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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Seven

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 2
The Emperor
Chapter 7
Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Seven of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Six!

The world is a circle that possesses as many centres as it does men.

Ajencis, the Third Analytic of Men

My Thoughts

Humans are very self-centered creatures. It’s right there in the word “self-centered.” I always do love Bakker’s philosophy he adds to the stories. Always making you think.

Early Autumn, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn

Conphas, accompanied by Martemus, is making his triumphal return to Momemn. He pauses at the Xatantius Arch, showing one of the previous empire’s great victories. Conphas thinks that by defeating the Scylvendi, he has outshined Xatantius. Beyond the Arch is the Scuäri Campus, a parade ground filled with Imperial Soldiers, representing every column of the Imperial Army. They are dressed in ceremonial armor and arrayed in neat phalanxes. Past the Campus was the Allosian Forum, the base of the Andiamine Heights.

Conphas saw his uncle awaiting them, a distant figure framed by the Forum’s might columns. Despite the imperial pageantry, he looked small, like a hermit squinting from the entrance of his cave.

Is this your first Imperial Audience-of-State?” Conphas asked Martemus.

The General nodded, turned to him with a faintly doddering air. “My first time in the Imperial Precincts.”

Conphas grinned. “Welcome to the brothel.”

Gilgaöl Priest, as customary, brought out basins of water. They smeared lion’s blood on his arms, while praying, cleansed his symbolic wounds. Conphas is surprised when Shrial Priest come out, anoints him with oil, and draw the tusk on his forehead in palm wine. They give him the title, Shield-of-the-Tusk. Conphas understands why his uncle did this. The Scylvendi were heathens like the Kian and thus his victory was part of the Holy War. Conphas thinks Skeaös must be behind such a smart idea.

The elation Conphas felt after winning the Battle of Kiyuth was quickly lost by the journey back to Momemn. Conphas intended to line the road back to Momemn with Sclyvendi heads, but his cartographers argued about the exact distance back to capital and thus the proper spacing of heads. The Imperial Saik got involved, thinking that they knew better than the cartographers. This argument culminated in the murder of Erathius, an outspoken cartographer. The culprit could not be found, so Conphas exploited a loophole in the Martial Code to flay the most vocal individual of both factions.

Worst, when Conphas finally reached Momemn the day before, he found the capital surrounded by the Holy War. Instead of being greeted by adoring masses, a mob of Inrithi rioted and a pitch battle erupted. Conphas learns from an Imperial Officer about how his uncle is only supplying enough grain to keep them from starving until the Indenture is signed. The negotiations over the Indenture had turned bitter.

The Emperor,” the officer concluded, “is most heartened by your arrival, Lord Exalt-General.”

Conphas had nearly cackled aloud at that. The return of a rival heartened no emperor, but every emperor was heartened by the return of his army, particularly when he was besieged. Which was essentially the case. Conphas had been forced to enter Momemn by boat.

And now, the great triumph he’d so anticipated, the all-important recognition of what he’d wrought, had been overshadowed by greater events. The Holy war had dimmed his glory, had dwarfed even the destruction of the Sclyvendi. Men would celebrate him, yes, but the way their celebrated religious festivals in times of famine: listlessly, too preoccupied by the press of events to truly understand what or whom they celebrated.

How could he not hate the Holy War.

Finally, Conphas and Martemus cross the Campus, the soldiers kneeling as they pass. Behind him, Conphas’s bodyguard were bringing his captive while others lined his progress with Sclyvendi heads. Conphas looked for Istiya, his grandmother, but couldn’t see her. He knew she was there. Istiya had shaped Conphas to the man he was today, prepared him for greatness. Conphas suspected she was behind the trumped up charges against his father to make sure there would be no interference in Conphas taking the throne should Xerius die. Because of her efforts, everyone has seen him as the Imperial Heir, and even if Xerius had a son that “didn’t drool or require diapers into adulthood” nothing could overturn that perception.

She [Istiya] had done so much that he could almost love her.

As Conphas approaches his uncle, he sees the crown of Shigek on his brow. No emperor has worn the crown since Shigek was lost to the heathens three centuries ago. Conphas thinks his uncle is presumptuous. Conphas thinks his uncle fears him and means to kill him. Conphas has become to powerful and is a threat. Conphas knows his uncle desires to control the Holy War, to reclaim the provinces lost, and to be remembered as a great Statesman-Emperor like Caphrianas the Younger. As long as Conphas convinces Xerius he is still useful to that goal, Xerius won’t touch him.

He had always hated his uncle—even as a child. But for all the contempt he bore him, he’d learned long ago not to underestimate him. His uncle was like those uncommon drunks who slurred and staggered day after day yet became lethally alert when confronted by danger.

Conphas wonders what Xerius is thinking, and asks Martemus his opinion. Martemus points out that Conphas knows him better. Conphas asks if he should be afraid. Martemus answers yes. Conphas knows that Martemus speaks truthfully, so wants to know why he thinks Conphas should be afraid. Martemus answers if he was emperor he would fear Conphas. What emperors fear, emperors kill is provincial wisdom. Conphas disagrees. Xerius has feared Conphas for years, but only new fears provoke Xerius to murder because he fears everybody.

Martemus points out that Conphas now has the armies loyalty. Every soldier on the parade ground would fight for him. That is something new for Xerius to fear. Conphas is stunned to realize that he could rebel right here and now and begins to consider it. Conphas disagrees because of the Holy War. Martemus asks if the emperors greed will outweigh his fear. Conphas thinks it will. Martemus thinks its a gamble and will throw his lot in with Conphas.

As they climb the stairs to where Xerius waits, Conphas begins to consider rebellion. Conphas is a planner, but he knows that sometimes opportunities must be seized. As Conphas reaches his uncle, he realizes his ceremonial dagger could kill Xerius. He greeted by his uncle and he fails to kneel and kiss Xerius’s knee. Conphas has made the decision to kill him and have his men secure the capital.

Conphas presents his captive, Xunnurit, the former King-of-Tribes. Xerius is pleased, promising to blind Xunnurit and chain him to his throne like the High Kings of Kyraneas did in the past. Conphas spots his grandmother and notices something is different about her.

Conphas catches Martemus gaze and nods. Conphas is patiently waiting the moment when Xerius will embrace him so he can strike and kill his uncle. Conphas brings up the fact the Holy War attacked his men. Xerius is dismissive, saying the matter has been concluded. Xerius says tomorrow they will go upriver to see his new monument and tells Conphas to be patient, that this isn’t the Kiyuth and things are not as they seem. Conphas is baffled by that statement.

As though the matter were utterly closed, Xerius continued: “Is this the general you speak so highly of? Martemus, is it? I’m so very pleased he’s here. I couldn’t ferry enough of your men into the city to fill the Campus, so I was forced to use my Eothic Guard and several hundred of the City Watch.”

Though stunned, Conphas replied without hesitation, “And dress them as my … as army regulars?”

Of course. The ceremony is as much for them as for you, no?”

His heart thundering, Conphas knelt and kissed his uncle’s knee.

The next day, Xerius, Istiya, and Conphas are on the Imperial barge heading up the River Phayus to see Xerius’s new monument. Istiya is impatient and Xerius is pleased by her annoyance. The monument is going to be transported to the capital down the river today from the basalt quarries of Osbeus.

The entire trip, Istiya has been fawning over Conphas, telling him all the sacrifices she had made for him, including an albino lion who’s hide she has made into a cloak for him. “A suitable gift for the Lion of Kiyuth.” Conphas plays along with his grandmother’s flattery, thanking her and crediting her with their success. Xerius finds the entire exchange grating and knows Istiya does it to annoy him. Istiya proclaims Conphas to be greater than any Exalt-General in the empire’s history.

What is she trying to do? Istiya had always goaded him, but never had she pressed her banter so close to sedition. She knew Conphas’s victory over the Scylvendi had transformed him from a tool into a threat. Especially after the farce at the Forum the previous day. Xerius needed only to glimpse at his nephew’s face to know that Skeaös had been right. There had been murder in Conphas’s eyes. If not for the Holy War, Xerius would have ordered him cut down on the spot.

Istiya had been there. She knew all this, and yet she pushed further and further. Was she …

Was she trying to get Conphas killed?

Conphas is uneasy at his grandmother’s statement and Xerius wanders if he really is uneasy, or if Conphas and Istiya plotted together. The barge suddenly strikes a bar in the river, getting stuck. Xerius berates the captain who looks scarred to death. Conphas is enjoying the embarrassment this causes Xerius. Xerius orders the Captain to man the oars as punishment. The barge remains stuck and Xerius decides they’ll await his monument’s arrival here.

Skeaös suggest they await the arrival of the monument from the aft galley of the barge. While Skeaös points out that this will allow a breathtaking view of the passing monument, Xerius knows Skeaös is saving the Emperor from being witnessed by his subjects on a stuck boat.

As they wait, Conphas makes small talk, asking how Xerius’s new wife, Conphas’s half-sister, is doing. Xerius answers she is satisfactory. Istiya points out she hasn’t had a child yet. Xerius shrugs, saying he already has his heir. Angrily, Istiya says their won’t be an inheritance left. Xerius is surprised by his mother’s directness, attributing it to age, and warns her. Conphas intercedes, saying she means the Men of the Tusk, who the empire is on the brink of open war with.

Istiya wants to know what Xerius plans are, pointing out the other Houses of the Congregate are worried. Xerius deflects her question. Xerius says Calmemunis has agreed to sign the Indenture tomorrow. Istiya asks what of Tharschilka and Kumrezzer, and Conphas is sure they will sign if Calmemunis does. Conphas knows the Men of the Tusk thing God is on their side and have no fear of the Fanim. Conphas’s realizes the first to arrive are the greediest and want to get their share of Fanim lands before anyone else arrives.

Istiya is horrified as Conphas explains these three lords will march right away, that until their liege lords arrive, they command the Holy War. Istiya demands Xerius not provision them. Xerius disagrees, he wants them to march. Conphas suggest the slaves be dismissed. Once they are private, Conphas asks if a deal has been made with the Padirajah.

