Jul 3, 2010

The Prince of Nothing Trilogy - R. Scott Bakker

I read Scott Bakker's fantasy trilogy a few years ago, and it instantly turned into my favorite work in the genre. The rich world-building, magnificent style, the awesome central character, and the scope of the story are something I am yet to see in another fantasy series. It is also one of the greatest examples of how the genre could be so much more than entertainment, weaving into the story thoughts on religion, faith, and most importantly - the extent to which anyone could ever know himself. And so now, while we wait for The White-Luck Warrior - second installment in the second trilogy in the larger arc of The Second Apocalypse - I thought to pay a tribute to this amazing series by writing about it.

The story is set in a world, resembling our pre-medieval ages. Two millenia ago the great Norsirai civilizations of humanity were destroyed in the Apocalypse - a monstrous war between men and Mog-Pharau - the No-God - and its Consult. The conflict finally ended in a victory, but the North was left a wasteland, inhabited by the abominations, created by the Consult. Civilization now thrives in the southern Three Seas - a multitude of nations, sharing Inrithism, the religion of the Thousand Temples... but little else. The Apocalypse is now just tales and superstitions to all but the School of Mandate - sorcerers who each night relive the devastating war through the eyes of their founder - the great sorcerer Seswatha. They know the Apocalypse happened. And they know the No-God was not killed and the Consult still waits to unleash terrible destruction on the world of men.

The countries under the religion of Inrithism are now at the threshold of a Holy War with the heathen Fanim from the desert kingdom of Kian - by far the largest nation in the Three Seas. The Inriti are bound for Shimeh - the birthplace of the Latter Prophet Inri Sejenus. And as different factions are trying to bend the Holy War to their own ends, and the fragile balance between the the Great Powers - kingdoms, empires, the Thousand Temples and the Few and their sacrilegious sorcerous Schools - is about to be smashed to pieces, into the world comes a variable that no one could have predicted. In a distant secluded citadel far in the savage North, the Dunyain - a strange order of monks - have survived in perfect isolation for two thousand years. Bred for passionless intellect, mental and physical perfection, they have turned themselves into something more than human in search of the Absolure - the Self-moving Soul, unbound by any circumstance, moved by nothing but its own will. And now one of them, a man named Anasurimbor Kellhus, is sent to find his father... and kill him.

Drussas Achamian - a Mandate sorcerer and spy - follows the Holy War looking for traces of his School's old and elusive enemy, the Consult. Esmeneth is his lover - a prostitute from the city of Sumna, cradle of the Thousand Temples, and her fate is also bound to the Holy War. Cnaur urs Skiyotha is a Scylvendi barbarian from the western steppes - a heathen amidst the righteous Inriti, incapable of escaping the pull of hatred and madness that have been brewing in his heart for thirty years. Those three are connected to Kellhus in more ways than they could imagine, but only Achamian knows what the Norsirai's arrival means. Because the last king of the great kingdom of Kuniuri - now two millenia destroyed by the No-God - was an Anasurimbor. And before he died, he uttered a prophecy that one of his blood would return... at the end of the world.

The time has come for the Second Apocalypse and the rebirth of Mog-Pharau. And Achamian has to find a way to warn the many nations of the Three Seas of an enemy none of them believe in, and prepare them for a war they think just mere legends. But no one could prepare the Three Seas for Anasurimbor Kellhus.

The Prince of Nothing trilogy tells the story of the Holy War. It is the story of one man who tries to bend the world to his will amidst a conflict of epic proportions. And it is a story of sorcery and religion, of zealous faith and poisonous ambition. A huge cast of characters is used to paint the many faces of the Holy War, each of them ugly in one way and beautiful in another. Scott Bakker's style of writing is amazing - both rich and exact, with an unbelievable eye for thrilling detail, creating with seaming ease an atmosphere of epic events and ancient pathos. One that so many fantasy authors spend their whole careers trying to achieve, but never come close to. But the gorgeous prose and the grand story Bakker tells with it are only a part of what makes this trilogy so good. I already mentioned the complex characters. The author uses those to engage in musings about faith and self-analysis sometimes bordering on the obsessive.

As for the fantasy elements, I don't think I've ever read more glorious description of magic. In The Prince of Nothing's world sorcery is a force of annihilation, a power that tears the fabric of reality, creating wounds that the Few could see. And yet this horrible devastation is delivered through song, the sorcerers singing as their eyes and mouths blaze with blinding light. The way Bakker describes the feeling of the impossible words capable of hurting the world itself, is so poetic and at the same time so intense, that every scene involving sorcery literally sent shivers down my spine. This is one of the many instances where the author has intertwined his philosophical education with his writing, and gives us three different kinds of sorcery. The Anagogis, used by all the Schools but one. It depends on the great Analogies to weave its destruction, but they also bind and limit its power. The glorious Gnosis, magic of the Ancient North, now known only to the School of Mandate. It is the most heavily guarded secret in the Three Seas, and one coveted by all the other Schools. The Abstractions of the Gnosis hold unimaginable power, not restrained by visualization and specific meaning like the Analogies. And then comes the mystical Psuhke, arcane practice of the Cishaurim - Kian's sorcerer-priests. Cruder than both the Anagogis and the Gnosis, it is unique in that its effects are undetectable by the eyes of the Few.

I could go on gushing into ponderous retelling of the story, characters and world, but it would be pointless. I could never do The Prince of Nothing enough justice. It is the single greatest FINISHED fantasy series I've ever read, and one of the most significant pieces of Speculative Literature in my experience. The only way to get a feeling of its epic story and brilliant world-building, the awesome magic system, or the multilayered characters and their tumultous relationships, is - wait for it! - to just read the books. They are not separate, and represent the beginning, middle and ending of a single story. But believe me - The Prince of Nothing is well worth the time investment!


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