The Prince of Nothing Trilogy
The Darkness That Comes Before
Release date: June 2004
The Warrior Prophet
Release date: January 2005
The Thousandfold Thought
Release date: February 2006
Author: R. Scott Bakker
Publisher: Overlook Press
Source: Personal collection
Series Overall Rating: ****
R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy consists of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought. These three epic fantasy books form a completed trilogy, although the series continues twenty years later with The Judging Eye (review coming soon).
The backdrop of this series is the First Crusade. If you know your history (I certainly didn’t when I began the series), you’ll have some idea of the twists and turns of this trilogy as it plots the fate of the Holy War between the Inrithi and the Fanim.
The series ponders issues of war, choice, and free will. But like all epic fantasy, there is a much deeper struggle going on; a group of villains seek nothing less than the return of the No-God, a monster so terrible that when it was first summoned, all babies were stillborn until it was destroyed.
- Achamian: A philosophical sorcerer and spy, who attaches himself to the Holy War to monitor its progress.
- Esmenet: A whore who longs to give up her base profession for a more stimulating pursuits.
- Cnaiur: A barbarian who finds himself as alien as the enemy he fights.
- Kellhus: A man whose stunning intellectual, physical, and spiritual abilities make him more than other men. He claims to be the prince of a far-off land, but he is actually the Prince of Nothing.
The trilogy is a dark, brooding, philosophical take on epic fantasy. This is both a strength and a weakness of the series. Many people look to fantasy for escapism: monsters, maidens, and magic. Earwa, the land where these books are set, is not a place anyone would want to visit.
The series is incredibly ambitious: philosophy and history are interspersed with a journey that spans the globe. The philosophy in particular can be applied pretty thick; Bakker is almost obsessed with issues of free will and morality. But while the prose is occasionally preachy, you don’t need any particular interest in philosophy to enjoy the series, and it is refreshing to see fantasy written with so much respect for its audience’s intelligence. I personally find Bakker far more readable than Kant or Nietzche.
Here are a few quotes to give just a flavor:
Kings never lie. They demand that the world is mistaken.
– The Darkness That Comes Before
The proposition “I am the Centre” need never be uttered. It is the assumption upon which all certainty and all doubt turns.
– The Warrior Prophet
Like so many who undertake arduous journeys, I left a country of wise men and came back to a nation of fools. Ignorance, like time, brooks no return.
– The Thousandfold Thought
The books have been criticized for their portrayal of women. Earwa is a very sexist place and the women portrayed often have no choice but to use sex as a way of gaining agency. This isn’t to say that Bakker is sexist; I think the books can be read as a criticism of sexism in fantasy. But the dismal place women find themselves in throughout the series can serve to create an oppressive atmosphere for many readers.
But despite its philosophical depth, including its treatment of women, the book has many high points. The villains are one such strength; they are rarely seen, horribly ambitious, cleverly flawed, and, most of all, believable. They have good reason to pursue their nefarious goals. And while I can’t say more without serious spoilers, I always found them compelling.
This series isn’t for everyone. It isn’t even for all fantasy fans. But it is anything but ordinary, and if you think that you could enjoy a dark, intelligent fantasy series, then you could hardly do better.
These books are, in their own way, extraordinary. Nobody writes fantasy like this. The plot is well thought out and ambitious. The story isn’t fast paced, but it also doesn’t stall or wander. I am as interested to see where Bakker takes the story in the next books as I am for any fantasy series on the market.