Struck mute by astonishment, Xerius gaped at his nephew. How could he have known? Too much penetration, and certainly too much ease of manner. At some level, Xerius had always been terrified of Conphas. It was more than just the man’s wit. There was something dead inside his nephew. No, more than dead—something smooth. With others, even with his mother—although she to seemed so remote lately—there was always the exchange of unspoken expectations of the small, human needs that crotched and braced all conversation, even silences. But with Conphas there was only sheer surfaces. His nephew was never moved by another. Conphas was moved by Conphas, even if at times in mimicry of being moved by others. He was a man for whom everything was whim. A perfect man.

But to master such a man! And master him he must.

Flatter him,” Skeaös had once told Xerius, “and be transformed into part of the glorious story that he sees as his life.” But he could not. To flatter another was to humble oneself.

Xerius demands to know how Conphas has learned of the agreement, threatening to send him to the Tower of Ziek. Conphas answers, it’s what he would do. The Kian need to know the the empire is not fanatics. Xerius doesn’t but it and demands again to know who told him. Conphas reveals Skauras told him. Conphas has maintained communication with his court since Conphas had spent time there as a boy as a hostage.

Istiya warns Conphas that Skauras is canny and would sow dissension amongst them. Istiya states the Dynasty is the most important thing, and Xerius is reminded of her when he was a boy, repeating that same phrase. Conphas states he is not a fool, to be tricked by Skauras. Istiya tries to reason with Conphas at the folly of allowing the first of the Holy War to be massacred by the Kian. Xerius states the empire will sacrifice the Holy War to get back the lost provinces.

Conphas finally understands. The first to arrive, other than those three greedy lords, are the vulgar masses. To lose a rabble of untrained fighters would just save the Holy War bellies to feed. It would also teach the other lords and the Shriah to fear the Fanim and thus their dependence of the empire would grow.

Istiya thinks its madness, they have the chance to destroy the Kian and instead Xerius plots with them. Conphas points out that Maithanet controls the Holy War now. He has done all he can to geld the empire by inviting the scarlet spire. Istiya demands to know what Xerius plans after the “herd is culled.”

What then? Our Shriah learns fear. Respect. All his mummery—all his sacrifices, hymns, and wheedling—will have been naught. As you said earlier, Mother, the Gods cannot be bribed.”

But you can.”

Xerius laughed. “Of course I can. If Maithanet commands the Great Names to sign my Indenture, to swear the return of all the old provinces to the Empire, then I will give them”—he turned to his nephew and lowered his head—“the Lion of Kiyuth.”

Splendid!” Conphas cried. “Why didn’t I see it? Thrash them with one hand in order to soothe them with the other. Brilliant, Uncle! The Holy War will be ours. The Empire will be restored!”

Desperately, Istiya asks for Skeaös opinion. Skeaös evades, saying its not his place to speak. Istiya flatters him, saying while she doesn’t like him, he gives sound counsel. Skeaös remains silent, and Istiya understands, saying Skeaös fears for his life, but she is an old woman and no longer cares. What Xerius has said so far doesn’t sound like enough payment to the Kian. Istiya wants to know where the useful part of the Holy War fails.

Xerius just says things go wrong in war. Istiya understands, the Holy War will fail before it reaches Shimeh. Xerius just shrugs and turns to the river as his monument floats by, a massive obelisk for the temple-complex of Cmiral.

His thoughts leaped. I will be immortal …

He returned to his settee and reclined, consciously savoring the flares of hope and pride. Oh, sweet godlike vanity!

Like an immense sarcophagus,” his mother said. Always, the asp of truth.

My Thoughts

Conphas is a narcissistic sociopath. He keeps Martemus around because the man wasn’t a sycophant. “Flattery was beneath his [Martemus] contempt. If the man said something, Conphas knew, it was true.” How could a man as great as Conphas imagines himself to be not find Martemus’s praise intoxicating. Conphas has to earn that praise. His reaction to the Holy War is to pout about how it spoiled his glorious arrival.

Martemus is the epitome of the practical soldier. While he doesn’t think in plots and intrigues, it is he who sees the potential of the assembled army. His simple statement almost caused Conphas to seize the throne for himself at that moment. This has always been a problem for empires, when your generals command your soldiers loyalty and then realize that they could make themselves into emperors.

Luckily for Xerius, Skeaös is not an idiot. The replacement of Martemus’s troops with Eothic Guards was brilliant. One of my favorite moments in the book. Conphas is reminded that Xerius is not out of moves yet and if Conphas wants to be emperor, he needs to stay in his uncle’s graces until then.

Xerius is also a bit of a narcissist. Maybe that comes with being an emperor and everyone telling you how important you are every walking moment. He’s very juvenile the way he wants to show off his new toy and annoyed about Istiya and Conphas not being nearly as excited as he was. Xerius, however, finds something wrong with Conphas personality, acknowledging that at least Xerius has some empathy, as opposed to Conphas who just cares about himself.

More hints that something has changed with Istiya. She seems very keen on the Holy War succeeding versus the Empire prospering by taking advantage of the Holy War. We also see why Xerius constantly refers to his mother as the “old whore.” The revelation that she would molest him as a youth would definitely skew that relationship. One wonders if she did the same to Conphas. This might explain his narcissism. During their banter, there may be hints of a more intimate relationship. Conphas compares her tutelage to having sex with women during his teenage years.

It is odd how Istiya, who is always talking about the dynasty, balks at the plan. This will strengthen the Empire while weakening their enemies. Instead, she’s afraid for her soul and death. This is the woman that convinced her son to murder her husband because he would make a better Emperor and who was behind the plot that saw Conphas’s father (her other son) to be executed just to make the succession clear for her skilled nephew. And yet she has serious issue with the plan. A plan Conphas, who is a brilliant tactician, finds great merit in.

Xerius paranoia shines in this section. The moment he fears there is a leak in his plan, he threatens Conphas with torture.

Xerius and Skauras agreement is interesting. Both get something, the Fanim get to survive and the Empire gets to recover some lost land. But not all of it. Shimeh was part of the Empire in the past. The Kian also get to satisfaction of stopping the Holy War from reaching their goal. A lot still needs to happen, and this new Shriah is very shrewd. This truly is a gamble for the Empire. If Xerius fail, the Holy War could very well be used to destroy him.

Istiya, of course, has to get the last word.

Click here to continue on to Chapter Eight.

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Six

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 2
The Emperor
Chapter 6
The Jiünati Steppe

Welcome to Chapter Six of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Five!

 It is said: a man is born of his mother and is fed of his mother. Then he is fed of the land, and the land passes through him, taking and giving a pinch of dust each time, until man is no longer of his mother, but of the land.

—Scylvendi Proverb

and in Old Sheyic, the language of the ruling and religious castes of the Nansurium, skilvenas means “catastrophe” or “apocalypse,” as though the Sclyvendi have somehow transcended the role of peoples in history and become a principle.

—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

My Thoughts

Bakker gives us some insight into both the Sclyvendi world view and how the Nansur Empire views them. The Scylvendi equate manhood with being completely divorced from his mother. He has left her behind and found a new mother, the land.

As we learned in the last chapter, whenever the Scylvendi tribes unite, an empire dies. No wonder their name has become synonymous with catastrophe the way the Vandals became synonymous with destruction to the Romans.

Early Summer, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Jiünati Steppes

Cnaiür urs Skiötha approaches the King-of-Tribes and other clan leaders on a ridge overlooking the Nansur’s army. Cnaiür studies the group, half-expecting to hear insults and snide comments thrown at him.

Why would they disgrace me like this?

But he was not a child. He was the many-blooded chieftain of the Utemot, a seasoned Sclyvendi warrior of more than forty-five summers. He owned eight wives, twenty-three slaves, and more than three hundred cattle. He had fathered thirty-seven sons, nineteen of the pure blood. His arms were ribbed with the swazond, ritual trophy scars, of more than two hundred dead foes. He was Cnaiür, breaker-of-horse-and-men.

I could kill any of them—pound them to bloody ruin!–and yet they affront me like this? What have I done?

But like any murderer, he knew the answer. The outrage lay not in the fact of his dishonour but in their presumption to know.

The chiefs all were dressed mismatched armor, looking like they came from a large variety of nations and ages. Some wear Kianene helmets, marking them veterans of Zirkirta. “Only their scarred arms, stone faces, and long black hair marked them as the People—as Scylvendi.” Xunnurit was elected King-of-Tribes.

Cnaiür watches a warrior fire an arrow and realizes they measured distances and were planning the assault without him. Cnaiür rides up and looks down at the Nansur. They were camped on the banks the River Kiyuth and were building fortifications. When Cnaiür first saw the Nansur army digging in on the Steppes, it filled him with anger. Now, he feels foreboding.

Cnaiür demands to know why he wasn’t summoned. Xunnurit, with “undisguised contempt” says he was. There had been instant dislike between Cnaiür and Xunnurit when they met five days ago. Cnaiür states it would be juvenile to attack. The rest of the chiefs murmur disapproval. But Cnaiür’s many swazond demanded respect. Xunnurit disagrees with Cnaiür, saying the Nansur defile the hallowed land. He asks if Cnaiür wants to parlay and pay tribute to Conphas.

Cnaiür wants to wait. To starve out Conphas and force him to attack the Scylvendi out of desperation instead of attacking Conphas on the ground of his choosing. The older chiefs, Cnaiür observed, saw the wisdom in his words. Xunnurit was unimpressed, demanding to know what Cnaiür would do if he found his wife being raped in his yaksh. Attack at once, or wait for a better tactical situation. Sneering, Cnaiür says this is different. Xunnurit asks, if this is what the memorialist tell them.

It wasn’t so much the man’s cunning that shocked Cnaiür as the realization that he’d underestimated him.

Xunnurit’s eyes flashed with triumph. “No. The memorialist say that battle is our hearth, earth our womb, and sky our yaksh. We’ve been violated, as surely as if Conphas had quickened our wives or cracked our hearthstone. Violated. Desecrated. Humiliated. We’re beyond measuring tactical advantage, Utemot.

