Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Reviews -- THE PRINCE OF NOTHING TRILOGY, Books Two and Three

A little over a year ago, I finished R. Scott Bakker's stupendous The Prince of Nothing trilogy of novels. For your convenience and interest, I'm reviewing them both below, and also, I'm linking a few other reviews to give you a bit more insight and another person's view of these novels.

Review of Warrior-Prophet
Another review of Warrior-Prophet

Review of The Thousandfold Thought
Another review of The Thousandfold Thought

WARRIOR-PROPHET by R. Scott Bakker

The book opens immediately after the tumultuous cliffhanger ending of The Darkness That Comes Before, and follows the Holy War on its deadly course toward the holy city of Shimeh. The tale focuses less on Anasûrimbor Kellhus from his own perspective than the first book of the series, and instead follows his exploits more through the eyes of his companions, the Mandate sorcerer Drusas Achamian, the prostitute Esmenet, and the nomadic Scylvendi exile-general Cnaiür urs Skiötha. The book is roughly divided into three segments, each an ordinal-numbered march, marking stages in the Holy War's progress through Fanim-held lands toward its lofty goal. As the crusaders fight battles and pass through many different and dangerous lands, their numbers dwindle and they are forged into a hardened, determined, and tested force.

Bakker's mastery of psychology blossoms throughout this book. Kellhus' machinations and manipulations of the psyches of others is far, far more pronounced than in The Darkness That Comes Before. More of the conditioning methods of the Dûnyain are described through the few chapters that are told from Kellhus' point-of-view. Though the narrator is of the omnipotent third-person sort, he rarely dips into the mind of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, so when he does it is a rare and insightful treat.

This mastery of character psychology creates personae that are real and lifelike. They are far more than just caricatures. Each character has deep, psychological traumas in their life, traumas that Kellhus exploits to achieve his goal of subverting the Holy War. As the novel develops, Bakker uses Kellhus to examine and expose the weaknesses and strengths of his characters and expose the depths of their hopes, fears, and coping mechanisms. Kellhus' conditioning, separating himself from history and "what comes before" in order to achieve a sort of psychological oneness and Nietzschean Wille zur Macht, enables him to exercise a sort of free will that runs contrary to the psychological determinism of all of the other characters around him.

Here, Bakker's thought-experiments with psychology and philosophy (specifically Nietzscheanism and related forms of Existentialism) achieve a more free exercise across the pages. Removed from the complex political machinations of the Nansur imperial court, the young Kellhus gradually transforms himself in the perception of his fellows from a simple peer into a religious figure. Through examination and analysis of the surrounding characters' psyches, he manipulates everyone about him. Ironically, only the barbarian, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, is aware of Kellhus' power and thus remains impervious to Kellhus' machinations.

Simultaneously, Bakker begins to weave religious and moral questions into the fabric of the tale. Although they are perceived as heathen by the Inrithi warriors, the Muslim-esque Fanim are arrogant but not truly evil. The savage brutality of medieval warfare is described in exquisite detail, and this book is truly an Anabasis of fantasy. The battles, the suffering, and the political infighting within the Inrithi host, especially once Kellhus begins to manifest himself as a religious figure, are absorbingly detailed. I flew through this hefty volume in a mere eight days, pulled forward by the excellent pacing of events and interweaving of plot threads.

And Bakker wields multiple plot threads quite well, indeed. No space is wasted. Even when the author spends time delving into the characters' thoughts, it is not tedious, but revealing. Though the book is quite descriptive, the description serves to deepen both the characters and the world. Bakker reveals the rich history and culture of Eärwa through the actions and words of the characters. He makes very little use of the sinister, evil Consult throughout the book, perhaps aware that familiarity breeds contempt. Instead of revealing their history in The Darkness That Comes Before, Bakker instead chooses to assemble their twisted story piecemeal throughout Warrior-Prophet, culminating in their attempt to manipulate certain factions within the Holy War to eliminate Kellhus, the one character they perceive as the greatest threat to their plans outside of the Mandate School of sorcery.

The book avoids becoming predictable by withholding aspects of the world and information of the environment from the reader, then springing them at a prime moment. This happens only rarely, though. As a whole, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. Knowing the psychologies of the characters, however, the reader is never in a position of disbelief. Every single character behaves exactly in accordance with their psychological make-up. This lends a very important depth of realism to the characters. Nevertheless, Bakker rarely ceases to surprise us. He takes his characters to far-away places, where they stand atop ruins of forgotten eras and are at times overwhelmed by the weight of history. The novel is laced with the interplay of a dozen ideas within Bakker's mind, and they explode into the pages with a forcefulness that is captivating.

The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker

The conclusion to The Prince of Nothing brings to mind a number of clichéd phrases often penned by penny-ante movie reviewers, such as "tour de force," "relentless," and "mindblowing." And I hate to resort to them, but in this case, I find myself hard-pressed to describe this novel in any other way.

