Thursday, 20 September 2007
Arthur sends the bird after the epic fantasy trilogy by R. Scott Bakker.
The Reading Canary: a Reminder
Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
The Prince of Nothing: Bakker's Opening Salvo
Robert Jordan died recently. I (and a good number of other fantasy fans) had made morbid jokes about him dying and leaving The Wheel of Time unfinished even before anybody knew about his life-threatening illness, but now it's happened. I am currently glancing nervously at George R.R. Martin and speculating about his cholesterol level, as he continues to be hilariously incapable of finishing off A Dance of Dragons, a book which he's been working on for seven years and counting.
It is a sad fact that many fantasy series - especially those sold in brick-sized volumes - never quite end up finishing, and it's heartening to see a series actually wrap up. One such recently-concluded epic is The Prince of Nothing, the debut trilogy by R. Scott Bakker. True to the conventions of the genre, it's actually the first part of a significantly longer series, The Second Apocalypse - Bakker is currently working on the next segment, The Aspect-Emperor, which might be another trilogy or a pair of books. Nonetheless, The Prince of Nothing is a complete story in itself, although the individual volumes don't stand alone particularly well. To borrow Gene Wolfe's terminology, it's not so much a series as it is a multi-volume novel: there's a particular plot arc that begins in book one and is finished by the end of book three.
Specifically, the titular "Prince of Nothing" is Anasurimbor Kellhus, a member of a secret monastic order who for millennia have bred and trained themselves to become master manipulators of men; by understanding history and perceiving the factors which have shaped a situation, group or individual, the Dunyain can manipulate the less sophisticated peoples of the world of the Three Seas with ease. Kellhus, therefore, is something like a cross between the Mule and the Second Foundation in Asimov's Foundation series: he has a nigh-telepathic ability to understand the motivations of those he is dealing with, and telling them precisely what they need to hear, and the Probability Trance allows him to predict the course of events much as Asimov's psychohistory allows the Second Foundation to control the destiny of a galaxy.
Like psychohistory, of course, the philosophy of the Dunyain is a heap of shite; people just aren't that predictable. However, Bakker has a background in philosophy, and I suspect he's exaggerating to make a philosophical point: he's saying that without an understanding of history - both national and cultural history and one's own personal history - people and societies are doomed to be puppets of those who do understand such things. History is the Darkness That Comes Before, in effect, which gives the first novel its title.
The Prince of Nothing is the story of how Kellhus the Dunyain is called to the holy city of Shimeh through a telepathic sending from his father, an exile; Kellhus is actually instructed to go and murder his father by the Dunyain authorities, since the dream-sendings are ruled to have violated the absolute isolation from the world the Dunyain require of their headquarters. There's a problem, though: Shimeh is in the hands of the Fanim faith, and the Shriah - the supreme authority in the Inrithi religion - has called for a Holy War to retake it. To find his father Kellhus must join and seize control of the Holy War, and use it for his own purposes. While it is easy to see parallels between the Fanim, the Inrithi and the Holy War and Islam, Christianity, and the First Crusade, Bakker avoids the epic fantasy trap of having those parallels be too exact; he cleverly manages to make these cultures alien and fantastic, with a decidedly different history from that of medieval Europe and the Middle East, but at the same time making them remind the reader (or me, at least) of things from our world.
The Darkness That Comes Before
The opening book of the trilogy has a weighty task before it: introducing us to the world, establishing Kellhus, and setting up a host of additional viewpoint characters besides. Just as important as Kellhus in this book, and significant for the rest of the series, is Drusas Achamian, a Mandate Schoolman. The Mandate is an elite order of wizards, feared by other sorcerers for their mastery of the Gnosis, the most powerful magic of the day, but mocked for their continuing belief in the Second Apocalypse foretold by their founder, Sesathwa, who was a central figure in the Apocalypse that occurred millennia ago. Achamian joins the Holy War for his own reasons - there are suggestions that the Consult (the inventor-summoner-worshippers of the bizarre Non-God which cased the first Apocalypse) - has infiltrated the Holy War. Meanwhile, Kellhus sets off on his quest and successfully joins the Holy War, along with Cnaiur, a Conan ripoff, and the two of them help the Holy War extract concessions from the powerful ruler of the Nansur Empire, a nominally Inrithi nation which seeks to manipulate the Holy War for its own ends.
You might have got the impression from the previous paragraph that this is a somewhat convoluted book, and you'd be right. Bakker hits us full in the face with names, places, and concepts, many with fantasy-soup names. Although a glossary is provided I personally can't be bothered to refer to such things while I'm reading - if I have to constantly flip back and forth in a book to understand what's happening, the author isn't doing his or her job. Bakker's prose is reasonable, and reminds me a little of Steven Erikson's or George R.R. Martin's: it's not especially artistic or fancy, but it maintains the reader's interest and keeps those pages turning. Bakker does, however, have a terrible habit - which he never quite manages to kick - of slightly overexplaining things, especially relating to what characters are thinking and feeling at any particular time. Yes, Scott, we understand that Cnaiur constantly mistrusts Kellhus because of his previous encounter with Kellhus's father. Really, we get it. You don't need to remind us of the fact every time Cnaiur appears.
