book-reviews

Prince of Nothing

by R. Scott Bakker

The Darkness that Comes Before

Rating: ★★★

Four stars if I'm in a more charitable mood. This seemed like a fairly simply-plotted introduction, but one with at least the promise of something compelling to come. Like many opening fantasy epics, more effort is spent on building up background and characters than on delivering satisfaction, so I am almost forced to reserve judgement. The main novel element of the series seems to be a sort of exaggerated deductive ability, instilled from childhood, which allows the main character to perform all sorts of uncanny feats, like reading the thoughts of a man from his face, or kicking people in the face real smooth-like. All the other actors who are lauded in the book are also intelligent to varying degrees, which is both encouraging (as we may get a more cerebral sort of conflict, like Cnaiür resisting Kellhus) and a little worrying (I fear for Kellhus displaying ever more /r/iamverysmart -style silliness, and Bakker failing to demonstrate the limits of these abilities so that there is an engaging struggle to follow). The warped refraction of western history that the setting presents is not terribly dissimilar to other fantasy, but it has a few elements worth following up.

The Warrior Prophet

Rating: ★★★

So, my hope for this series was that Bakker would show us a really cerebral conflict, that he would take Kellhus' established abilities and show us how they were limited, thrust him up against big problems and show us how he created good solutions. That didn't happen. There were to be sure various hints about players who could maybe inconvenience Kellhus (Cnaiür, Conphas, the Consult's skin-spies), but they were never allowed to be active enough that having Kellhus defeat them was interesting. Kellhus just made a couple of mistakes here and there.

My fear for this series was that Kellhus would be portrayed as ever more super-cool and in control, and that's exactly what we got. He makes himself into a Prophet, seemingly brainwashing people by talking to them, and fights six super-strong assassins at once and wins. Nothing major seems to go wrong for him. This is, frankly, boring.

There were some cool action scenes in this book, which somewhat fail to make up for the loss of some character subtlety (do all the women have to love Kellhus?) . There was however some dramatic interest in the trials of the desert, which paid off quite well.

The Thousandfold Thought

Rating: ★★

I'm left wondering what I'm meant to be impressed by. Does Bakker expect us to exalt Kellhus like all his characters do? Is this meant to be fun?

To be sure, I could easily get behind a story which is a monomaniacal schemer rising to power in a fantasy world. But this isn't that. Kellhus just already has power, all the time. Nothing seems to happen which isn't part of his plan, nobody is anything more than a temporary inconvenience. Aside from a couple of brief flashbacks, we never even see Kellhus working to obtain his abilities. Everything feels cheap.

The other characters had the potential to be interesting, especially given Bakker's introspective style, but ultimately the novel continually returns to Kellhus, and all of their thoughts, motives and feelings are dominated by him.

Are we meant to hate Kellhus? That would certainly make sense -- Bakker surely can't be so ignorant as to think that constantly stressing the superiority and centrality of a character while admitting their evil motivations would lead to anything else. But then, what's the point? A dystopian ending, with just a glimmer of defiant hope?

This isn't really an objectively worse-written book than the other two in the series, but the lack of any payoff that makes them worthwhile does make it a bit of a letdown.