Cnaiür points out eight years ago at Zirkirta, the tribes feel back from the Kianene, slowly bleeding them, before crushing them. Xunnurit tries to protest that this is different, and Cnaiür asks how this battle can be like a hearth, and not like Zirkirta where patience was practiced. Oknai One-Eye, Chieftain of the Munuäti, points out that the droughts began soon. Herds must be taken to summer pastures. The Scylvendi cannot wait long. Xunnurit jumps on this, pointing out Conphas’s large baggage train he brought. He might be able to last six months.

Cnaiür sees the worry in the other chiefs eyes. To long from away presented many hazards: herds could die, slaves revolt, wives wander, or for northern tribes (like Cnaiür’s), Sranc. Cnaiür realized, even if the others knew it was foolish, the pressure to act swiftly were to great. All eyes turns to Cnaiür.

Had Ikurei Conphas intended this? It would be easy enough, he supposed, to learn the different demands the seasons placed on the People. Had Conphas deliberately chosen the weeks before the summer drought?

The thought dizzied Cnaiür with its implications. Suddenly, everything he had witnessed and heard since joining the horde possessed different meanings: the buggery of their Scylvendi captives, the mocking embassies, even the positioning of their privies—all calculated to gall the People into attacking.

Cnaiür says Conphas has brought all these supplies to fight a war of patience. Xunnurit exclaims, that is why they must attack, before hunger forces the People to disband. Cnaiür disagrees, he plans to wait until hunger forces the People to attack him. Xunnurit mocks him, saying the Utemot are far removed from imperial lands and do not know the political situation. Conphas has grown to popular. The Emperor sent him hear to his death.

Cnaiür, in disbelief, retorts the cream of the Imperial Army is here. The elite cavalry, Norsirai auxiliaries, and even Eothic Guard. The Empire must have been stripped to assemble this host. Xunnurit disagrees, the memorialist speak of other Emperors who did this. Cnaiür points out the current Empire is besieged and could not afford to lose this army. Xunnurit jumps at this. Once this army is destroyed, they could sweep the Nansur Empire, like their fathers of yore. Cnaiür continues his protest, but the others begin mocking him.

Cnaiür could smell it then, the good-humoured camaraderie that amounted to little more than a conspiracy to mock one and the same man. His lips twisted into a grimace. Always the same, no matter what his claim to arms or intellect. They’d measured him many years ago—and found him wanting.

But measure is unceasing…

Cnaiür continues to try to reason with them. He explains that Conphas has gambled on the People making the mistake of attacking his fortifications. He is counting on the People to do what they always have done. The only way to defeat him, is to not play his game. To wait. Xunnurit openly mocks Cnaiür now, calling him “Time-killing Cnaiür.” The other chiefs join Xunnurit laughter. Their laughter falters under Cnaiür’s murderous glare. Nervously, Xunnurit says tomorrow they “shall sacrifice an entire nation to the Dead-God.”

The next morning, Cnaiür prepares for battle. He wonders why Conphas had provoked the People. The were fractious by nature, and few things could unite them. Invading the steppes is one way. Conphas had just created a great threat for the Empire and Cnaiür knew all was not as it seemed. Cnaiür could not grasp Conphas’s goal for doing this.

Cnaiür leads his tribe up the ridge, looking down at the lines of the Imperial Army, forming up in phalanxes between the river and their fortifications. Calvary were poised to harass any Sclyvendi crossing the river. Horns blared, and soldiers pounded weapons on shields. Cnaiür studies the assembled Imperial Army and is unsurprised to see them deployed between their camps and the river, instead of at the river. This would change the Scylvendi battle plan.

Cnaiür is startled out of his thoughts by Bannut, his uncle. Bannut wonders why the deployed so far from the river, allowing the People to charge them once they cross. Cnaiür thinks Conphas wants a decisive battle. There will be no room to maneuver once they cross the river. Bannut thinks the Nansur are mad, and Cnaiür remembers the Kianene had tried a similar tactic at Zirkirta and failed. Cnaiür doesn’t think Conphas is mad though. He sends Bannut to find out what Xunnurit wants the Utemot to do. Bannut takes Yursalka, who married Xunnurit’s daughter, with him.

Xunnurit signals the assault. As the Scylvendi ride their horses to the river, Bannut and Yursalka return from Xunnurit. They inform Cnaiür the Utemot are to take the southernmost ford and form up before the Nasueret Column, the Ninth Column. They are rumored to be the best. Cnaiür thinks Xunnurit means for the Utemot to be killed.

The Scylvendi begin to ford and drive back the Imperial Skirmishers. The first to cross began to fire arrows at the Columns while the rest of the Sclyvendi cross. The Utemot cross, and form up before the Nasueret. Conphas allows the Sclyvendi to assemble without contest. Horsehair signals were passed, and the Sclyvendi made ready to charge.

Bannut informs Cnaiür he will be measure today. Cnaiür is surprised that the old warrior would bring up old wounds and furiously confronts him. Bannut says this is the best time to revisit the past. Worries beset Cnaiür, but there was no time to think. “The pilgrimage had ended; worship was about to begin.”

Signals are sent, and the Scylvendi begin their assault. When they reach the Nansur bow range, they charged. Arrows fall on the Utemot and some died. Before them, pikes were readied to meet their charge. “War and worship!” is the Utemot battle cry. A pike takes Cnaiür horse in the chest and he dives off his mount.

The Nansur ranks were unbroken, and his kinsmen died. Cnaiür glanced behind him, expecting to see the second wave of Utemot and saw his tribesmen watching the slaughter from safety. Cnaiür realizes treachery and searches for Bannut. He finds him fighting with a Nansur soldier and Cnaiür kills the soldier with a javelin. Cnaiür demands to know what is going on. Bannut answers, they made a deal with Xunnurit.

Killed you! Killed the kin-slayer! The weeping faggot who’d be our chieftain!”

Horns blared through the uproar. Between heartbeats, Cnaiür saw his father in Bannut’s grizzled face. But Skiötha had not died like this.

I watched you that night!” Bannut wheezed, his voice growing more pinched with agony. “I saw the truth of what”—his body cramped and shook about a wracking cough—“what happened those thirty years past. I told all that truth! Now the Utemot will be delivered form the oppression of your disgrace.”

You know nothing!” Cnaiür cried.

I know all! I saw the way you looked at him. I know he was your lover!”

Cnaiür is shocked to learn his people think he is gay and a weeper. Cnaiür boasts of all the men he has killed, more than any other. “I’m the measure of disgrace and honour. Your measure!” Cnaiür yells, as he strangles Bannut, like a slave, until he dies. Cnaiür grabs his sword and rallies the few Utemot left alive from the charge.

The Nansur ranks advanced and charged Cnaiür his men. Cnaiür kills the first soldier and, in the Nansur “womanish tongue,” demands to know who’s next. Cnaiür continues to taunt and kill the Nansur soldiers, fighting with a feverish skill. The soldiers envelop Cnaiür and his Utemot, but they falter before the ferocity of the Scylvendi. More Scylvendi charge into the ranks of soldiers. Finally, the Nasueret Column breaks and flee.

While his tribe cheered their victory, Cnaiür climbed a low knoll to survey the battle. The Nansur camp was already burning, and several columns were isolated from the center. Cnaiür sees chaos at the center. Xunnurit has been pressed back to the river by Eothic Guards and other columns Cnaiür does not recognize. Cnaiür looks for the Kuöti and Alkussi tribes and sees them on the wrong side of the river being attacked by Kidruhil, elite cavalry. Cnaiür spots a perfectly formed column bearing the standards of the Nasueret.

Cnaiür is confused. The Utemot had just routed the Nasueret, so how could they be marching to the north? And Cnaiür was sure the Kidruhil were on the right flank of the Nansur formation, a position of honor, not across the river. Balait, Cnaiür brother-in-law and someone he respects, brings him a fresh horse and tells him they need to reform to strike again.

Something is wrong, though. Cnaiür explains that Conphas has conceded the flanks to the Scylvendi and to hold the center. He had used false banners to trick the Scylvendi into thinking the best soldiers were on the flank, not the center. Balait thinks Conphas means to kill Xunnurit and those throw the People into confusion. Cnaiür disagrees, saying Conphas is to smart for that. Cnaiür studies the battle, trying to figure out Conphas’s plan.

Cnaiür realizes Conphas’s plan. The Scylvendi had deployed their Chorae bowman behind their center. Conphas has either destroyed them or routed them and is now free to unleash a School upon the Scylvendi. Cnaiür tells Balait to flee. From the sky, descended two dozen Imperial Saik Schoolmen who unleash sorcery on the Munuäti. The entire battle was a trap to deny the Scylvendi their Chorae. Cnaiür grabs his Chorae from beneath his breastplate.

As though walking across the back of roiling smoke and dust, a Schoolman drifted toward them. He slowed, floating the heights of a tree-top above them. His black silk robe boiled in the mountain wind, its gold trim undulating like snakes in water. White light flashes from his eyes and mouth. A barrage of arrows winked into cinders against his spherical Wards. The ghost of a dragon’s head ponderously ascended from his hands. Cnaiür saw glassy scales and eyes like globes of bloody water.

The majestic head bowed.

He turned to Balait, crying, “Run!”

The horned maw opened and spewed blinding fire.

Teeth snapped. Skin blistered and sloughed. But Cnaiür felt nothing, only the warmth thrown by Balait’s burning shadow. There was a momentary shriek, the sound of bones and bowels exploding.

Around Cnaiür lies the cooked remains of many Utemot. Cnaiür routs. He spots Yursalka fleeing with a band of Utemot. Yursalka ignores Cnaiür’s cries for help. The Kidruhil begin to fan out and harry the routing Scylvendi. Cnaiür continues to run, reaching the river, and sees Yursalka and the Utemot on the other side. Cnaiür struggles to cut off his armor so he can swim the river, when he is struck in the head and is knocked unconscious.

When Cnaiür awakes, he lies in the river mud. It is night, and Cnaiür hears group of Nansur’s combing the dead for loot and killing any survivors. Cnaiür buries his Chorae in the mud beneath him, smears some dried blood on his face from a corpse, and fills his mouth with mud. When the looters reach him, they think he’s dead and quickly loot his body, moving on.

