Category Archives: The Second Apocalypse

I have Fall of Light and will start very soon, I’m now back reading the final part of The Bonehunters, as well the last 300 pages of A Dance with Dragons. It makes for a nice and interesting contrast.

These last few days there has been at least a little noise about R. Scott Bakker. The new book is imminent (July) (actually only the first half of the first book, something that makes me very upset) but the first reviews are coming out as well as sample chapters that, in Bakker’s case, are always enough for plenty of discussion and speculations.

But my attention was caught by a specific aspect that I consider very interesting. What’s the “EAMD bullshit”? Here’s a quote:

Ever Are Men Deceived. It’s shorthand for the psychobabble that Bakker tends to get into in the middle of, like, random sentences. The crossed-out part above is an example. You have a woman running around desperately trying to find her young son in the middle of her enemy storming the gates and a full-blown riot. So…naturally she reflects on how prior knowledge influences actions and guides the course of events

This is the pertinent quote he gives (the italics are not Bakker’s):

Our knowledge commands us, though our conceit claims otherwise. It drives our decisions and so harnesses our deeds—as surely as any cane or lash. She knew well the grievous fate of little princes in times of revolt and overthrow. The fact that her husband’s Empire crashed down about her was but one more goad to find her son.

And here’s how he comments it:

Esmenet’s chapter would be amazing if he could just stop talking about the EAMD bullshit every other sentence. She’s panicking, she’s crying, and then she’d thinking that ya know, everyone is controlled by what came before and the history of their world and blah blah blah.

Seriously, edit that shit out. The first paragraph here is totally unneeded, at least the two sentences. It robs the story of the drama and panic that Esme has in the moment. She’s a parent. She’s not thinking about how knowledge command us. She’s thinking that in sieges and revolts princes die.

That’s it. That’s her motivation. We don’t need more than that. We don’t need to jump from point to point. Just that mantra – in sieges and revolts princes die.

Well, there’s indeed a noticeable slip into third person. That’s why it would be interesting to discuss it with the writers themselves, not even just Bakker.

These days we are used, especially in fantasy, to this “third person limited” perspective, and it happens that when some structure is universally used it becomes canon. People get used to the canon and if you suddenly don’t respect it then you’re doing something wrong, or giving a feeling of wrongness to the reader. In this case I wonder, is that simply a slip, a stylistic quirk or vice, or a *deliberate* slip?

I use to think at this third person limited point of view as a bird that alights on the shoulder of a character and speaks for him. But sometimes it’s the bird talking, you just don’t notice. Or the bird can alight from that shoulder and land somewhere else. A meta-structure. Self-awareness? Erikson in the eighth Malazan book uses Kruppe, a character in the book, as a framing device. Commentary. It’s one further loop of that voice, another lens that bends the light of the story.

As a reader, the more you play with this, the more you have my attention. Writing about writing. It’s not a slip, a mistake, it’s grasping the structure itself.

David Foster Wallace in a short story titled “Mister Squishy”, part of the “Oblivion” collection, has a sudden shift, mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, from third person to first. It’s one of the biggest chills I ever got while reading a story. Only then you realize the story was always told in first person. Of course that’s deliberate, if a bit gimmicky. It’s part of the experimentation, playing with the rules to obtain an effect. Or just put the reader off balance by failing to conform to certain expectations. It’s a sense of vertigo, and it can be very powerful.

It might be asking Bakker too much to actually play even more explicitly and deliberately with structure, and drag the point of view breaks even more as a plot point. It still might be just a slip, or simply a measured consideration, where the effect and the message were considered more important than submitting to a rigorous structure.

Martin is absolute king, in my reading experience, of dealing with this third person limited. Better than everyone else by far. There are still “slips”, for example in descriptions, but they are always “transparent” for the reader, so you can never catch the bird talking, it’s always the character. Martin never actually slips, never wanders off.

Bakker might be seen as having this voice driving a point, using characters as metaphors. Erikson? I’m not even sure and I’ll observe with more attention. Erikson deliberately breaks structure even if usually sticks to third person limited as the norm. I remember at least one case where in a single scene the bird jumps shoulders. Maybe Erikson just doesn’t give much authority to the rule of the structure and, if the story is better serviced that way, he makes exceptions without hesitation.

“Stop the EAMD bullshit” is a mantra that works perfectly well for Erikson too, after all. That’s what I often read in forums (“I wanted to see more action. If I wanted unlikely philosophical conversations I would read Dostoevsky.”). Yet that’s why I read these books. Because they just don’t repeat and conform to the rest of the genre. Wouldn’t it just be more carefully hidden and unaddressed sleight of hands? I want those voices. I treasure that self-awareness, those layers of commentary that bend the angle, that disrupt the natural flow. Sometimes you have to break this habit of just slipping into stories, of immersion. Sometime breaking the immersion you very carefully built might even be the point. Show a deceit, seize that structure. But, of course, the higher you aim, the higher the risk. You might even slip and it makes for a clumsy fall. Part of the deal? Accept it.

