Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
Welcome to Chapter Three of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Two!
If the world is a game whose rules are written by the God, and sorcerers are those who cheat and cheat, then who has written the rules of sorcery?
—Zarathinius, A Defense of the Arcane Arts
That is a very good question. I wonder if Bakker will ever draw back the curtains on his universe. It seems to run on belief of the inhabitants of the planet. They believe in the supernatural, and the supernatural exists. But still, who wrote the rules for magic?
Early Spring, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, En Route to Sumna
On a boat in the storm tossed Sea of Meneanor, Achamian awakens from a Seswatha Dream. The dream is of a battle during the Apocalypse where the dragon Skafra fought Seswatha. It takes a moment for Achamian to separate the sounds of the storm from his dream of battle. Up on deck, the Nroni sailors prey to Momas, Aspect of storm and sea, and God of dice.
The boat reaches Sumna safely. From the ships railing, Achamian watches a pilot boat guide the ship to the docks. Achamian looks out at the great city and could see the Hagerna (Vatican) and rising in the center the Junriüma where the Tusk rested.
He [Achamian] could feel the tug of what should have been their grandeur, but they seemed mute in the distance, dumb. Just more stone. For the Inrithi, this was the place where the heavens inhabited the earth. Sumna, the Hagerna, and the Junriüma were far more than geographical sites; they were bound up in the very purpose of history They were the hinges of destiny.
Achamian remembers the awe Inrau spoke of this place and how Inrau’s enthusiasm alienated Achamian. This was why Maithanet should be feared: he spread certainty. Achamian could never understand how belief in the mysterious God could lead to an absence of hesitation.
The ship’s captain joins Achamian at the railing, and warns him about going into the city. The Nroni people had grown used to the Mandate, but they still were Inrithi and had to deal with the contradiction of helping heresy.
“They never know what we are,” Achamian said. “That’s the horrible fact of sinners. We’re indistinguishable from the righteous.”
“So I’ve been told,” the man [captain] replied, avoiding his eyes. “The Few can see only each other.” There was something disturbing about his tone, as though he probed for the details of some illicit sexual act.
Achamian remembers seeing processions of Mandate Schoolman as a child. He would watch them in awe, thinking these were the men of the Sagas. Mere months of training dispelled Achamian of this fantasy. Sorcerer’s were no different then fishermen, save the scale of their worries. The captain appears relieved to be called away by his crew which hurts Achamian a little.
Achamian’s thoughts turn to the Three Sea’s comparison between sorcerer’s and poet’s, which Achamian finds absurd. No sorcerer can create with his words, his only destroy.
“It was as though men could only ape the language of God, could only debase and brutalize his song. When sorcerers sing, the saying went, men died.”
And Mandate Schoolman are anathema amongst their own kind. The other schools are jealous of their possessing of Gnosis. Before the Apocalypse, the Great Schools of the North were taught sorcery by the Nonman Magi, the Quya. Achamian needed to remember that compared to most people, he was like a god, and that is why they hated them. Hate enough to fuel a Holy War.
The Chronicle of the Tusk, holy scripture of the Inrithi, recorded the migration of the Men of Eärwa in the distant past. The Ketyai tribe brought the Tusk to Sumna and the place has been sacred ever since, drawing pilgrims. Achamian finds Sumna more crowded then ever and learns that Maithanet has called the faithful and will reveal the object of the Holy War. Achamian realized the Quorum most have known this and had omitted it to manipulate him into coming to Sumna.
Later on, Achamian is lying in bed with Esmenet in her hovel. Achamian is have a relapse of the Fevers, a disease he contracted six years earlier and is not contagious. Bitterly, Esmenet says that is the same year her daughter died. They are silent for a while.
Esmenet is a prostitute in Sumna that Achamian had met. She was the first person Achamian had sought out when he arrived. The four years since he had last seen her, had changed her. She was more weary, her humor gouged by small wounds. Achamian confides in Esmenet his plans for Inrau. Esmenet was always good at nursing both the loins and the heart.
“I’ve spent my entire life among those people who think me mad, Esmi.”
She laughed at this. Though born a caste menial and never educated—formally anyway—Esmenet had always possessed a keen appreciation of irony. It was one of the many things that so distinguished her from the other women, the other prostitutes.
“I’ve spent my entire life among people who think me a harlot, Akka.”
