Monday, August 07, 2006

JD's Take: Prince of Nothing series (R. Scott Bakker)

R. Scott Bakker wrote an entire epic fantasy trilogy in three years. If for no better reason, the man is a saint. This simple fact alone guarentees that the next time I see his name on a spine I'll be picking the book up, rather than waiting for it to re-catch my eye in paperback 7 years down the line when I see that book three has finally been released. Obviously then, I enjoyed it. To be sure, there were flaws to the series. The first and by far the most important problem with the books is that the sheer impenetrable volume of names, places, and characters introduced is overwhelming. Now you've read epic fantasy. You see that sentence and scoff. Scoff! But believe me when I say that this is a word-gap beyond any you can imagine. If you can suffer through the first 100-200 pages, completely bewildered (and I know at least one brave man who couldn't), you will come out the other side in a zen state. A trance in which names simply pass over you and through you, and where the names have gone, only plot will remain.

Once you reach this state, you are in for a very rewarding read. The story follows the unlikely character of Drusas Achamian, or Akka to his friends. He's an overweight spy, a powerful sorcerer, and a guilt-ridden mess. He's believable, flawed, and his goals are generally small and human and understandable. Early in the first book he gets mixed up with a holy war that serves as the backdrop and vehicle for the rest of the series. Like any epic fantasy, there are plenty of other characters that are interesting, important, and (mostly) believable. Because of the nature of the story, motivation becomes an essential plot point, and so Bakker does a great job creating believable characters with honest motivations and engaging personalities. I approve.

As the second and third books progress, the story gets bigger, the battles keep coming, the trials get harder. If you read epic fantasy for fantastic fight scenes you won't be disapointed, there are some truly fantastic battles in here. However, as Lisa pointed out to me, Bakker doesn't do a great job of making each faction, each leader, stand out. Though they all have unique customs and attitudes, it never really gelled in my mind which one was which. When leaders fall in battle, I have a hard time remembering which one he was, and which faction he supported. If this was the story of the holy war, and the people who fought it, this would be a serious flaw. But it isn't. This is the story of a handful of men and women who are stuggling to make sense of their lives, resolve their emotional baggage, and survive the trials they face. The war, in all its furious glory, is nothing more than the setting for that struggle.

My final comment is that the ending was... unsatisfying. Much was left unanswered, or allowed to resolve off-screen. I think that this was intentional. The feelings evoked by ending where he did, by leaving things unsaid and non-final were consistant with the mood of the final chapter. When I put down the last book, I was left feeling much as Drusas must have. I recognize the motivation behind this, but there is also something to be said for wrapping up all the loose ends and letting the reader put the book behind him.

On the whole, I wouldn't say this is a "must-read", and it is certainly a challenging read (at least to get started), but on the whole I think you will find a rewarding, well-paced, well-conceived work of fiction that doesn't feel nearly so epic as it looks.

[details: This review is written on The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought, by R. Scott Bakker, all in HB]

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