Cnaiür passes out again, and when he awakens it is morning. The first thing he does is dig up his Chorae. Cnaiür climbs up the riverbank and surveys the battlefield. He realizes the Nansur have humiliated the Scylvendi on their own territory. Anger fills Cnaiür. He had warned the chiefs and they had laughed at him. Cnaiür realizes they were all dead. The Scylvendi had been massacred. The People of Lokung, vengeance made flesh and bone, dead.

And by the Nansur! Cnaiür had fought too many borderland skirmishes not to respect them as warriors, but in the end he despised the Nansur the way all Scylvendi despised them:as a mongrel race, a kind of human vermin, to be hunted to extinction if possible. For the Scylvendi, the mention of the Empire-behind-the-Mountains summoned innumerable images of degradation: leering priests groveling before their unholy Tusk; sorcerers trussed in whorish gowns, uttering unearthly obscenities while painted courtiers, their soft bodies powdered and perfumed, committed earthly ones. These were the men who had conquered them. Tillers of earth and writers of words. Men who made sport with men.

Cnaiür begins to weep, and remembers the accusation of Bannut, that he was a weeper and a faggot. Cnaiür realizes his suspicions these thirty years were correct. His people had secretly hated him and slandered him behind his back. Cnaiür begins to scream out loud at his demons.

Cnaiür’s outburst is interrupted by the sound of voices. Cnaiür deduces that two officers approach. They are Martemus and Conphas. Conphas is explaining to Martemus why his plan worked. Conphas had studied the Scylvendi, reading everything he could find on them. He even had agents steal records from the Fanim. Conphas learned that in thousands of years, the Scylvendi battle tactics have not changed. “The Scylvendi are just as philosopher Ajencis claimed: a people without history.”

Martemus points out that any illiterate people would be without history. Conphas explains that even illiterate people would change over the years. But the Scylvendi are two obsessed with custom. Martemus thought Conphas’s plan was folly, and only his faith in Conphas kept him loyal. Conphas and Martemus banter about whether Conphas should fully explain his plan. Cnaiür begins to formulate plans on how to murder the pair. Finally, Conphas explains why they won.

As I said, the Scylvendi are obsessed with custom. That means they repeat, Martemus. They follow the same formula time and again. Do you see? They worship war, but they have no understanding of what it truly is.”

And what, then, is war truly?”

Intellect, Martemus. War is intellect.”

Conphas spurts his horse ahead and Martemus follows. Cnaiür hears Conphas order Martemus to collect all the Scylvendi heads. Conphas plans on lining the road to the capital of with spiked heads.

Cnaiür wonders what to do now. The Scylvendi were dead, and Cnaiür lies down amongst them. He remembers the death of his father, Skiötha. Like many other times, the leaders of the Utemot were gathered in the White Yaksh of the clan chief. A blonde Norsirai man, found abandon on the steppes and taken as a slave, challenges Skiötha to a wager. Skiötha is taken aback by a slave challenging him, speaking his name. Cnaiür had a role to play, and asks his father if he’s scared. Skiötha, stung, asks the slave his wager.

And Cnaiür is gripped by the terror that he might die.

Fear that the slave, Anasûrimbor Moënghus might die!

Not his father—Moënghus …

Afterward, when his father lay dead, he had wept before the eyes of his tribe. Wept with relief.

At last, Moënghus, the one who had called himself Dûnyain, was free.

Some names mark us so deeply. Thirty years, on hundred and twenty seasons—a long time in the life of one man.

And it meant nothing.

Some events mark us so deeply.

Cnaiür flees the battlefield under the cover of dark, haunted by the dead.

My Thoughts

Wow, you do not often get barbarians with an inferiority complex. The entire chapter is Cnaiür paranoid about people talking behind his back, making fun of him. Thinking everyone knows the truth that he murdered his father to became the Utemot Chieftain through dishonour. And then, in the midst of battle, to find out just how much his people hate him. To learn that they knew the entire shameful story. Cnaiür had conspired with his male lover to assassinate his father. To the Scylvendi, nothing could be worse.

And then through shear, hateful determination, Cnaiür has thrived as Chieftain. He has slain all rivals. Cnaiür so hates himself for what he did, he constantly strives to prove how great a Scylvendi he is. He has more swazond than any other. He is the greatest Scylvendi warrior. And yet, all that battle prowess is not enough. He is still the “faggot weeper” to his people. Nothing he does will ever change that.

When Cnaiür sees Conphas’s army, he senses something is off. He wants a siege, but the Scylvendi people clearly are not a patient group. The young burn with the anger at what Conphas has done to them: defiled both their holy steppes as well as their captured comrades. The Scylvendi are arrogant. For two thousand years, no army has ever stood up to all the clans united. And never on the steppes.

In the battle, we see why the Scylvendi are so feared by the Nansur. We have Cnaiür and the small handful of Utemot that survived the first charge, all on foot, fighting in a circle and driving back the soldiers. They are so effective that Yursalka can no longer hold back the rest of the Utemot, who charge in and rout the soldiers. That hateful determination of Cnaiür really comes into play here. He’s not going to let his tribes treachery kill him.

And then we see why sorcerer’s are really hated and feared. Once their Chorae bowman are scattered, it takes only two dozen Imperial Saik to massacre the Scylvendi. It is a rout. Every man for themselves. In an hour, the power of the Sclyvendi is destroyed, perhaps to never rise again.

Cnaiür is one of the most complex characters I’ve read in genre fiction. A man combining wild passions and deep intellect. A violent man. A man who has driven himself mad trying to be what his people expect and still is rejected because the harder he tries, the weaker they see him. He has completely buried his true self with who he believes he should be.

No wonder he screams at his demons.

The battle scenes are immerse, putting you into the thick of it, the horror and the smells, the screams and the fear. Bakker understands ancient warfare and the tactics of the steppe hordes from our own world. The Sclyvendi fight like the Scythians against the Romans. The first battle of the Holy War has been fought and one by the Ikurei Dynasty.

The introduction of Conphas talking with his general, Martemus, is a great and hearing Cnaiür’s anaylsis confirmed demonstrates his intelligence. The two have a great back and forth. Martemus is a commoner who rose through the ranks of the army. Conphas almost treats him like an equal, and Conphas eventually confides his plans and explains his actions to Martemus. I also think its great that the People of War were brought done by careful scholarship and understanding war.

War is Intellect,” says Conphas. Remember those words when we get to the end of the novel.

We learn from Martemus, that he, and by extension the army, only followed Conphas on this crazy plan because he had faith in him. Now that Conphas has done the impossible, destroyed the Scylvendi threat for decades to come if not permanently, the army will be even more loyal. Emperor Ikurei should watch out. History shows that ambitious general with the armies loyalty can take an emperor’s throne.

And finally, we have mention of the story set out in the prologue. The Dûnyain have reentered the tale. Thirty years ago, Anasûrimbor Moënghus had passed through Utemot land. From what we saw with Kellhus and Leweth in the prologue, it must have been child play for Moënghus to seduce Cnaiür and use him against his father. Moënghus would not only need to escape the Utemot, but would need safe passage through the rest of Scylvendi lands. The Dûnyain are amazing fighters, but not even they can take on hundreds by themselves.

Click here to continue on to Chapter Seven!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Five

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 2
The Emperor
Chapter 5
Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!

The difference between the strong emperor and the weak is simply this: the former makes the world his arena, while the latter make it his harem.

Casidas, The Annals of Cenei

What the Men of the Tusk never understood was that the Nansur and the Kianene were old enemies. When two civilized people find themselves at war for centuries, any number of common interests will arise in the midst of their greater antagonism. Ancestral foes share many things: mutual respect, a common history, triumph in stalemate, and a plethora of unspoken truces. The Men of the Tusk were interlopers, an impertinent flood that threatened to wash away the observed channels of a far older enmity.

Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

My Thoughts

Casidas quote has a lot of truth in it from a historical perspective. The problem with hereditary rule is no matter how great the founder, one of his heirs will be an idiot. History abounds with weak rulers who messed up their own countries. Nero comes to mind, Nicholas II, John Lackland, Theodora, etc. And then there are the great kings of history: Julius Cesar, Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, Charlemagne, Cyrus the Great, Justinian. So the question is, what type of emperor is Xerius?

The question is answered by his behavior and self-importance.

I like how Bakker uses Achamian’s quotes to provide background so it won’t have to intrude in the narrative. It explains everything about the relationship between Xerius and Skauras, preparing us for the end of the chapter, and gives a historical perspective of events. Like I’ve said before, the Holy War has a lot in common with the Crusades, with the Nansur Empire standing in for the Byzantium Empire, who in our world had lost the Middle East and North Africa to the Muslims conquests and hoped to use the Crusades to regain their lost territory.

It did not work out well for Byzantium. They managed to linger on for another four hundred years until the Ottomans and their cannons struck down the famed Walls of Constantinople. We’ll see how well it works out for the Nansurs.

Early Summer, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn

Emperor Ikurei Xerius III sits in his audience hall waiting for the arrival of Lord Nersei Calmemunis, Palatine of Kanampurea, and cousin of Prince Nersei Proyas (whom we met in Chapter 3). Months have passed since the Holy War has been called, and thousands have arrived in Momemn to fight. These first arrivals were “low-cast freeman, beggars, and non-hereditary Cultic priest.” Nersei Calmemunis is the first of the Great Names to arrive. The Lords of the Inrithi would be the “keel and rudder of the Holy War.” Xerius intended to be the pilot.

While waiting, Xerius asks his Prime Counsel, Skeaös, if there was word of his nephew, Conphas. Skeaös answers no, but assures Xerius everything is going to be fine. Xerius orders Skeaös to address the court.

With a swish of his silken robes, the wizened Counsel turned tot he other functionaries assembled about the dais. For as long as Xerius could remember, he’d always been surrounded by soldiers, ambassadors, slaves, spies, and astrologers … For as long as he could remember, he’d been the centre of this scuttling herd, the peg from which the tattered mantle of Empire hung. Now it suddenly struck him that he’d never looked into any of their eyes—not once. Matching the Emperor’s gaze was forbidden to those without Imperial Blood. The though horrified.

