Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
The Holy Warrior
…even though the skin-spies were exposed relatively early in the course of the Holy War, most believed the Cishaurim rather than the Consult to be responsible. This is the problem of all great revelations: their significance so often exceeds the frame of our comprehension. We understand only after, always after. Not simply when it is too late, but precisely because it is too late.
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
Isn’t that just the way it is? Only after the fact do we realize how long we were. By then, it is too late to fix. When we learn something, we always filter it through our personal beliefs and prejudices, putting intellectual blinders upon us. We have to make it something to fit our personal experience.
Late Spring, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn
Serwë endures another rape from Cnaiür He finishes and rolls off of her, allowing her to turn away and watch Kellhus sitting cross-legged reading a book by candlelight. “Why do you let him use me like this? I belong to you!” Serwë wonders.
Over the last two weeks since their harrowed flight from the Kidruhil, she had recovered, her bruises almost faded, the ringing in her ear gone. She still limps. More importantly, she still carried Kellhus’s baby. “That was the important thing.” Proyas’s physician was surprised to learn she hadn’t lost the baby and gave her a chime to sound to the Outside. But Serwë didn’t need it. “The Outside had entered the world, had taken her, Serwë, as his lover.”
Serwë reflects on moving through the camp and all the warlike men staring at her beauty, wanting her. It thrilled, angered, and frightened her. Some called to her, mostly in foreign tongues, saying crude things. Sometimes she’d meet their eyes and think “I’m the vessel of another, one far mightier and far holier than you!” Most would look a way, but a few were like Cnaiür, emboldened by her defiance.
None dared molest her, however, she was too beautiful, she realized, not too belong to someone of consequence. If only they knew!
Only when she washed laundry at the river did Serwë truly appreciate how large the Holy War was. The banks of the Phayus was lined with women and slaves also doing laundry for as far as she could see while children played games. Serwë is stunned by the size.
I belong to this, she had thought.
And now, tomorrow, they were going to march into Fanim lands. Serwë, daughter of a tributary Nymbricani chieftain, would be part of a Holy War against Kianene!
To Serwë, Kianene was a threatening, mysterious name like Scylvendi. Living with the Gaunum family, she heard it spoke time and time again as the men discussed the political machinations between the Fanim and the Nansur Empire. To her, those distant places weren’t real, not like the gossip she shared with the other slaves. And now those unreal places would become real because events had “swept in cataracts through the narrow circle of her life, and now she walked with men who conferred with Princes, Emperors—even Gods.” Soon she would see all those far off places herself after Kellhus has heroically defeated them.
Kellhus would be the violent hero of this unwritten scripture. She knew this. With inexplicable certainty, she knew this.
But now he looked so peaceful, bent by candlelight over an ancient text.
She goes to Kellhus, asking what he reads, her voice horse and then she cries because of the rape, fearing she is took weak “to suffer him [Cnaiür]” like Kellhus wants. Then she apologizes as she cries, for interrupting his reading. She goes to leave, but Kellhus tells her to stay in her native tongue. “This was part of the dark shelter they had built between them—the place where the wrathful eyes of the Scylvendi could not see.” Hearing her native tongue makes her cry again.
“Often,” he continued, touching her cheek and brushing her tears into her hair, “when the world denies us over and over, when it punishes us as it’s punished you, Serwë, it becomes difficult to understand the meaning. All our please go unanswered. Our every trust is betrayed. Our hopes are all crushed. It seems we mean nothing to the world. And when we think we mean nothing, we begin to think we are nothing.”
Kellhus tells her, “You mean something, Serwë You are something.” He says even her suffering has a crucial role to play. She is stunned to hear this and then cries in his chest, held like a child. When he crying finishes, she feels shame for being so weak and pathetic. As he dabs at her tears, she realized he is also crying.
He cries for me… for me…
“You belong to him,” he said at last. “You are his prize.”
No,” she croaked defiantly. “My body’s his prize. My heart belongs to you.”
How had this happened? How had she been pried in two? She had endured much. Why this agony now? Now that she loved? But for a moment she almost felt whole, speaking their secret language, saying tender things…
I mean something.