Achamian smiled in the darkness. “But it’s not the same. You are a harlot.”
Esmenet giggles girlishly, which makes Achamian think this is just her act, that they really aren’t lovers, but that he’s just another client. Achamian asks if she thinks he is mad to believe in the Consult. She hesitates, before answering that she believes the question of the Consult exists. Achamian changes the subject back to Inrau. Esmenet says the two of them make a sad couple: the sorcerer and the harlot.
The next morning, Achamian finds Inrau in a tavern. Startled, Inrau warns Achamian to leave. Shrial Knights, holy warriors of the church, sit at a nearby table. Achamian greats Inrau warmly, letting Inrau know he is posing as his uncle. Achamian then tells Inrau the Mandate need him to spy on Maithanet.
“But you promised, Akka. You promised.”
Tears glittered in the Schoolman’s eyes. Wise tears, but filled with regret nonetheless.
“The world has had the habit,” Achamian said, “of breaking the back of my promises.”
Inrau objects. Maithanet is more the Achamian can understand. Some worship him, though he says Maithanet wishes only to be obeyed. That’s why Maithanet took his name, from mai’tathana. Inrau sees the confusion of Achamian face and explains it is Thoti-Eännorean (language of the Tusk) for instruction. Achamian wanders what the lesson is.
Achamian asks if Inrau is not troubled by Maithanet’s effortless rise. Inrau is thrilled. Maithanet is clearing out the corruption from the Thousand Temples. Achamian asks what Inrau will do if Maithanet declares against the Schools. Inrau is conflicted and Achamian finds his opening.
Achamian asks why Inrau, a Shrial priest, would go against the Tusk and the teachings of the Latter Prophet. Inrau replies the Mandate are different then the other schools. Inrau respects the Mandate mission and would grieve at Maithanet’s choice.
“Grieve? I don’t think so, Inrau. You’d think he’s mistaken. As brilliant and as holy as Maithanet may be, you’d think , ‘He hasn’t seen what I’ve seen!’ ”
Inrau nodded vacantly.
Achamian continues, Maithanet is the first Shriah in centuries to reclaim the preeminence of the Thousand Temples amongst the Great Factions. Every faction wants to know how Maithanet will instruct them with his Holy War. All of the Great Factions have sent their spies to minimize or exploit this Holy War. Achamian reminds Inrau the Mandate stand outside such petty concerns. It is an old spy trick, to make your recruit see it not a betrayal but a greater fidelity.
Achamian points out this is the best place for the Consult to be hidden. Achamian has conjured a story where Inrau is the only one who can save the Thousand Temples from the Consult. Inrau is almost convinced when the Shrial Knights in the tavern recognize him. Achamian tells to let him do the talking.
Lord Sarcellus, a Knight-Commander of the Shrial Knights, approaches the table and greets Inrau. Sarcellus asks if Inrau is being bothered by Achamian. Achamian plays the role of Inrau’s angry uncle, sent here by Inrau’s mother to chastise him. Achamian acts drunk and provokes Sarcellus. Sarcellus backhand’s Achamian, throwing him to the ground. Achamian cries out “murder!” and the tavern erupts in chaos. Sarcellus grabs Achamian and calls him pig.
Sarcellus lets Achamian go and rejoins his fellow knights. Inrau helps Achamian up and asks if he’s okay. Achamian assures him he’s fine. Achamian asks Inrau if he saw how he had worked Sarcellus to get him to leave. As Inrau pours Achamian another bowl of wine, a rage suddenly takes Achamian.
“The furies I could have unleashed!” he spat, low enough to ensure he couldn’t be overheard. What if he comes back? He glanced hurriedly over at Sarcellus and the other two Shrial Knights. They were laughing about something. Some joke or something. Something.
“The words I know,” he snarled. “I could have boiled his heart in his chest!”
Another bowl quaffed, like burning oil in his frigid gut.
“I’ve done it before.” Was that me?
Several days later, Achamian is standing in central square of the Hagerna with a massive crowd, waiting to hear Maithanet’s announcement about the Holy War. Inrau had agreed to spy without the use of cants. Not all of the Few became sorcerers. Some became priest and joined the College of Luthymae and used the “gift” to war against the schools. They would see the mark of sorcery the Cants would have left on Inrau and killed him.