Save for Skeaös, I know none of these people.

Skeaös instructs the court on how important this audience is. The Nansur Empire is the gateway of the holy war. While Xerius cannot tax or bar the Holy War, he can influence them. Today, Xerius must reveal nothing because the fate of his Empire is at stake.

Nersei Calmemunis enters the court. Xerius is suddenly filled with nerves and looks up at the sparrows that next and fly in the vaults of the court. The sight of the birds always calms his nerves. Grandiosely, Xerius greets Calmemunis. Calmemunis informally greets the emperor (after Conryian fashion) and inquires how Conphas’s war against the Scylvendi to the north is going. Xerius dismiss Calmemunis question, saying it is a simple expedition against the Scylvendi and nothing compared to the Holy War.

Xerius spies revealed that Calmemunis was feuding with Proyas, and the emperor needles Calmemunis with this information (forgetting that he was supposed to seduce Calmemunis, not harrass him, but Xerius’s anger at the informal greeting rules his actions). Calmemunis angrily denies the rumors. Xerius decides Calmemunis is an idiot and will be easily influenced. Finally, Xerius presets Calmemunis with his Indenture.

The Indenture states that the Nansur Empire has long fought the Kiani tribesman and has lost many provinces to them. In exchange for signing the Indenture and agreeing to return imperial land, Xerius will provide provision enough for any lord and his force to march south. Calmemunis is outraged, saying the Shriah said nothing about returning land to the Nansur Empire.

Xerius points out the great cost in supplying the Holy War and that the Nansur Empire needs to be repaid for that service. Calmemunis splutters in the outrage of having to give up whatever heathen lands he conquers.

The stocky officer at his [Calmemunis] side could bear no more. “Sign nothing, Lord Palatine! The Shriah, I wager, has heard nothing of this either.”

“And who would you be?” Xerius snapped.

“Krijates Xinemus,” the man said briskly, “Lord Marshal of Attrempus.”

“Attrempus … Attrempus. Skeaös, please tell me why that name is so familiar?”

“Certainly, God-of-Men. Attrempus is the sister of Atyersus, the fortress that the School of Mandate leases to House Nersei. Lord Xinemus, here, is a close friend of Nersei Proyas”—the old Counsel paused for the briefest of instants, no doubt to allow his Emperor to digest this significance of this—“his childhood sword trainer, if I’m not mistaken.”

Xerius realizes Proyas was not stupid enough to trust Calmemunis and sent Xinemus to babysit. Xerius rebukes Xinemus for breaking protocol. Xinemus ignores Xerius, and reminds Calmemunis they were warned the Emperor would try to play games with the Holy War. Calmemunis is furious when he realizes this. Angrily, Xerius orders Calmemunis to sign his indenture or he and his men will starve.

Calmemunis is incensed that Xerius would twist the Holy War to his own gains. Xerius begins to speak, when bird shit hits his face. Outraged, Xerius orders the Captain of his Eothic Guard, Gaenkelti, to kill the birds. Archers fire at the birds, and arrows and dead sparrows rain down amongst the court. Xerius is delighted to see Calmemunis and his retinue dodging arrows. Soon, all the sparrows are dead or dying.

An impaled sparrow had plopped onto the steps midway between him and the Palatine of Kanampurea. On a whim, Xerius pushed himself from his throne and trotted down the steps. He bent, and scooped up the arrow and its thrashing message. He studied the bird for a moment, watched it convulse and shudder. Was it you, little one? Who bid you do this? Who?

A mere bird would never dare offend an emperor.

He looked up a at Calmemunis and was seized by another whim, this one far darker. Holding shaft and sparrow before him, he approached the dumbstruck Palatine.

“Take this,” Xerius said calmly, “as a token of my esteem.”

Calmemunis and Xinemus storm out of the audience chamber. Xerius rubs at the bird shit on his cheek and wonders aloud what it means. Skeaös thinks he means Calmemunis reaction to the Indenture, and Skeaös reminds Xerius they expected resistance at first. Angrily, Xerius refers to the bird shit on his face.

“Good fortune,” Arithmeas, his favorite augur and astrologer, called out. “Among the lower caste, to be … ah, shat upon by a bird is a great cause of celebration.”

Xerius wanted to laugh, but he could not. “But being shat upon is the only fortune they know, isn’t it?”

“Nevertheless, there’s great wisdom to this belief, God-of-Men. Small misfortunes such as this, the believe, portend good things. Some token blight must always accompany triumph, to remind us of our frailty.”

His cheek tingled, as though it too recognized the truth of the augur’s words. It was an omen! And a good one at that. He could feel it!

Again the Gods have touched me!

Xerius is relieved, and Arithmeas talks about an excellent conjunction between the star Anagke (Xerius star, the Whore of Fate) and the Nail of Heaven. Xerius motions for Arithmeas to follow him out onto the terrace. The palace was built on the Andiamine Heights and all of Momemn is laid out before the Heights. Xerius looks out at the city and asks Arithmeas if he will own the Holy War. Nothing is certain, answers the augur who then gives Xerius instructions on sacrifices to increase the odds. After Arithmeas finishes, Xerius’s mother walks up and dismiss the augur.

As the augur leaves, Xerius asks Arithmeas if he should wash his cheek. The augur says not for three days. Ikurei Istiya, Xerius mother, mocks him for listening to the babbling fool. Xerius notices something odd about her behavior lately and thinks she finally “glimpsed the divinity that dwelt within him.”

Istiya believes Xerius plan is stupid and doomed to failure if he can’t even get Calmemunis, an idiot, to sign it. She believes the Empire will be better off aiding the Holy War.

“Has Maithanet bewitched you as well, Mother? How does one bewitch a witch?”

Laughter. “By offering to destroy her enemies, how else?”

“But the whole world is your enemy, Mother. Or am I mistaken?”

“The whole world is every man’s enemy, Xerius. You’d do well to remember that.”

Istiya turns to Skeaös and asks him what he thinks of Xerius avarice. Xerius protests. Istiya explains it is avarice to try to assassinate Maithanet just because Xerius didn’t own him. And more avarice to try to destroy the Holy War because again Xerius doesn’t own it. Xerius objects, saying he doesn’t mean to destroy the Holy War. Istiya points out that fanatical, hungry, and warlike men are at his doorstep. They may raise arms against the Empire.

Xerius thinks how few provinces are still under his control, all those lost in the south to the Kian, and those in the north not settled for fear of Scylvendi raids. “Empire was the prize, not the wager.” Xerius explains to Istiya he plans on providing enough food to the Men of the Tusk to keep them from starving, but not enough to provision a march. Istiya asks what if Maithanet orders him to provide provisions. Xerius points out if he provisioned Calmemunis, the idiot would march immediately, certain he could destroy the Fanim. Maithanet will pretend to be angry but will secretly be thankful that Xerius’s plot allows time for the armies to gather. Why else did Maithanet set Momemn and not Sumna as the rally. Istiya asks Xerius if he is being used by Maithanet then.

Xerius no long underestimated Maithanet. The Nansur empire is doomed and Maithanet knows it. He fears the Scylvendi Tribes uniting and riding on the Empire. This was how the Kyraneas Empire and the Ceneian Empire had fallen two and one thousand years ago respectively. Xerius was certain Nansur would fall, and the Sclyvendi would retreat like they always did. Then nothing would stop the Kian from taking over the Nansur lands, including Sumna, the Thousand Temples, and the Tusk.

Istiya changes tactics and points out the lords will ignore you Indenture once they have taken the heathen lands. Xerius agrees but believes the Indenture will be useful. Istiya thinks about it and realizes that Xerius will use the Indenture to protect from Shrial censure when he reconquers land taken from the heathen by lords who signed his agreement. Istiya asks if that is why he sent his nephew, Conphas, to his death against the Scylvendi.

Finally, Xerius sees her true motive. Xerius has long suspected she means for Conphas, Xerius nephew and heir, to be a reformer for the empire. Istiya continues, saying to prosecute a war against the Men of the Tusk, he would need manpower. The Sclyvendi threat must be dealt with to free up the soldiers garrisoned in the north. Istiya calls his plan mad. Xerius says it is daring.

Daring?” she cried, as though the word had unlatched something deranged within her. “By the Gods, how I wished I’d strangled you in your cradle! Such a foolish son! You’ve doomed us, Xerius. Can’t you see? No one, no High King of Kyraneas, no Aspect-Emperor of Cenei, has ever defeated the Scylvendi on their ground. They are the People of War, Xerius! Conphas is dead! The flower of your army is dead! Xerius! Xerius! You’ve brought catastrophe upon us all!”

“Mother, no! Conphas assured me he could do it! He’s studied the Scylvendi as no other! He knows their weakness!”

“Xerius. Poor sweet fool, can’t you see that Conphas is still a child? Brilliant, fearless, as beautiful as God, but still a child …” She clutched at her cheeks and began clawing. “You’ve killed my child!” she wailed.

Xerius is panicked, and turns to Skeaös for reassurance. Skeaös says that Xerius has made a wager, and only time will tell. Xerius begins to calm himself down, reassuring himself that Conphas knows what he is doing. Xerius turns to his court, and sees fear. He tells them that men are frail and fallible but that he is Emperor, Divine. The court fall to their knees, but Istiya still protests, asking what happens when Conphas fails and the Sclyvendi come.

Xerius calls her old and fearful, her beauty withered away. Istiya, in a rage, tries to strike him but is restrained by her eunuch, Pisathulas. She shrieks that she should have killed him. Xerius orders her taken to her room and physicians to attend her.

After Xerius reassures his court again, Skeaös tells Xerius an emissary from the Fanim has been sent in reply to Xerius request for a parlay. A Cishaurim. Everyone grows fearful at the mention of the heathen Sorcerer-Priest.

The meeting with the Cishaurim emissary is in a small courtyard. Xerius clutches his Chorae in his fist. Cememketri, the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, has joined him. Two other Imperial Saik sorcerers and twelve Chorae crossbowmen guard the emperor.