Then Serwë realizes her tears have fallen on the book, smudging some of the words. She gasps, fearing she’s ruined it. “Many others have wept over this text,” answers Kellhus. She feels an intimate connection and brings his hand to her naked breast. She asks him to be with her and he finally relents. As she makes love to him, she gasps out in the direction of Cnaiür, glad he can see the rapture on their faces.
And she cried out as she climaxed—a cry of hatred.
Cnaiür lies still, listening to Serwë and Kellhus talking in Nymbricani after they finished making love, the image of “her perfect face, turning to him in anguished rapture” won’t leave his mind. The pair head outside to the campfire, leaving him alone in the dark As they talk, he hears Serwë sounding more mature than he has heard her, giving Kellhus something of her Cnaiür never had.
He lies in the darkness, holding his sword, staring at the flap. He turns his thoughts to the Men of the Tusk. He feels pride at the thought of leading them even though he knows he would really only be an advisor. Then he smirks at the name: Holy War. “As though all war were not holy.” He wonders what Kellhus would make of the Holy War. “Would he make it his whore? Like Serwë?”
Cnaiür knows this is part of the plan to kill Moënghus They need the Holy War to defeat his power. He wonders at his pity for the Inrithi, wanting to warn them when it was necessary for his vengeance for Kellhus to use them. Of course, Cnaiür wonders if Kellhus is lying to him. “Another way to pacify, to gull, to enslave?” What if Kellhus wasn’t an assassin and instead a spy for his father? Cnaiür doubts it is coincidence that Kellhus arrives just in time for the Holy War to march.
Cnaiür was no fool. If Moënghus was Cishaurim, he would fear the Holy War, and he would seek ways to destroy it. Could this be why he had summoned his son? Kellhus’s obscure origins would allow him to infiltrate it, as he already had, while his breeding or training or witchery or whatever it was would allow him to seize it, capsize it, perhaps even turn it against its maker. Against Maithanet.
But Cnaiür doesn’t understand why Kellhus spared him if that was true. Unless Kellhus knew about the dispute between Proyas and the Emperor. He wonders if Kellhus is in contact with Moënghus and wonders if he is like Xunnurit “blinded, chained beneath the Emperor’s heel.” He parts the tent flap, staring at the pair before the campfire. Rage seizes him. He is about to act, to claim Serwë back, when Kellhus moves and Cnaiür realizes he has lost the surprise.
Cnaiür let the flap fall shut, pinch golden light into blackness. Desolate blackness.
Achamian walks back to camp in a daze after leaving the Andiamine Heights. He comes back to his sense lying in the dust staring at his tent, Xinemus asleep before the fire, waiting for Achamian “to come home.” But Achamian doesn’t have a home, a place he could call his. He only had friends scattered about the world who “for some unaccountable reason loved him and worried about him.”
He lets Xinemus sleep, tomorrow would be a busy day, and heads into his tent. There he pulls out his parchment map and stares at the name THE CONSULT for a while. The he connects it to THE EMPEROR.
Connected at last. For so long it had simply floated in its corner, more the wreckage of ink than a mane, touching nothing, meaning nothing, like the threats muttered by a coward after his tormentor had gone. No longer. The bitter apparition had bared its knuckled flesh, and the horror of what was and what might be had become the horror of now.
This horror. His horror.
Why? Why would Fate inflict this revelation upon him? Was she a fool? Didn’t she know how weak, how hollow, he’d become?
Achamian knows it is a selfish question. The burden of knowledge had to fall on someone. Why not him. “Because I’m a broken man. Because I long for love I cannot have.” Achamian discards that thought. Unrequited longing was simply what it meant to be a man. He wonders when he started wallowing in self-pity and saw himself as a victim. “How had he become such a fool?”
He was chosen by Anagkë, the Whore of Fate, had selected him to carry this burden. He shouldn’t question it. And even if he does, it won’t change anything. He now had the duty to act. But fears creeps in him. Yes, he found the Consult, but what do they want? They were hidden, connected by “the single, tremulous line” to the Emperor which meant nothing except they were connected. He realizes skin-spies must be all over the Three Seas, possibly even in the Mandate.
Suddenly the name, “The Consult,” which had been so isolated from the others, seemed spliced to them in a terrifying intimacy. The Consult hadn’t just infiltrated factions, Achamian realized, they had infiltrated individuals, to the point of becoming them. How does one war against such a foe without warring against what they’ve become? Without warring against all the Great Factions? For all Achamian knew, the Consult already ruled the Three Seas and merely tolerated the Mandate as an impotent foe, a laughingstock, in order to further fortify the bulwark of ignorance that shielded them.