“Ajencis once wrote that all men are frauds. Some, the wise, fool only others. Others, the foolish, fool only themselves. And a rare few fool both others and themselves — they are the rulers of Men…”

World-born men, Kellhus had found, despised complexity as much as they cherished flattery. Most men would rather die in deception than live in uncertainty.

If The Silmarillion and Dune had a baby, and it had a truly dark soul, that baby would be the Prince of Nothing series. The Warrior-Prophet is book 2 in a trilogy sub-series. Another trilogy comes after whose third book is expected to come out later this year, depending on how long Bakker continues working on it since the first draft has been completed already. After that there may still be some other kind of follow-up in the form of duology or something similar, and what is important to consider is that all of this was already part of the original vision and not further extensions to take advantage of some success, since the risk here is the inverse: that the relatively narrow reach of such a work may cut its expression before it reaches the end. At least we know that the final book of the second trilogy is going to happen, and that it should lay out Bakker’s Grand Plan in its full potential, if not exhausting it. Potential new readers should then consider that this is already a satisfying work even in its current state.

Instead I’m still at book 2. This one is by far the biggest in the first trilogy, 200k words for 600 pages. Maybe not that HUGE compared to other typical epic doorstopper, but to me Bakker’s books feel so packed with ideas and tight focus that they lose none of the feel of epic breadth. More to the point, he deliberately channels with his writing style and tone the biblical feel that can make characters and events bigger than they are. I think the greater majority of Bakker’s effort when writing goes in this aspect: make every line of text the bitch of his purpose. Bakker, the writer, is a madman possessed of clear intent and indomitable determination. Nothing escapes his writing. It’s all heightened sight focused on purpose, and you could say that this, right here, is where he loses most potential readers.

Bakker’s writing is, if you let me play a bit, mono-tone. In the sense that every page sustains the same purposes and similar focus. This book has a true center in its protagonist, the nail of the revolving heavens, and there converges everything else. Mono-tone not in the sense of “dull” or “boring”, but meaning that the same obsession that drives every line also drives the story and characters. It drives the events and all the themes that smolder underneath. Other writers can have an advantage playing with a range of different tones, breaking rhythm through a different sense of pacing. Alleviating tension while building familiarity and camaraderie. But Bakker’s writing gains in integrity and consistence. Every part of the book serves its purpose. There’s no digression, no distraction. No “fanservice” to reach for a certain audience to please it. No compromises. It feels, maybe, “driven”. As driven are the people in the book blindly following their holy faith. Everything sacred and holy is what’s at the heart of the book, and Bakker approaches and seizes it with blasphemous ferocity.

And Cnaiür grinned as only a Chieftain of the Utemot could grin. The neck of the world, it seemed, lay pressed against the point of his sword.

I shall butcher.

This is not a tale conceived to be narrated to a reader. It’s more an inward kind of study and, with no compromises, can very easily drive readers away. But it is not hostile, it is not falsely pretentious or esoteric. It definitely tests a reader. It is not a test of “purity” or “worthiness”, but it’s definitely a test in prejudices and a challenge to how far you can reach, or how close you let it cut. It’s even easy for me to acknowledge some criticism against this book, accuses of misogyny and brutal violence. I do think that here and there some compromises would HAVE helped. A few things felt gratuitous and trying too hard. The very last scene could have been removed and the book would have lost absolutely nothing, and maybe gained some from it. The “Circumfix of the Warrior-Prophet” is another of those things that tips the balance over to the ridiculous, mirroring quite closely (I even suspect Bakker may have glimpsed this at some point) the scene where Achamian tells his story, thinks he’s finally reached his audience, when in the end they all burst in laughter. But it is true that Bakker would rather cut himself for playing on that edge over and over again, than back off and desist. He becomes Achamian (a kind of self-reference being played), ready even to humiliate himself just as long he stays “true” to his purpose. The other way, I’m sure, would have been easier. And this, I think, makes Bakker more like an ideal “artist”, who surrenders to art in order to serve it fully.