The Cishaurim is escorted in by the Eothic guards, the elite soldiers who guard the palace. Xerius is unnerved by the Cishaurim’s eyeless gaze. A serpent, like stories said, was wrapped around the Cishaurim’s neck. Xerius asks Cememketri if he sees the mark of sorcery on the Cishaurim. Cememketri sees no mark.

The Cishaurim introduces himself as Mallahet. Cememketri breaks protocol and tells the emperor to leave at once because Mallahet is second only to the Heresiarch, and only because a non-Kianene is barred from leading the Cishaurim. Skeaös agrees, saying he will conduct the negotiation. Xerius ignores them, and greets Mallahet. Gaenkelti orders Mallahet to kneel before the Emperor, but Mallahet objects, a Fanim kneels only to the Solitary God. Xerius suspends Protocol for the occasion.

Mallahet summons the image of Skauras, the Sapatishah-Governor of Shigek, to negotiate. Xerius is offended the the Padirajah is not negotiating himself. Skauras replies that Xerius is not important enough to concern the Padirajah. Skauras knows of Xerius schemes to wrest the Holy War and thinks it will fail, that Conphas will lose to the Scylvendi.

Eight years earlier, Skauras lost three sons in an expedition against the Sclyvendi at Zirkirta. Xerius informs Skauras that Conphas won’t lose like he did. Skauras concedes Conphas may succeed, but that won’t change anything. Xerius still will not get control of the Holy War. Xerius will sell Maithanet his Imperial Saik in exchange for his Indenture being signed.

Skauras laughs and reveals that he knows more of Maithanet’s plans then Xerius does. Maithanet has already allied with the Scarlet Spire. Skeaös calls Skauras a liar, but Cememketri points out why would he lie. The Fanim would rather negotiate with us then Maithanet.

Xerius points out the Fanim are doomed regardless of who possess the holy war. Skauras is glad that Xerius understands they both are negotiating from weakness. A new plan begins to form in Xerius head around Calmemunis.

To Men of the Tusk you and your people are little more than sacrificial victims, Sapatishah. They speak and act as though their triumph is already inked in scripture. Perhaps the time will come when they respect you as we do.”

Shrai laksara kah.”

You mean fear.”

Everything now hinged on his nephew, far to the north. More than ever. The omens…

As I said—respect.”

My Thoughts

Ikurei Xerius III was no fool.”

Xerius believes he is not a fool. He thinks he understands the limits of his intellect and ability, but his actions are another matter. He is a weak ruler, one who will make a “harem of the world.” The problem, though, is he is just smart enough to be dangerous and egotistical to believe he is infallible. Look at the way he rationalizes everything into his own belief in his divinity and how everything will be all right. His Counsel, Skeaös, is intelligent and spends a lot of effort checking Xerius’s impulses, even if he fails. The rest of Xerius court are a bunch of sycophants who would not question Xerius’s decision. Look at the swiftness Gaenkelti obeyed. He didn’t hesitate to have his archers fire arrows in the room. It’s lucky no one was injured or killed. Not that Xerius would have cared.

The Nansur Empire is in a similar position to the Byzantine Empire during the crusades. At the time, they have been holding back the Islamic Caliphate for several hundred years. When the Crusades were called, the Byzantines unsuccessfully tried to get the Crusaders to return their land to them. Of course, this was after the Great Schism, and the Roman Catholic church had named the Eastern church apostate. The Byzantines were actually cutting deals with the Islamic nations because they trusted them over the western Crusaders.

Xerius’s relationship with his mother is very dysfunctional. He is both attracted to her and repulsed by her. She is in her sixties now, but still possess the grace of a younger woman. Xerius and Istiya constantly needle each other, and he is paranoid she is plotting with Conphas. Paranoia is not a good trait in any ruler, nor is an Oedipus complex. As usual, Bakker has to go to the disgusting and/or creepy side of human behavior. As the story unfolds, we see just how incestuous it gets.

Calmemunis stupidity will only continue to grow. But we did get the introduction of Xinemus, one of my favorite characters. Greed motivates Calmemunis. He wants the opportunity to carve out his own lands outside of the future rule of his cousin, Nersei. Nersei, according to rumors, had him whipped for impiety. I don’t blame Calmemunis for not wanting to be under that guy’s thumb. Nothing worse then zealotry and power. But we’ll have time to talk about that later as Proyas takes a larger role in the story.

Bakker’s use of titles are great. He has palatines, which historically was a title granted by a sovereign and were representatives of the king, but in this world seem to act more like dukes. Aspect-Emperor is another great title. And then the Kianene titles Sapatishah and Padirajah sound like a mix of Persian and Indian titles.

The last scene were Xerius spars/negotiates with Skauras is great. Skauras’s loathing of Xerius seeps through, but he has no choice but negotiate with him. The combined might of the Inrithi Nations is more than Kian can face. How terrible it must be to put your fate in the hands of a bitter enemy. The Drusas quote from the start of the chapter works so well here. Everything we need to know about the relationship between Skauras and Xerius is in that quote.

Also, Mallahet is a foreigner. I wonder where he might be from, originally…

Several instances, Xerius notes differences in the attitudes of both his mother and Skeaös. “The old ingrate, Xerius was convinced, we becoming as bad as his [Xerius’s] mother.” In this series, any change in behavior should be noted and observed.

And Xerius has a plan. He thinks he is best when under pressure. For his empire’s sake, Xerius better be right.

Click here to continue on to Chapter Six!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Three

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 1
The Sorcerer
Chapter 3
Sumna

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

My Thoughts

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?”

My Thoughts

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?

Click here to go onto Chapter Four!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Two

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 1
The Sorcerer
Chapter 2
Atyersus

Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter One!

I write to inform you that during my most recent audience, the Nansur Emperor, quite without provocation, publicly addressed me as “fool.” You are, no doubt, unmoved by this. It has become a common occurrence. The Consult eludes us now more then ever. We hear them only in the secrets of others. We glimpse them only through the eyes of those who deny their very existence. Why should we not be called fools? The deeper the Consult secretes itself among the Great Factions, the madder our rantings sound to their ears. We are, as the damned Nansur would say, “a hunter in the thicket”— who, by the very act of hunting, extinguishes all hope of running down his prey.

—Anonymous Mandate Schoolman, Letter to Atyersus

My Thoughts

This reminds of a quote from the Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” Apparently the consult saw that movie. If it wasn’t for our expectations of fiction, and Fantasy in general, we know the consult is out there. Of course, we had something very strange in chapter one happen with the abomination. Perhaps we are glimpsing why the Consult has eluded the Mandate for so long.

Late Winter, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Atyersus

Achamian stands before the Quorum, the ruling council of the Mandate. The Quorum studies Achamian for a long while before Nautzera, a member of the Quorum, speaks. Nautzera explains that since Maithanet has become the Shriah (Pope) to the Thousand Temples, he has stirred something up and cannot be ignored. All of the Cults support him without the usual political machinations.

“But surely we’ve seen his kind before,” Achamian ventured. “Zealots holding out redemption in one hand to draw attention away from the whip in the other. Sooner or later, everyone sees the whip.”

Nautzera disagrees. Maithanet moves faster and with more cunning. He uncovered two assassination plots and exposed agents of the Emperor. Achamian finally understands why he was summoned. Maithanet is rocking the boat, or as the Nroni put it “pissed in the whiskey.” Nautzera then tells Achamian there is to be a holy war. Achamian asks if it is against the Fanim. However, in the history of the Three Seas there had been only two other holy wars, both against the Schools (like the Mandate). These wars were known as the Scholastic Wars and were costly to both sides. Nautzera says the Cultic Priests are again calling sorcerers Unclean.

Unclean. The Chronicle of the Tusk, held by the Thousand Temples to be the very word of the God, had named them thus—those Few with the learning and the innate ability to work sorcery. “Cut from them their tongues,” the holy wards said, “for their blasphemy is an abomination like no other …” Achamian’s father—who, like many Nroni, had despised the tyranny exercised by Atyersus over Nron—had beaten this belief into him. Faith may die, but her sentiments remain eternal.

Simas, Achamian’s mentor and friend, explains that a holy war against the Fanim is doomed to failure. Kian, the only Fanim nation, also possess the Cishaurim. The Thousand Temples and Inrithi allies could field ten thousand soldiers equipped with Chorae, making them immune to sorcery. Chorae are the only check on the power of the Schools and the sorcery. Achamian points out those Chorae are equally effective against the Cishaurim. Simas, however, disagrees.

“Because between those men and the Cishaurim would stand all the armed might of Kian. The Cishaurim are not a School, old friend. They don’t stand apart, as we do, from the faith and the people of their nations. While the Holy War struggled to overcome the heathen Grandees of Kian, the Cishaurim would rain ruin upon them.” Simas lowered his chin as though testing his beard against his breastbone. “Do you see?”

Achamian, like all Mandate, remembers the dreams of the Fords of Tywanrae where the Consult used sorcery to annihilate their enemies. Nautzera comments that Maithanet is not an idiot and will know he cannot win a war against the Fanim. Achamian asks why he was recalled. The Quorum need Achamian to travel to Sumna and find out the target of the Holy War. Achamian lies and says he no longer has any contacts in Sumna, though his thoughts turn briefly to Esmenet, a whore he knew and one other.

Several years ago, Achamian had a student named Inrau who he was training to be a Mandate Sorcerer. However, Inrau was to innocent to survive becoming a Mandate and wanted to be a Shrial Priest. He had, however, learned to much to be allowed to leave. Achamian loved his student, however, and faked his death and allowed Inrau to leave. Achamian only confided in Simas about his betrayal. Nautzera reveals that he knows of Inrau’s defection and that he is a Shrial Priest in Sumna. Achamian is stunned by Simas’s betrayal.

Nautzera wants Achamian to turn Inrau into a spy for the Mandate against the Thousand Temples. Achamian refuses, believing it would be to much for Inrau to handle. Nautzera accuses Achamian of sedition. Nautzera points out that the Consult may be behind Maithanet and that the life of Inrau would be worth it to find out. Achamian concedes the point only if the Consult really has returned.

