The OF Blog: PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought

Friday, May 14, 2010

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought

Out of all the re-read/commentaries done to date, I have always felt that writing one on the third The Prince of Nothing volume, The Thousandfold Thought, would be the most difficult to put into words.  Thankfully, I do not have to give even a pretense of writing an "objective" or "unbiased" review (such things are fairly impossible even in the most distant of conditions), so I will begin with a little story dating nearly a year and a half before I first read this volume in ARC format in October 2005.

Back in the summer of 2004, I had started to post semi-regularly at one of the larger general genre forums, SFF World (I still appear there on occasion under the screen name of Aldarion, named after my favorite Tolkien character of the time, although I'm considering changing that name in the future to some form of my given names).  If memory serves, I became involved in a threads-spanning debate/argument/flame war/mass banning event that involved quite a few people.  It was over what at the time (and to some extent, I still hold the same opinion) was a rather silly discussion on the merits of epic fantasy.  In the middle of one of those discussions appeared an interesting character who had the SN of "No-Dog."  I blinked at this, having read, of course, Bakker's first two PoN novels, but I wasn't for sure for a while.  Then a few comments came up and my suspicions that "No-Dog" was indeed Bakker were confirmed.  Some interesting discussions between us, Gary Wassner, and a few other regulars at that site began to take place during the late summer and autumn of 2004.  One such discussion, that Bakker started about an aborted project of mine (and one of the reasons why I started this blog back in August 2004 was to host this project), can be found here

Several of Bakker's contributions to these discussions revolved around the semantics involved with the creation of expressions to convey thoughts and emotions.  Looking back at these discussions, it was clear in retrospect that Bakker was in part testing some ideas on Agency and Function to gauge reader response.  Several of these ideas are explored in The Thousandfold Thought and some of the ways they are presented and addressed remind me constantly, whenever I read certain passages, of those SFF World discussions.  It is no accident that I, along with several others active at that time, were listed in the Acknowledgements page of this book, because in a sense, we were a sort of "beta testers" for the arguments Bakker was embedding in this book.

The Thousandfold Thought, therefore, is more than a simple text for me to read and to react.  It is, in many levels, the culmination of a series of arguments that Bakker has engaged in for years, often with some interesting explorations occurring as a result.  It is not as powerful of a novel as its predecessor, The Warrior-Prophet, was for me, since there is not as much evidence of internal and external conflict among the soldiers of the Holy War in this third volume, but it is a sometimes-profound conclusion to an argument, that if accepted at face value, can be rather chilling.  Whenever I read this book, I think foremost on the arguments and secondarily on the plot and characterizations.

But there is much to talk about in how the characters have changed after their souls have been tempered at the forges of the desert, enemy, and disease.  Kellhus, now triumphant, has become ever more distant in the narrative as the Holy War concludes its march to Shimeh.  He is seen much more through the fervor and adulation of his quasi-worshipers than he is seen in internal monologues (until the key final scenes of the novel).  This increased character "distance" and the resulting sense of "coldness" is, I believe, essential to seeing how such a manipulator as Kellhus has risen in a year's span.  It is not, however, the type of story that's going to endear this character to those readers who prefer having protagonists with whom they can forge an empathic bond.

Cnaiür, Achamian, and Conphas really come into their own as characters in this novel, in large part due to how each is shown to have at least a partial immunity to Kellhus's charms.  Madness, skepticism, and megalomania - how sobering it is to realize that these weaknesses can form a bulwark against that insidious sense of self-assurance and certainty that one's core beliefs are "right" and ought to be immutable.  Bakker doesn't create any happy endings for any of these three, but the chilling meanings behind these characters gives much food for thought.

However, there are some problems with the narrative.  Much of the novel feels as though it was created to host the arguments I've mentioned above, rather than the arguments being interwoven into the seams of the narrative.  As the Zaudunyani elements of the Holy War come to prominence, the soldiers feel less "alive" and more like pawns in another game.  Although this trilogy was always meant to be but the opening segment of a three-part, decades-spanning look at the coming Second Apocalypse, there were times that this volume felt anti-climactic because so many of the plot tensions had been addressed in the prior volume, leaving mostly the "purposes" of the narrative to be considered for the majority of the novel.  I did enjoy this element greatly, mind you, but I could see, upon a re-read, where some of the trilogy's detractors may have a point about how inward-focused this novel (and the series) were compared to some of the promises hinted at with the setting and early character motives.

These shortcomings, however, did not lessen my appreciation for what Bakker accomplished here.  It is rare for a genre work, especially an epic fantasy, to leave me thinking about the meanings behind the narratives as this series has done so far.  Later this weekend, I hope to comment for the first time at length on Bakker's opener to his second trilogy, The Aspect-Emperor, a shorter book called The Judging Eye.  Should be some interesting revelations (or at least movings of my soul) with that.

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