So “grimdark”. The Prince of Nothing is grimmer and darker than grimdark. Violence, sex, and sexual violence. Monstrosity, blasphemy. There’s filth and this book bathes in it as if the only possible and ideal place where to be. But again all this doesn’t serve a deranged appetite, only truths that are way more complex than how they appear. The horrors in this books are horrors that other books try to hide or completely deny. Like an inverted horror story where you pray the Boogie Man won’t come, but HE IS. Places where you’d rather not be. Other books are harmless, this one is not. But all this “ugliness” isn’t merely justified by some higher purpose, it is there because it is part of everything this story is. It is not simply excused to be there by the kind of setting the story uses, but it’s instead the fabric it is made of. The Inchoroi, the mysterious otherworldly race obsessed over human carnal activities and exploiting them in the ugliest way possible, are described as an “obscene race”. Magic is blasphemy, unclean because it undoes the order of reality. These themes revolving around the idea of purity and its perversion are what the book first and foremost engages with, and if it wants to reach deep it can’t recoil and filter just so the story is more palatable. It goes through an unavoidable path where absolutely no one dares going and conflating this to other books that show and exploit violence and sex is the huge misunderstanding, and the big risk this book takes without resorting to any compromise. “Grimdark” is usually used as a pejorative but it’s the greatest injustice to call this book so. The reason is that it would make this book sit in the center of a genre, but this book couldn’t be less representative of a genre. There’s nothing like it out there, especially in the fantasy genre, and even more specifically the Grimdark genre. The writing has an opposite focus, looks elsewhere. What you can identify as an “act” is instead completely different here.

If anything, Bakker tries to copy the more solemn, scriptural Tolkien (The Silmarillion), and the “vision” of Frank Herbert in Dune. The Prince of Nothing is a direct descendant of those works, maybe even to a fault. But at least it can absolutely stay up to lofty standards. Bakker is radical and takes no sides, including his own. His writing is ruthless, spares no one, carries no prejudices. Its grimdark posture is just that, what it looks from afar but that couldn’t be more alien from it. Look at the moon, not at the finger. Sadly, superficial looks is what books and their writers get most of the times. It is legitimate, and a reader is not to be judged if refusing this book. But there’s more to it than its “act”. So I can only implore, whatever you decide, to still approach this book after leaving behind all prejudices and with an open mind. You will find value, and it’s of a necessary, very rare kind.

To open a book was not only to seize a moment of helplessness, not only to relinquish a jealous handful of heartbeats to the unpredictable mark of another man’s quill, it was to allow oneself to be written. For what was a book if not a long consecutive surrender to the movements of another’s soul?

Characterization is a strong quality. There may be some controversy around this topic but I think that all characters are treated equally, whether Point of View characters or bystanders, women or men, they seem all cared for equally and very precisely characterized. Some choices could appear dubious and sometimes you don’t see the ideal arc of character development being realized, but once again the focus of this book is different and not simply about retracing those ideals. Some characters are described as trapped in their own cages and the reader expects them to eventually get free, to complete that ideal trajectory, but in this case Bakker isn’t interested in going through the standard movements. If you take someone like Martin who’s praised for his strong characterization you can see that every character is bound tightly to his own story, they “make sense” together, drawing an ideal path. There’s a sense of masterful craft in what Martin does, a search for narrative perfection and balance. But for Bakker this kind of idealism is made to be violated, undone. Bakker is an heretical voice, always subversive but never gratuitous. If Martin’s work dances on the edge between beauty and ugliness, Bakker instead explores some dark, bottomless pits where no one dares going and where it’s legitimate a reader refuses to follow. Nudity and shame. Unclean, unclean! He can show beauty too, but it’s often so vulnerable and momentous. Too exposed for the world not to spoil and devour it.

This quality of characterization surprised me not simply because it’s well motivated and coherent or consistent. But because the writer has a very fine attention for the subtler details, the very little gestures or partially hidden reactions that truly make a character into a whole. Bakker’s characters answer directly to the mantra of the book: what they are, the movement of their thoughts, depends on what came before. Who they’ve been, what and how they live determine what they become, the way they think. Being stuck in this middle position ideally constructs this “cage” that represents the universal human condition. So not only Bakker provides the finest characterization I’ve read, as true as possible to the singularity of the personal world of that character, but all this is still facing toward the core of the book, giving it power. He’s true to the small detail without ever forgetting about the sharp intent. The tone and purpose of the book, its direction. And so I admire this mastery where you notice both the sheer quality of the smallest element, yet realize how that element plays the fundamental role within the overall construction. Success on these two levels means reaching a kind of perfection in art, and I think Bakker goes very close.

Yet again this doesn’t mean universal acclaim. The frenzied, extremely lucid, but maybe self-absorbed writing style isn’t ideal to reach a wide public. And it becomes especially easy to misunderstood. Too incomprehensibly bleak and filled with unpleasantries. When Bakker does characterization the focus is on “being”, not “doing”. The cage of being can sometime, with certain characters, become intolerable from the passive position of the reader. After the accuses of misogyny and whatnot I still believe that what happens in the book and what the characters do is always coherent and necessary for this story (if not “opportune”). I do believe that women in the book are treated awfully, and if you reduce the book to this single aspect, everything becomes a catastrophic failure. But doing this is a manipulation, partial, partisan and single-minded. Because I do believe that women are treated equally to the men, it’s just that some readers decide to only see one side while obscuring the rest, and make that one part into the whole. No one is left standing, every single man is made into a pathetic fool and seen through the same lens. Bakker desecrates everything and everyone. Men and women. Offenses are taken personally.

