Recommended: R. Scott Bakker
As a reader, I cut my teeth on epic fantasy. When I was 13 and at the bookstore, I made a beeline directly for the SciFi/Fantasy section, and I don’t think I bothered picking up a book that didn’t have a guy with a sword on the cover. Preferably slaying some kind of monster.
Of course, looking back on it, I realize that most of those cover were heinously stupid. Just ugly, boring, pointless book covers.
Which is, weirdly, the way that I feel about most modern epic fantasy. I reached some kind of point of saturation, where I’m not longer able to read books about young peasants who are secret kings, wizards who have access to secret prophecies, secret monster races, that kind of thing. Dwarves, elves–oh man, do I not give a shit about elves anymore.
I think that this growing disinterest in fantasy matured, when after the last Robert Jordan book I read (which took place entirely during the last two chapters of the previous book), I reached the decision to not read one-god-damn more Wheel of Time book until he was finished.
Jordan promptly died, ensuring that impotent fury at his books would take on a powerful ironic coincidence.
All of this is by way of introduction to the fact that I am fully familiar with every aspect of epic fantasy, including its deeply, almost comically-ingrained cliches, and I am probably as pissed off at them as you are. And, like many recovering addicts, my craving sometimes exceeds my judgment, which is why I still pick up these books from time to time.
However–one book I picked up a little while ago, R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before (Book One of the Prince of Nothing Saga, which should have made me immediately put it down because, you know: sagas), turned out to be an unexpected pleasure.
The series is written with an amazing complexity, that simultaneously manages to be dense without being boring–picking up each book I was perpetually thrilled that so much could happen without the book running out from underneath me. I don’t know if that’s the right way to explain that experience; what it is is, I usually have a sense of dread as I’m approaching the end of the book, and I realize that the amount of available words is going to be unsatisfactory.
But Bakker’s writing is so marvelously euphonic that I actually found myself purposefully slowing down so that I could hear it, a fact which leant a strange, epic life to the story.
“The Prince of Nothing Saga” (now joined by a sequel, The Judging Eye, book one of “The Aspect-Emporer Saga”) is a kind of analogue for 11th century Europe and the Crusades. Not an analogue the way ordinary epic fantasy is, where the author has just sort of transposed the trappings of knights and armor and swords, without giving any consideration to a world in which each individual element has its own history; this is…hm. I keep trying to avoid cliched words like “richly-imagined” and “fully-realized,” but those still seem like the best descriptors.
Overlaid on top of this are the epic fantasy elements, and for the first time in the history of reading, an author has actually offered up a valid reason for monstrous demons to try and create a hell on earth. For once, the evil monsters aren’t evil for the sake of being evil (I used to call this D&D Evil, but I think I might switch to Dark Kantian), they’ve actually got motivation–and all this despite the fact that they live in a world in which salvation and damnation are real, observable characteristics.
Then, layered on top of this, the whole thing is a philosophical tract, a lesson in and exploration of epistemology, which is every bit as thought-provoking and satisfying as the story itself. At once transcendent of the material and utterly essential to it, it’s like some kind of delicious brain-heroin.
I have been afraid that a book like this was going to somehow revivify my addiction to epic fantasy, but I’ve found that it’s the opposite that’s true: with every page of The Judging Eye, I find myself more and more furious with Robert Jordan and David Eddings (who wrote the same god-damn story four times, and then, then! wrote a new book that was the same story as his first series but from a different perspective!) and their hackneyed, half-assed bullshit.
(I should be so mean to David Eddings; I really liked those books when I was a kid, and I think it’s uncharitable of me to refer to books that gave me so much pleasure to cruelly. Nevertheless.)