Are you a Tolkien imitator? A riffer? A rejector? One way or the other, if you’re writing epic fantasy, the Oxford professor is sitting on your shoulder, sniggering and blowing dirty pipe smoke up your nose.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve never read Lord of the Rings; declaring Conan the Cimmerian to be your only true love won’t save you. The man with two “R”s didn’t invent the field, but he dominates it to the extent that we all write in his shadow.
Those of us who’ve been reading epic fantasy since the 80s or before, will be familiar with the “imitators”*. Names like Eddings and Brooks who swallowed whole the romanticism and the quest and the clash of civilizations. Later still, the same path, with minor variations, was trodden by the big shoes of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson and Janny Wurts.
Others have tried to flee the great man’s footprints altogether. We’ve seen the rejection of romanticism with Donaldson’s anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, and Glen Cook’s Black Company. We’ve seen George R. R. Martin modernise the genre, bathing it in filth and blood and four letter words. More recently, Joe Abercrombie has built an entire career on subverting the ideas that Tolkien popularised. If anybody is the anti-Tolkien, it is he.**
But for my money, we’ve never before now, encountered anybody quite like Canadian, R. Scott Bakker. In him, we have somebody who is clearly a HUGE fan of Middle-Earth, but who has done everything in his considerable powers to render it obsolete.
How? By adding logic and nietzschian philosophy.
In Bakker’s world, for example, there are elves, or something like them: beautiful, immortal, otherworldly… and totally, dangerously insane; driven mad by lives far too long for a mind to keep track of.
He has a Mordor of his own, with its dark lords on dark thrones, who plot with remorseless common sense to save themselves from damnation. They have created genuinely evil orcs that enjoy genuinely shocking atrocities.
But all of this could be considered no more than a superficial coating of the in-vogue “gritty fantasy”. The real difference between Bakker and his glorious predecessor lies in the fact that the Canuck author seems to completely ignore the romanticism that animates Tolkien’s world. He isn’t consciously rejecting it, as Abercrombie does: he’s agnostic. He prefers to appeal to the readers’ intellects and imaginations rather than to their hearts.
He also brings a deep knowledge of philosophy to the table and a brilliantly worked out metaphysics with an absolutist sense of right and wrong that doesn’t always run parallel to the axis of good and evil.
And yet, every step of the way, Bakker pays loving tribute to the man who inspired him. There are little jokes scattered about for the perceptive reader to find. For example, a magic type of armour, said to have been made in a city called Mithrul, simply has to be a reference to the mithril armour of Lord of the Rings. Even more obvious, are the final 70 or so pages of The Judging Eye, which is an absolutely stunning recreation of one of Tolkien’s better-known scenes. It is possibly the best action sequence I have ever read in my life.
So, having said all of that, do I recommend Bakker’s work to readers of Black Gate?
That depends on you, really. It took me a good two hundred pages of The Darkness that Comes Before to start enjoying it. His world of Earwa is filthy and heartless. His characters sinful and hateful and often pathetic. But having said all of that, the man is an absolute genius. His work defines “epic” and “spectacular”. His world is shocking and his insights are often brilliant.
You know that feeling you get when a character, who is supposed to be smarter than everybody else, blathers nothing but inanities? School-level philosophies? I can promise that you*** will never feel smarter than the possibly evil Kellhus.
What I can say is this: if you pursue Bakker to the bitter end — and it is always bitter — you may well hate him. But your mind will be blown wide open. I’ll leave it up to you.
*This is not intended as an insult, btw.
**Although this doesn’t become obvious unless you read right up to the end of Last Argument of Kings.
***Mileage may vary for Nobel Prize winners.