Most, by and large, were born narrow, and cared to see only that which flattered them. Almost without exception, they assumed their hatreds and yearnings to be correct, no matter what the contradictions, simply because they felt correct. Almost all men prized the familiar path over the true. That was the glory of the student, to step from the well-worn path and risk knowledge that oppressed, that horrified.

There’s also to consider the aspect of “worldbuilding”, though I hate to deal with it as a separate thing. As it was with Tolkien, Bakker excels with it. This work is extremely well crafted and lends itself to (and is able to sustain) that type of close examination and speculation the fans love to do, much more than Malazan. Bakker doesn’t quite reach Tolkien’s levels of obsession but I really do believe that right now he absolutely has no rivals in the genre. There’s a great care for all the small details and structure that are only hinted in the background, the idea of a fully realized and consistent world, with its strong personality. And even more than Tolkien this isn’t just pointless detail, but still intricacy that contributes to an unique purpose. Motives that run deep and that aren’t simply scenery and choreography. So the attention for the little things is paid off aplenty, rewarded. For example the way magic works isn’t a “system” that is conceived to be just intriguing, but it engages deeply and meaningfully with the themes of this world, a sustaining force through it. That’s Bakker’s talent at creating a so incredibly complex, yet consistent world where none of its smallest cogs act independently or without reason. No writer I know comes even close, it’s just the way it is.

Lately I’ve heard often the expression “it’s very good at what it does” and I think it applies well to Bakker’s work. What’s most important for me to underline is that there’s no other thing out there like this. It’s epic fantasy, it can be called Grimdark, but there’s absolutely nothing in or outside the genre that does similar things or has a similar ambition (and sheer talent at craft). The only cousins are The Silmarillion and Dune, as I said, but that’s only in tone and as a search for a certain aesthetic, because purpose brings this book into a completely different territory. Bakker can actually channel Tolkien’s epic range and solemnity better than Tolkien himself, but where Tolkien’s world is all completely luminous and ideal, Bakker uses it to shatter the same holiness. To expose the ugly truth under it. The writing in this book feels extremely well measured, always sharp. Erikson can have a more varied tonal range, but Bakker loses that to gain in focus and consistence. In the next years it is likely that we’ll get more good writers in the genre, as it always happens, but Bakker represents exceptionality. Something that will stay unmatched because it goes outside every genre or trend. Books come out every year, in every genre, this is one that isn’t going to be replaced or obscured by anything else.

I’m at about 140 pages into Martin’s A Storm of Swords and once again wondering about the causes of its popularity. I know that this third book is considered by far the best in the series, and that I have to expect things slowing down quite a bit in the next two books, so my expectations here are set very high, maybe that’s why I’ve found those first 140 pages not as the best prelude to the best book. The plot is stuck at the end of the previous book, and Martin needs all those 140 pages merely to go through each PoV to make a summary and set a new starting point.

That’s how you can write a huge 1000+ pages book and still give the impression that not much happened. The structure is rather simple, you have an average of 10-15 pages for each chapter/PoV and it takes about 150 pages to return to one. In the end this produces a 1000 pages book where a single PoV has about 100 pages of available space to tell its story, and 100 pages is the bare minimum to show some development, especially with the kind of detail that Martin writes in. That’s the formula to write these epic sized fantasy books. Just an high number of PoVs, fragmenting the story, but also offering that big breadth one expects precisely from this genre.

My question is why Martin and Jordan series were able to reach a huge popularity and the answer I offer is that both do something similar but from two different angles. I think the keyword is “accessibility”. Martin is popular because his series is what you can easily recommend to all sort of readers. That’s why it’s successful: because it’s a genre novel accessible (and written for) all kinds of readers. You don’t need to be a “genre” reader to engage with Martin story, and so this series can tap into the large audience of general readers.

Whereas Jordan retains a similar level of accessibility. His series also taps directly onto a huge pool of readers: all kinds of adolescent readers. The Wheel of Time has the power to engage all sort of “younger” readers. It’s like a LotR where uncool, clumsy Hobbits are replaced by young future heroes destined to conquer and change the world, becoming celebrities. Because of how it’s built, its strength is about tapping onto a certain audience, in a specific age-range but regardless of whether they are “readers” or not. Or even genre readers. The WoT can convert someone, making him a “reader” in the first place, and a “genre” reader as consequence. It does so because it offers characters and themes that appeal directly to that age-range, it’s the call of the adventure and the writer taking the reader’s hand, offering one of the most immersive and engaging experiences. It’s the stuff younger readers dream about, and it fully embraces it. It gives them the time of their life.

That’s why I used that distinction between “adult” and “young” fantasy. Martin’s series can be seen as representing “adult fantasy” that is extremely popular and successful because it can CONVERT adult readers into “genre” readers. On the other hand Jordan’s series is also hugely popular and successful because it converts readers, but in this case it’s more carefully aimed at an age range. What ASoIaF does for a more adult public, the WoT does for younger readers, recruiting them into “genre”. In both cases, these two series can rise so much in popularity because they draw from a huge pool of readers that aren’t limited by “genre”, and that’s why I’m putting the focus on “accessibility” and “conversion”.

