Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought
by R. Scott Bakker
The Final March
Welcome to Chapter One of my reread. Click here if you missed the intro!
My heart shrivels even as my intellect bristles. Reasons—I find myself desperate for reasons. Sometimes I think word written is written for shame.
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, THE COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
This looks like Achamian is rationalizing why he is doing what he is doing, sharing this information to the world. He has a great deal of shame, after all Kellhus cuckolded him and took his wife. More, for a time, he allowed himself to believe that was a good thing. He accepted it only to learn how utterly he was manipulated by Kellhus. And now he shares it to the world.
Late Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Enathpaneah
There had been a time, for Achamian, when the future had been a habit, something belonging to the hard rhythm of his days toiling in his father’s shadow. His fingers had stung in the morning, his back had burned in the afternoon. The fish had flashed silver in the sunlight. Tomorrow became today, and today became yesterday, as though time were little more than gravel rolled in a barrel, forever brightening what was the same. He expected only what he’d already endured, prepared only for what had already happened. His past had enslaved his future. Only the size of his hands had seemed to change.
Achamian is walking on Proyas’s rooftop garden, stars glinting overhead. The sounds of celebration “sounding at once melancholy and besotted with joy” rise from the streets below. The Holy War had won, defying the odds. Caraskand was theirs.
Achamian reminds himself that he is a Mandate Schoolman, but he hasn’t spoken to them in such a long time. Since he traveled, it was his responsibility to maintain contact. He knew it was a failure of his duty not to have. He knows the Mandate will demand “impossible things” of him. What would come tomorrow always held him back.
Achamian, using his sorcerery, calls out to Nautzera at Atyersus, the fortress housing his school. He finds Nautzera dreaming of Dagliash on the shores of a vast, inland sea. The reek of decay gags Achamian. Draped from the fortress’s walls are thousands of rotting corpses held in nets. Achamian had dreamed of the Wall of the Dead many times. Seswatha had been captured and held here after the fall of Tyrsë and hung from the wall to “ponder the glory of the Consult.”
Nautzera hangs, wearing the Agonic Collar, dreaming himself in Seswatha’s place. Achamian fights with his own fear. It has been three years since the No-God’s advent. Achamian can feel its presence “looming across the western horizon.”
Achamian tries to reach through to Nautzera but the arrival of a Bashrag, a horrible monstrosity made of three creatures welded together, each limbs three melded into one. As it nails another victim to the wall screaming, the Nonman Mekeritrig appears on the wall saying a single word: “Anguish.”
After a moment, Mekeritrig talks about how anguish and degradation contained salvation. Nautzera, speaking in Seswatha’s voice, calls Mekeritrig by his nonman name, Cet’ingira, asking if he’s progressed that far. That he remembers so little.
A flicker of terror marred the Nonman’s perfect features. His pupils became thin as quill strokes. After millennia of practicing sorcery, the Quya bore a Mark that was far, far deeper than that borne by any Schoolmen—like indigo compared with water. Despite their preternatural beauty, despite the porcelain whiteness of their skin, they seemed blasted, blackened, and withered, a husk of cinders at once animated and extinct. Some, it was said, were so deeply Marked that they couldn’t stand within a length of a Chorae without beginning to salt.
Mekeritrig questions recalling and says he built a great wall, which Nautzera/Seswatha calls an obscenity. “As are all monuments, all memorials,” responds Mekeritrig. He claims they merely proclaim a person’s impotence. He may be immortal, but he’s lived as a mortal. “Your suffering, Seswatha, is my salvation.” Seswatha objects, saying it doesn’t have to be like this. He’s read about the ancient chronicles and knew that Mekeritrig helped out the Norsirai and educated them into greatness. The nonman was never anything like this. This makes Mekeritrig shed a tear as he says “Which is why, Seswatha.”
A cut scarred where a caress faded away. In this simple fact lay the tragic and catastrophic truth of the Nonmen. Mekeritrig had lived a hundred lifetimes—more! What would it be like, Achamian wondered, to have every redeeming memory—be it a lover’s touch or a child’s warm squeal—blotted out by the accumulation of anguish, terror, and hate? To understand the soul of a Nonman, the philosopher Gotagga had once written, one need only bare the back of an old and arrogant slave. Scars. Scars upon scars. This was what made them mad. All of them.
