The Darkness That Comes Before - R Scott Bakker
This seems to be the standard fantasy template at the moment - an inhuman menace rising in the North, the reawakening of some ancient power, political factions too busy infighting to heed warnings of the impending Apocalypse - everyone's trying to be George R R Martin. Reading this so soon after The Blade Itself caused some serious confusion with my mental geography too, despite the lovely Tolkien-esque map that appears at the front here. Still, this series distinguishes itself with a very dark and serious take on the subject, and is a long way from being by-numbers fantasy froth, for all that the landscape looks familiar.
With a background in philosophy and social science, Bakker has focused on the ideologies and conflicts of the major political players; the first half of the book follows some rather tortuous intrigue in the build-up to the forthcoming Holy War. Unfortunately this takes a bit of getting through; the politics is convoluted, and is full of characters alluding to secret plots and jumping to conclusions from evidence not shared with the reader (you know the sort of thing, "Could he be...? No, impossible! Unless... ah, what devilish cunning!" etc). It's also not backed up with any decent characters - none of the players are sympathetic, and even the amusingly self-regarding Emperor seems a bit flat. Just over halfway through, though, Kellhus comes back and things improve.
The character of Kellhus is one of the main reasons I'd recommend reading this. He is introduced in the prologue as scion of the old ruling family, hidden away for centuries since the last apocalypse was averted, now returning to possibly claim his birthright. Typical Return of Lost Heir stuff, but with a twist - this is no noble prince, but a ruthless utilitarian who coldly uses and discards people to further his own ends. Is he the villain, or is the threat of the No-God and the Second Apocalypse enough to justify his actions? While certainly not a likeable character, he's a very intriguing one, and his presence is enough to liven up the story while dragging it into the moral grey area that we all love.
One area where Bakker does fall down is his portrayal of female characters. OK, he's drawn a repressive patriarchal society with fewer interesting roles for women, but they do get a particularly raw deal from his pen. We only get three of them - one shrill and scheming dowager-Empress, one wet and clingy concubine, and one tough but brittle prostitute; they are all quite boring and shallow, and even less likeable than the men. It's possible that the other characters' emotional failings are made so prominent to emphasise their difference from the emotionless Kellhus, but when all we see is the negative side it gets rather wearing. Even so, but the story's interesting enough to make me want to read on; when the stack's gone down a bit I'll probably be getting the rest of the trilogy, however unpleasant the characters may be.