There’s finally another element that plays an important role in all this. It’s usually the writer’s job to engage the reader and make him “care”, keep him reading and turning the pages. But I think this is an illusory description because it overestimates (and romanticizes) the writer’s power and ultimate goal. I think in the best case the writer can only work on the illusion of directing and manipulating the reader’s interest, while it’s probably more correct to say that the writer merely taps and rejuvenates interests that have always been there, with the reader. Like suppressed memories that seem to resurface unbidden. It’s a much more subtle touch, and far less powerful. More sleight of hand than magic.

So why is this sharing of interests important in the case of popularity of these series? Because it’s the real hook that makes possible to reach for that huge pool of readers. Think to Martin’s series. Or even “Fantasy” in general. The common response you get from non-genre readers is: why should I care? Why a normal adult guy who has more immediate concerns should waste hours of his life reading “fantasies”? That’s why the common answer is about conflating Fantasy with “escapism”. It’s the most immediate reaction. But this is also the key to interpret how Martin’s series can be so hugely successful at engaging readers who usually “do not care” about Fantasy. What’s the First Mover in Martin’s series? Family. If you think about it, that’s the whole core. That’s where his series sets its roots. That’s the link to readers who aren’t normally genre readers or have zero interest in reading genre fiction. Its strongest theme is immediately familiar. All the priorities of each characters are simply defined by where he’s born, that will then also define what place he’ll have in the Big Game. Martin has an archetypal grasp on what everyone cares about, and so the possibility to connect with all readers. The first generalized hook that powers the series is about family concerns, mothers worrying about their children. It’s universal even if it’s encased in “fantasy”, and it can immediately engage readers because of its familiarity. The “adult” aspect is merely related to a style. Martin’s series is built on PoVs and these PoVs are selected on a wide range. It’s “adult” because it requires to shift these projections, have interest in this wider range of perspectives, in their breadth and diversity. Adolescents are usually more narrow-minded and self-absorbed to care about what happens outside of themselves (and the WoT reflects this). Then Martin builds the structure of his game by giving voice to different sides, creating contradicting feelings in the readers since there’s not a privileged side the reader can be on (though this is mostly a well crafted illusion).

Compare all this to Jordan and you see why I brought up the “young” angle. The WoT targets younger readers exactly because it selects its PoVs within the narrower range of its expected audience. It more immediately offers PoVs that the reader can recognize and identify with, offering themes that are strong specifically for that audience. And then it at least tries to follow those readers as they get older, by trying to broadening the range of the story. So the WoT is the ideal journey, recruiting and converting “young adults” into faithful readers, and then trying to walk with them into their adult age. That gives enough universal power to explain the popularity.

Now consider Tolkien. In this case Tolkien wasn’t writing for a pool of readers already waiting in potential. He just chased his own interests. This is important because “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t an “accessible” book at all, and so this seem to break the pattern I described above. It’s true. LotR is actually way more “niche” and less accessible than both ASoIaF and WoT. It’s far less easy to pick up and enjoy. And it’s also not a book that easily converts readers that do not have a specific interest in the genre. So why it’s still so hugely popular? Just because it came first? I don’t think so. The reason why Tolkien remains so popular while not being accessible is, the way I see it, because there’s a huge cultural push that overcomes Tolkien’s accessibility issues. His world is now part of mass culture, and being so it means EVERYONE is exposed to it. There’s pressure that comes from general culture that goes in Tolkien’s direction, and so all kinds of readers are pushed in this direction. Works like The Silmarillion are still extremely popular if you consider how nigh inaccessible the book would normally be, impossible to sell commercially. But this happens solely because there’s a general culture push that makes readers overcome those barriers.

Consider Malazan. Malazan, compared to ASoIaF, isn’t easy to recommend at all. It has humongous accessibility issues. This is usually blamed on the “medias res” style of the first book, but I think it’s a wrong angle. The problem with Malazan accessibility is that it’s much harder for a new reader to care about. It takes maybe two chapter in ASoIaF for the reader to figure out what it is about. One chapter in the WoT. Only the Prologue in LotR to set the style. With Malazan the reader feels like hiding in the shadow and chasing after someone on his own obscure agenda. Erikson doesn’t take the reader’s hand and gently leads him on the journey. There are no immediate rewards. You just follow with your own determination, if you want.