The most the Compulsion would do was purchase time—that, and break his [Achamian’s] heart.
Perhaps this was why Inrau had agreed to be a spy. Perhaps he’d glimpsed the dimensions of the trap fate and Achamian had set for him. Perhaps what he’d feared was not the prospect of what would happen to him if he refused, but the prospect of what would happen to his old teacher. Achamian would have used the Cants, would have transformed Inrau into a sorcerous puppet, and he would have gone mad.
Days later, Achamian is the great square before the Thousand Temples awaiting the new shriah. The Summoning Horns blow and Achamian is reminded of Sranc war horns. A parade priests led Maithanet through the throng. Maithanet had come from the deep south, through the heathen lands of Kian. Maithanet’s outsider status helped him seize power. He was outside the corruption and the Inrithi loved him for that. Achamian wanders if the Consult figured this out, crafted Maithanet to fulfill this role. Maithanet begins his sermon, denouncing Fanimry as an affront to the God. Achamian finds himself moved by Maithanet’s voice.
“These people, these Kianene, are an obscene race, followers of a False Prophet. A False Prophet, my children! The Tusk tells us that there is no greater abomination than the False Prophet. No man is so vile, so wicked, as he who makes a mockery of the God’s voice. And yet we sign treaties with the Fanim; we buy silk and turquoise that have passed through their unclean hands. We trade gold for horses and slaves bred in their venal stables. No more shall the faithful beat down their outrage in exchange for baubles from heathen lands! No, my children, we shall show them our fury! We shall loose upon the God’s own vengeance!”
Maithanet declares Holy War upon the Fanim faith. The Cishaurim have made their den at the sacred heights of Juterum. The Faithful will take back Amoteu, the Holy Land, Shimeh, the Holy City of Inri Sejunes, and the Juterum, where the Ascension took place. The masses erupt in cheers.
Achamian’s fever strikes, and he has trouble standing as Maithanet speaks. The crowd, thinking he is having a religious experience, lifts him up and began bearing him forward to Maithanet like a mosh pit. Others in the crowd who also swooned are likewise being carried forward. Achamian is brought to the front and finds himself face to face with Maithanet’s retinue. Achamian recognizes one of the men with Maithanet as Prince Nersei Proyas of Conriya, his former student.
Proyas recognizes Achamian with disgust. Achamian tutored Proyas for four years in the non-sorcerous arts. Before either men can speak, Proyas is pulled aside and Maithanet stands before Achamian.
The multitudes roared, but an uncanny hush had settled between the two of them.
The Shriah’s face darkened, but his blue eyes glittered with … with …
He spoke softly, as though intimate: “Your kind are not welcomed here, friend. Flee.”
And Achamian fled. Would a crow wage war upon a lion? And throughout the pinched madness of his struggle through the host of Inrithi, he was transfixed by a single thought:
He can see the Few.
Only the Few could see the Few.
Proyas watches Achamian flee and is stunned and furious at seeing him here. Maithanet grabs Proyas’s arm and says they need to speak. Maithanet has Proyas follow Gotian, Grandmaster of the Shrial Knights, through the Junriüma. As they walk, Proyas can’t get over his outrage at a sorcerer, even one he loved once, here in this holy place. Gotian leads Proyas to the Tusk, a great horn of mammoth ivory carved with the scriptures.
Proyas falls to his knees and thanks Gotian for bringing him here. Proyas begins to pray. Maithanet joins him and Proyas sees Maithanet as his new teacher. Maithanet leads their conversation towards those who would pervert the Holy War. Proyas answers the Emperor and the Schools.
The Shriah turned his strong bearded profile to him, and Proyas was struck by the crisp blue of his eyes. “Tell me, Nersei Proyas,” Maithanet said with the voice of edict. “Who was that man, that sorcerer, who dared pollute my presence?”
Momas being the god of both sea and storm and dice is interesting (and amusing). Of course the patron god of sailors would be both about the sea and gambling, because even in modern times, sea voyages can be a gamble. Weather can change, ice bergs can drift, etc.
Sorcery in Bakker’s world is interesting. It is a sin because it cheapens the voice of the God. It uses the God’s power, but not for anything useful, but only to cause destruction. To mar the world with their imperfect use of that power. The religion of Bakker’s world is an interest mix of Judeo-Christian-Islam and paganism.
