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 :)