Why should a clueless reader care? What’s the big motivation that makes someone pick up a so huge series and overall commitment? But that’s just one aspect. Another crucial one is that all Malazan qualities generate big contradictions. The first book already presents things on a scale that dwarfs most other fantasy series, pulling out all the stops. Then by the time one reaches the third book that scale grew EXPONENTIALLY to levels that are utterly unimaginable. Just unprecedented and with no parallels. And yet, this is counterbalanced by another side that’s deeper, serious and incredibly ambitious. Giving the idea of something that takes itself very “seriously”. This creates different angles that can explode into a strong contradiction. On one side you have readers who engage with the most overt aspects of the series, the breakneck pace of the plot, the insane power levels, great battle and big scale spectacular stuff. The more mindless fun and shiny stuff on the surface, if you want. And then there are readers who instead find all that childish genre reading and instead expect something more “adult” in ASoIaF style. Ideally, one would say that Malazan is a distillation of the best of both worlds, and then even goes its own way to achieve something completely new. But far more commonly readers come with their own set of expectations and what happens is that the average reader is killed in the crossfire of contradictions. “Adult” readers can barely suffer through few pages without branding it as nigh incomprehensible childish fantasy gibberish, while those who are in for the “fun” and immediate pay off felt bogged down later on when the story reveals a depth and requires the reader to engage with more than just the surface. This ends up giving a general and immediate picture of having the WORST of both worlds. It wants to be serious and pretentious, while instead being juvenile and terribly chaotic and rambling. A puzzle that can’t be assembled.

How could Malazan be more successful? Why should the average reader care? It’s definitely NOT aimed to readers who aren’t already “genre” readers. You could maybe picture some serious-looking university professor reading a copy of Martin’s series, but could you imagine him reading Malazan? You need to be part of that inner genre group to even be a potential reader. This already makes the pool of potential readers exponentially smaller. It’s already a niche with a niche interest. And then you can imagine where potential readers come from. Maybe they read on some forum some readers who say how Malazan is so much better (it’s rare, but it happens), and so they approach Malazan expecting something that can compare to ASoIaF. And are immediately turned off by how “genre” Malazan is. Ultimately it engages with a number of themes that aren’t exactly that broad in appeal. There’s very little of those immediate and familiar feelings that give ASoIaF its strength. Malazan is less a traditional narration sprinkled here and there with fantasy elements, the way ASoIaF is. It grasps and deliver what the epic genre is, and why its powerful. It knows where it comes from, and has no identity crisis, or narcissistic pretenses of being appreciated by “everyone”. But then it requires a reader with a very open mind, who can take the challenge of the big commitment and that doesn’t ultimately jumps to conclusion because the book betrayed this or that expectation. The wider the range of interests, the more chances to appreciate Malazan in all its aspects. But this really ends up producing readers who are me, you and a few others. You have to have already developed an interest on that stuff, and the open mind to fully enjoy the “young” and “adult” parts without the feel that they clash horribly with each other.

Finally R. Scott Bakker. He suffers even worse from what I described about Malazan. Even more you have to share the writer’s interest on those specific themes and angles he brings up. Even more his series is precisely aimed, with a very strong thematic focus. This focus is nowhere what you expect to reach a general public, the same as you don’t expect the general public to read his blog because of the content he puts in it. It’s simply stuff not planned or meant to tap onto a big pool of potential readers. If it becomes popular it’s simply because it’s so unique and exceptional that it becomes easily recognized, and so not swallowed in mediocrity.

But what happens then? That lots of readers, all kinds of readers, hear good things and so try Bakker’s books. If they don’t have a serious interest in those themes Bakker offers then they end up noticing just the violence. The violence becomes the point. The edginess, grittiness and all those things that are today negatively branded as “grimdark” as well epitomizing all the problems about misogyny and whatnot. This produces an overall hideous image of Bakker’s series. Seen right now on a forum: “It’s an endless parade of fantasy name salad combined with massive ruminations and internal monologues.” And that’s a positive side. Otherwise it becomes an accusation directly to Bakker of being an horrible human being. Why does all this happen? I think because once you “remove” that deep layer that Bakker engages directly (and it happens whenever a reader “doesn’t care” about that stuff) then only the violence and the ugly remain. They become the one aspect monopolizing the attention, without understanding that all that is built IN SUPPORT of the rest. One element observed in isolation from everything else, and the result is readers who end up feeling offended by what they are reading.

All this to say that it’s all a matter of aims. How big is the pool of readers you try to reach. And matters of “quality” don’t even prominently come up. Only huge cultural pushes can overcome a narrow aim, like in the case of Tolkien. Another example is Neal Stephenson. He also has a very narrow target, writing for those who must already have a serious interest in the things he deals with. Yet he can be so successful because the kind of “geekdom” that makes his public nowadays is so common and widespread that it also became a “general public”, creating a cultural push that isn’t so far from what I described about Tolkien. It’s a wider movement of general culture that makes niche themes become more widely shared.

