Sunday, 15 April 2007

Wertzone Classics: The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

Here's something a little different. Rather than just reviewing the latest book I've bought (old or new), I have decided to do some reviews on major works that have made a big impact on me over the years. After wondering whether to start at the beginning or the end, I decided mixing them up may be the best way to go. I start off with a more recent work of epic fantasy that has been a major critical success in recent times, with the author going from being unheard of to mentioned in the same breath as Erikson, Kay and Martin in just three years. This, then, is The Prince of Nothing Trilogy.

The Prince of Nothing is a series that also forms the opening three books of a much longer sequence (at least seven volumes in length) called The Second Apocalypse. As the title hints, the books revolve around - once again - the return of an ancient evil to a world that no longer believes in it. However, Scott Bakker writes in a manner far more reminiscent of Frank Hertbert than say Robert Jordan, mixing philosophical ruminations with explosive action sequences and machivellian politicking.

The setting is Earwa, a continent which resembles Europe in the Hellenistic era, although the technological level is more reminiscent of the Crusades. The new Sharia of the Thousand Temples of Inrithism has called a Holy War against the heathen Fanim, vowing to drive them out of the Holy City of Shimeh and recover it for the Faithful. The Nansur Emperor, Ikurei Xerius III, is determined to mould the Holy War to his design.

The plot of the Holy War is essentially that of the First Crusade transported to a much colder and more brutal secondary world. The Prince of Nothing is a somewhat pitiless series. Like George RR Martin, Bakker has no qualms about killing major characters or showing the ugly, horrific side of war. Enormous battles, particularly in the second volume, are described with enormous skill, but they aren't the focus of the trilogy. Instead, the focus is squarely on the characters.

Ansurimbor Kellhus is the Prince of Nothing of the title. A member of an
ancient and forgotten order called the Dunyain, Kellhus is a master manipulator of human thought and emotion, able to bend people's wills to his design by knowing their histories: what has come before determines what follows. This aids him on his quest to find his father, Moenghus, who long ago fled to Shimeh and 'went native', to the Dunyain's disgust. Along the way, however, Kellhus discovers that the evil Consult, the powerful force that served the No-God in the First Apocalypse two thousand years earlier, has returned. The non-human Consult and their skin-spies stand outside Kellhus' experience and knowledge, representing a challenge he cannot ignore.

The other main principal character is Drusas Achamian, a member of the Mandate. The Mandate knows that the Consult and the No-God will return and have stood guard against them for millennia, but their order is mocked throughout the Three Seas. Only their knowledge and mastery of the Gnosis, the most powerful form of sorcerery known to mankind, ensures their survival in the face of jealous rivals such as the Scarlet Spires or the Nansuri Saik. Like all members of the Mandate, Achamian, or Akka, is visited each night by terrible nightmares of the First Apocalypse, a warning left behind by their founder Seswatha so that may never forget their duty. Achamian's lover, the prostitute Esemenet, is another key character. Although her significance is perhaps unclear at the start of the series, she eventually moves into a key position and she is one of our main POVs on events in the series.

Cnaiur is a Scylvendi barbarian warlord, chieftain of the Utemot and a warrior beyond compare. The self-proclaimed 'most violent of all men' is haunted by memories of Ansurimbor Moenghus, who passed through the Scylvendi lands decades earlier, and for the chance to destroy Moenghus he eagerly sides with Kellhus and the Holy War. Meanwhile, Ikurei Conphas, nephew of the Nansuri Emperor and one of the most gifted generals alive, battles to seize control of the Holy War and direct it on the course his uncle has chosen.

The Prince of Nothing is not a fluffy epic fantasy full of farm boys saving the world and virtuous princesses cooped up in their towers. It is dark and it is often brutal. There are rays of light penetrating the gloom - moments of good humour and fellowship - but these are few and far between. Yet it is compellingly readable. Bakker has a superb prose style, easy to follow yet packed with information that rewards careful reading and re-reading. In this sense he is very similar to Frank Herbert, and indeed The Prince of Nothing often feels like an epic fantasy version of Dune, reinforced by the fictional quotations that open each chapter and the absolutely massive glossary that makes up nearly a fifth of the third volume. Bakker is interested in philosophy (indeed, his masters' degree in the field was put on hold whilst he worked on this trilogy) and this comes through in the books, with characters frequently pondering the nature of life, of war and of thought. The shadow of Nietzsche lies heavily on the books in particular. Whilst it never overwhelms the plot (the philosophical interludes are delivered in bite-sized chunks rather than massive info-dumps), some may find that this slows down the proceedings. I can say I didn't, and tore through all three books in a matter of days.

