Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Review - The Prince of Nothing Series

Comprising ‘The Darkness That Comes Before’, ‘The Warrior Prophet’, and ‘The Thousandfold Thought’.

The Prince of Nothing Series by R. Scott Bakker is the fantasy trilogy that was made for people like me to read. Deftly combining elegant fantasy writing with deep philosophical ideas against a beautifully imagined backdrop of epic proportions.

Bakker tells a story of a Holy War parallel to our First Crusade but with sorcery and apocalypse in the background. This is a world where the great battle of good vs. evil in the heroic fantasy tradition has already happened a thousand years ago. Onto this stage steps a man who is fundamentally different; a man of an order called the Dûnyain. With his arrival, everything changes and ultimately “death comes swirling down”.

The philosophy in the book is astonishing for a piece of literature. Bakker shows his PhD in Philosophy to be well deserved as he sets up each character with a separate school of thought and then shows how they conflict. From the gripping and practical existentialism of the Dûnyain to the pure religious faith of the Inrithi as exemplified in the character of Nersei Proyas. One point against this is that nothing is particularly original; it’s fairly easy to see every faction’s ‘real life’ counterpart. Ajencis the ancient philosopher is Socrates, Inri Sejenus is Jesus Christ, the prophet Fane is the prophet Muhammad. While it adds to the reality of the books and it is interesting to read, it would have been nice to have some original philosophy or at least more thoroughly veiled allusions. Nonetheless, the principle of the Logos and the Dûnyain’s existential thought is fascinating as it is: easily the best thing that the novels offer.

For the most part it’s brilliantly written. The battle scenes are some of the best in the business. Most fantasy writers, when writing an epic battle, choose a character perspective and show the battle through that character’s eyes. What that technique gains in immersion it loses in depicting the entirety of the scene since naturally one character can’t see the entire battle. Bakker adopts an omniscient perspective when narrating battle, as if we read of the fight in the great annals of Eärwa’s history. This allows for a grand sweeping view of both armies as well as specific character scuffles on both sides. It works fantastically well particularly in the Battle of the Mengedda Plains in the second book. Bakker also writes some lines that are pure poetry. They’re scattered about the books but it’s like finding diamonds in a pile of manure. Not that I mean the rest of the writing is manure but it wouldn’t be wrong to term it ‘gritty’: violence, sex, and some terrible depictions of women are prevalent all the way through (both the main female characters are whores, kind-hearted but whores nonetheless). The occasional passage can be confusingly ambiguous as a consequence of Bakker’s effort to accurately capture the human thought process. Even more annoyingly these generally cover key character and plot moments so some bits do need a second reading to thoroughly take in.

The series is not perfect: brilliant, but not perfect. From the second book right up until halfway through the third, the pacing was off; the Holy War didn’t so much march towards Shimeh as crawl. The balance between dialogue and introspection also become skewed as the start of the third book was chapter after chapter of character introspection. Bakker is so good at writing meaningful dialogue and it’s a shame that most of the great conversations were contained to the first book and the end of the third. Maybe in an effort to avoid ‘Tolkien-syndrome’, Bakker didn’t write much preliminary description either and some parts could have benefitted from more.

Generally speaking though; wonderful. It is by far the best modern fantasy series out there (excluding George R. R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ which isn’t finished yet. Plus I couldn’t even finish ‘A Feast For Crows’ which wasn’t up to the author’s set standard.). The Prince of Nothing Series serves as both raw intelligent entertainment and as an introduction to thinking philosophically. It’s masterful and all the more impressive since it represents R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy debut. As much as I hate the term, this is a ‘genre writer’ to look out for and I can’t write for his next series, The Aspect-Emperor.

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