How long have they been laughing? How far has their corruption gone?
He wonders if the Holy War is the Consult and then realizes that Geshruuni, his spy in the Scarlet Spire, was killed and meant to be replaced by a skin-spy. The Consult would know about the secret war between the Scarlet Spire and the Cishaurim, which means Maithanet might be a consult spy, too, explaining how Maithanet would knew about the war between the two Schools. Achamian then looks at Kellhus name, still disconnected from the rest. Then he connects it to the Consult.
The man, Kellhus, who would be his student and his friend, was so… unlike other men.
The Anasûrimbor‘s return was a harbinger of the Second Apocalypse—the truth of this ached in Achamian’s bones. And the Holy War would simply be the first great shedding of blood.
Achamian is dizzy with the realization, his mind flitting to happier memories as he realizes “the Second Apocalypse is here. It has already begun.” And he was in its center. He wants to deny it, but he can’t. He is panicked, having trouble breathing, and tries to think through it, telling himself he is equal to the task. He thinks through what he knows, wondering why the Consult would want the Cishaurim destroyed. Then realizes that the Consult is following him, remembering the man in the market place who “seemed to change his face.” And that he led them to Inrau. And then to Esmenet.
On barges in the Meneanor outside Momemn’s harbor, the nobles of the Nansur meet, talking of “serious things” while their concubines have retreated below to gossip. As they talk, they mock Xerius’s new monument (the obelisk from earlier in the novel), calling it the “Emperor’s Cock.” They stare at the city as they laugh and observe how it has changed.
The Holy War has marched.
It was what they talked about. That and Xerius’s humiliation and how a Scylvendi commands it. The Great Names called Xerius’s bluff, and Conphas now marches with the legions anyways. But the nobles believe with Conphas in the field, the Emperor still might succeed. They toast to the promise of “the Old Empire restored!”
Somewhere distant, the Holy War traveled the roads between ancient capitals, a great migration of sturdy Men and sun-glittering arms. Even now, some claimed they could hear its horns faint through laughing voices and the stationary sea, the way the peal of trumpets might linger in ringing ears. Others paused and listened, and though they heard nothing, they shivered and rationed their words with care. If glories witnessed moved men to awe, glories asserted but not seen moved them to piety.
Poor, delusional Serwë Forever used by men, even by the one she loves. And that’s not Kellhus child, Serwë, as much as you might want it to be. Serwë is also the first, but won’t be the last, to see Kellhus as a god.
The Holy War marches with so many camp followers. Ancient and medieval warfare was like this. Soldiers took their wives and families campaigning, plus there were the inevitable prostitutes, slaves, laborers, and craftsman to provide for the host. It is hard not for anyone to be awed by the being a part of the Holy War.
Serwë having trouble imagining the distant places she heard about is real is a nice touch. Places outside our own experience never quite seem real when you only hear about them but don’t know much about them. They may as well be names from stories.
Serwë’s imagination of the Holy War’s future is full of glory, picturing Kellhus as this heroic figure he would be in traditional fantasy. Noble and always doing what was right, defeating the evil Fanim and the shadowy Padirajah. But this isn’t a normal fantasy. Kellhus isn’t noble and heroic. He is a man using the Holy War, subverting it to his purpose and not caring about the consequences others will suffer. There is only the Logos, the shortest way, for Kellhus.
Nothing worse than low self-esteem eating away at you, bringing you low, breaking you as everything gets worse and worse in your life. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle. One Serwë is trapped in and Esmenet spirals around.
Kellhus may use Serwë, but at least his lies bring her comfort. She doesn’t realize his tears are meaningless, just a ploy to manipulate her, but for the first time since her family sold her into slavery, she has worth. And now she is further under his spell. To her, Kellhus loves her and that is a powerful thing.
Serwë takes such joy in cuckolding Cnaiür It channels into her orgasm, rubbing salt into the wound. You can’t blame her for that.