“I am an Erratic,” Mekeritrig was saying. “I do that which I hate, I raise my heart to the lash, so that I might remember! Do you understand what this means? You are my children!”
Seswatha says there has to another way, by, crying, Mekeritrig says there isn’t. So Seswatha begs to be killed. Mekeritrig can’t because Seswatha knows the location of the Heron Spear. Because Mekeritrig loves Seswatha, he’ll torture him and draw forth the “howling Truth of all things.” Then Mekeritrig will remember Seswatha.
With the Cant of Thawa Ligatures, the nonman inflicts pain on Seswatha while soothing him like a child, begging him not to cry. Watching the torture reminds Achamian to make contact with Nautzera. He screams at him that it’s a dream. Realizing this, Nautzera turns form the torture and gasps in shock at the sight of Achamian, believe him dead.
The dreams vanishes and the pair stand in nowhere. They don’t speak with words, but with thoughts. Nautzera wants to know how Achamian live. The Scarlet Spire had them. Achamian can’t speak, feeling like his reasons for not making contact are so petty know. Meanwhile, Nautzera is saying they will get revenge on his behalf. That shocks Achamian to realize that Nautzera was concerned and has compassion. But he ignores that and admits that he has lied to him.
Nautzera is confused, thinking the Scarlet Spire didn’t seize Achamian, but he shows Nautzera his memories of Iothiah, his capture, Xinemus’s torture, and his escape. “Remembered men screaming.” Nautzera is excited by this, saying Achamian’s exploits will be immortalized. Then question the lies. Achamian grows nervous and says that he’s concealed a fact from the Mandate.
An Anasûrimbor has returned…
A long pause, strangely studied.
What are you saying?
The Harbinger has come, Nautzera. The world is about to end.
That phrase, the world is about to end, echoes in Achamian’s mind. But any phrase, even that one, can become familiar, robbed of its importance by repetition. That is why Seswatha created the dreams, to remind his followers every night why they fight. Now, finally saying these words, makes Achamian realize he never meant them before. He never understood them. He does now.
Nautzera is shocked. Achamian later realizes that he’d frightened Nautzera the same way it had terrified Achamian months ago when he learned them and “feared himself unequal to the events unfolding before him.”
The world was about to end.
Achamian catches Nautzera up on the events of the last two books since Proyas introduced Achamian to Kellhus and Cnaiür. The only thing he leaves out is Esmenet. Achamian then explains just how Kellhus got the Holy War to follow him so thoroughly after being freed. Because Cnaiür killed the skin-spy, a demon, who had tried to murder the dying Kellhus. Achamian quotes Ajencis: “Men ever make corruption proof of purity.” He talks about how Kellhus unified the Holy War swiftly. Even Conphas knelt and kissed his knee. Sick and starving, they marched out the gates and won an impossible battle. Kascamandri, the Padirajah, killed by Kellhus. And now the Holy War prepares to march on Shimeh. “They’ve all but succeeded!”
Nautzera is confused why Kellhus, if knows about the Second Apocalypse, would continue the war at all. He speculates Kellhus is their instrument, but Achamian disagrees. The Holy War is being purged of the skin-spies. Over a dozen nobles vanished right after Sarcellus’s death and unveiling while two have been captured and “exorcised.” Nautzera is excited, thinking the entire Three Seas will believe the Mandate. Achamian responds: “Either that or burn.” He takes satisfaction in that thought. After being laughed out for hundreds of years, the Mandate were vindicated.
Nautzera is also drunk on the drug of vindication, but he warns Achamian that the Consult will try to assassinate Kellhus and Achamian must protect him. Achamian says “the Warrior-Prophet” doesn’t need protection. Nautzera is shocked Achamian calls him by that title, asking why.
Because no other name seemed his equal. Not even Anasûrimbor. But something, a profound indecision perhaps, held him mute.
Achamian? Do you actually think the man’s a prophet?
I don’t know what I think… Too much has happened.
This is no time for sentimental foolishness!
Enough, Nautzera. You haven’t seen the man.
No… but I will.
