‘The Darkness that Comes Before’ Book Club Part One: The Monk and the Sorcerer
The first book in our series opens, appropriately, with a quote from Nietzsche:
I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact which these superstitious people are loath to admit—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wants, not when “I” want . . .
I’ve heard the books described as The Lord of the Rings if it had been written by Nietzsche, so keep that in mind as we march forth…
The opening of The Darkness that Comes Before takes place two thousand years before the bulk of the story. Some great war has just taken place – an apocalypse – and the last of the northern kings has fled with his household to a secret fortress far away from the dying. But death follows them there, and soon almost everyone is dead. Only the young bastard prince and the pedophile Bardic priest remain, and soon the boy has killed the priest in self defense. He lives alone until…
When the snows broke, shouts brought him to Ishuäl’s forward gate. Peering through dark embrasures, he saw a group of cadaverous men and women—refugees of the Apocalypse. Glimpsing his shadow, they cried out for food, shelter, anything, but the boy was too terrified to reply. Hardship had made them look fearsome—feral, like a wolf people.
When they began scaling the walls, he fled to the galleries. Like the Bardic Priest, they searched for him, calling out guarantees of his safety. Eventually, one of them found him cringing behind a barrel of sardines. With a voice neither tender nor harsh, he said: “We are Dûnyain, child. What reason could you have to fear us?”
But the boy clutched his father’s sword, crying, “So long as men live, there are crimes!”
The man’s eyes filled with wonder. “No, child,” he said. “Only so long as men are deceived.”
For a moment, the young Anasûrimbor could only stare at him. Then solemnly, he set aside his father’s sword and took the stranger’s hand. “I was a prince,” he mumbled. The stranger brought him to the others, and together they celebrated their strange fortune. They cried out—not to the Gods they had repudiated but to one another—that here was evident a great correspondence of cause.
Here awareness most holy could be tended. In Ishuäl, they had found shelter against the end of the world. Still emaciated but wearing the furs of kings, the Dûnyain chiselled the sorcerous runes from the walls and burned the Grand Vizier’s books. The jewels, the chalcedony, the silk and cloth-of-gold, they buried with the corpses of a dynasty.
And the world forgot them for two thousand years.
Two thousand years later we meet Anasûrimbor Kellhus as the young monk travels out of Ishual, into the vast northern forests. Bakker’s prose here, throughout the prologue, is rich and wonderful. We encounter Leweth and learn of Kellhus’s power to manipulate men, and of his quickness to use and dispose of them. The utilitarian Dûnyain ethic. We learn also that the Dûnyain do not believe in sorcery or the gods.
And then Kellhus encounters the Nonman:
Kellhus leapt, the Nonman scrambled backward, fell. The point of Kellhus’s sword, poised above the opening of his helm, stilled him.
In the freezing rain, the monk breathed evenly, staring down at the fallen figure. Several instants passed.
Now the interrogation could begin. “You will answer my questions,” Kellhus instructed, his tone devoid of passion.
The Nonman laughed darkly. “But it is you, Anasûrimbor, who are the question.”
And then came the word, the word that, on hearing, wrenched the intellect somehow.
A furious incandescence. Like a petal blown from a palm, Kellhus was thrown backward. He rolled through the snow and, stunned, struggled to his feet. He watched numbly as the Nonman was drawn upright as though by a wire. Pale watery light formed a sphere around him. The ice rain sputtered and hissed against it. Behind him rose the great tree.
Sorcery? But how could it be? Kellhus fled, sprinted over the dead structures breaking the snow. He slipped on ice and skidded over the far side of the heights, toppled through the wicked branches of trees. He recovered his feet and tore himself through the harsh underbrush. Something like a thunderclap shivered through the air, and great, blinding fires rifled through the spruces behind him. The heat washed over him, and he ran harder, until the slopes were leaps and the dark forest a rush of confusion.
“ANASÛRIMBOR!” an unearthly voice called, cracking the winter silence.
“RUN, ANASÛRIMBOR!” it boomed. “I WILL REMEMBER!”
Laughter, like a storm, and the forest behind him was harrowed by more fierce lights. They fractured the surrounding gloom, and Kellhus could see his own fleeing shadow flickering before him. The cold air wracked his lungs, but he ran—far harder than the Sranc had made him run.
Sorcery? Is this among the lessons I’m to learn, Father?
Cold night fell. Somewhere in the dark, wolves howled. Shimeh, they seemed to say, was too far.
And so we have our first introduction to the vivid magic in these books, and to the mysterious Nonmen, and before that to the Sranc.
The wild north is long lost to mankind. For two thousand years it has been abandoned. Beneath the surface of the story we can begin to see a deep, dark history, a back story only beginning to emerge.
For the purposes of this book club we read through chapter two. Following the prologue we skip over to the south, to the Three Seas and the Mandate Schoolman, Drusas Achamian. I will be more brief here. We learn about the Mandate and their hidden enemy, the Consult. The Consult, it turns out, were responsible somehow for the first Apocalypse. The Mandate were founded by the ancient sorcerer Seswatha, and all the Mandate Schoolmen dream Seswatha’s dreams of the Apocalypse every night. Two thousand years later, most people think the Mandate fools but all the rest of the Few, as sorcerers are known, regard them jealously for their particular magic, the Gnosis, which is the last remnant of the old northern magic now lost to the world – magic taught to men by Nonmen mages thousands of years ago.
Add to this the Thousand Temples and the tension between the religious and the Few. In the physical realm, the Schoolmen are regarded with outright scorn and derision and fear. There has already been one Holy War in an attempt to obliterate them, and now there is rumor of a second, though the Mandate isn’t sure whether the war will be against the Schools or against the southern Kianene heathen.
So we have a wildly complex religious system against a backdrop of an ancient Apocalypse and an ancient enemy. We have sorcerers who can see one another and who can be destroyed by stones called Chorae, and who trade their immortal souls for their magical powers. Damnation looms large in these books. And we have a complicated geography in a not-quite-Western, not-quite-Eastern feudal system. It’s not easy on first read to sort it all out. What does everyone think so far?
Why don’t we read through the end of Part Two (through chapter eight) by Monday the 28th. We’ll take next week off of any formal discussion (though anyone should feel free to write a post or a guest post on these at any time) for Thanksgiving.