On a Darkling Plain 

Vandy grad student publishes the first book of a grim fantasy trilogy

Vandy grad student publishes the first book of a grim fantasy trilogy

The Darkness That Comes Before

By R. Scott Bakker (Overlook Press, 608 pp., $25.95)

Bakker will read at Davis-Kidd, 6 p.m. June 21

Fantasy novels are in some ways paradoxical. They purport to be set in some time and place that has never existed or is lost in unimaginably ancient history, yet they often reflect quite accurately the time and place of the good old mundane Earth of the author. Consider The Lord of the Rings, deservedly the standard against which all fantasies are measured: It is hard to imagine J.R.R. Tolkien conceiving his masterpiece before the advent of World War II, the Holocaust and nuclear weapons. The forces of good and evil are clearly delineated, and the innocent Hobbits are caught in the middle. Instead of a quest, Frodo must embark upon an anti-quest: to destroy the most powerful, dangerous "weapon" in existence, so that an age of peace may be ushered in.

Likewise, Frank Herbert's Dune arrived on the scene when the modern environmental movement was beginning to take shape. The novel's preoccupation with the ecology of the desert planet, Arrakis, sets an atmosphere of stifling heat, dryness and spiritual asceticism. Its desert-dwelling people, the Fremen, live in an ideal symbiosis with the monstrous sandworms that produce the hallucinogenic "spice" everyone wants. When else could this novel have been published except in the latter half of the 1960s?

So what kind of fantasy epic would the beginning of the 21st century engender? R. Scott Bakker—a graduate student of philosophy at Vanderbilt University—has thrown his hat into the ring with Book One of The Prince of Nothing trilogy, The Darkness That Comes Before. At first glance, Bakker seems to be inviting comparison to Tolkien's TLOTR: Elven-style runes border the table of contents, and the appendices include details of various languages, a glossary and maps that are dead ringers for Tolkien's charts of Middle Earth.

Any similarity ends there, however. Gone is the clearly drawn conflict between the forces of good and evil. Instead, Bakker has created Earwa, a world where only will and power matter. Even the "hero" of this dark fantasy—Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Prince of Nothing for whom the epic is named—operates under a strictly utilitarian code of conduct. In his philosophy, every cause has an identifiable effect; if one can discern the causes, the effects (and the near future) can be anticipated and manipulated—and in his case "manipulation" can shamelessly include murder.

Kellhus' philosophy is set against the backdrop of an enormous holy war. The imperial house of Ikurei is charged with defending the lands of Nansur, home of the dominant religion Inrithism (though its family members are decadent enough to make Caligula feel at home). Set against them are the Kianene, who practice Fanimry, a fanatical monotheistic faith. Meanwhile, infiltrating every culture are powerful schools of sorcerers, who scheme against each other.

As befitting a history of a holy war, religion is omnipresent to a suffocating degree, but real faith is nonexistent here. There are several competing religious forces, but for the main characters religion is merely a tool to manipulate the vast crowds of desperately poor and ignorant commoners. For a religion to assert that it is true is bad form in Bakker's world. All religions are equally valid, or invalid, depending on whether you are a believer or a skeptic. As an Inrithi general remarks to his old tutor, "Faith is the truth of passion, Achamian, and no passion is more true than another." In this sense of helplessness before a world full of competing belief systems, Earwa would fit right in with contemporary Terra.

Bakker has done an extraordinary job fleshing out the details of Earwa, successfully avoiding the greatest threat to every writer of fantasy: the risk of creating a mere cartoon. In one of the finest scenes, Kellhus is tracked by a pack of Srancs. In describing the beast-like things, Bakker doesn't swamp the reader with every hideous aspect of them, but rather leaves the worst unspoken—and far more unsettling: "They thronged for a moment around him—narrow shoulders and dog-shaped chests, stinking leather and necklaces of human teeth.... He bent to the one that still squirmed at his feet, lifting it by its throat. The beautiful face contorted with fury." Likewise, the schools of sorcery constantly hover in the background throughout the novel, yet Bakker is stingy with specific details. We get brief glimpses of their powers: "wards" set up around a tent for protection, a spoken word used to start a campfire, "men thrown like chaff by incandescent blooms" during a battle, but not much more. By leaving most of his world's sorcery hidden, Bakker makes it much more believable.

Another strength is Bakker's depiction of battles. The clash between the Mongol-like Scylvendis and the Nansur Imperial army is thoroughly exciting: Carefully planned strategy meets near-invincible barbarian fury, and the result is great fun to read. Unfortunately, to get to this point takes a patient reader. The opening 100-odd pages are unreservedly bleak, offering almost no event or character a reader might sympathize with, and no humor or honest human affection to leaven the dark tale. When Achamian looks out his window and says to himself, "This world must not end," the reader could be excused for responding, "Why not?"

Still, the book is a genuine achievement. If fantasy is a reflection of the real world of the author, then Bakker is making a strong statement about the perils of blindly following religious and political leaders. At the highest levels of power in Earwa, nothing is what it seems, and the most trivial events can have enormous consequences. The various factions vie for supremacy by any means necessary, and there is no overarching code of ethics. In a world without rules, anything is permissible.

For North Americans, the 21st century began with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Despite being termed a "War on Terror," the U.S. military response is in constant danger of being interpreted as a holy war against Islam. Meanwhile, the "culture wars" at home have become more and more heated—consider the reaction of the mainstream media to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ—and anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe again. For many, there is a feeling that we are on a cusp of history, and events are hurtling out of control. Bakker has provided the first installment of a sobering warning: Unless we devote ourselves to becoming more skilled at political and spiritual discernment, we will never have control of our lives. The world of Earwa is a world where postmodern moral relativism is taken to its logical conclusion, where altruistic motives are nonexistent, and where the survival of the fittest is the only law. Earwa is hell.

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