen in reaction to Inrithi persecution of sorcerers. But Maithanet needs sorcerers to combat the Fanim's own, the ruthless Cishaurim, if he hopes to prevail in war. As the Cishaurim and the Scarlet Spires have themselves been warring for a decade (in fact, all the Schools seem to hate each other equally), the Holy War offers them a means to eradicate their foe once and for all.
Finally, two unexpected players arrive from the bleak and forgotten north. One, Cnaiür, is one of the only Scylvendi to survive Conphas' recent rout of his peoples. The other, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is a self-proclaimed "prince of nothing" from the far north. Two millennia before, Kellhus' ancestors, the Dûnyain, fought a ferocious war known as the Apocalypse against the No-God and its band of evil sorcerers, the Consult. While Proyas, a general fiercely loyal to Maithanet, puts forth Cnaiür as a leader to supplant Conphas, it is Kellhus whose presense alarms Drusus Achamian, a sorcerer from the Mandate School who has been sent to spy on events. The Mandate are the only sorcerers who believe the Consult still exists. And they fear these ancient sorcerers may be manipulating Maithanet. Could Kellhus' arrival be a sign of the prophecy of the dreaded Second Apocalypse? And why on earth would a Scylvendi like Cnaiür want to join something like the Holy War at all, when he's neither Inrithi nor Fanim? Why are these two men here?
That's quite a bit of plot synopsis there. But while The Darkness That Comes Before is as plot-heavy as most fantasies of this type, Bakker makes a sincere effort to develop full-blooded characters, and tell his stories through their eyes. For the most part, he succeeds impressively. Achamian, the novel's presumptive protagonist, isn't really as relatable as he ought to be. He spends most of the book unbearably angst-ridden, over his doubts about his School's mission, and his feelings of responsibility in the death of a beloved student he'd asked to spy for him. It's heartfelt, but gets monotonous. Far, far more interesting are the blustery Xerius, the embittered Cnaiür, and the enigmatic Kellhus. The latter two especially, forced to forge an alliance in order to survive their journey despite their complete mistrust and mutual enmity, have some of the story's best dramatic scenes.
Female characters fare a little less well. With a commendable lack of sentiment, Bakker has created a brutal, primitive world in which life is short and cruel, and a woman's lot is essentially to be possessed, bought, sold, and brutalized, sexually and otherwise, nearly every waking moment. Both the prostitute Esmenet, who shares an ill-fated love with Achamian, and the slave Serwë, who travels to Nansur with Cnaiür and Kellhus (falling in love with the latter), are given sensitive but ultimately much too limited development. Perhaps this is unavoidable in characters whose only role their society grants them is as property. But it isn't really until near the end of the book that Bakker plumbs the full depths of their sadness and makes us feel it as they do.
Bakker has crafted an ambitious and challenging epic. Yes, you can see some teething pains. There's a lot of immensely detailed and complex world building, and enough exotic names to keep track of that a cheat-sheet becomes a smart accessory (fortunately, Bakker provides good ones in his appendices). But the man's storytelling game is solid, something his fellow countryman Steven Erikson took a few doorstop-sized volumes to master. And he provides a sense of world-weary irony — the inevitable result at observing the human condition through the lens of history — that, instead of keeping you at arm's length, serves to invest you in the unfolding drama. I could wish for faster pacing here and there, and greater depth to some of Bakker's characters. (Golden-hearted whores are truly a timeless cliché.) But the tale is thoughtfully told, with a rich sense of place that makes Bakker's world and its people vivid and real.