Achamian is shocked, asking what he means, wondering if his brother Schoolmen were coming. He doesn’t want them to see his humiliation. Nautzera ignores it, instead asking what the Scarlet Spire thinks. Eleäzaras looks defeated, unable to even stare into Achamian’s eyes. He’s afraid of Achamian because of Iothiah. Nautzera says Eleäzaras will come to Achamian eventually and Achamian is brash, declaring let him try. Nautzera says now isn’t the time for retribution, though he years for it. Things are too important. “Do you understand this?”
What did understanding have to do with hatred?
Nautzera is interested in what Eleäzaras thinks of Kellhus. Does he think he’s a fraud. Achamian isn’t sure, but thinks Eleäzaras wants him to be a fraud. Nautzera wants Achamian to let the Scarlet Spire know that Kellhus is theirs. Achamian says they will have to purchase Achamian. He wants the Gnosis. Achamian reveals Kellhus is one of the few and fears he’ll turn to the Scarlet Spire if denied the Gnosis. Nautzera is not happy to learn that Achamian has known this for so long and isn’t sure he can trust Achamian. Achamian rebukes him with what happened to Inrau. For a moment, Nautzera looks like a small boy full of fear and says that was unfortunate. Achamian then tells Nautzera that Kellhus will be a sorcerer more powerful than any else.
Harness your passions! You [Achamian] must see him as a tool—a Mandate tool!—nothing more, nothing less. We must possess him!
And if the Gnosis is his price for “possession,” what then?
The Gnosis is our hammer. Ours! Only by submitting—
And if the Spires? If Eleäzaras offers him the Anagogis?
Hesitation, both outraged and exasperated.
This is madness! A prophet would pit School against School for sorcery’s sake? A Wizard-Prophet? A Shaman?
Silence hangs between them as all such words of stunning import cause. Achamian agrees with Nautzera at how crazy this was. Worse, he has to “woo and win” the man who stole Esmenet. He fights off the pain as Nautzera agrees that Achamian can teach him the Lesser Cants and the denotories. “Deceive him with dross into thinking you’ve traded our deepest secrets.” Achamian objects, saying that won’t work.
All men can be deceived, Achamian. All men.
Achamian scoffs, saying Kellhus isn’t a man. Nautzera doesn’t care, he just needs Achamian to yoke Kellhus. Achamian says Kellhus is beyond them. Thinking of Esmenet, he blurts out, “He possesses.”
The Men of the Tusk rejoice as the butcher the herds of their enemies. They feast until they are sick. They are no longer divided into Orthodox and Zaudunyani. “They were Inrithi once again.” Conryians tattoo the Circumfix on their arms, while the Thunyeri and Tydonni scar themselves with the symbol. The Galeoth and Ainoni mark their bodies, too. “Only the Nansur refrained.”
For two days, the captured Kianene labor to make a mound of their dead. The carrion birds fight over the bounty. Meanwhile, the Inrithi keep celebrating, some growing ill and even dying from eating too much. On the fourth day, the gathered up their captives, stripped them naked to humiliate them, and forced them to carry great treasures. They marched them to Umiaki, the tree where Kellhus hung with dead Serwë, and had them present their spoils and swear to the Warrior-Prophet. Those who did and cursed Fane were given to the slavers. Those that didn’t, were executed.
When all was finished and the sun leaned crimson against the dark hills, the Warrior-Prophet walked from his seat and knelt in the blood of his enemies. He bid his people come to him, and upon the forehead of each he sketched the mark of the Tusk in Fanim blood.
Even the most manly wept for wonder.
“Esmenet is his…” Achamian thinks over and over. “Like all horrifying thoughts, this one possessed a will all of its own.” He can’t shake the pain of her betrayal as he arrives at the Fama Palace. The Zaudunyani functionaries are anxious around him, not because he’s a sorcerer as would be normal, but Achamian feels like they’ve heard so much about Achamian, a man who will fit into their scriptures one day, and mocked him in their thoughts. But now he stands before them, shaming them.
Of course, they knew he was a cuckold. By now the stories of everyone who had broken bread or sawed joint at Xinemus’s fire would be known in some distorted form or another. There were no intimacies left. And his story, in particular—the sorcerer who loved the whore who would become the Prophet-Consort—had doubtless come quick to a thousand lips, multiplying his shame.
As Achamian waits, he realizes that Kellhus would change the world even if the Second Apocalypse wasn’t a threat the way Inri Sejenus would. Achamian realizes this is Year One of a new chapter of mankind.