With the Tusk you have very Old Testament commandments, concepts of sin and damnation, mixed with near-east pantheism. Hundreds of gods and goddess, idolatry, temple prostitutes with the priestess of Giera, sacrifices, etc.
Then along comes Inri Sejunes who preaches something like the New Testament. The concept of all the gods and goddess are in fact the God made manifest in different aspects is like a hundredfold version of the trinity of Christianity. INRI is an acronym in Latin for Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews), which the roman soldiers wrote on Jesus’s cross when he was crucified.
And lastly comes Fane, wandering out of the Carathay Desert. Preaching a new version of the God—the Solitary God. Fane rejects the multitude of gods and goddess, saying there is only one God and he is not split into multiple aspects. Like Muhammad, Fane rejects the “trinity” of the previous religion. The desert tribesmen of Kian are converted and take the Holy City of Shimeh (Jerusalem), leading to the present Holy War which resembles the medieval crusades in many ways (including how Nansur [the Byzantines] clash with the War later in the story).
Achamian as one of the Mandate’s spies, is almost always in the company of men who fear and revile him. Whether they know he is a sorcerer or not. No wonder Achamian is jaded, to be constantly reminded because of his “gift” he is damned. Achamian has to take insults from lesser men, knowing full well the damage he could reek if he wanted to.
Esmenet is an interesting character. An intelligent, strong-willed woman born in a world that sees her as nothing more than an object to sate men’s lust. Women in the three seas fall into one of three role: the wife, the harlot, or the priestess (who practice temple prostitution). Women are marginalized and thought of as less then men. Esmenet is an underdog and you can’t help rooting for her.
Achamian and Esmenet’s relationship is very schadenfreude. They enjoy each other’s company on several levels. But, Esmenet’s occupation always causes a painful rift between them. Achamian always wonders if its the real Esmenet he is with or the act she puts on for her clients. Esmenet is hurt by the wary distance Achamian keeps her at because he is unsure.
Achamian’s fevers remind me of malaria. If you survive malaria untreated, or if the treatment fails to kill the parasite, you can have recurrences of malaria. The parasite can lay dormant in the liver for years. Malaria is also not contagious, like the Fevers Achamian has.
Inrau still seems to be his innocent self. He is as enamored by Maithanet as everyone else is. And on the surface, Maithanet seems great. He’s cleansed the heart of religion from its petty corruption, broke the church free from the yoke of the Nansur Emperor. What’s not to like? Oh, wait, he appeared out of know where from the south. The faithful Inrithi who walked out of heathen lands. That’s not suspicious. And now he calls a Holy War against the very place he just left. Oh, and he’s one of the Few and has blue eyes, not a Ketyai trait.
Achamian’s handling of Sarcellus is great. I love how he momentarily regrets having so many teeth as he provokes Sarcellus. There is also something sinister about Sarcellus. Bakker describes his white Shrial uniform to almost have no shadows, but Sarcellus face seemed to have more shadows then normal.
“How I’ve longed to do that pig,” the man [Sarcellus] whispered.
On a reread, the words Sarcellus hisses when he grabs Achamian are significant. In all, I love this scene. As a writer, I love a scene that serves multiple purposes. At once this introduces Sarcellus, a character important as the story develops, gives us a taste of his character (an asshole) while at the same time demonstrating Achamian’s quick wits and skill at acting. He manipulates Sarcellus into dismissing him, “playing his levers.”
Manipulation is a major theme of this series. The way Achamian uses his words to “open a safe place” to lead Inrau into betrayal is well handle. I’ve read that the CIA found there are four reasons why men turn spies on their country, organization, or faction. Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. Inrau is Ideology while earlier Geshruuni was definitely Ego. If someone is going to spy for Ideological reason, it means his handler [Achamian] would need to keep Inrau focused on that Ideology. To re-frame the betrayal in the terms of that Ideology.
Maithanet’s words in his sermon are so powerful, even jaded Achamian finds himself being moved by them. “Such a voice. One that fell upon passions and thoughts rather than ears, with intonations exquisitely pitched to incite, to enrage.”
In this chapter we meet both of Achamian’s former students. Nersei Proyas core dilemma is introduced here—he wants the world to be holy, and it’s not. What is it with Achamian’s former students and becoming faithful Inrithi?