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The Warrior-Prophet, R. Scott Bakker, Penguin, 2004, 607 pp.
The Warrior-Prophet is the second book in the fantasy series, The Prince of Nothing. It is the sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before, a book that was also Bakker's debut. The series follows a complex set of political circumstances that leads to a Holy War, with factions and rivalries on both sides, and no clear sense, among the many groups, of who is good and who is evil (although there are a handful of characters who are the main protagonists). The Darkness That Comes Before was the story of how the Holy War was first announced, the gathering of the forces, the destruction of the Vulgar Holy War, and the final decision as to who would be the commander of the forces. The Warrior-Prophet tells the story of the first three encounters, roughly speaking, of the Holy War proper.
Somehow, battle scenes have become the marker by which epic fantasies are measured. The book's structure promises three, divided as it is into The First March, The Second March, and The Third March, and at least two of those are worthy. I didn't entirely buy some of the later developments that seemed to rule out tactics and numerical superiority; for that reason, the last battle is distinctly less interesting than those that came before. Thankfully, Bakker deals more with the consequences of each battle, the build-up to each, and the ongoing divisions and struggles between the various groups that have come together for the war.
As before, the main viewpoint character (or at least the one with the clearest sense of appealing to our sympathies) is Drusas Achamian, a Mandate Schoolman. The Mandate are the only sorcerous school to believe in the ultimate evil of the Consult; Achamian sees signs of the Consult all around him, whereas everyone else just sees factional manoeuvring. In this book, Achamian is in danger because of this very notion, as he is under suspicion of being a spy for the enemy. In the last book, Achamian was separated from his lover, Esmenet, a prostitute, but she is trailing along behind the Holy War. Will they meet?
The other two main characters are a barbarian Scylvendi named Cnaiur, who, improbably, has been put in military charge of much of the War. Kelhus is a mysterious figure, the prince of nothing of the series title, and this book is deliberately about his rise from obscurity to power. He has near-mystical fighting ability, and great ability to read how others will react to persuasion.
The title of the book stakes out the thematic ambitions quite clearly. How does a charismatic figure gain power? What are the dangers and what are the benefits, if any? Who will succumb to the wiles of such a person and who will resist? In a way, the Holy War is the perfect milieu for the exercise of Kelhus's influence: the different nationalities that make up the army are always struggling for advantage or glory, many of the leaders are busy dying off on the battlefield, and a couple of good guesses can easily impress the superstitious soldiers. Kelhus' rise to prominence is not always believable -- there's a certain amount of handwaving in the way he can manipulate men's minds -- but it's definitely an intriguing basis for an epic fantasy, a genre not always known for the quality of its psychological portraiture.
I'm pleased that Bakker has kept the brutally unheroic aspects of his historical model for this series, the real-life Crusades. Some of the typical fantasy notions get in the way of this, notably Achamian's search for the ultimate evil, the Consult, and all of the related prophecies. On the other hand, this makes Achamian one of the few sympathetic characters in the book, as everyone else is soaked in blood for no reason other than personal aggrandizement however thinly cloaked by religious rhetoric. The Warrior-Prophet is an exceptionally violent book, and rightfully so for its subject matter. About the only historically-based atrocity not included so far would be the sack of a friendly city (i.e., the attack on Byzantium), but these are definitely vicious killers. Bakker's narrative strategy is not obvious yet, other than to use the Crusades as the basis for a compelling and tragic tale. There are one or two hints that the nations that the Holy War is crushing would be of great help in a battle against the Consult, but not even Achamian realizes anything like that.
Also worth noting is the way Bakker keeps his magic strictly in the background. In terms of narrative strategy, Bakker accomplishes this by making practitioners rare. The various sorcerous Schools have few adherents, and the military commanders tend not to tell their soldiers the fact that it's worth sacrificing thousands of them even to kill one sorcerer. Interestingly, the Mandate, often ignored or mocked, have some of the most powerful magic and there's a blowout of a scene later in the book where we finally see Achamian defending himself.
Bakker notes in his acknowledgments that he wrote The Darkness That Comes Before over the course of many years, then agreed to write this book within the space of one year. Quite ambitious! After the acknowledgments, Bakker includes a relatively lengthy section called “What Has Come Before...." In these dozen or so pages, he provides a conceptually organized synopsis of The Darkness That Comes Before, rather than one that follows the narrative structure of that book. It's a choice that mostly works. Like The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet has a “Character and Faction Glossary” at the end of the book, as well as some maps.
The Warrior-Prophet doesn't always escape the narrative traps of epic fantasy, but it's packed full with other good stuff. A worthy entry in an ongoing series.
Last modified: August 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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