He observes three other petitioners chatting in a courtyard and is stuck by how prosaic it is. Normalcy had returned so swiftly. Even Kellhus’s new banners, the Circumfix, feel like they’ve always belonged. He realizes someone must have been making these before the battle begun to have so many.
Whoever they were, they had forgotten Serwë. He blinked away images of her bound to Kellhus and the ring. It had been so very dark beneath Umiaki, but it seemed you could see her face arched back in rigor and ecstasy…
An officer of the Hundred Pillars (Kellhus’s bodyguard) kneels before Achamian and says he’s here to bring Achamian to Kellhus. Achamian’s skin tingles as her reflects on the fact Kellhus communed with the God. Achamian knows it to be true because Kellhus speaks words no man could know even if he’s still incredulous of it.
A miracle. A prophet in their midst.
Breathe when you speak to him. You must remember to breathe.
The officer marches Achamian in silence through the palace. Achamian, though nervous, is glad for the silence. He’s beset by conflicting emotions: hatred for a rival and love for an old friend. Fear for the darkness to come, and joy at their recent victory. Even awe fills him.
The eyes of men were but pinholes—no one knew this better than a Mandate Schoolmen. All their books, even their scriptures, were nothing more than pinholes. And yet, because they couldn’t see what was unseen, they assumed they saw everything, the confused pinpricks with the sky.
But Kellhus was something different. A doorway. A mighty gate.
He’s come to save us. This is what I must remember. I must hold onto this!
He’s led to a an orchard where Esmenet strolls with Kellhus. He can’t stop staring at her as she looks so happy and loving beside Kellhus. It’s the first time Achamian’s seen the two together. She’s dressed like a queen and wears a Chorae.
She was Esmenet and yet she wasn’t Esmenet. The woman of loose life had fallen away, and what remained was more, so much more, than she’d been at his side. Resplendent.
I dimmed her, he realized. I was smoke and he… is a mirror.
The officer kneels, and Achamian does as well, but more because he’s legs give out at the shock then any need to genuflect. He feels like such a fool and fights back against the pain. He feels like he’s suffered so much and only wants one thing to balance his ledgers, her, but he knows “he would ruin it, the way he ruined everything.”
He remembers her words, telling him she’s carrying Kellhus’s child, as he watches her kiss Kellhus on the cheek. His terrible joke he told her when they reunited, “So what will it be the next time I die?” echoes in his mind.
Kellhus watches Achamian and, like Esmenet, he wears a chorea “though he had the courtesy to keep it concealed against his chest.” He tells Achamian he never has to kneel before him. That he is Kellhus friend always. Achamian glances where Esmenet vanished into the shadows, anger filling him. Achamian moves to Kellhus, shocked by the man’s height.
They walk together, Kellhus “effortlessly guiding” him. Kellhus asks after Xinemus, who Achamian admits he’s worried about. Kellhus wants to see him, his words easing Achamian into the rhythms of their old relationship. He even grins at a joke Kellhus tells until he notices the cuts and bruises on Kellhus’s body. Achamian remembers he was tortured and Serwë murdered.
“Yes,” Kellhus said, ruefully holding out his hands. He looked almost embarrassed. “Would that everything healed so quickly.”
Somehow these words found Achamian’s fury.
“You could see the Consult all along—all along!—and yet you said nothing to me… Why?
Kellhus answers that the time wasn’t right, which Achamian knows. He explains that the Mandate would have seized him where now they have to negotiate with him. Then Kellhus continues, revealing he knows Achamian has told them and then asks if they agreed with Achamian’s interpretation that he’s the harbinger. They find it unlikely but, when pressed by Kellhus, admits he’s instructed to pretend to teach the Gnosis and to protect him.
“So you’re to be my bodyguard?”
“They have good reason to worry—as do you. Think of the catastrophe you’ve wrought. For centuries the Consult has hidden in the fat of the Three Seas, while we were little more than a laughingstock. They could act with impunity. But now that fat has cooked away. They’ll do anything to recover what they’ve lost. Anything.”
“There have been other assassins.”
“But that was before… The Stakes are far higher now. Perhaps these skin-spies act on their own. Perhaps they’re… directed.”
