Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Review: 'The Prince of Nothing' Series

I am, perhaps, a little late to this party.  R. Scott Bakker debuted all the way back in 2004 with The Darkness That Comes Before, a book emblazoned with not one but two weighty and portentious titles.  The Prince of Nothing series earned Bakker considerable critical acclaim, of the sort that often hypes new authors -- that this is not Mere Entertainment but Real Literature, that a star has lept fully-formed onto the stage, wielding all the greatest powers of his greatest peers.  Comparisons to Donaldson, Martin, and Erikson were all common, but at the time I was in the mood for lighter fare.  With the Prince trilogy finished, and another one well underway with the recent release of The White-Luck Warrior, I figured it was well past time that I dip into the Darkness and see what lurked within.

It was immediately apparent that Bakker was a talented sentence-level writer.  Though sometimes melodramatic, his sentences flow with a dark poetry, and his invented words and names all have flair and flavor to them.  The problem is that though he writes good sentences, he does not write good scenes.  There is a heavy influence from Frank Herbert's Dune at work here, from the fictional quotations at the beginning of chapters to the expansive philosophical ponderings of the characters.  This heavily internal style is punctuated with excellent but too-rare battles.  Bakker does not, unfortunately, measure up to Herbert, who admittedly was himself never to my tastes.

The characters are, outwardly, riffs on familiar tropes.  Esmenet is the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, Cnaiur is Conan with an inferiority complex, Drusas Achaiman is a wise but weak-willed old wizard.  All of these characters are ugly people, with ugly problems.  Unfortunately, their very lengthy internal dialogues tend to be ruminative and repetitive.  As the series goes on, we are exposed to the same character details, the same sticking points of trauma and guilt, over and over.  Every character in the book is an agonizer, and at a certain point, I wanted to reach in and shake them all by the head and shoulders.

I need not have bothered, though.  All their problems are swept away in the face of Anasurimbor Kellhus, the story's driving figure, a character-without-a-character who comes to dominate the narrative completely.  More on him later.  First, some necessary details about setting and place.

The book is set in Earwa, a post-post apocalyptic world, one which mixes all of the worst elements of Hellenistic and medieval societies.  A child is raped in the prologue, and this decisively sets the tone to come.  Sex is prevalent here, and never the enjoyable sort.  Rapes, sexual manipulation, whores, uncontrollable lust, all these appear with uncomfortable frequency, and are joined by still-nastier atrocities as we move into the war sequences.

Others have commented on what seems to be misogyny on the part of Mr. Bakker.  All of the women in the book, it is true, are sexual objects.  They are whores or slaves; they are weak, pining, and deluded by turns.  Regardless of whether or not this makes you uncomfortable (it probably will), I would point out that though the women are repellent, so too are the men.

This dark world is framed with the usual high fantasy trappings of an ancient evil, here the No-God, defeated but not destroyed long ago by a great hero, here Seswatha.  A secretive group called the Consult lurks in the shadows to bring about the second coming of the No-God, forgotten and dismissed by all.  By the time the story gets going, we are in the middle of the Crusades, with an easy allegory that goes all the way from Catholic Pope (Inrithi Shriah) to Jerusalem (Shimeh).  The unbelievers must be smote, for God Wills It.  Interestingly, there is not a single viewpoint character who actually believes in the Crusade, or even, it seems, God.

Least believing of all is Kellhus, our antagonist-as-protagonist.  He is a sort of sociopathic superman, sent from a monastic order that believes in the Logos, a philosophy of amoral practicality.   These monks, the Dunyain, compose an entire order of sociopathic supermen, crafted into the perfect warriors and manipulators through a combination of eugenics and brainwashing.  Their greatest talent is the ability to know 'what comes before' -- the internal thoughts, history, and trauma of a person, which they are somehow able to extract from a perfect ability to read faces and voices.  These manipulative Dunyain, I think, are supposed to be the good guys, which makes Kellhus all the more unnerving.

Kellhus is sent out to the wider world of the Crusades to assassinate his father, who fled the monastery and went off to not-Jerusalem.  The motivation of 'find and kill my father' is more or less the entirety of Kellhus's character, which makes his centrality all the more frustrating.  He seems to have no emotion or motivation other than the pursuit of his duty, and certainly he has no guilt.  To this end, he plays the entire cast like a fiddle, manipulating them with a casual and inevitable ease.  This would not necessarily be a bad thing, were I not left with the sinking feeling that I am supposed to be cheering Kellhus on, rather than repelled by his brutally manipulative nature.  By the second book, all but one of the viewpoint characters have been completely swallowed up by Kellhus's brainwashing, and there are literally dozens of pages' worth of repetitive passages wherein they reflect upon his wondrous nature, his manifest virtues, and their comparative inferiority.

The series becomes consumed, in its middle part, with a subervise 'what-if' question:  What if someone pretended to be the second coming of Christ and hijacked the Crusades?  This is precisely what Kellhus does, and given that the second trilogy begins with Kellhus as Emperor of Mankind, it's easy to tell how successful he is.  R.  Scott Bakker, a former doctoral candidate in Philosophy, is fascinated with the question of what he calls 'belief formation,' of why people believe the things they do, and why they choose faith over reason and doubt.  Kellhus uses this perceived human failing as his weapon.

Mr. Bakker has the potential to be a good writer, and I may revisit him in future.  His talents, however, are not yet fully realized.  Whether or not you enjoy The Prince of Nothing, I think, will turn largely upon the question of whether or not you find Kellhus compelling or repellent.  I am in the latter camp.


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