Ever since G.R.R.Martin (arguably) raised the bar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, a certain hole was made in the fantasy genre - who will match Martin? I must admit I was hesitant to even predict an heir, considering how pivotal Martin has been in rejuvenating my love for the genre. All other, new, fantasy works seemed entertaining and quaint at best and superficial and naive at worst.
Seemingly out of nowhere comes The Darkness That Comes Before by R.Scot Bakker- an epic series that mixes intrigue and gritty realism with dark magic to convey a sprawling, gripping tale filled with history and laced with stories of bloodshed. Sound familiar?
There is an ancient evil that no one believes in anymore. There are warring empires and political intrigue. There is the plight of the small folk and the folly of the rich. Sometimes the resemblance is striking.The refreshing thing about TDTCB is that it takes cues from Martin, but does not copy him. Gritty, dark fantasy is here - but TDTCB is much more high fantasy in than Martin's opus: there is magic in abundance and even a classic orc-like race called Sranc. There is intrigue and mystery, but as I mentioned there is a ton of history as well - something that might dissuade some people from attempting the book.
This dissuasion is a shame, because what Bakker managed to create here is a history that is complex, yes, but also very believable. All the peoples described, their religions and their culture, seem so tangible and comprehensive that they could easily be our own - a phenomenon i first encountered in Tolkiens exhaustive masterpiece The Silmarillion.
Bakker's writing style is distinct and meticulous. Like a lot of fantasy writers he has a flair for detail and his language is immaculate. He does struggle with timing and dynamics occasionally - the long, stretched part midway trough the book that deals with the Empire becomes quite slow - but this does not damage the readers impression much. Baker is at his best when writing about individuals from their point of view. The only issue is that he skips between too many characters for us to care at times. Only nearing the end does the reader gain his footing and pick who the protagonists, and his favorites, are. This is why the sequel is very promising, as our opinions are fully formed by the time the grandiose storyline takes full flight.
Just when you thought the fantasy genre can evolve no more, a new kind of epic has spawned - and I recommend it vehemently. If, you were left with a sour feeling in your mouth when finishing Marting latest outing, knowing you'll have to wait for years for Martin to churn out a sequel - this is your cure. Have at it.
But this book holds its own whatever your relationship with Martin is. It is a well written, compelling and, above all, original fantasy saga. The series bears great promise, and I hope it will fulfill its potential.