The other flaw that I noticed quite early on was the apparent inconsistency of the world. Specifically, I got the impression that Bakker has been working on his fantasy world for a long time - since, say, he was 17 and running Dungeons & Dragons games for his friends or something - and while many concepts, such as the religions of Fanimry and Inrithism, the byzantine politics of the Nansur Empire, and the philosophy behind the Dunyain are quite interesting and flavourful, and other things such as the bizarre biotechnological products of the Consult's technology are striking and different and unexpected for high fantasy, still other elements of the book - such as the Conan ripoff Cnaiur, and the orclike Sranc, and the epic tale of the First Apocalypse - seem much more typical for a high fantasy world. It's as if Bakker has been learning and developing as he's developed the world, and so the latter additions are original and creative and interesting, but he doesn't want to junk elements he added to the world at earlier stages of its development even when they are unoriginal and not especially interesting, even though we the readers will never know that those elements were missing if he had removed them.
The same problems persist in The Warrior-Prophet. The Holy War, having set off at the end of The Darkness That Comes Before, fights through Fanim territory and thousands of people on both sides die. Then they go through a desert, and more people die. Die, die, die, die, die. There's lots of death in this one. Meanwhile, Kellhus begins to take over the Holy War by carefully setting himself up as a messiah figure - the Warrior-Prophet of the title.
Here I have to give Bakker his dues: throughout the entire novel Bakker toys with the reader, and left me completely unsure whether I should be rooting for Kellhus or praying for his downfall. Cnaiur's viewpoint segments crop up at regular intervals, reminding us - when we're about to fall under Kellhus's spell ourselves - that the man is a master manipulator with his own agenda. Kellhus's viewpoint segments, meanwhile, gradually decrease, so we are less and less sure of what he's really thinking at any particular time. This is in stark contrast to the likes of, say, Terry Goodkind, who'll make it very clear that we're meant to be cheering for the hero of the Sword of Truth saga, even when he's kicking 8-year-old girls in the face and butchering unarmed peace protesters (I'm not kidding - this site exhaustively documents the madness of Terry Goodkind for those of us who don't want to waste time reading the man's books). In fact, we find out later in the series that the word "Dunyain" means "Truth", and Kellhus's sword is named Certainty - perhaps a dig at Goodkind?
By the end of the book Kellhus has convinced almost all of the Holy War that he is a new Inrithi prophet, and effectively establishes his own religion - at the same time, grasping a concept known as the Thousandfold Thought. At the same time, after a gruelling seige, the last fortress guarding the road to Shimeh has fallen to the Holy War. This sets the stage for the final book.
The Thousandfold Thought
This final book is alternatingly maddening and entertaining. I'll tackle the bad before the good: this book has more repetitive "this is what this character is thinking" filler than any previous volume in the series, and often the big revelations either fall flat or don't materialise at all. Especially silly is the bit where we are told that the secret forces behind the Consult are a bunch of alien bodysnatching BDSM enthusiasts whose ship crashed way off to the north millennia ago, especially since we find this out in a sequence where one of these aliens possesses a female character and makes her masturbate in front of Kellhus. Especially frustrating is the way that the Thousandfold Thought is never actually explained in this book; if I read between the lines, it seems to be "the only way mankind can beat the Consult is if we come up with a new religion to unite everyone", but for all I know it's "bitches ain't shit but hos and tricks".
On the other hand, occasionally the revelations are exciting. The depiction of life within the Holy War once Kellhus has taken command reminds me of first-hand accounts of the Branch Davidians, with its mixture of terrifying authoritarianism and beguiling, ecstatic religious fervour. The revelation that the Apocalypse was an attempt by the Consult to cut the world off from the greater spiritual realities outside reality, because they were more willing to destroy any hope of anyone reaching any kind of afterlife than they were to change their ways, is kind of cool. But the big revelation are those about Kellhus himself: ultimately, it is in this volume that we finally get the answer as to whether Kellhus is good or evil, and it's through Achamian's eyes that we finally see clearly. I am left full of hope and foreboding for The Aspect-Emperor. Those who simply can't wait for the sequel series will be delighted by the massive Encyclopedic Glossary at the end, which takes up about a fifth of the book and explains all sorts of things.
The Canary Says
This is a genuinely interesting and original epic fantasy that falls down occasionally due to Bakker's inexperience as a writer. Hopefully he will improve - he needs to concentrate more on his storytelling and less on his philosophy, which isn't as interesting or original as he thinks it is - but at the same time The Prince of Nowhere isn't a bad start, and he manages to maintain a reasonable level of quality throughout. Check out the first book: if you like it, you'll enjoy the rest (although you might find some aspects of The Thousandfold Thought disappointing), if you hate it you needn't bother reading on.