Recommended: R. Scott Bakker

Posted: May 27, 2009 in Braak

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.)

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    That’s such a coincidence – “Marvelously Euphonic” is the name of my forthcoming trip-hop album.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    It’s not a coincidence.

  3. Jefferson says:

    I keep rereading it for the freaky rape sorcery.

  4. Moff says:

    I sometimes feel kinda sad for Eddings, like he’ll be on his deathbed, looking back, thinking, I am the epitome of why genre fiction has a bad name. I turned a whole generation off of the word “sardonically.” But then I think, maybe the dude doesn’t care! He used to bag groceries, for crying out loud. He’s probably like: “I wrote these books and, sure, they got pretty repetitive, but they entranced and absorbed thousands and thousands of people, and writing them was a hell of a lot more fun than working in an office.” Anyway, I got really fed up with him too, for reasons that are utterly justifiable, but I can’t deny the pleasure I got from his books either.

    I may check out Bakker. Are his as good as the George Martin books (my present standard of quality for fantasy)? And have you read any of K.J. Parker’s Engineer Series? I see those in B&N periodically and keep coming close to picking them up.

  5. Hsiang says:

    Joe Abercrombie has a pretty fresh take on the hoary old Epic Fantasy. The writing is fast paced but doesn’t skimp on heady ideas. Folks realize that a monarchy is a pretty dumb way to run a country and are moving toward a representational government with rights for serfs and other poor slobs. The characters are deliciously flawed but very sympathetic, I really like the torturer.

    Great fight scenes too, very realistic. There is a master fencer but most fights end up with everyone on the ground trying to kill each other however they can. Really captures the absolute chaos and terror even a combat hardened warrior might feel.

    Another plus, he kicked out the first trilogy in like a year and a half and has a new one coming out soon. None of this interminable Waiting Around like with GRR Martin’s saga.

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    ” ‘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.”

    Do you mean in mood? Like capturing the ambiance or feeling of a place in time, without distancing readers from it with epic-style alliteration or a modernization of the characters (“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”)? I’m not sure how to get across what I’m asking; anyhow, my interest is piqued…

  7. Jefferson says:

    The first trilogy really is as difficult to describe as Braak says. There are swords, and wizards, and a massive crusade to reconquer sacred territory, but there’s also some deep history behind everything that’s taking place. We’re talking Tolkienesque deep history, going back thousands of years, from which arise the core religious and philosophical beliefs of the characters. It gives the setting a much firmer grounding.

    Did I mention the freaky rape-sorcerers? They are sorcerers who rape, freakily! It’s like nothing else I’ve encountered in fantasy, and it definitely lets you know that we’re not talkin’ Elric of Melniboné here.

    (BTW, Moff, for my money Michael Moorcock took the shine off “sardonically” way back in the Dorian Hawkmoon series, every time the Warrior in Jet and Gold showed up.)

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    This stuff you’re talking about here was part of my impetus for writing “Burn Down Bloody Twilight” (though I responded to my issues with fantasy movies more than books. Still.)

    Which, in trying to avoid fantasy-tropes, embraced a lot of Western cliches. You just can’t win, some days.

  9. threatqualitypress says:

    @VIP: No, it’s more like, instead of this just happening to be the 11th century, there’s the implication of entire tomes of backmatter that lead up towards every individual element such that those elements are the only possible ones that could exist in this world.

    It’s like, you know how in David Eddings, the “European” guys were constantly waging war against the “Asian” guys? And the reason for this war was because the two groups of people worshiped gods that happened to hate each other? In Bakker’s book (and I assume that this was partly because of how thoroughly he adapted the Crusades model), the holy war has a specific purpose, is the product of a specific set of historical events, and–while it is ALSO about which gods people worship–it is entirely the product of a thousand years of history.

    @Jefferson: Yeah, I think the other good thing about Bakker is that he doesn’t shy away from weird shit. I mean, if you’re going to put weird shit in your world–then you’d better not be afraid of weird shit.

    @Moff: So, three things. 1. I would actually say that Bakker’s books are better than Martins, though I’ll agree that Song of Fire and Ice has set a kind of new standard in epic fantasy. While Martin has brilliantly reversed a lot of the stupid tropes that plagued his predecessors, Bakker has actually proposed a complex philosophical and moral dilemma as well, and let it inform every inch of the story. I demand that my books be entertaining, always, but reading The Darkness that Comes Before actually makes me feel smarter.

    2. I read the first book in the engineer series. I found it interesting, but kind of meandering in terms of plot. There was little sense to the point of the events, there were elements that were introduced kind of last minute, in order to explain things, I don’t know, I wasn’t enamored. Of course, it was also the first book in the series, and first books in series’ are sometimes like that.

    3. I can’t really be mad at David Eddings. He was just trying to write some fun books; it’s not his fault I tried to make them important.

  10. Moff says:

    @Jefferson: Rape sorcerers? Oh, we have them in Fargo. Bakker must have visited at some point.

    And I haven’t read the Hawkmoon books, but I’ll take your word for it. GOD, DAVID EDDINGS. YOU CAN’T EVEN LAY CLAIM TO OVERUSING “SARDONICALLY” FIRST.

    @braak & Hsiang: I just requested Bakker and Abercrombie from the library. Man, until I moved to Madison and simultaneously became poor, I had absolutely no appreciation for how fucking awesome the library is.

  11. Hsiang says:

    @Moff Still, you have access to Ian’s Mac & Cheese Pizza, which might be either Western Civilization’s highest achievement or it’s ultimate demise. Either way, YUMM-OH!!

  12. jge says:

    This feels familiar: saturation. I made an attempt at Eragon and still can not believe I read it through — please no more Tolkien like languages and love stories between mortal men and immortal she-elves. Or kids becoming The One.

    Abercrombie is good: he can write and he chooses his words carefully. But it’s a letdown, at least for me, that there’s no single person in the First-Law-Trilogy I care about — only interesting characters with their own motivation.
    So I would point to Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, as a book that has better managed to disappoint my expectations while creating likable persons.

  13. Moff says:

    @Hsiang: I dunno, man—I Googled it and it looks awful healthy.

    Oh, and good review! At least, the first few grafs. I stopped at the spoiler warning and then went and, uh, requested it from the library. I HAVE TOO MUCH READING FOR PLEASURE TO DO.

  14. […] the way we fuck. R. Scott Bakker is an author, to paraphrase my friend Chris Braak, who is not afraid of weird shit. In this, he stands almost apart: Most fantasy/SF pays lip service to weirdness without […]

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