But I think that at least for the foreseeable future the very big splashes of success (here I think even about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games) will come from traditional and familiar narratives sprinkled by “genre” elements. Ending up with a broadening of the genre, indeed, but also reducing the genre to innocuous window dressing. That’s always the risk when some smaller cultural movement is swallowed whole by the mass culture…

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 :)

This is a controversial book. One that does not play safe or is written for comfort. It’s a vertical climb, it is ambitious and audacious. Especially, it shrugs off everything that doesn’t belong to these adjectives. After all the recent discussions about nihilism and the lack of strong, edifying moral messages in Fantasy, what’s written in this book ridicules and disregards the simplicity of the framing of those passing judgements. It goes beyond. The fabric of this book is made of “delusions” and “revelations” locked together in a system with no end: a revelation only becomes set-up for a much bigger and crushing delusion. It’s when one thinks of leading that he’s only lead on a leash.

The basic idea is contained in the title: The Darkness that Comes Before. It’s this concept that originates the locked cycle. It creates a pattern that can then be recognized in different themes. The first described in the book is an anthropological idea. Men create their belief systems, their gods. Before/after signify a position of cause/effect (“what comes before determines what comes after”). If gods are man-made, it means that men “came before”. Like a tool created for a purpose, the tool comes “after”, is built/created by someone. But the complexity of the world is unattainable, so men created the gods in order to frame and explain what was beyond their grasp. They created the gods and put them “before”. They confused what came after (the gods they created) for what came before. This is the first way to interpret that title, the “darkness” is the unknown, the unrevealed gods that created the world and everything else.

This same pattern then “returns” in a context that is more unsettling, because it is far less impersonal as it tears down the barrier of “fantasy” that keeps these stories away, and us safe on this side. It’s about every one of us: if a man is the movement of his thoughts (so the fact of being “conscious”), but what he thinks and does is not cause, but consequence of a myriad of influences, a chaotic complexity beyond his grasp, how can he be certain that his thoughts are his own? Hence the “darkness” again, coming before. Because we have only the illusion of control of ourselves, while in truth we are being moved, like puppets caught in winds. Mockery of conscience. The “delusions” are not one of possible conditions, but the true space we live. We sleep.

This is not the first book of Scott Bakker I read, but the founding idea returns even when he does not write Fantasy. It is not repetition or redundancy, but, not unlike Erikson, it becomes a study, the same idea seen always from different angles. It’s the major theme Bakker writes about and it reminds me a similar obsession and desperation for the need to cling to a sense of awareness that can be found in David Foster Wallace work. Only that Bakker’s revelation is that there’s nothing to cling to, as we live entirely within the illusion, and there’s only horror in the realization. You can’t stay “aware” because you can’t wake up, or see through.

Yet what drives the writing is a desire to show. To awaken. As for “Disciple of the Dog”, Bakker tries to shake the reader, address him personally (metaphorically) so that the book won’t leave one indifferent. It tries to reach through the page, grasp you by the throat, and pull you down in. It’s not the comfortable, lulling, immersive experience of traditional Fantasy, which is why you should read this book. At 577 pages in a large font it is far more “concise” than other epic Fantasy. It is an important trait because this book is extremely focused, determined, ruthless and brutal. While the plot has an “epic” range, it doesn’t sprawl at all. There’s no decoration or elements that aren’t strictly necessary. Worldbuilding is usually seen as a basic and important characteristic of epic fantasy, this book can stand proudly among the very best, yet basically nothing is there to add detail and flavor. Necessity drives every word.

I’d say, thematically it covers a similar space of the Malazan series. It also has a similar approach, mindset. I’ve even read that some readers consider Bakker a “subset” of Erikson to the point that they consider him (Bakker) superfluous to read. This is true to an extent, as I said that they have areas that overlap and do some similar things, and it’s also true that Erikson has more tonal variety in his writing, plays with humor and the song is usually “richer”, with more notes and ranges, a far more vibrant palette. But to me, for my preference, they stand equal. And I wouldn’t do with just one or the other, meaning that reading both actually ADDS to my satisfaction. Bakker is more extreme and ruthless than Erikson, in a few cases outclasses Erikson in what Erikson does best. If one is richer and has more range, the other can thrust deeper.

That was thematically, what the books are about, how they feel, what they want to say and how (and why). Instead stylistically, meaning how they are written, Bakker is at the extreme opposite of Erikson and much closer to, say, Martin. It means that one doesn’t really need to adjust to the style, which is more traditional and accessible. A good (but occasionally over-dramatic and “turgid”), flowing, descriptive (but without any redundancy) prose. In the first 100 pages only an handful of characters are introduced, and even less PoVs. You have only what is sensible of the story, and time can pass without describing every move of the characters (it’s not Jordan). Beside a few occasional pages, there are five or so major PoVs that drive the narrative. The structure maybe resembles more to “The Way of Kings”, meaning that these PoV don’t regularly alternate, but follow more directly the need of the story, so a PoV may hang suspended for more than a hundred of pages. Thankfully without resorting to cliffhangers, so when a PoV closes it usually doesn’t frustrate the reader and leave him wanting.

