Join Date: Sep 2011
The Prince of Nothing (Review, Discussion)
To say the least, this is the most dense and fulfilling fantasy series I have ever come across in my life, perhaps save for the exception of the Malazan series (which is amazing in its own right). I've enjoyed this more than the Elric saga, more than Game of Thrones, more than Tolkien, more than many other literary giants.
It is a book full of depth, and a certain degree of... coldness, almost like a hunger (and very fitting with the name, The Darkness that Came Before). There is a feel of unrelenting, gripping tension that is ever-present from the first page to the current status within the second trilogy. There is a never-ending plethora of meaningful & consistent philosophical & theological viewpoints and arguments which moves the world upon which the story rests, and a cast of human, flawed, and believable characters with qualities one would expect from reality.
I think there are few works of literature which may be more fitting for the archetypal INTP.
It's been a long time since I desperately went from mall to mall checking every bookstore within a thirty mile radius, desperate to find the next book in a series lest I have to wait three whole days for Amazon to mail it to me. And although I eventually had to buy the last two books of the Prince of Nothing trilogy online, the wait was well worth it. R. Scott Bakker starts off like a cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin - and then he starts doing some really interesting stuff.
At a glance, the first book of the trilogy, The Darkness That Comes Before, creates a setting identical to every other fantasy world. There are a couple of different kingdoms at a medieval technology level with pretty recognizable cultures - one based on Arabia, one based on Byzantium*, a few based on Europe. There are a couple of schools of sorcerers with flashy names like "The Scarlet Spires" who can all shoot fire out of their hands. And of course, there are the legends of the Great Ancient Wars when the Heroes of Old defeated a Horrible Ancient Evil with The Single Artifact To Which It Is Conveniently Vulnerable. But that sort of thing is all far in the past. Nowadays, the kings and sorcerers of Earwa spend their time fighting petty wars among themselves and mocking the few people silly enough to claim that the Horrible Ancient Evil still survives in weakened form, biding its time and waiting to Rise Again. After all, everyone knows that the Heroes of Old defeated it Once and For All and anyone with any suspicions of its return must be A Paranoid Crank.
Right. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge in Minas Tirith to sell you.
This part is not as bad as it sounds. Bakker has gone over his world with a level of detail I've previously seen only in Tolkien. I don't know whether he has actually constructed languages for all his different cultures or if he's just very good at faking it, but he uses at least one con-alphabet in various places and there's certainly a strong level of grammatical consistency. There are four thousand years worth of human history to refer back to (and another indefinite time when the world was ruled by the mysterious Nonmen and their king Cu'jara Cinmoi) and everyone seems to do a lot of referring. Each of the chapters opens with what is usually a great quote from some made-up historical work or other, as likely as not Ajencis' famous Third Analytic of Men. A lot of fantasy worlds have their own little version of Alexander the Great, but how many can honestly say they have their own version of Aristotle**?
And this stuff is usually profound. I don't use that term lightly - I found Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" to be sappy and a little silly. But some of the Ajencis quotes are spot on. "Here we find further argument for Gotagga's supposition that the world is round. How else could all men stand higher than their brothers?" he says in his Discourse on War. Memgowa, who is a fictional theologian and whose book, The Book of Divine Acts, is completely made up nevertheless shows vastly more intelligence than many completely real theologians when he says "The vulgar think the God by analogy to man and so worship Him in the form of the Gods. The learned think the God by analogy to principles and so worship Him in the form of Love or Truth. But the wise think the God not at all. They know that thought, which is finite, can only do violence to the God, who is infinite. It is enough, they say, that the God thinks of them."
In fact...WikiQuote! Here's their page with the chapter quotes from The Warrior Prophet.
And this brings me to the second-best thing about The Prince of Nothing. R. Scott Bakker is not only philosophical but a real philosopher, working on his Ph. D in the subject at the same time he writes his fantasy books. He seeds his book with philosophical issues - as do many good authors - but is able to do so in a way that is both very sophisticated and enhances, rather than detracts from, the story. I have never before seen an author who admits that he based one of the books' main organizations on ideas taken partly from Foucault and partly from the metaphysics of Hegel, but Bakker admitted to as much in the Three Seas forum, a nifty Prince of Nothing fan community. It doesn't matter if you've never heard of Hegel - you can still very much enjoy this book - and then you can read some Hegel and you'll be like "Hmmmm..." There's also some very interesting theology and psychology mixed in. The scene in Ishual where the young student meditates on the phrase "The Logos is without beginning or end" is one of my favorite scenes in anything.
But the best thing about the Prince of Nothing is Anasūrimbor Kellhus. First of all, you know a guy's serious about languages when it takes you five minutes fiddling with the charmap to get the accent mark in the main character's name right. Second of all...well...he's kind of a hard guy to describe. The book jacket listed him as a "warrior-logician", and God knows we need more warrior-logicians around, but even that doesn't do him justice. Think of a combination of Lord Vetinari from Discworld, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, and Jesus, and you're part of the way to Anasūrimbor Kellhus. Kellhus belongs to a crazy sect of fanatically isolationist monks who worship the Logos, the principle of reason, and have been breeding and training people for almost supernatural levels of intelligence for thousands of years. Kellhus goes above and beyond what you would expect even of someone raised in those circumstances, but the amazing thing is that Bakker portrays him a hundred percent convincingly. Kellhus has been trained to have no emotions whatsoever and exist as a perfect calculating machine - but how does this play out when he leaves his remote mountain monastery and enters the real world? What happens when he learns that, despite the protestations of his superiors in the order, the world is full of all sorts of illogical things like sorcery and religion? And what's going to happen to the world when it suddenly meets up with someone a whole lot smarter than it is***?
As for the plot, it comes close to being a fantasy-based retelling of the Crusades at some points. The nations that correspond to European cultures have just declared Holy War on the nation that corresponds to Arabic culture. Everyone's getting very into this, but the Mandate, the small cabal of sorcerers who believe the Horrible Ancient Evil**** isn't really dead, is suspicious that it might be a plot of some sort to bring about the Second Apocalypse. Anasūrimbor Kellhus wanders out of his monastery looking for his father and decides that it might be easier to find Dad if he were to take over the entire world bloodlessly in a couple of months. Everyone else is involved in incredibly intricate political plots reminiscent of George R. R. Martin but with more perverted sex scenes. Things generally degenerate. Just get the books. Otherwise you'll never know what happens when a sex-crazen raven who ejaculates black semen goes up against a cross between Immanuel Kant and Julius Caesar. Just get the books.