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The Warrior-Prophet
R. Scott Bakker
Penguin Canada, 600 pages

The Warrior-Prophet
R. Scott Bakker
R. Scott Bakker is a student of literature, history, philosophy, and ancient languages and is a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). He divides his time between writing philosophy and fantasy, though he often has difficulty distinguishing between them. He lives in London, Ontario.

R. Scott Bakker's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Darkness that Comes Before
Article: Why Fantasy and Why Now?

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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R. Scott Bakker's ambitious and literate epic fantasy trilogy, The Prince of Nothing, continues in this second volume.

In the land of Eärwa, in the region of the Three Seas, the leader of the Inrithi faith has called a Holy War against the heathen Fanim, in order to liberate the holy city of Shimeh. A vast host has gathered in the Nansur Empire, composed of faithful from every nation of the Three Seas under the leadership of some of the greatest nobles of the age. This huge army has been delayed by infighting and political maneuvering; but the conflicts have come to a surprising conclusion in the granting of Generalship not to the Emperor's famous warrior nephew Ikurei Conphas, but to Cnaiür urs Skiötha, a mad, battle-scarred Chieftain of the heathen Scylvendi. Now, at last, the Holy War can march.

Drusas Achamian, Mandate sorcerer and spy, has been joyfully reunited with his lover, the prostitute Esmenet. They travel with the mysterious Prince Anasûrimbor Kellhus of Atrithau, who has asked Achamian to be his teacher. Achamian can no longer escape his certainty that Kellhus is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, according to which the return of a descendent of the lost royal line of Anasûrimbor heralds the imminence of the Second Apocalypse. He can't share this knowledge with his companions, for they would not believe him; the Mandate is alone in its certainty of the continued existence of the dreaded Consult, the cabal of generals and sorcerers that raised the No-God Mog-Pharau and precipitated the First Apocalypse. Nor does he wish to inform his Mandate brethren, who would stop at nothing to seize and imprison the Harbinger. For just as he's certain that Kellhus presages the coming of terrible events, Achamian has begun to believe that Kellhus may be something more -- perhaps even a savior.

Unbeknownst to Achamian, Kellhus is not a Prince at all, but a Dûnyain, part of a secret monastic sect whose members possess almost superhuman powers of intellect and persuasion. In dreams, Kellhus has been summoned to the holy city of Shimeh by his father, Anasûrimbor Moënghus, also one of the Dûnyain. The Holy War is a means for Kellhus to reach his father; it is also, in the way of the Dûnyain, a thing for him to dominate, to manipulate to his purpose. Through carefully calculated speech and action he convinces an ever-widening circle of people, including Achamian and Esmenet, that he is not simply a man of extraordinary gifts, but... perhaps... a Prophet. Only Cnaiür, who knows who and what Kellhus is, isn't fooled. But he and Kellhus have a bargain, for Cnaiür too searches for Kellhus's father, intent on a mission of vengeance. For now Cnaiür keeps Kellhus's secret -- even as his hatred of the man, at whose hands he has suffered humiliation and worse, grows.

As the soldiers of the Holy War battle their way toward Shimeh, winning victory, enduring defeat, sowing chaos and atrocity, the Consult stirs -- both within, through skin-spies that are capable of mimicking any form and have replaced many real nobles and soldiers, and without, as a hideous and powerful being observes the army's progress from above. Like Kellhus, the Consult seeks to dominate the Holy War: just as Achamian suspects, the Second Apocalypse is near. Meanwhile, in Shimeh, Anasûrimbor Moënghus waits for his son, his purpose the only mystery that Kellhus, with all the power of his Dûnyain intellect, can't unravel.

The preceding novel, The Darkness that Comes Before, was one of the most impressive books I read last year. Even so, I had a number of reservations, finding it too digressive at times in its preoccupation with scene-setting and with the backstories of its protagonists. No more. All that careful preparation pays off in The Warrior-Prophet, in which, because the world and its inhabitants have already been so thoroughly established, very little digression is needed. At six hundred pages, one couldn't exactly call this a lean novel (a baroque density of form and style being an integral quality of Bakker's writing), but it is a well-knit and muscular one, with a more straightforward plotline than its predecessor and a headlong narrative momentum that keeps the reader riveted to the page. In some ways it's less character-centered than the first volume, for where Darkness focused most intensely on the many viewpoint characters, whose struggles and choices often eclipsed the larger drama stirring around them, in The Warrior-Prophet the larger drama dominates, particularly the progress of the Holy War (though it could be said that the Holy War is itself a character, complete with its own viewpoint: an omniscient, god's-eye perspective that encompasses the entire field of battle). Drawing inspiration from the First Crusade, Bakker compellingly dramatizes the eternal paradox of wars of religion, where faith and atrocity walk hand in hand, and religious fervor is interpreted as divine right. The martial scenes, which depict battle in all its sweeping horror and magnificence, are among the best I've ever read.

The greater emphasis on action doesn't eclipse characterization, which as before is very fine. Bakker pulls no punches, delving unflinchingly into the exalted heights and seamy depths of human nature; many of the players, such as the ego-mad Conphas, are truly repellent, and even those who are sympathetic aren't fully so, not even Achamian, who is fatally wracked by selfishness and doubt. Esmenet, whom I found a little wooden in the previous novel, comes into her own in this one, a woman wrestling not only with the challenges of her own fate but with a woman's role in a world ruled by men -- a somewhat hackneyed theme that's frequently too didactic when addressed by women and too earnest when attempted by men, but is handled by Bakker with both sensitivity and an admirable sense of cultural context. Once again, though, it's Kellhus who dominates, in every sense of the word. The process by which he wills and schemes himself to Prophethood is conveyed mainly from the outside, through others' fearful or skeptical or ecstatic perceptions of him; it's quite a trick to create a character whose inner processes and outer aspect are almost totally at odds, who yet is fully integrated and believable. Just as impressive, Bakker succeeds in making Kellhus's awesome intellectual superiority completely convincing -- a feat that other writers, essaying similar characters, have carried off far less well.

Underpinning everything is the meticulous world building. Eärwa is a creation of enormous depth, unique in detail, fascinating in custom and history. No aspect has been neglected; it is, for instance, one of the few fantasy settings I've encountered in which there appears to be a real literature -- literature for literature's sake, that is, not mere window-dressing or a way for the author to sneak in a few infodumps via an ancient document or two. Creating a world is not so difficult -- anyone, with a little invention and a lot of time, can do it -- but to create a world so nuanced, so consistent, so fraught with the kind of moral ambiguity we daily encounter in our own non-fantasy lives, is far more difficult. Magic and monstrosities aside, one feels one is reading about a place as real (or a real place as convincingly reinvented) as Robert Graves's Rome. It's a subtlety, and an intelligence, that informs and challenges at every level of this commanding novel.

The Holy War stands poised upon a turning point as the book concludes, as do most of the protagonists. But the meta-story -- the nature and intent of the Consult, the approach of the Second Apocalypse -- has only just begun to unfold. Much is promised for the third volume (which completes, I understand, only one portion of an even bigger story). In true epic tradition, The Warrior-Prophet doesn't stand alone; a précis of the previous book is provided at the start, but this is not a conventional "story so far" rehash to clue new readers in, rather a conceptual guide to world, theme, and character that provides a refresher course for those who've already read the first book. To properly appreciate the scope, sweep, and power of this series, not to mention its complex thematic structure, it must be read from the beginning. And it should be read. Violent, passionate, darkly poetic, seethingly original, these are books that deserve attention from all true connoisseurs of fantasy.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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