You always have to be a bit wary when starting the first book in a trilogy, especially one that hasn't been finished yet. Many authors can barely hold your attention through one book, let alone three. The fantasy trilogy can also be something of a cliched form. Fortunately, this book manages to leap the first hurdle, that of holding your attention through one book, and manages to do it with a modicum of style.
Now some will already have seen my rantings elsewhere about doorstop fantasy novels, but clocking in at a mere 477 pages (minus the usual glossary) this one manages to limbo neatly under that bar. For a sizable novel the narrative is nice and tight, the plot flows smoothly and though it draws you in slowly at first it soon pulls you in.
At first I was a bit wary, the prologue was not the most inspired entry into the novel, and the fact it takes place about 2000 years before the events of the body of the novel made the transition a bit more of a jolt than it needed to be. Once you start the novel properly though the initial doubts quickly fade.
The story unfolds slowly, but is more than worth following, built strongly around character. So the story flows around the personalities and their interactions, rather than the participants being a victim of the plot. This gives the novel a lot of the depth missing to other fantasy novels, creating along the way some of the most unlikely characters. It's not a novel of battles and quests, but rather of intrigue. The conflicts are both of the interpersonal kind, with plenty of wonderful verbal jousting, and a more emotional inner conflict. Not all characters are equal, but he gives most sufficient air time, and those at the centre of the stage are very well fleshed out.
This isn't high fantasy by any means, no tract of pure light handed down from on high, this is dirty, gritty and has a sense of realism. Bakker creates a series of characters with all the flaws, foibles and conflicting emotions you could hope for from a well drawn set of individuals, and places them in a world that feels very grounded. Though working in a form which has quite a tradition behind it, it still manages to feel fresh and new. This is no rose tinted view of an idealistic past, but a novel thoroughly of the present.
I can forgive the usual trappings: the prologue, the glossary, the quotes from books like "The Forth Analytic of Man" at the start of every chapter, as beyond the genre trappings this book has a lot to offer. The plot is wonderful, managing to deal with the present and the powerful echos of the past in equal measure. The weight of the past is a solid presence in this book, a past not fully described yet never far from the surface, not the immediate past but that two thousand year history against which the present is played. It is Bakker's strength at doing this that made the prologue so unnecessary.
I can't finish without mentioning one of the most memorable characters I've come across in recent history, that of Drusas Achamian, the overweight sorcerer who sits at the crux of the novel and whom events sprial around. He has to be one of my favourite creations of fantasy fiction, utterly flawed yet inspiring at the same time. Extremely satisfying stuff, my only hope is that the following two novels meet the high bar set by this one. A brilliant first novel from an author who deserves to do well.