Sunday, 29 July 2012
Instances Of Darkness I Have Known
It's not hard to see why Brutal (Mr Snake? Or is it Dr Snake these days?) thought this would appeal to me; one of the main characters is essentially a probability monk who uses his total understanding of stochastic concepts to control men, destroy opponents, and eventually get laid. Just like in real life!
Moving beyond that point, which I can understand may be of more interest to me than to anyone else, more than anything else, this book struck me as Dune by way of A Song of Ice and Fire. The similarities to both are fairly obvious. Bakker seems to have at least some interest in recreating the feel of Herbert's masterpiece; the political intrigue flowing from a multitude of political factions - many of which are nominally under the control of others, and others which are nominally antagonistic but have formed common cause - reminded me a great deal of the diplomatic feints and lunges of much of Dune, which in both cases can best be described as two people dancing around each other until one gets the chance to utterly destroy the other. Even some of the names of various nations and families evoke the galaxy under the rule of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. And if the lethal warriors of the Scylvendi aren't essentially the Fremen with access to fermented mare's milk, that's only because they've been mixed with some aspects of Stephen Donaldson's Haruchai as well.
The similarities to Martin's ongoing series are both more specific and less important. Indeed, whilst this is a story about an ancient evil once more stirring in the north, with their only opponents a pitiful laughing stock within a culture that has forgotten its peril, one could (and I do) argue that this represents Martin and Bakker simply blowing the dust off a similar old trope, before doing their own thing with it. There's no similarity between the No-God and his Consult allies and the Others of Martin's Land Beyond the Wall, and Bakker is happy to use his choice of names and imagery to remind us that really this was all Tolkien's idea in any case.
Speaking of Martin, however, and considering the flak he has gotten from many sources over potential misogyny (some of which is overblown or badly argued, some of which is entirely correct, particularly in his latest book), it's worth noting that this book suffers badly from a lack of strong female characters. Indeed, there are only three women who have more than a couple of lines. One is an uncommonly beautiful girl who is constantly being abducted and raped; mere property to those who possess or wish to possess her (still, at least she has a "perfect breast"). A second is an embittered harridan who was once the most gorgeous woman in an empire, and is increasingly pissed off that no-one wants to fuck her anymore (except possibly her son; there's some incestuous interplay going on here, another reminder of Martin's work).The third is a prostitute who alternates between wishing a man would save her from her drudgery and needing a man to save her from angry religious types.
That perhaps sounds worse than it is. It's not as though men come across particularly well in the book, nor the religious, nor scholars, nor warriors, nor spies. Still, in what remains a recurring problem for fantasy fiction, The Darkness... isn't really helping.
Whether or not one can overcome this problem is a matter for yourselves. I you can, though, there's a lot to like here. I've mentioned the debt Bakker owes to Herbert, but this is far from a pale retread; the world of Earwa and the lands of the Three Seas are their own world, and Bakker does well both in building his fictional places and in introducing them to us without relying on clumsy exposition (naming his chapters after locations in the story doesn't entirely work, though). The characterisation is good, and the plot interesting and well-paced, packed full of the aforementioned political manoeuvring interspersed with occasional bouts of arcane horror and vicious bloodshed. I finished this first volume of three (1:3) with a strong desire to buy the next book in the series, which is always a good sign.
Be warned, though, the ending is unforgivably anti-climactic. Indeed, the final chapter is absolutely baffling in how much it slams the breaks on a building narrative and seemingly just twiddles its thumbs. Maybe I'm missing something, though.
Still, all told, this is a four and a half star book with one and a half star female characters. Draw your own conclusions.