“Ah, yes. I’d forgotten that you numbered yourself among the skeptics. What is it you say? That we pursue ghost.” He [Nautzera] held the word in his mouth, as though it were a morsel of questionable food. “I guess, then, you would say that a possibility, that we’re witnessing the first signs of the No-God’s return, is outweighed by an actuality, the life of a defector—that rolling the dice of apocalypse is worth the pulse of a fool.”

Achamian is prepared to face Sanction for allowing Inrau to defect. Nautzera continues his rant against the skeptics, reminding Achamian that the Mandate are not the other schools. While they spy and perform political machinations, it is to support their war against the Consult not to increase the Mandate’s power. “You [Achamian] confuse us with the whores.”

Simas steps in, and points out the Dreams have become more intense. What better vehicle for the Consult to seize power then through the Thousand Temples? Use it to destroy the Mandate through a Holy War. Achamian is wracked with doubts. Nautzera points out that Inrau may understand the stakes. That it would be possible to convince him without using Cants to compel him. Finally, Nautzera says if Achamian won’t go, another less sentimental Mandate spy would be sent.

Later, Achamian stands on the battlements of Atyersus and looks out at the sea and broods on the meeting. The Quorum meeting went on longer after Achamian agreed to the mission. Nautzera continued to berate Achamian, asking if Achamian forgot that the Old Names still resided in Golgotterath. Achamian wanders if the concerns of the present crowded out the portents of the past. Nautzera, on the other hand, dwelt in the horrors of the past and the threat of the future. The present was a mere formality.

And why not? The anguish of the Old Wars was beyond description. Almost all the great cities of the Ancient North had fallen to the No-God and his Consult. The Great Library of Sauglish ransacked. Trysë, the holy Mother-of-Cities, plundered of life. The Towers of Myclai pulled down. Dagliash, Kelmeol … Entire nations put to the sword.

To Nautzera, Maithanet was signification because he might be the start of the Second Apocalypse. Achamian is troubled by the idea the Shriah could be an agent for the Consult and lead a Holy War against the Schools.

Achamian reflects on his relationship with Inrau. Inrau had reminded Achamian of the first student he loved, Nersei Proyas. However, Proyas had grown proud with the knowledge that he would become King someday. Inrau, however, remained Inrau. Achamian loved Inrau because he was good. Inrau was open like a child or a fool, possessing an innocence of wisdom instead of ignorance. Inrau saw beauty in all things and forgave men their blemishes.

Achamian was dismayed and relieved when Inrau chose to abandon the Mandate. Achamian knew the Mandate would eventually destroy his innocence. Achamian remembered the night he touched Seswatha’s Heart and his world was transformed by the tragedy of history.

How could such innocence, any innocence, survive the terror of Seswatha’s Dreams? How could one find solace in mere sunlight, when the threat of the No-God loomed across every horizon? Beauty was denied victims of the Apocalypse.

Achamian considered securing Inrau’s escape the only good act he did in his life. Achamian wanders how long the Quorum knew of his betrayal and if Simas had truly betrayed him. Nautzera message to Achamian was plain, Inrau was a defector and deserved to die. Inrau knew enough of the Gnosis for another School to capture and torture him, eventually discovering the secrets. Then the Mandate would then be condemned to being a Minor School.

Had he done the right thing? Or had he simply made a wager?

Was the pulse of a good man worth rolling the dice of Apocalypse?

Nautzera had argued no, and Achamian had agreed.

The Dreams. What had happened could not happen again. This world mus not die. A thousand innocents—a thousand thousand!—were not worth the possibility of a Second Apocalypse. Achamian had agreed with Nautzera. He would betray Inrau for the reason innocents are always betrayed: fear.

Achamian reflects on how long it had been since he had been to Sumna. Five or more years, and wonders if Esmenet still lived. She always eased his heart. And to see Inrau, to warn him of his failure. Achamian yearned to see those two people he loved again and longs to be just a man.

Later, Nautzera watches Achamian leave Atyersus on ship from the battlements. Nautzera sees storm clouds in the distant and knows it will be a rough voyage to Sumna. But he knew Achamian would survive thanks to the Gnosis. Nautzera heads back inside and goes to the library were he finds Simas reading by lantern light. Nautzera is jealous that Simas eyesight hasn’t failed him in old age. Nautzera, like others his age, needs an acolyte to read for him these days.

Nautzera confronts Simas, saying they should have told Achamian they already know who Maithanet has called the faithful to war against. Nautzera knows the deception as necessary to motivate Achamian to betray his student, but it doesn’t sit well with Nautzera. Simas disagrees, saying the Consult has taught him that ignorance is a powerful tool. Nautzera counters that knowledge is more powerful. Achamian may run into trouble because he will not be alert. Simas is dismissive, saying Achamian will be careful at the heart of the Thousand Temples.

Simas then asks Nautzera if he has heard the new report. Simas had an uncanny ability to read what troubled Nautzera. Nautzera answered that Parthelsus’s primary informant in Tydonni vanished. Someone is hunting Mandate agents. Simas thinks its the Consult. Nautzera says it could be the Scarlet Spires or the Thousand Temples. Nautzera thinks Achamian should be warned.

Simas points out that their enemy is to timid or canny to strike directly at them. Achamian befriends his agents. He is weak. If he knew that Atyersus has been infiltrated and his contacts may be hunted, he would hesitate. Nautzera agrees that Achamian is weak, but it is Mandate policy to give autonomy to field agents, to trust their judgment. It doesn’t sit well with Nautzera denying Achamian knowledge that could save his life.

Simas answers that they have struck the right balance of with Achamian and points out he was right that Inrau’s defection would be useful. Simas asks Nautzera to trust him and says they have arduous tasks. Despite the Dreams, a Mandate Schoolman had turned traitor.

My Thoughts

Achamian doubts of his abilities are revealed through how self-conscience he is of his appearance. Because of the hardships of travel he has the appearance of a lowborn laborer instead of a noble sorcerer.

Unlike the Scarlet Spire which are ruled by a Grandmaster, the Mandate have a Quorum of presumably elder Schoolman. This gives a more democratic feel to the Mandate. Achamian stands up to the Quorum and only risks censure for his crime of allowing Inrau to defect, but not for objecting against the leadership.

Achamian loyalty to Inrau, his student, is one of Achamian’s best trait. Being a teacher is what Achamian is best suited for, he loves it. The Quorum uses Achamian’s love to compel him to turn Inrau to a spy is a low blow on their part.

The shadow of the Apocalypse covers everything the Mandate do. Like all fanatics, they will do reprehensible acts for the greater good. Achamian yearning to be just a man is understandable with the looming mission of turning innocent Inrau to spy on his own religion.

The scene between Nautzera and Simas is interesting. During the Quorum scene Simas is presented as Achamian’s ally and friend, Nautzera as the enemy. Yet all the decisions to lie to Achamian about his mission, to warn him that someone is murdering their informant, come from Simas. Despite his dislike of Achamian, Nautzera doesn’t want him going into a serpent’s nest unprepared. However, Simas reasoning appears sound, but there is something sinister about the old man. Maybe the fact that his caring routine is just subterfuge. Nautzera puts it as “the man [Simas] was as shrewd as he is devoid of sentiment.”

Also, interesting that Simas eyesight has not diminished with age.

This chapter does a great job setting up Achamian’s arc for the book. We saw in the last chapter the abomination killing Achamian’s newest recruit. And now we learn this is going on everywhere. The Consult, or another faction, has dangerous servants working for them. Something supernatural. And they war with the Mandate. Worse, they have a spy. Someone is feeding them information. Someone on the Quorum of which we only met two—Simas and Nautzera. And we had a POV from Nautzera.

It’s suspicious from a literary position. It is always possible an unnamed traitor is responsible or the Consult has another way of divining the Mandate’s agents. Until then, I would keep my eye on Simas.

Click here to continue on to Chapter Three!

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Review: Voices in Crystal (Children of Stone 1)

Voices in Crystal (Children of Stone 1)

by Mary R. Woldering

Reviewed by JMD Reid

B00OIYF39M.01.LZZZZZZZIn the 2500s BC, two men of drastically different background, separated by culture and geography, are linked by one event. The arrival of the Children of the Stone. Marai, a Semetic shepherd living in the shadow of Mount Sinai, prays to the Goddess Inanna like he has done every night since the death of his wife in childbirth many years ago. To the west, the the Land of Kemet (Ancient Egypt), Hordjedtef, one of the sons of Pharaoh Khufu (the guy who was buried in the Great Pyramid at Giza) studies with a wise priest, his bid to become the next Pharaoh failed.

Falling from another world, the consciousness of powerful beings arrive to the bronze age Middle East. Though Hordjedtef and his master sense the arrival of the Children, they are not the ones chosen to bear their knowledge. That falls to humble Marai. Called out of his prayers, Marai finds the fallen rock. When he enters it, he will never be the same.

Marai is charged to bring the knowledge to Hordjedtef by the Children. But will Hordjedtef respect the power or will he crave it for himself. Marai, joined by three women each broken in their own way, travels west to Kemet where he hopes he will find his destiny.

Voices in Crystal is a Historical Fantasy. It is set in our world, amid the mythology of the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Ancient Egyptians but with real, supernatural powers. It is well researched, illuminating the often harsh way of life of the bronze age near east along with the esoteric splendor that Kemet (Egypt) achieved. Though the novel took me a while to read (I kept being distracted by other books) the tale of Marai and the three women called me back over and over.

I greatly enjoyed the book, and while it has flaws, it kept me reading to the end, eager to find out more. And the ending left had me on the edge of my seat. I will definitely read book 2. If you’re a fan of mythology, Ancient Egypt, the bronze age, the mystery religions, or looking for a different story then what gluts the fantasy and historical markets, pick up Voice in Crystal.

You can buy Voices in Crystal on Amazon!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter One

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 1
The Sorcerer
Chapter 1
Carythusal

Welcome to Chapter One of my reread. Click here if you missed the Prologue!

There are three, and only three, kinds of men in the world: cynics, fanatics and Mandate Schoolmen.

