Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Darkness That Comes Before

The Darkness That Comes Before
The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this book. The world is deep and interesting, with well-thought-out history, religions and nations. It feels gritty and real. There are some well-developed characters which are more than cardboard cutout fantasy archetypes - our hero (if we could even be said to have one) is not a plucky teenage orphan with mysterious powers. There's even a female character with a little depth - Esmenet - who has (*gasp*) thoughts and motivations of her own.

That said, I'm getting a bit tired of what I call "grimdark" fantasy. Fantasy that seems to confuse "horrible" with "realistic". Women in these books are slaves, whores, or concubines. Full stop. Even Esmenet is a whore, and while she isn't the standard fantasy "all-powerful madam with a heart-of-gold" stereotype, and I actually like the way she is developed, she still is subject to harassment, abuse, and being forced to have sex as her only way to get along in the world. I'm not saying it doesn't happen in the real world, but does this have to be true of every single woman in your world? "But it's like medjeevil and stuff!" I hear the wild fanboy cry. First: bullshit. I know women were generally disenfranchised in the middle ages, and denied traditional power, but they weren't _all_ sex slaves either. But second: this is a _fantasy_ world. You made it up. You could just as easily have made it up in such a way that included women as something other than chattel in at least some role. Nothing in the story so far has hinged upon the fact that the cultures in your world be universally misogynistic arsebites. And third: it's constantly on display. The nations of your world appear to universally allow slavery too - also, I think we can agree, horrible - but we don't really see the horribleness of that aspect of their societies brought to the fore. But their attitude to women is constantly thrust into our faces, so to speak. I get the impression that male authors use misogynistic cultures as a reason to avoid having to write about female characters, and while I have some sympathy for this (I know _I_ would be pretty self-conscious about how I portrayed the inner thoughts and motivations of a female character) it's no excuse. I'm not a professional author, for one, but you could also just leave them out of the book altogether if you're uncomfortable writing from their perspective.

And the sad thing about all that is that I think Esmenet really _is_ an interesting character. She falls for one of her clients, sure, but only after he so obviously goes puppy-eyes over her. And even then she is stopped from admitting it by the natural distrust of her profession, and is practical and thoughtful about how she goes about fixing that. So I don't think Bakker is an evil woman-hating bastard or anything, and he _can_ write an interesting female character, its just that the rest of his world is so distasteful that - realistic or no - I'm not sure how much more I want to know about it, or whether I care if it all ends in some horrible holocaust.

(Hmmm. That was really supposed to be a rant about overdone "darkness" in fantasy, not about misogyny specifically. But that's the aspect that really came out in these books, so that's what came out when I opened the floodgates... There ya go.)

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