The structure of the plot may remind of Lord of the Rings. The wider frame of the narrative, not the content. There was a big war (the First Apocalypse) some two thousands years before the current events, only leaving the trace of a lingering legend in present times, like something remote and unreal, basically forgotten (which from this broad level can be considered a trope of the genre). Then patterns that re-emerge, hinting that something on that scale is coming again. “The Mandate” in this book fits a similar role of the “Night’s Watch” in “A Game of Thrones”, with the difference that Bakker thrusts deep in the mythology to drive the full impact of his themes. As the plot develops more layers are revealed and what is set into motion is obviously going to gain momentum without endless delays. What I mean is that there’s a sense of being right in the heart of the whirlpool of the events, instead of edging indefinitely at the periphery, waiting for something “big” to happen as can be typical of the genre. In this first book you are already there. It’s still the first of a trilogy, also letting you see where things are moving, but it didn’t give me the impression of waiting for something else.

Characterization, another of those fundamental axis that one typically uses to judge these books, is the best I’ve seen. From my point of view Bakker has no contenders. His characters are very distinctive without losing anything of realism and plausibility. They are defined extremely well and viscerally, in a way that respects them, while also using them for the purpose of the story. There’s far less “wishful thinking” than in Martin’s work. Which is also a problem when it comes to accessibility and reaching out to a wide public. Martin’s books have a wide appeal because there are plenty of hooks for a reader. Even if the characters are complex and not “pegged” into roles, they still exploit and rely on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Bakker instead seems to take no prisoners and not look in the face of anyone. There are no easy and ready “access points”. I said he’s ruthless, and uncompromising. This means that his characters aren’t done to win the reader the easy way. They are not sympathetic and in some cases even those characters that are the hinges of the book seem to spit right in the face of the reader. Another aspect of characterization to point out is that part of Bakker’s style is the habit of “undoing” characters, of unfolding them. Usually writers keep a mystery and “magic” that helps the identification, as we chase after our feelings without truly grasping them. Instead Bakker disassembles some characters directly in the text, also meaning that sometimes they appear “broken”, non-functional, showing the cogs inside and provoking more a sense of pity than sympathy. Maybe even shame. The book is challenging and defies who’s reading. The very opposite of accommodating. You’d risk of dozing off, while Bakker wants that you wake up.

In the end this is the true value of this book. I have this contradicting habit of delaying the best stuff. I read this book after years I’ve bought it, left the best last. Expectations were met. For me Bakker and Erikson both are the APEX that Fantasy has to offer, and between them and all the rest there’s a certain gap. Neither of them are easy to recommend and and to enjoy. Both are challenging for different reasons, and due to completely different writing style it’s also possible that one could hate one but enjoy the other and vice versa. If you read this is because you want to explore or even breach a genre instead of being caged within it. You don’t read this book because you’re looking for more of the same. That’s what it offers, something challenging and uncompromising. Something that cuts deeps and that can’t leave one indifferent.

The problems are choices. There’s not a trace of comedy or lighter, relaxing scene (or none that stick out). The only humor is through a harsh and cynical perspective. Abrasive and scornful. No kind, loving words, if not ones that are meant to deceive. The book is brutal, there’s violence and sex, most often without any romance in both. There are no filters or censorship about what is “proper” to show and what to leave unsaid. You have to come without prejudices of any kind, or the book refuses you (metaphorically speaking). But it is important for me to underline that violence and sex in this book do not have a “pornographic” intent. They aren’t artificial stratagems to be edgy and gritty, or to titillate. Or to shock and gross the easy way. They are part of the nature of the story, which you have to trust. It’s not entirely grim and monotone, though. There are exceptions that are meaningful as they shine so much in the rarer occasions when sentiments are true and without hypocrisy.

EDIT: A follow-up.

This is for me one of the most beautiful passages in Bakker’s “The Darkness that Comes Before”.

It is so accurate, and resonates on many levels. That last line seals it:

“Some say men continually war against circumstances, but I say they perpetually flee. What are the works of men if not a momentary respite, a hiding place soon to be discovered by catastrophe? Life is endless flight before the hunter we call the world.”

Some redundancy in this post, but I’m at it.

In a forum discussion I suggested to someone who couldn’t suffer Erikson writing style to instead try reading Bakker. There’s a reason for this. I believe that both have a similar approach to certain themes. Yet, they do it on the page in a completely different style and someone who can’t digest one may have a good chance of enjoying the other.

I know that either writer would cringe if aware I’m drawing parallels, but I do this not to put them on a ladder of quality, but to try to underline qualitative differences.

It can be absurd to think I see Erikson series doing certain similar things to Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, so I’m giving one example of what I see.

Specifically in the titles of the books, and their theme. Midnight Tides and The Darkness That Comes Before.

“The Dünyain,” Kellhus said after a time, “have surrendered themselves to the Logos, to what you would call reason and intellect. We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

There are tides beneath every tide
And the surface of water
Holds no weight

-Tiste Edur saying