The plot is a continuation of Anasûrimbor Kellhus' subversion and control of the Holy War, and by extension, the establishment of a new religious philosophy within Inrithism. The final march to Shimeh itself is detailed and the plots of Kellhus, his erstwhile and prodigal father, Moënghus, and the evil, nihilistic Consult all achieve realization on the pages. This build-up of tension and anticipation kept me reading the final 250 pages of the novel at a coffee shop for three-and-a-half solid hours. I finished this book in less than a week because every time I finished a chapter, I felt the inevitable tug to begin reading the next one.

Much of what can be said regarding Bakker's interplay of history, philosophy, and psychology has already been stated ad nauseum, so I will refrain from jamming that down your throat once more. However, there is a power and a scale of epicness that comes to fruition in this book more than the other. The motivation behind the evil Consult is revealed, including their alien heritage, the history of betrayal, and their attempt to escape from an afterlife by denying the God/gods any worshipers at all and cleansing the world of sentient beings. All of the characters meet their greatest fears, and confront their most daunting challenges. Each one overcomes them in a different way (indeed, whether or not they overcome these challenges at all is up to the interpretation of the reader).

A great many strings are left untied, but Bakker has made it clear that, although this particular story has ended, there is more to be written. Nevertheless, the final pages of this novel are a triumph of tragedy, in a manner of speaking. The most sympathetic character of the novels, the sorcerer Drusas Achamian, achieves his own sort of Wille zur Macht. Kellhus inadvertently creates a number of miniature Übermensch throughout the series, among them Achamian and the Scylvendi warrior Cnaiür (who is driven mad by his awareness). The merging of psychology and philosophy throughout the novel creates an absorbing interplay in which Bakker explores the consequences that ideas have upon the lives of his characters.

The Prince of Nothing Series Overall
A definite accomplishment of astounding scale, R. Scott Bakker has done something that few have ever done within the realm of epic fantasy. He has created a lavish, detailed world, complete with religion, history, and literature, populated it with characters so rich and psychologically motivated that they seem real and vital, and used it as a sandbox to explore complex ideas. This is not simply epic high fantasy of the didactic Tolkien-esque vein, nor the largely escapist world of the early Howardian pulps. It is a bit of a fusion of the two. It is a post-apocalyptic world, much like mid-twentieth century speculative fiction (such as per Jack Vance and Margaret St. Clair) with a character that is a fusion of Elric of Melniboné, Paul and/or Leto Atreides, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The idea of history and the play of historical (and historiographical) concepts throughout the book demand the reader question their understanding of history itself. Many of the characters in the novel become acutely aware that they will become historical figures and icons of legend. As the tale progresses, they contemplate how they will be portrayed or understood within the inevitable songs and sagas that will be written about the Holy War. The sorcerer, Achamian, not surprisingly, is acutely aware of the sort of character archetype that will arise from his participation in what will eventually become a legend, and chafes at the idea.

Bakker, through Kellhus and the Dûnyain, challenges us with the age-old question of free will. The Dûnyain repudiate history, and claim that all men are slaves to "what comes before." Through mental conditioning and special breeding programs, they gradually seek to overcome all of the psychological impulses that determine their actions. The idea that all events are caused results in the idea that they are locked into a path from which they cannot deviate. Thus, individuals are slaves to their own personal history, whilst whole nations are slaves to the histories of their peoples. (Living in Korea and analyzing why the Koreans are the way they are is incredibly revealing in this regard.) Kellhus' conditioning separates his soul from all of the things that would seek to move it, enabling him to move is own soul. This is what makes Kellhus and his father, Moënghus, approach Übermensch status. Throughout the novels, Bakker plays out the struggle between determinism and free will on an epic scale, and places the fate of the world in the balance. Only the Nietzschean superman can save the world from an (ironically) ultra-nihilist enemy.

As said in my review of The Darkness That Comes Before, the proliferation of sex (and the aberrant sadism of the Inchoroi/Consult) make this a series for mature readers. Though Bakker's rendition of sex and sexual situations lacks juvenile eroticism or clinical sterility, they are still graphically described more than some conventions of taste would permit. Bakker's work is not for immature minds, and is most certainly an mature adult work. However, if you can grasp the complex relationship between free-will/deteriminism, Nietzschean existentialism, nihilism, and individual psychology (and that is only the beginning of the myriad influences that are brought to bear throughout The Prince of Nothing), then it would be a fair bet to assume that you are mature enough for the sexual situations that pepper the trilogy.

As a piece of literature, this series is astounding in its depth and complexity. Bakker has easily overcome many of his contemporaries. As one reviewer noted, he has, in three volumes, written a deeply philosophical and psychological work with a compelling, multifaceted, narrative rife with political and military intrigue, whereas many others, have started earlier than Bakker and still not yet finished (such as the late, infamous Robert Jordan and much more respected writers such as Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin). His series is much darker and gritty than the unmuddied heroics of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, the late David Eddings, or even Robert Jordan. As a fantasy author, he brings a great many ideas to the plate that would make his series a compelling addition to any fantasy fan's own "Appendix N." The arrangement of sorcery into schools, the religious strictures against sorcery, and the political strife between the schools themselves make for a fantastic backdrop to explore ideas and themes in a fantasy setting.

The Prince of Nothing
by R. Scott Bakker

The Darkness That Comes Before
Style A
Substance A
Overall A

Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A+

The Thousandfold Thought
Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A+

Overall A+

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