The OF Blog: PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Warrior-Prophet

Thursday, May 13, 2010

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Warrior-Prophet

In my previous commentary on the first novel, The Darkness That Comes Before, I mentioned how Bakker's series was one of the more erudite epic fantasies that I have read.  It was in this sprawling 600 page (tradeback) middle volume where I believe that he best lays out the ideas he wants to explore.

When I first read this volume in June 2004 (I received a review copy from Penguin Canada at Bakker's request, just a day or two after chatting with him for the first time via email), it quickly became my favorite.  Even after two more volumes set in the Earwä setting, there still is something about The Warrior-Prophet that appeals to me more strongly than anything found in Bakker's other novels.  After re-reading this novel for the first time since 2006, I think I have a better grasp on what exactly that appeal might be.

The novel follows the Holy War from its first marches until it is near its goal of the Holy City of Shimeh.  Bakker here purposely borrows liberally from the histories of the First Crusade to set up the conflicts he wants to explore.  If I'm not mistaken, some readers on online forums in the past have taken Bakker to task for having such a strict correlation between the historical event and the epic fantasy story.  The more I think about it, the more I believe those detractors may be missing something key.  War, and most especially a religious or Holy War, is a sort of nexus for all sorts of beliefs and events.  People fighting in a war have to be convinced of that war's necessity.  Patterns of life have to be adjusted to fit the demands of the war.  Belief structures alter, often to binary black/white "forces" that have to clash.  How does one cope with these changes?  Are there many doubts as to the efficacy of war and the veracity behind it?  How are leaders created?

Bakker examines each of these issues in a very harsh, unforgiving desert environment.  Just as the historical Crusaders had to suffer privation in order to become a more cohesive unit, here in The Warrior-Prophet Bakker explores how the various national/regional armies became molded into a single fighting force by the end of the novel.  While certainly the mass starvation, the outbreaks of disease, and the attrition due to near-constant skirmishes are not pleasant matters to discuss at length, Bakker uses these events to explore just how quickly and radically people can change their minds and patterns of life.

Bakker does this through an interesting mix of the personal and the sweeping narrative.  He uses Kellhus, the now proclaimed Warrior-Prophet of the Holy War, to show how easily manipulated people can be.  But as Kellhus's influence waxes, Bakker wisely broadens the narrative scope, switching to a more distant narrative so the reader can see the effects of Kellhus' teachings and manipulations on a broader scale, while simultaneously cutting back on revealing the personal interactions between Kellhus and those closest to the Holy War's leadership.  While I suppose for many readers, this more distant narrative may be offputting, I found it to be a good solution to how to explore just what effects the war and the travails were having on the participants in the Holy War.  If a more "personal" narrative approach had been adopted, I suspect the novel would have been at least half again its size but with less of a focus on the overall impact.

The prose for the most part is excellent.  Although the dialogues at time become too direct with their philosophical bents (this is especially true for whenever Achamian and Kellhus are conversing with each other), Bakker's prose is at best when he is outlining just what the Holy War was suffering when he "zooms out" and takes a more panoramic approach toward dealing with the slow march to Shimeh.  Kellhus is simultaneously the most powerful and the least-developed of the major characters in this book.  This is largely on purpose, I suspect, since Kellhus as a manipulator would not be as effective if all his machinations were revealed directly to the reader.  Achamian, with Cnaiür a close second, is the most complex character, whose weaknesses, considerable as they are, make his eventual unveiling as a Mandate Sorcerer of Rank all the more intriguing to read.  If anything, Akka is perhaps the moral center of this novel, as his doubts, fears, and passions strengthen him and eventually allow him to begin to see what is truly unfolding within the Holy War.

Bakker has been criticized by several readers for his treatment of women.  In re-reading this series, I decided to focus more on how women are portrayed here.  Yes, it is a harsh environment where Biblical-like condemnations seem to have a greater power (after all, damnation is real here) and women certainly are treated as though they have "weaker souls" than me.  But it behooves the reader to be careful to make the jump from setting to authorial intent.  I surmise that what Bakker is doing here is confronting modern readers with ugly, nasty scriptural views of gender (and other social/moral matters) in an attempt to make his women more sympathetic.  Esmenet in particular, whore that she is, embodies this clash between ancient strictures and modern sensibilities.  By any standard, she is an extremely intelligent and perceptive character, easily more clear-headed than any of the male characters, with the exception of Kellhus.  Yet she is held down and is illiterate until Kellhus begins to teach her how to read.  Why is this?  What portents does this have for future volumes?

The Warrior-Prophet concludes with two interesting events:  the ritual punishment of Kellhus by the Orthodox faction of the Holy War and the Battle of Caraskand.  Fear of the unknown is often the fear of the partially known and the twisting of that partial awareness.  Kellhus' binding in the Circumfex represents the mounting fears associated with the crumbling of certainty.  It is, in many respects, the other side of the faith/certainty coin.  Bakker does a good job in showing just how divided people can become in a mass movement such as the Holy War.  The parallels with Jesus, however, might be a bit too direct for some.  The subsequent Battle, led by a freed Kellhus, serves as a metaphor for conviction.  The Holy War, now purged by privation and by witnessing a presumed "miracle" at the Circumfex, triumphs against the Fanim forces, despite suffering from dehydration, starvation, and the ravages of disease.  It is their conviction that they are "right" which gives them the strength to fight on and to prevail.  While some readers may find this final scene to be a bit much, it is largely based on the historical Battle of Antioch and the Crusaders' "will to win" there.

Although The Warrior-Prophet is not a perfect novel (it is a bit too didactic at times), it was an even more enjoyable re-read this time than it was during any of the three previous re-reads I had between 2004 and 2006.  While Kellhus as an idea is a bit too disconcerting to read at times, on the whole, I found the characters to be more interesting and less "stiff" than I had previously remembered them.  Now onto the final volume in the PoN trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought.  Should be finished with that either tonight or tomorrow.

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