The Prince of Nothing trilogy, by R Scott Bakker
I have a confession to make: I’m allergic to Christmas. Whilst I get that it’s a major holiday in our culture, I just don’t enjoy it. In fact, my dislike is strong enough that I spend most of the Christmas week fantasising about being at work – this is literally the only time in my year when that happens!
Anyway, I seem to have developed a very odd coping mechanism for dealing with Christmas overload: I seek out the most messed-up, bleak, dystopian books I can find, and read them obsessively. It sounds – and is – bizarre, but the strategy does actually work.
R Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy got me through Christmas 2014.
This trilogy is a challenging reading experience. The best comparison I can think of is to some of darker-themed Sabaton albums – powerfully-performed, musically-impeccable but also rather dissonant! (I’m going to put a trigger warning on this review, as this series does have some very, very dark moments. If something could be triggery, it’s probably in here.)
If you took one part Warhammer 40K, one part Thomas Covenant, a sprinkling of Tolkien, maybe a dash or two of Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse and a very healthy seasoning of ‘OMG WTF that’s horrible!’, you might just end up with something like this series.
Let me start my review with a quick summary of the situation at the start of the first book (also, the spoiler lamp is ON)…
During the First Apocalypse, the nations of Eärwa were almost destroyed. For eleven years, all children were stillborn and every living soul felt the shadow of the eldritch abomination known as Mog-Pharau, the dreaded No-God itself. As the armies of the No-God and his sorcerous allies in the Consult ravaged the land, hope itself almost died. At enormous cost, the No-God was finally slain at the Battle of Mengedda by King Anaxophous of Kyranea, when he struck the entity down with the Heron Spear. Kyranea itself subsequently collapsed, but human civilisation survived, albeit just barely.
Nearly two thousand years later, men’s minds have turned to other matters. The younger civilisations of the Three Seas are in tumult; a new Shriah has ascended to the throne of the Thousand Temples, and he promises the faithful a Holy War against the Fanim. The other major faith of the Three Seas area, the Fanim have gained control of Shimeh, the city from which the Thousand Temples’ Latter Prophet originally hailed. Shimeh is holy ground, the Shriah argues, and having it in the hands of blasphemers is unacceptable.
Answering the Shriah’s call, Inrithi forces begin to gather around the Nansur imperial capital of Momemn. But just as it looks like things might be evolving in a perfectly-predictable manner, several misfits and outcasts find themselves pitched into the middle of this chaotic situation. And their actions may just change the fate of the Three Seas forever.
For although Mog-Pharau has been dead for millennia, his Consult are still active. And, to quote HP Lovecraft, “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death itself may die.” And the Consult’s plans definitely involve death.
Lots and lots of death…
Things I liked
The world-building in this series is elaborate and detailed, and Bakker does an excellent job of evoking the sense of Inrithism as an actual religious tradition.
Strange as it might sound to say, I also liked the fact that the Holy War isn’t prettified. There’s no attempt to portray the Inrithi as in any way misunderstood, or somehow really the heroes. We don’t run into any “Substitute Jesus” nonsense here. The Holy War is brutal, violent and merciless. Many of the people in it are there for worldly reasons only, whilst others are blind fanatics. Frankly, the nominal enemy actually end up coming across as more sympathetic than most of the protagonists. (The key word is ‘more’; the Fanim have their own moments of implied horror too.)
The magic systems used in this series are interesting. There are the Gnostic and Analogic systems, which appear to be based on either ‘analogising’ to or outright-borrowing the language of the Creation. Then there’s the Psȗkhe, which seems to be a magic-through-emotion system, and is apparently qualitatively-different from the other two. (Psȗkharim apparently don’t have the so-called Sorcerer’s Mark, a sense of spiritual taint that others can perceive in sorcerers.)
I also found the exploration of black-and-white morality interesting. In this universe, sorcerers are automatically damned, supposedly irrevocably. However, the sorcerous arts are utterly necessary to protect the world from the machinations of the Consult. It seems that the Creator or God or whoever, really didn’t think their proposed moral code through very carefully! Also there aren’t really any ‘good guys’ in this series. Probably the most sympathetic characters are Esmenet and Achamian, respectively a prostitute and a Mandate sorcerer. Under Inrithi theology, both of them are considered absolutely-damned.
Another intriguing aspect is the exploration of a character whose behaviour is driven entirely by logical reasoning and without emotion. Kellhus, the titular Prince of Nothing, is apparently able to read micro-expressions on faces and is also able to accurately posit their origins within the viewee’s psyche. Consequently he is able to manipulate people to an almost unbelievable degree.
