Friday, 20 May 2011

First Impressions | Beginning R. Scott Bakker

Around the blogosphere of late, there's been a moderate amount of excitement about the release of The White Luck Warrior, by R. Scott Bakker. Orbit kindly sent along a review copy my way a couple of weeks ago, which I duly wrote up for The BoSS before filing the poor, misbegotten thing away next to my similarly unread edition of The Judging Eye.

This I did because The White Luck Warrior is volume two, and The Judging Eye volume one, of the second of three inextricably connected trilogies. And as we all know by now, I don't tend to start such stories anywhere except the start. But some of the praise lavished upon The White Luck Warrior has been such that I simply had to give this series a shot. Shall we say anything Wert can enjoy, I can enjoy better?

Well, perhaps. But there are a few sure-fire ways to ensure any given book gets my attention, and among those, comparisons to the work of one Guy Gavriel Kay will win the day, as like as not. I can't recall now who drew the parallels aforementioned, or where, but drawn they were, and my interest was promptly piqued. So I went ahead and bought the EPUB edition of The Darkness That Comes Before from, to read on my shiny new eee Pad Transformer. I stripped away the DRM - apologies to Adobe Technologies, Orbit, the author, et al, but I'm afraid I have my ideals - and imported the tiny resulting file to Aldiko, which has quickly, despite a fair few hitches, become my e-book reader of choice.

And then?

Well... then I fell a little bit in love.

Because I can see the rationale behind the Guy Gavriel Kay comparisons; I can quite understand why someone would make them, given Bakker's impeccable craftsmanship. The man, I'll say, is a writer's writer. His language is simply phenomenal: measured, evocative, and perfectly poised. Bakker ably achieves the picturesque in his prose without - as yet - having fallen victim to the purple. The text of The Darkness That Comes Before is a thing of beauty, truly.

Yet the complexity of the world of this book, this trilogy, this trilogy of trilogies, simply staggers. Confounds me, even. You'll recall I only fell a little bit in love with The Darkness That Comes Before; that would be why. I'd have gone all-in otherwise, except there's just so much to come to terms with.

And that too would be well, but for the fact Bakker seems little concerned with questions of accessibility, even in this, the first novel of series supposedly nine long volumes long. He seems dreadfully prone to digression... to lengthy musings on imagined histories and philosophies which, however informative, however pretty and pretty impressive - and they are - serve to stall the narrative before it's even begun to gain the sense of momentum I'm sorely missing.

There's a quote from a review on the listing of The Darkness That Comes Before which quite encapsulates my feelings in this regard. So sayeth one Cynthia Ward:

"Bakker attempts to make his complex world clear to readers by filling the prologue and opening chapters with the names of characters, gods, cities, tribes, nations, religions, factions, and sorcery schools. For many readers, this approach will have the opposite effect of clarity. It's like demonstrating snowflake structure with a blizzard."

My progress with The Darkness That Comes Before has thus been slow, so far. I'm perhaps 150 pages in, merely a third of the way through, and that's after three reading sessions before bed on three consecutive nights... sessions which so often see evening turn to night and night return to morning. That hasn't happened with this one, not yet; though I can certainly see the day coming, if only Bakker would pick up the pace some. As is, The Darkness That Comes Before seems to be going nowhere fast, and I'm getting nowhere fast with it.

Yet Bakker's language is undeniably lovely; his prose so beautifully, beautifully hewn it's a real treat irrespective of what narrative it may or may not serve; and what little tale-telling there's been in this first book of The Prince of Nothing, I've been absolutely enraptured by. For instance the lengthy prologue, set a full 2000 years before the story's primary thrust (as I understand it), was phenomenal. If there's more of that, and I expect there will be, just as soon as all the foundation stones have been levered into place... well. I'll gladly cast the rest of my chips into the pot for that book, and make no mistake.

So onwards!

And with a little white luck, upwards too. Fingers firmly crossed...

What say you all on the subject of R. Scott Bakker, anyway? I understand he's a somewhat outspoken sort, and as I touched on at the outset, the excitement surrounding his latest publication has been palpable around and about the speculative aspect of the blogosphere. Yet he doesn't sell terribly well, does he?

Speaking of which, am I wrong to vaguely recall some talk of Bakker quitting the writing game entirely? I've only this little experience of his work, and already I think that'd be a desperately sad day for genre readers everywhere.


  1. You had me at GGK. I've never read anyone like him, and...well, the promise of someone even close has me with Amazon open in a new tab to buy this for my Kindle.

    You're a wily one, Niall... :)

  2. I'm a Bakker fan. Maybe I'm a sucker for his world building and his use of language, but whatever it is it works for me. I'll confess to not always getting the philosophy he weaves into his stories, but I find them compelling just the same. Same goes for his flawed characters. I've only read the first three books, but look forward to getting into the Aspect-Emperor soon.

