The Prince of Nothing

  - R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series demands to be reviewed. But this one's hard for me - I can't praise it in unreservedly positive terms, like I do for Rothfuss, Sanderson, Erikson, or others.

And yet - Bakker is an amazing writer, his world is rich and deep, his characters are compelling, his understanding and use of human drives and desires is excellent. Magic in the world of Eärwa is varied but internally consistent; it is clean and elegant.

The Darkness that Comes Before cover Still, I have several big beefs with this trilogy. First, the main protagonist is, first and foremost, a master manipulator. A highly intelligent, sophisticated one, but still a manipulator. I don't like manipulators - most people don't. And he royally screws (sometimes literally) most of the other more sympathetic characters around him.

That said, Anasûrimbor Kellhus is a hero I enjoy disliking. He's fascinating. He is rationally and unintentionally evil, dispassionately diabolical.

So - in book one - Bakker baits us with Kellhus, then leaves us hanging for over 300 pages. A small beef.

To his credit, Bakker gives us more appealing protagonists. Cnaiür urs Skiötha is violent and likeable, complex, and deliciously conflicted. Achamian is an apostate mage, tortured by impending apocalypse and (a little too) consumed by self-doubt; a man who loves when he should not, and brilliant when he loses control. And Esmenet, whore and Holy Consort, failed mother and failed wife.

My second big issue with the Prince of Nothing: for me to buy into a book, it has to be believable. Sounds funny, perhaps - this is fantasy - but it has to be plausible. Internally consistent. Given the rules of this world, it has to work.

Nothing drops me out of the reader's trance faster than something that rings false. That clashes. Something incompatible, absurd.

I know and accept not everyone will agree with me, but Bakker lost me on a number of occasions. His protagonist - the man with the giant brain - has a rigidly deterministic if/then approach to outcomes. If this, then that - almost always. No room for random chance to interfere - chance events that are innumerable in our lives. Humans are unpredictable, and life and nature are chaotic. Newtonian approaches don't work on us; it's just not believable. Bakker's probability trance certainly does acknowledge this, but Kellhus's overall approach gives the lie to this acknowledgement.

The Nansur and the Scylvendi - a thousand-year conflict, and yet the Scylvendi are rarely if never defeated? Puh-lease. You've got to be kidding. Most of the time they travel in small clan-like groups? Smallish tribal population spread over vast areas? Their patterns of warfare have never varied over a thousand years and yet their neighbors - who are far more numerous, have vast resources and a significant and often successful military history, can't score a single success in a thousand years? Not until Ikurei Conphas comes along, who for the very first time figures out Scylvendi tactics?

The Scylvendi have not changed in thousands of years?? Realistic? Show me one society - especially one in contact with others - that has survived unchanged for a thousand years. And the Scylvendi are said to never change their approach to battles - and yet they discuss tactics at length? Why bother? How could they? Bakker stretches his story past belief.

One last example: the battle at Mengedda, in The Warrior Prophet. The Holy War's forces are decimated. Then rally, fight back at overwhelming odds. And are decimated yet again. And rally. Sooner or later, at ten-to-one or hundred-to-one odds, you'd think attrition would take its toll, and the army be obliterated. Not here.

This continues across the desert. Dehydration and plague - what are your odds? The army is whittled to nothing. Walking skeletons storming high walls, sophisticated fortifications, fighting against superior numbers. Caraskand and Shigek and Shimeh, and every time they triumph.


Only way I figure it, Bakker must have been in an Improbability Trance writing this stuff.

Third - I believe an author has a responsibility to his or her readers. I could be wrong. Perhaps I'm shallow. But I believe that an author needs to satisfy his readers in some way. Give them a reason to cheer. To care. And has a responsibility to tie up the major plot, by the end of the series. Not leave us hanging.

Spoiler here - Bakker leaves his most sympathetic characters - Achamian and Esmenet - with exactly nothing. He leaves the major plot conflict - the one that threatens the dissolution of the world itself - completely unresolved. Though he does bring the essentially pointless campaign against Shimeh to a close.

One more small beef - please, can't we drop a few accented characters? It's a bit of a cliché.

Still, all told, Bakker is one good writer. I hope his subsequent works will make me care.

Rating: 6.5


Paul's Top Ten

  1. Lord of the Rings
    J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Name of the Wind
    Patrick Rothfuss
  3. The Deed of Paksenarrion
    Elizabeth Moon
  4. Ysabel
    Guy Gavriel Kay
  5. Malazan Book of the Fallen
    Steven Erikson
  6. Mistborn Trilogy
    Brandon Sanderson
  7. The Magicians
    Lev Grossman
  8. Harry Potter series
    J.K. Rowling
  9. Black Company novels
    Glen Cook
  10. The Magic of Recluce/The Death of Chaos
    L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Full List:
Fantasy Novels Ranked and Rated


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