One more aspect of this series is its introspection. Like the Thomas Covenant novels, it pays attention to characters’ internal and emotional states. There are long passages where characters muse about things and doubt their own motivations. Oddly, though, they never quite tip over into questioning the world itself. The damnation of sorcerers, the holy status of the Tusk, these are things that are generally just accepted and not really questioned.
Another thing that’s entertaining in this series could be loosely described as its ‘mindfuck’ aspect. Like many fantasy series, this one has a Dark Tower, except here Golgotterath is actually the back end of a crashed alien biomechanical starship(!). Likewise, the Heron Spear is strongly implied to be an alien directed-energy weapon. (Probably this is why it was able to take down Mog-Pharau – one doubts the No-God was expecting to get toasted by a particle beam!) Whilst the Inchoroi certainly occupy the ‘high fantasy demonic evil’ slot, they’re actually the aliens to whom Golgotterath belonged, back when it was still the Ark-of-the-Heavens. The Tekne, the non-sorcerous power possessed by the Consult and the Inchoroi, actually appears to be alien bio-engineering.
Also, the cosmology is explicitly Keplerian. Sorcery and the Outside aside, this universe is quite a ‘physical’ one, complete with stars and planets in the sense that we understand them.
Also, whilst it’s creepy as fuck, the Inchoroi’s scheme does make sense. It’s that rare case of an unambiguously-evil plan, that actually works in context. What they’re doing is horrible, but there is a twisted logic to it.
What I found problematic
Hahahahaha. Oh my, where even to start?
I mentioned that this series is a grown-up, challenging read. Well, we’re into the squicky bits now. And my goodness, there’s squick. In fact if I may paraphrase 2001: A Space Odyssey, “My god – it’s full of squick!”
This is not a feel-good trilogy. We’re deeply into ‘dark fantasy’ territory here.
Now, I don’t want to be one of those reviewers who obsess about sex in books. But it’s very, very hard to describe this series without discussing the naughty stuff, because there’s a lot of it. And all of it is squicky. It seems there are no healthy, balanced relationships anywhere in the Three Seas. The closest we get is Esmenet/Achamian, and even there is a bit of a warped co-dependency thing going on.
One major problem with these books is that I suspect that they would read very differently depending on your gender. As a male reader, some of the sex squick was at one remove. However, I suspect the sections from Cnaïur’s viewpoint could be extremely uncomfortable for female readers. I think the intent with Cnaïur is a deconstruction of the ‘Heroic Barbarian’ stereotype, and the deconstruction is almost as brutal as Cnaïur himself. It’s also implied that some of his sexual violence comes from his repressed homosexuality; by Book Three Cnaïur has become an equal-opportunity rapist after he puts Ikurei Conphas on the table!
And then we have what happens when the Inchoroi get turned on, which is worse. Yup, it actually gets worse. (Take a demented remix of Slaaneshi cultists and the Dark Eldar from Warhammer 40K and you’re roughly along the right lines for the Inchoroi. They’re not nice people. You wouldn’t want them to move in next door!)
In addition, the sex scenes in these books are almost ludicrously-purple. The writing is quite over-the-top. And there are a lot of sex scenes, so there is much hot pink prose to wade through. To be honest, I actually think most of the sex scenes could be cut out without the books suffering. Cnaïur is obviously a monster; there was no need to over-egg it as much as the books did.
There is also an issue with female characters and agency. The first book has few female Point-of-Views. Those that there are have the feeling of passive vehicles to which things happen, rather than active participants. The worst of the lot for this Serwë – in the entire series, she only acts on her own initiative twice. And in both cases, it ends badly. (The second occasion results in her getting her throat cut when she protests Kellhus’s circumfixion. Whoops.) Esmenet is treated a bit better, and she enjoys a bit more success when she acts on her own initiative, but even she has her ‘passive vehicle’ moments. And by the end of Book Three, she has been reduced to another of Kellhus’s many puppets.
Lastly, the books have a bad case of Accent-Umlaut Disease. Kȗniüri. Dȗnyain. Serwë. Cnaïur. Incȗ-Holoinas. Eärwa. I could go on, but you get the idea. I think the intent was to lend an exotic feeling, but it did feel a bit over-done.
I would say, read this trilogy if you’re tired of cookie-cutter fantasy and you would like a darker and more philosophical take on the genre. I would also say, read it if you’re fed up of binary genre definitions and offstage liberal democracies. (There certainly aren’t any of those in Eärwa!) It’s also an interesting exploration of a set of cultures that manage to be both familiar and alien at the same time.
But, I would also say, be aware that this trilogy has some very difficult aspects to it. If you’re looking for your first introduction to fantasy, or if you prefer lighter works, then this probably isn’t one for you.
If you got through the Thomas Covenant series without hurling it at a wall, you’ll probably be okay 🙂