Kellhus studied him for a moment. “You fear one of the Consult might be directly involved… that an Old Name shadows the Holy war.”
Achamian does. After a few moments of silence, Kellhus asks if Achamian will give him the Gnosis. Achamian realizes Kellhus knows just how powerful he’ll be with it. Achamian reluctantly says if Kellhus demands it even as he realizes Kellhus knows exactly what Achamian says. Kellhus wants it while recognizing he’ll lose the protection of the Chorae. In the beginning of his training, before he can really use the Gnosis, he’ll still be marked and unable to touch a Chorae. So Kellhus declares Achamian is his Holy Vizier and will live in the palace to protect him, spoken with “the authority of a Shrial Edict.”
Kellhus did not wait for his [Achamian’s] reply—none was needed.
“Can you protect me, Akka?”
Achamian blinked, still trying to digest what had just happened. “You will reside here…”
Achamian isn’t confident he could protect Kellhus from an Old Name while at the same time he feels a “treacherous joy,” thinking this will give him the chance to prove himself to Esmenet and win her back. But Kellhus meant if Achamian could control himself and not kill Kellhus. Achamian answers that if he can’t, “Seswatha can.” Kellhus accepts that and motions Achamian to follow him.
He’s lead to a captured skin-spy bound in chains to an apple tree that’s rotting away in the garden. Kellhus says the tree was already dead. Achamian takes in the sight, asks what Kellhus has learned. This stirs the skin-spy who taunts Achamian that it’s too late while Kellhus says that the skin-spies are directed. Achamian asks if Kellhus knows who is directing them, but Kellhus explains it would take months or more of interrogation to break one. “They’re conditioned—powerfully so.” Achamian believes Kellhus, in time, could break the creature. Achamian believes Kellhus infallible.
For a giddy instant a kind of gloating fury descended upon Achamian. All those years—centuries!—the Consult had played them for fools. But now—now! Did they know? Could they sense the peril this man represented? Or would they underestimate him like everyone had?
Achamian then says Kellhus has to keep Chorae bowmen around and avoid large structures, but Kellhus cuts him off, saying it troubles Achamian to see the skin-spy. Achamian studies the prisoner and wonders why Kellhus bound it in the garden. “It seemed the act of someone who knew nothing of beauty… nothing.” Achamian agrees it troubles him.
“And your hatred?” [asks Kellhus]
For an instant it had seemed that everything—who he was and who he would become—wanted to love this godlike man. And how could he not, given the sanctuary of his mere presence? And yet intimations of Esmenet clung to him. Glimpses of her passion…
“It remains,” he said.
The Skin-spy begins fighting against its chains as though Achamian’s answer provoked it. He steps back, remembering the last time he saw one. Kellhus ignores it and says that men surrender to even while seeking to dominate. It’s in their nature. “The question is never whether they surrender, but rather to whom…” Achamian is confused and Kellhus continues that many men only truly submit to the God to preserve their pride. By kneeling to the unseen, they “can abase themselves without fear of degradation.”
“One,” Kellhus was saying, “can only be tested, never degraded, by the God.”
“You said ‘some,’” Achamian managed. “What of the others?” In his periphery he saw the thing’s face knuckle as though into interlocking fists.
“They’re like you, Akka. They surrender not to the God but to those like themselves. A man. A woman. There’s no pride to be preserved when one submits to another. Transgress, and there’s no formula. And the fear of degradation is always present, even if not quite believed. Lovers injure each other, humiliate and debase, but they never test, Akka—not if they truly love.”
Achamian asks why Kellhus is saying this. Kellhus says Achamian “clings to the hope” that this is Esmenet’s test. She’s not testing him. Achamian demands to know if she’s just degrading him. If they both are.
“I’m saying that she loves you still. As for me, I merely took what was given.”
“Then give it back!” Achamian barked with savagery. He shook. His breath cramped in his throat.
“You’re forgetting, Akka. Love is like sleep. One can never seize, never force love.”
The words were his own, spoken that first night about the fire with Kellhus and Serwë beneath Momemn. In a rush, Achamian recalled the sprained wonder of that night, the sense of having discovered something at once horrific and ineluctable. And those eyes, like lucid jewels set in the mud of the world, watching from across the flames—the same eyes that watched him this very moment… though a different fire burned between them.