    You could do much worse than delve into Bakker's work (and probably have).

  3. There are no coincidences, I suppose. I just ordered Bakker's "Darkness" this week, it should be arriving here shortly. But the comparison to GGK has me a bit more excited. Otherwise, my goal this year has been to pick up authors I hadn't read yet.

  4. Really? I'm astonished. I thought this was very poorly written. The prose is dreadful. I'm really, really surprised by this.

  5. I really enjoyed the first trilogy, though I had a bit of trouble with The Darkness That Comes Before. Before the first fifty or so pages were finished, it had put me to sleep three or four times. But, the first book isn't the best of that trilogy and doesn't quite live up to the quality of the latter two.

    Now, The Judging Eye is a different story. I thought it was a huge drop in quality and didn't like it all that much. At that point I gave up on buying the series and would have tacked on a "unless it gets some awesome reviews", but The Judging Eye got good reviews, so I seem to be in the minority in my distaste

  6. @Sean - Well, I do like to surprise from time to time! :) But I couldn't disagree more strongly with you, that Bakker's prose is "dreadful" in any sense. It's certainly dense, impenetrable even, but eventually you find your groove - a certain rhyme amongst all the obfuscating and unreason - and thereafter, at least for me (and I've read a mite more since writing this thing), The Darkness That Comes Before's been a treat.

  7. @James - From what I've read elsewhere, I don't know that you are in the minority as re: The Judging Eye. The consensus, so far I can see such a thing existing, is that therein Bakker makes almost exactly the accommodations so many of his readers have asked for, but that The Judging Eye is a leaner and less demanding narrative rather seems to rob the thing of its beauty, its meaning even, rather than improve the experience any.

    But good to hear that this first trilogy, at least, is on an upwards trajectory from where I am with it on out. Thank ye James.

  8. Bakker's certainly a monolithic author, and one of the handful that I'd say is absolutely essential. His books have to be read actively, and you've got to commit yourself to interact with the ideas, because Bakker puts about as much energy into accessibility as he does into depicting tender scenes of unicorn-related love.

    As for the individual books, I didn't find TDTCB to be the best on my first read, either. It's an interesting and powerful novel, but many of the series strengths don't become truly apparent until The Warrior Prophet, in my opinion. That's when my mouth dropped open and stayed on the floor.

    I won't go so far as James on TJE, and it is fantastically written, but I did find it much smaller in scale. White Luck Warrior, too, was excellent in many ways, but didn't approach the peaks of awe that the first trilogy seemed to constantly inhabit.

  9. Ah.

    So there seems to be agreement amongst all those commenters who've read R. Scott Bakker that this first trilogy at the least is worth my while. This is good to hear.

    But before I go all-in, let me ask you ladies and gents another thing: exactly how inextricable is the first trilogy from the second, currently in progress? Will I be satisfied if three books of The Prince of Nothing are all the Bakker I read for the time being?

    As ever, I appreciate the advice, everyone.

  10. I think I may have been too harsh in writing about TJE and TWLW. They're weaker than the first yes, but they still have many fantastic elements that make them more than worth reading. It's like how The City and The City was weaker than The Scar, but still certainly worth reading.*

    That being said, the first trilogy does come to a stopping point. I wouldn't say it's a good ending for a SERIES, but it's definitely a breather.

    *Just a personal example, feel free to substitute any other Mieville books or what have you.

  11. Thank you, Nathaniel.

    Actually I'm totally with you on the China Mieville comparison you make there. However incredible he gets - and he has, and sure enough he will again - I expect The Scar will always be the height of it, for me.

    But shhhh, we mustn't tell a soul of this...

  12. Even though you probably don't need even more incentives to continue reading Bakker, I'm listed (under an old screen name) in the Acknowledgements section of the third book. I used to have notoriety! :P

  13. I couldn't stand the writing in the first trilogy and I think that anyone who reads that expecting any thing like GGK will be in for one hell of a shock. China Meiville is sort of similar (although I love his work) in that he has a similarly baroque style. But I found Bakker to be hideously self indulgent.

    The world building is awesome however. But the sort of impenetrable writing that gives fantasy a bad name.

  14. @Niall - I'm really pleased that you have found it a treat. I agree with what you said about it being "...dense, impenetrable even..."; for me too much so. I found a lot of the imagery nonsensical and for me it was too much of a chore to read. There was no delight or satisfaction in reading or unlocking his writing.

  15. I loved both the first trilogy and TJE. I have the White Luck Warrior on my TBR pile and I'm thinking about re-reading TJE first.

  16. I've never read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay though... Maybe I should ;)