The Darkness That Comes Before opens proceedings well, but it is a somewhat slower book that introduces the concepts and the characters. The main focus of the book is on the build-up to the Holy War, on the political strife between the kingdoms contributing to the crusade and on Akka's discovery of the first evidence in two millennia that the Consult is on the move. There is a huge, fascinating battle sequence that establishes key character motivations and relationships for later events in the trilogy, but generally this is a set-up book, as first volumes usually are.

The Warrior-Prophet is the story of the Holy War as a third of a million soldiers traipse south through burning deserts and across dry rivers, their eyes fixed on distant Shimeh. Akka and Esme come to the fore in this book as the battle for control of the Holy War rages amongst the higher echelons and, almost hidden from view, Kellhus slowly weaves himself a new identity and purpose. Whilst The Darkness That Comes Before was a powerful work, The Warrior-Prophet is an astonishing one, eliminating many of the first book's minor problems (the slower pace, the slightly longer musing on philosophy) and delivering an avalanche of intrigue and action. Individually, it is one of the best fantasy novels published in the last decade.

The Thousandfold Thought sees the Holy War finally arrive at Shimeh and begin the final battle against the Fanim. As the action unfolds outside the city's walls, Cnaiur and Kellhus must seek out Moenghus and learn the final revelation of the Thousandfold Thought, a secret which puts Kellhus on a very different road to the one he was pursuing before. Whilst Bakker successfully and somewhat elegantly resolves the story of the Holy War, the stories of our main characters is very much left open. For that reason the book suffers somewhat, although this problem will fade when the next part of the overall sequence is released.

The Prince of Nothing is a major, key work of modern fantasy that deserves to be read by all with an interest in the genre. It divides opinion massively between those who think it is too cold, too brutal and too dark to read, and those who think it borders on genius. I quite happily fall into the latter category.

The Darkness That Comes Before (2003, ****) is published by Orbit in the UK, Overlook in the US and Penguin in Canada.
The Warrior-Prophet (2004, *****): UK, US, Canada.
The Thousandfold Thought (2005, ****): UK, US, Canada.

Alternate reviews and interviews with the author can be found on the SFFWorld website located here. Sandstorm Reviews has covered the first book here. Nethspace has covered the whole trilogy here. Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending covered the trilogy here as well.

British editions linked to are mass-market paperbacks. US editions are trade paperbacks only. The Canadian editions are mass-market paperbacks apart from The Thousandfold Thought, which is only available in trade at present.

Scott Bakker has since completed work on an SF thriller named Neuropath, which is looking for a publisher. The Great Ordeal, Book 1 of The Aspect-Emperor, will be published in May 2008 in the UK, picking up the storyline twenty years after the events of The Thousandfold Thought. It is already my most anticipated book of 2008.


Norwegian Woodsman said...

Hello, Adam. I've been reading this blog ever since its beginning, and I hold you in the highest regard when it comes to writing good and well founded reviews. I've actually borrowed entire arguments that you've posted on westeros or sffworld, and published them on some Norwegian forums (Note, I made it perfectly clear that it was you, and not me, that had written it).

Which books/series are you going to review in the future? Can I request a review of the Lyonesse Trilogy, since I'm thinking about reading some Vance in the near future.

This review made me want to finish the PoN trilogy. I've read DtCB, but haven't gotten around to tWP. It seems I've been missing out on something great.

Adam Whitehead said...

Thanks! Lyonesse is indeed up for review (the idea is to go through the 'books of merit' on the side of the page), but there's a few other books I want to get through first. But certainly Lyonesse is highly recommended and a fine trilogy.