Kellhus continues, saying for a while, Achamian was lost. That he had no meaning but his love for her. That he had only her. Achamian wants to murder Kellhus, his mind full of images of Esmenet. With his sorcery, he could kill Kellhus. Then Kellhus says that nothing Esmenet or he can do can undo what Achamian suffered. “Your degradation is your own.” Achamian recoils, not wanting Kellhus to see his emotions as he asks what Kellhus means. Kellhus explains this is Achamian’s test. “You, Drusas Achamian, are a Mandate Schoolman.”
Achamian vomits after Kellhus leaves. He hides in a niche and hugs himself. He’s trying to rationalize Kellhus and Esmenet, pointing out they thought him dead. But he realizes Kellhus should have known he lived.
How could he [Kellhus] not know? How—
Achamian laughed, stared with idiot eyes at the dim geometries painted across the ceiling. He ran a palm over his forehead, fingers through his hair. The skin-spy continued to thrash and bark in his periphery.
“Year One,” he whispered.
I think we can all relate to that humdrum feel of just living our lives, every day the same as the one before, living in our ruts until something shakes us out of it and sends us reeling. We find comfort in that routine. We try to establish it even in hard circumstances so we can lie to ourselves that we have some amount of control over our existence.
Achamian finally believes Kellhus can survive if he makes contact with the Mandate. Achamian is in his camp now. He may be ordered to do those impossible things, but he won’t do them. Achamian was beaten into strength by his torture at the hands of the scarlet spire.
Ah, Dagliash. It’s a terrible place. The glory of the Consult… Thousands and thousands of corpses draped from a wall, proof of the might of the Consult. Of how they had destroyed Tyrsë and the Great Norsirai Kingdoms of the North.
Mekeritrig.. He was the nonman that Kellhus met in the prologue that showed our Dûnyain that effect could precede a cause. That the Outside was real, magic existed, and the Dûnyain framework wasn’t sufficient to cover everything. He is also the nonman that lead Shaeönanra and his Mangaecca school to the Ark and thus created the Consult.
How does anguish and degradation contain salvation? Because by suffering and debasing himself, by working with the Consult against his own people and helping the very beings that destroyed his race, Mekeritrig has found salvation. He has peered into the Inverse Fire and learned that it is very real. And that the No-God was created to end it. By making everyone else suffer, by destroying them, he shall earn his salvation.
And he has erected this wall as a I reminder. So he can remember that degradation and anguish that buys his salvation. It’s his book, his way of remembering the past. Like all erratics, only pain and suffering can elicit those memories of the past, of those he loved who died thousands of years ago.
Starting a new novel in a series is tricky. How do you catch up the reader? Bakker has a rather detailed “What Came Before” summary at the start of each novel (and you should read it because he’s often less coy in it and makes some things that were ambiguous in the text more clear). But this is a good start. He lays out Achamian’s main dilemma from the last book, shows the dreams of Seswatha, delves into identity and memory (a major theme of the novels), gives you a quick glimpse of what Achamian suffered, then drops that bombshell once more: “The world is about to end.”
Then by having Achamian catch-up Nautzera, Bakker has an excuse to drop some exposition on what happened in the last book in the quick strokes for those who skipped his “What Came Before” section. This part isn’t quite as well done. It’s just a straight plot dump in a few paragraphs, no conversation, but it also gets through it pretty fast. Even as a conversation, I doubt it would have been that great. Best to just get it out of the way and remind readers of what’s happened. When Bakker gets to the new information, he switches back to the conversation, to let it flow better. Authors, remember, if you have to have an exposition dump, have characters talk about, let them explore conflicts, show off their personalities, how they react and act. This lets you make the scene serve multiple purposes.
Every scene in a novel should do one of three things: Plot, Character, or World building. It should drive the plot, develop the characters, and establish the world. Ideally, if you can do two or even all three in a scene, even better.
