Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Prince of Nothing & The Aspect-Emperor by R. Scott Bakker: The Reviews That Come Before

The Great Ordeal, the penultimate volume of Scott Bakker's Aspect-Emperor quartet and the sixth book overall in his Second Apocalypse mega-series, is out in July in the United States and September in the UK. The final volume, The Unholy Consult, is already complete and will be out in 2017. Ahead of these books' much-delayed release (five years after the last volume), a group of bloggers and fans are helping spread the word about the series and to drum up some pre-release excitement.

I reviewed the entire Prince of Nothing trilogy way back in 2007 here, followed by The Judging Eye here and The White-Luck Warrior here. The Prince of Nothing review is reprinted below in full, but I will also be trying to re-review the entire series over the coming months (probably not in time for The Great Ordeal's release, but I'll give it a go) to see how my opinions have changed over the years. Moreso than most, the Second Apocalypse books reward careful re-reading after the fact.

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 Herbert 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.

A few other notable reviews of the series or the first book in it:

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist - "So if you are looking for a new voice, an original series, set in a world that is fascinating and different than what is currently the norm in the fantasy genre, populated by deeply realized characters and societies, then The Darkness that Comes Before is definitely for you!"

I Hope I Didn't Just Give Away The Ending - "Taken as a whole, The Prince of Nothing series is a true masterpiece of speculative fiction, the most enthralling trilogy fantasy has been gifted with since 1959, and I envy all who have the opportunity to read these words for the first time."

Sandstorm Reviews - "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."

The Atlantic - "These are brutal stories, with complex and often unsympathetic characters thrown together in a harsh and unforgiving world. For serious readers, Bakker's work is also quite a lot more philosophical than many of his contemporaries. Between fierce battles and sometimes truly chilling violence, there is plenty to keep you thinking."

Nethspace - "The Prince of Nothing trilogy stands apart as the single best completed fantasy series that I have read to date."

Mark Lawrence - "A book with depth, complexity, written with skill, and well worth a look."

George R.R. Martin - "I have read and admired his first trilogy." (GRRM's usual measured enthusiasm at work here)

John R. Fultz - "I’ve been singing the praises of Bakker’s fantasy work for awhile now. His is a fantasy on the scale of Tolkien without stealing any of the usual tropes that go with that scale. His work is brilliant, illuminating, and challenging. In short, it is literary fantasy…i.e. fantasy with literary qualities. “What exactly does that mean?” I hear somebody asking. Well, here’s what I tell my students on the first day of any literature class: Literature is a written work of art that explores what it means to be human."

Victoria Strauss - "To properly appreciate the scope, sweep, and power of this series, not to mention its complex thematic structure, it must be read from the beginning. And it should be read. Violent, passionate, darkly poetic, seethingly original, these are books that deserve attention from all true connoisseurs of fantasy."

Steven Erikson - "Exquisitely intelligent and beautifully written, R. Scott Bakker’s first novel in The Prince of Nothing series inspires both confidence and anticipation–this is fantasy with muscle and brains, rife with intrigue and admirable depth of character, set in a world laden with history and detail.  Take note, one and all, something remarkable has begun here.…"

John Marco - "The Darkness That Comes Before introduces a vast and richly detailed world for lovers of good fantasy. Bakker’s imaginative creation is an impressive addition to the genre."

The Toronto Star (print review) - "One of the finest new fantasy creations in recent memory, a dazzling epic that breaks utterly free of the conventions of its genre."

The Globe & Mail (print review) - "Bakker has been praised by fans and critics around the world for his thoughtful, complex and meticulously detailed world, his colorful and credible characters, and his deviously intriguing, action-packed plotting."

Seattle Post-Intelligencer - "A fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best . . . This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you’re liable to read for a long time."

Blogcritics - "A journey unlike any other you have experienced. Part Dante’s Inferno and part Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, this is fantasy literature like you’ve never read before."

January Magazine - "What Bakker does that his contemporaries do not and that those SFF luminaries did was completely imagine — from the ground up — a universe so satisfyingly detailed you felt as though you could slip inside."

Edmonton Journal (print review) - "It is a profound and massive achievement, a work of both narrative and philosophical imaginative sweep."

The Guardian (print review) - "Intelligent is a term trotted out so often by publishers that it has become almost worthless – which is hard for the likes of Bakker, whose The Darkness That Comes Before truly is intelligent, and original, and all those other overused words."

Here's also a video of Scott Bakker chatting with George R.R. Martin at a literary festival in Spain:

And yes, I am trying to secure a review copy of The Great Ordeal as well, ahead of its July release date.


Shouting Into The Void said...

Initially read the series based on your glowing reviews of the first two books. Like you and others I'm going to be rereading them all ahead of the release in September. A lot to absorb in each book and if The Great Ordeal is anything like The Thousandfold Thought then it'll be essentially to do so to fully appreciate the climax of this part of the series. It has been a long time coming. Hopefully, as you've argued before for Paul Kearney, having these two parts of the series complete will encourage others to start reading it all.

Madness said...

Brilliant roundup, Wert. Thanks muchly again for your support for Bakker.

I love these books and I think their impact is much more important to today's culture than that of just about any other ongoing series out there.

Unknown said...

Any recommendations on rereads or summaries of each book? Just to refresh before July...

Adam Whitehead said...

I'm assuming that, like the 5 previous books, there'll be a "story so far" bit at the start of each episode.

Adam Whitehead said...

Episode? At the start of each of the two new books.

profgrape said...

Maybe the best spec fiction yet written. Cannot be more excited for the next entry!

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

Still not a fan of this series. I did not enjoy any of the main characters, unlike Dune.

If you're rooting for your protagonist to fail, like I was, I think something's awry.

Adam Whitehead said...

I disagree with that. The protagonist is the central character, regardless of his or her morals. He's certainly not the hero. If you're rooting for a hero to fail, that's a problem. But we root for Kellhus to fail in the same way you root for Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO to fail. These are not nice, laudable people. They're psychopaths and lunatics, not very nice people and utterly reprehensible. You read about them because they are fascinating.

In fact, the sequels complicate this by showing Kellhus to be ruthless, manipulative and amoral, but also perhaps the only thing standing in the way of the Consult and the No-God, which are much greater, existential threats (Kellhus is also revealed to be pro-equal opportunities and employs female sorcerers in his armies, which is laudable, especially given the inherent sexism in pre-Kellhus Inrithi society).

Also, on rereads I think everyone wants Paul Atreides in DUNE to fail: he defeats the villainous Harkonnens and avenges his father, yay, but then unleashes a genocidal religious crusade which kills tens of billions, which the Harkonnens and the Emperor Shaddam IV would not have done.

Anonymous said...

Has there not been some backlash based on the way female characters are treated and the author's response to that criticsm?

Adam Whitehead said...

There's not many female characters in the books due to the author's decision to set the books in a world where Biblical beliefs in things like Original Sin are "real". This was not really explained very well in the original books and led to charges of sexism, although male characters are, in general, treated even worse (this is one of the few fantasy series where sexual assault is perpetrated against male characters, and in fact far more prominently against male characters than female). The sequel trilogy addresses this with more prominent and powerful female characters, including an entire school of female sorcerers who are as powerful as the male ones (Kellhus identifying in women a hitherto untapped resource of labour and magical firepower that will be needed against the Consult).

Scott Bakker's response, on the other hand, was not very good or nuanced, and not helped by being involved in other online drama at the time[/understatement]. This is why Scott's been much more low-key in marketing over the last few years.

JJJ289 said...

Thanks for the reply. I have to re-read the first trilogy and then I'll read the second.

Anonymous said...

Could we know what that other online drama was?