Kellhus continues his manipulation of Cnaiür through Serwë It is the only weapon he has against Cnaiür It drives him out of the pavilion. Kellhus has plans to harness Cnaiür’s possessive love for Serwë He also prepares Serwë, cultivating the defiant streak we saw with her declaring her heart would always be Kellhus’s.
Cnaiür’s idea that Kellhus works for his father and that Moënghus fears the Holy War is flawed. He is describing how a normal human would work. But Moënghus is Dûnyain Kellhus left Ishuäl before Maithanet called for the Holy War. Before even the rumors of it. He left in fall of 4109 and Achamian wasn’t summoned to spy on Maithanet until Midwinter of 4110. So he left months early before rumors of an impending Holy War caused the Mandate to act.
Cnaiür’s paranoia about Kellhus is warranted. Only he is awakened to the threat that Kellhus is. He has to weigh everything on whether he can trust a man who will do anything to achieve his goal. Are their goals the same? Poor guy. He’s already half-mad.
Man, Xinemus is a great friend. I just want to say that.
I think we all, at times, wonder why our friends are our friends. What we’ve done to earn their concern and love.
Achamian comment on the Consult’s name being meaningless “like the threats muttered by a coward after his tormentor had gone” reminds me of Achamian himself. After Sarcellus hit him in the face, way back at the start of the novel when Achamian first arrived in Sumna, our sorcerer mutters how he could have destroyed Sarcellus with sorcery. Achamian does that a few times in the books. But never to the person’s face.
Why me? Don’t we all ask that selfish question? You can’t blame Achamian. He just had his world upturned. But the question always reminds me of David Eddings Belgariad series, where the protagonist asks that question all the time about why he has to save the world. It become a running joke and always makes me smile when I see it in a book.
Unrequited passion drives all of us. We all regret opportunities we didn’t pursue or ones we lost.
Achamian guesses what Simas and Nautzera already know at the start of the novel. Someone (the Consult) has compromised their spies. There can be no doubt that a skin-spy has infiltrated the Mandate.
Now Achamian is getting a taste of Cnaiür’s paranoia. What can he trust? And the idea that the Consult is in control of the Three Seas is terrifying. They clearly are in favor of the Holy War. Who else have they replaced? Not Xerius, but he is never alone or they may very well have. But Skeaös was the next best thing. It is a terrifying thought to realizes Achamian’s enemies might have already won and it is too late to do anything about it because it means fighting all of the Three Seas.
Is Maithanet a Consult spy? We don’t know much about him, except he came from Fanim lands, a faithful Inrithi, and has blue eyes despite being Ketyai (middle-eastern) like the Nansur or Achamian or Proyas. He definitely is suspicious.
I love Achamian trying to think throw his panic. He knows he’s freaking out and it is not productive. And then he hits on it. The Consult wants the Cishaurim destroyed and they have an interest in him. So why do they want them destroyed? What did the Cishaurim do recently that made the Consult fear them? Only one thing has really changed. Thirty years ago, a Dûnyain joined them. If Kellhus spotted a skin-spy after only a few minutes of study, what has Moënghus learned?
Even the most powerful men of the Nansur can’t resit making a dick joke. Bakker is always showing humans as we really are despite whatever airs we might gather or pomposity we might surround ourselves with.
The Holy War has marched. The Consult has been revealed. The Harbinger of the Second Apocalypse has arrived. The first book of Bakker’s metaseries is over.
The Darkness That Comes Before has a lot of work to do, balancing the world building with characterization and plot. Bakker has a world different from most Fantasy settings, eschewing medieval Europe for the Levant and the Byzantium Empire. He has to introduce us to his world, his magic, and the Dûnyain He seeds the story with little nuggets that only gleam once you’ve read far more. With the Darkness that Comes Before, he lays the foundation for the rest of the series. (Which so far numbers two series, this trilogy and its sequel quadrilogy, and one final series which cannot be named for spoiler reasons). Here we learn the philosophy of his series, Bakker brutal look on the darkest part of humans, and how this is a world where Fate might be a real thing, and Achamian may very well have been chosen for a reason.
It is a book that captivated me from the very moment I opened it sitting in the terminal of SeaTac International Airport. The very title caught my attention and just reading through the prologue hooked me. Bakker is a master of characterization and prose.
And we are only beginning to peel back all this series has to offer. Next up, The Warrior Prophet! (Can you guess who the title refers to?)