The Ajencis quote is interesting about corruption giving proof to purity. I have listened to some sociologist, like Dr. Jonathan Haidt, talk about morality and how it is often wrapped around sacred objects and beliefs as much as controlling interactions between people. He postulates that morality came out of disgust behavior. Humans, as omnivorous, face a dilemma. We can eat almost anything, so that means we can explore new things to eat. New animals, new plants, etc. It allowed us to spread out of the tropics were we are adapted to survive without any clothing or technology. This puts a dual nature in us that we both need to seek out new things and yet be cautious of that less we expose ourselves to disease. Racism is probably not fear of others like people think, but this disgust reaction in that we’ve evolved to understand that meeting a new group can lead to new diseases being introduced so there is a part of us that recoils in disgust, no different than seeing a piece of rotten food. But at the same time, we’re driven to seek out novel things. This is the real difference between Conservatives and Liberals. A Conservative wants to protect from outside threats weakening us while a Liberal wants to introduce outside objects to strengthen us. Both are necessary for humans to advance and when one or the other gets too strong, it causes a lot of problems for us. So for a Conservative who has found something that they feel defends from the corrupt, like religion, like a symbol (the US Flag for the Right, or Immigration for the Left in the United States) they make it sacred. And when a human does that (because remember we are predisposed to religious thinking and not scientific thinking) we want to preserve it. And that makes us combative. Makes us rigid in our thinking. Makes us orthodoxy and not want to question these things.
And that leads to conflict.
Achamian is still aching for vengeance on the Scarlet Spires and upon Iyokus in particular. Shame those two didn’t have a seen in the followup series. But the Blind Schoolman was a little busy when Achamian arrived.
What does understanding have to do with hatred? Nothing. Hatred can destroy reason. It can slay objectivity. It can undermine logic. Hatred can cause you to murder what you need the most if you don’t control it. And Achamian has a lot of reasons to hate the Scarlet Spire, but also Esmenet and Kellhus. Stakes are being raised here. The conflicts for the novel are being established.
Nautzera’s greed to possess Kellhus is on display. The Mandate, who have spent so much time suffering for the second apocalypse, now must be the ones to control its defense, through the harbinger. He doesn’t think at all about the world’s good, but the fulfillment of his order’s purpose. He doesn’t think of any other way. And it leads him to do something that he would never have allowed before to keep Kellhus from falling in with their enemies.
Nautzera’s line “All men can be deceived” strikes right to the core of the series. If free will is an illusion, as Bakker’s universe contains, then we’re all deceived. It’s a true statement. Even a Dûnyain who can see so far, can be deceived. Can make mistakes. Can be manipulated in the right way. Just by limiting Kellhus’s information, by controlling it just right, you could deceive him. After all, he never believed in Sorcery, was deceived by the Pragmas into believing cause and effect were inviolable and then saw proof it wasn’t with his own eyes.
I like this mark about the carrion birds still fighting over the feast before them. Even for animals, it’s never enough. They always have to be in conflict with the other species. There is a fiction, a romantic view of nature, that it is in balance. It’s a lie. Nature has never been in balance. If it were, no species would ever have gone instinct. Humans have a need to lie about the nobility of it to punish their own hearts for their weaknesses, for their actions.
Kellhus has brutal style. It’s a new baptism, an inversion of Christianity. Here, the new prophet doesn’t use his own blood to wash clean his followers, but the blood of his enemies. And the fact that it is moving to his followers just underscores human psychology, how we can be manipulated into participating in acts of evil by the in-group/out-group preference we all share. As tribal creatures, we form tight bonds with those closest to us and have trouble caring about those who aren’t apart of that in-group. Our societies have struggled hard to expand the in-group while building tolerance for the out-group, but at our core, in our DNA, this behavior remains and it can be used to do terrible things.
You can’t help but pity Achamian. How terrible it must be to have to help the very people who so betrayed you. It speaks to his character that he sucks up his pain for the fate of the world. It’s only when he learns the truth of what Kellhus is from the Scylvendi that he can no longer do it, no longer trust that Kellhus will save the world.
Achamian thinks that Kellhus won’t be an Ajencis (a great philosopher) or a Triamis (a great leader) but a great prophet. The founder of a new religion. Bakker is telling us something about humans here. Despite the fact Kellhus has the intelligence to be a greater philosophy or leader than Ajencis or Triamis, something Bakker has shown us are the epitome of their two areas in his universe, he goes the religious route to seize power. It’s the shortest path. Humans are hard-wired to create sacred objects and protect them. This goes back to the omnivorous dilemma. When humans find something that works for them, they elevate it. They don’t want it challenge. It usually is religion, which if you look at a lot of old ones you’ll see plenty of commandments about cleanliness and purity (i.e. protecting yourself from diseases and sicknesses). In modern times, with the destruction of so many traditional institutes like religion, people are taking up new ideas and substituting them in its place from politics and political leaders, to movements (progressivism, feminism, socialism, environmentalism) to clinging to the past (southern nationalism, white nationalism) and even intellectual pursuits (like science or skeptical philosophy). This need to create the sacred is ingrained in us, and if you can harness it, you can really control people.
