March 23, 2008

The Prince of Nothing #1: The Darkness That Comes Before (2003 novel)

Written by R. Scott Bakker.

This tome, the start of a trilogy from first-time novelist Bakker, is graced on its front cover by a plug from Steve Erickson which reads:

"Take note, one and all, something remarkable has begun."

That it most certainly has. I feel ill equipped to properly review this incredible, unforgettable tale. But I promise to do my best. Let's see, where to start...

This is the story of a holy war. People of the north declare the people of the south heathens and prepare a cleansing invasion. That's the most basic synopsis I can come up with. Trust me when I say there's much more to it than that.

This is a story of factions, and factions within factions, and further factions within those factions, and individuals within further factions. It's a sprawling, complex masterpiece which brings with it the realities of an unstructured, imperfect world where everyone's beliefs and motives clash with everyone else around them. What, in a lesser author's hands, would be a tale about raising an army and marching into battle is, instead, a believable struggle to rein in the support of a varied populace and to heave those forces in a specific direction, often with divisions and road-blocks veering progress aside.

The characters are absolutely perfect in their execution. Their fears, their hopes, their flaws, their loves, their hates... everything that makes them who they are is deftly woven on the page. These are grey people. There are no heroes. No villains. Merely humans, each with their areas of good and bad. It is wondrous and the complexities of their personalities and relationships is truly worthy of the Great Bard himself.

What's also interesting is how Bakker seems to resurrect the pulp traditions of the superman, the one character who's smarter and stronger than those around him, and who usually ends up rising to a prominent position of leadership by story's end. Here, we are treated to not one, but two such individuals. One, Cnair, is the shamed leader of a barbarian race who finds himself in the midst of bureaucrats as his expertise is required for the holy war. The other is Anasurimbor Kellhus, monk of a hidden sect, bred for physical and mental perfection, who sets out to make the holy war his own merely to give him the upper hand in a battle against his missing father. What's wonderful is that Bakker, despite giving them classic perfections, has no illusions of either being a true hero. Cnair is brutality. Sheer brutality. That is the sole motivation and expression he is capable of. And Kellhus, in true Nietzschean fashion, is so far above everyone else that he thinks nothing of abandoning dedicated followers once they've exceeded their worth.

And, no, this is not just a story about them. There's so many other forces and factions within this world, it would take a week to describe them all. I shall let these few suffice:

Drusas Achamian. A sorcerer and spy, he is charged with infiltrating the holy war to see if it poses a threat to his order, but is further embroiled in events when people from his past become involved.

Emperor Ikurei Xerius III, who attempts to hijack the holy war for his own gain. He's a paranoid egomaniac who especially fears his nephew and only heir, Ikurei Conphas, who's recent victories in battle have made him a favorite of the people.

Esmenet and Serwe, two women who never meet, yet are linked by their past lives of sexual enslavement; the former as a prostitute, the latter as a concubine. Both have romantic ties to previously mentioned characters which draw them into the grander scheme.

There's so very much more to say, but there's truly no way my pathetic reviewing skills could do such a story justice. Yes, it's high fantasy, but there's no quest, no maiden in distress, no lands that need to be vanquished of evil. It is a tale of people and their opposing beliefs. Yes, there's magic, but it's kept to a minimum, leaving its few appearances shocking and mysterious.

For those who enjoy high fantasy, there are few tales as deep, as human, as engaging as this. For those who feel a hesitation towards the genre, please, by all means give it a look. I guarantee this book is unlike any you have ever read.

My review of The Prince of Nothing #2: The Warrior-Prophet (2004 novel).
My review of The Prince of Nothing #3: The Thousandfold Thought (2006 novel).

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