In just a few days, things are normal again. Humans crave that stability “normalcy” brings and are quick to reestablish it when circumstances permit. It’s the anti-fragileness of our species. It’s what lets us survive tragedy and keep going, but only so long as it’s permitted to develop while we’re children.
Poor Serwë, forgotten. Not seen as worthy of being remembered. But like all of us, she’s only truly remembered by those who knew her, cared for her in life.
Eyes as pinpricks is a profound reminder about the limitation of our perspectives. It’s easy for us to forget that we’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s easy to think the best and worst of another person because we’re only seeing them through a few minutes on the news, through a post on social media, through the gossip of our peers. It’s easy to judge without knowing all the facts.
And that only leads to pain and suffering.
Achamian loves Esmenet. Because he can see that she’s better off with Kellhus. That the man gave her more than he ever could. He can recognize that without thinking ill of her. And now we see he wants her back. He’s in denial that he can reclaim her, win back her affections. And he does, but it’s not enough because she’s pregnant and as a mother, she chooses the situation best for her child.
The Dûnyain are good at showing the world they don’t make mistakes, that they are infallible. Even us readers can be tricked into thinking this about Kellhus despite the numerous mistakes he makes over the course of this series. Let alone his miscalculation at the end of the Unholy Consult (no, that was not part of his master plan what happened at the end of that novel.)
I think Achamian is realizing, on a subconscious level, that Achamian had seduced Esmenet. That she, like everyone else, had underestimated Kellhus and didn’t see his ulterior motive to seduce her until it was too late. Perhaps this is just something Achamian wants to be true to protect the pain in his own heart, to try and soften her betrayal by shifting it all onto Kellhus. After all, Achamian now wants to win her back. He can’t hate her, think her false, if that’s the case. He’s starting to come up with rationalizations for his irrational desire for Esmenet. And after all, nothing is more irrational than love. As Bakker showed us earlier in this series, the intellect is ever slave to desire, forced to justify our actions as we pursue what we crave through whatever means the intellect can use.
Achamian realizes that Kellhus doesn’t appreciate beauty. As Kellhus said when Achamian first sees the skin-spy bound to the apple tree that the tree was already dead. To Kellhus, using a dead tree to hold the creature was making use of something now useless. It’s in a convenient spot for him to access. He doesn’t think about the ascetics of it.
I’ve talked about before that hierarchy among men is one of submission. That human leaders don’t really seize power without consent. That they have people, often armed men, who have submitted to them, allowing them to dominate others. And by accepting their submission, the man seeking domination often finds himself submitting to the man who he leads because to maintain their acceptance as the leader, he has to give them something back in exchange, fulfill their wants and desires. So since all men submit, even me and you, to something, choose carefully what it is you’re submitting to. Think about why you’re doing something, understand it. That’s probably Bakker’s most important lesson he teaches in this series: you have a brain, use it critically.
And then he shows us that love is another form of submission, one that opens yourself up to injury and degradation. If you’re partner is playing testing games with you, probably means she doesn’t love you. Always a warning sign. Kellhus is laying the foundation of winning Achamian back to his side. But there’s one major doubt that Achamian has. Kellhus knew he lived and still took what Esmenet offered. It’s this doubt combined with Cnaiür’s revelation that forever shakes Achamian from seeing Kellhus as anything but a manipulator. A cold, calculating man who doesn’t care about the beauty of a garden when it could be more useful as a makeshift dungeon.
This chapter lays the foundation for the central conflict for the major characters of Kellhus, Esmenet, and Achamian and their love triangle, which I’m loathe to use, going forward in this book. Esmenet does still love Achamian, which is why she’ll start feeling guilty about everything, which is why she’ll come so close to abandoning Kellhus for Achamian.