—Ontillas, On the Folly of Men

The author has often observed that in the genesis of great events, men generally posses no inkling of what their actions portend. This problem is not, as one might suppose, a result of men’s blindness to the consequences of their actions. Rather it is a result of the mad way the dreadful turns on the trivial when the ends of one man cross the ends of another. The Schoolmen of the Scarlet Spires have an old saying: “When one man chases a hare, he finds a hare. But when many men chase a hare, they find a dragon.” In the prosecution of competing human interests, the result is always unknown, and all too often terrifying.

—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

Thoughts

Cynicism and fanaticism are opposite sides of the coin of belief. Mandate Schoolmen straddle both sides. Fanatical in their belief of the consult. Because the greater Three Seas ridicule them and their mission, cynicism has set in. Like the old saying that every cynic is a disillusion romantic.

History is full of examples of the consequences of actions. The assassination of Duke Ferdinand set off WWI. The Serbian separatist that assassinated him just wanted independence from Austria. WWI ended the German Empire (the Second Reich), caused the downfall of the Romanovs, and the rise of the Soviet Union. I absolutely love the quote from the Scarlet Spire (who were about to meet in the story). Humans by themselves can be rational and intelligent, but in groups we feed upon each other, echoing each others thoughts. Groupthink can be a dangerous beast.

Midwinter, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Carythusal

We are introduced to Drusas Achamian: Mandate Schoolman (sorcerer) and spy. He is in the city of Carythusal, capital of High Ainon, and home of the rival sorcerer school, the Scarlet Spires. In a tavern in Carythusal, he is slowly recruiting Geshruuni, Captain of the Javreh. The Javreh are the warrior-slaves of the Scarlet Spire. Out of the blue, Geshruuni states he knows Achamian is a spy.

Achamian tries to bluff Geshruuni but his momentary hesitation when he is called a Schoolman betrays him. Geshruuni speculates on what School had sent Achamian. The Imperial Saik, the Mysunai, or the Mandate. Geshruuni wagers of Achamian of being a Mandate. Achamian, now terrified of being caught by the Scarlet Spire, prepares to unleash his sorcery, not caring of the consequences. Geshruuni reaches into his tunic and Achamian realizes it is too late to use sorcery. Geshruuni produces his Chorae. All sorcerer’s could feel a Chorae’s unnatural presence, and Achamian had used Geshruuni’s to identify him as the Javreh Captain.

Chorae. Schoolmen called them Trinkets. Small names are often given to horrifying things. But for other men, those who followed the Thousand Temples in condemning sorcery as blasphemy, they were called Tears of God. But the God had no hand in their manufacture. Chorae were relics of the Ancient North, so valuable that only the marriage of heirs, murder, or the tribute of entire nations could purchase them. They were worth the price: Chorae rendered their bearers immune to sorcery and killed any sorcerer unfortunate enough to touch them.

Geshruuni grabs Achamian’s hand and holds the Chorae over it. Geshruuni calls the Scarlet Spires as ruthless and cruel to their enemies and servants alike. Achamian asks what Geshruuni wants and he answers “What all men want, Akka. Truth.”

Death poised between the callused fingers of a slave. But Achamian was a Schoolman, and for Schoolmen nothing, not even life itself, was as precious as the Truth. They were its miserly keepers, and they warred for its possession across all the shadowy grottoes of the three Seas. Better to die than to yield Mandate truth to the Scarlet Spires.

Achamian sees no Schoolmen in the crowd. Sorcerers can see other sorcerer’s by the bruise of their crimes against reality. Realizing Geshruuni is playing his own game, Achamian confesses to being a spy for the Mandate School. Geshruuni releases Achamian and agrees to spy for the Mandate against his masters.

Achamian muses on being a spy. As the son of a poor Nroni fisherman he never even knew the word spy. As a youth he was identified as one of the Few (a sorcerer) and taken to Atyersus by the Mandate School for training. Chosen as one of their spies, Achamian has crisscrossed the Three Seas and seen many things. Far away places were no longer exotic to Achamian. Nobles, Emperor and Kings seemed as base as lesser men. He had educated princes, insulted grandmasters, and infuriated Shrial priests. Now in his middle years, Achamian has grown weary of being a spy and sorcerer.

Achamian is perplex and dismayed by his meeting with Geshruuni instead of feeling elated at recruiting such a well-placed spy. Geshruuni, motivated by vengeance, told him potent secrets of the Scarlet Spires. Geshruuni penetrated Achamian’s disguise because he was to free with his money, unlike the merchant Achamian pretended to be.

Achamian is alarmed to find out the Scarlet Spire has been at war. The schools skirmished with spies, assassinations, and diplomacy all the time. However, this war was different. Ten years ago, Grandmaster Sasheoka was assassinated in the inner sanctums of the Scarlet Spire. Despite possessing the Abstraction of the Gnosis, the most powerful school of sorcery, the Mandate School could not have succeed at the task. Geshruuni reveals the Cishaurim, the heathen school of the Fanim, were responsible.

There was a saying common to the Three Seas: “Only the Few can see the Few.” Sorcery was violent. To speak it was tot cut the world as surely as if with a knife. But only the Few—sorcerers–could see this mutilation, and only they could see, moreover, the blood on the hands of the mutilator-the “mark,” as it was called.

Not so with the Cishaurim. No one knew why or how, but they worked events as grand and as devastating as any sorcery without marking the world or bearing the mark of their crimes.

Unable to see the Cishaurim as one of the few, they would easily be able to enter the Scarlet Spire. Now hounds trained to smell the dye of Cishaurim robes patrol the halls. Achamian is confused what would possess the Cishaurim to declare war on the largest, most powerful School. Geshruuni can only shrug. No one knows.

Geshruuni questions his decision to betray the Scarlet Spire as we walks home. He finds gossiping like a woman did not satisfy his desire for revenge. He laments his status as a slave and wishes he could be a conqueror. Despite being drunk, Geshruuni realizes he is being followed and beings plotting “scenario after bloody scenario” for the presumed thief.

Geshruuni ambushes his stalker, and is surprised to see a fat man from the tavern and not a footpad. Thinking it is a Scarlet Spire Schoolman, Geshruuni throws his Chorae to kill the man. The man catches the Chorae and doesn’t die. The fat man reveals he was following Achamian and berates Geshruuni, repeatedly calling him slave and ordering him to heel like a dog. Geshruuni grabs the man and pulls a knife, threatening to kill him. The next thing Geshruuni knows is pain in his arm and he drops the knife. Geshruuni goes for his sword and the fat man slaps him hard. The fat man continues slapping and berating Geshruuni, his voice sounding more and more inhuman. Finally, Geshruuni is struck so hard he falls to his knees.

“What are you?” Geshruuni cried through bloodied lips.

As the shadow of the of the fat man encompassed him, Geshruuni watched his round face loosen, then flex as tight as a beggar’s hand about copper. Sorcery. But how could it be? He holds a Chorae—

“Something impossibly ancient,” the abomination said softly. “Inconceivably beautiful.”

After meeting with Geshruuni, Achamian returned to the hovel he stayed at, went to bed and dreamed. Every night, Mandate Schoolmen dream scenes from the life of Seswatha. Seswatha fought the No-God during the Apocalypse and founded that last Gnostic School, the Mandate. In the dream, part of Achamian knows he witnesses events 2000 yeas old, but part of him was Seswatha. The Mandate call this particular dream the Death and Prophecy of Anasûrimbor Celmomas.

Anasûrimbor Celmomas, the last High King of Kûniüri, has fallen before a Sranc chieftain. Seswatha kills the Sranc with sorcery and goes to the dying king’s side. In the distant, a dragon flies over the field of battle. Seswatha knows Kûniüri has fallen. With the help of a Trysë knight, they drag the dying king from the battlefield.

Seswatha pleads with Celmomas not to die. Seswatha believes without the High King, the world will end and the No-God will win. As Celmomas dies he has a vision. The gods have not abandoned men to the No-God, his darkness is not all encompassing. The burden to defeat him falls to Seswatha.

Celmomas asks Seswatha to forgiven him for being a stubborn fool. For being unjust to Seswatha. Seswatha forgives him. Celmomas asks if he’ll see his dead son in the afterlife. “As his father, and as his king.” Seswatha answers. With pride, Celmomas talks about the time his son stole into the deepest pits of Golgotterath. Celmomas’s vision continues, and he sees his son riding through the sky. Celmomas’s son speaks to him.

“He says … says such sweet things to give me comfort. He says that one of my seed will return, Seswatha—an Anasûrimbor will return …” A shudder wracked the old man, forcing breath and spittle through his teeth.

“At the end of the world.”

The bright eyes of Anasûrimbor Celmomas II, White Lord of Trysë, High King of Kûniüri, went blank. And with them, the evening sun faltered, plunging the bronze-armored glory of the Norsirai into twilight.

Achamian awakens and weeps for a long dead king. In the distant he can hear a dog or a man howling.

Geshruuni has been tortured by the abomination. He told the abomination everything and now the thing drags him towards the river. He panics. Geshruuni asks why, he told the abomination everything. The abomination answers: “the Mandate have many eyes and we have much plucking to do.” The abomination throws Geshruuni into the river where he drowns.

The next morning, when Achamian awakes, he writes in his dream journal about the latest Seswatha dream. He dreamed of the Ford of Tywanrae (the same), the Burning of the Library of Sauglish (different, he saw his face not Seswatha’s in a mirror), and the Prophecy of Celmomas. At first he rights same, but scratches it out and writes, “Different. More powerful.”

Achamian questions his own fixation on recording the dreams. Men have been driving mad trying to decode the permutations of Seswatha’s dreams. For a moment, Achamian has a panic attack of still being on the battlefield. Despite the defeat of the No-God, Seswatha knew the conflict wasn’t over. The Sclyvendi and the Sranc still existed. Golgotterath remained and the Consult, servants of the No-God, still ruled there. So that the memory of the Apocalypse would never fade, Seswatha’s followers would get to relive it.

Achamian next uses the Cants of Calling to communicate with Atyersus, the citadel of the Mandate. His handlers are disinterested in the secret war and instead summon Achamian home. Achamian is surprised and ask why. They answer it involves the Thousand Temples. Cynically, Achamian thinks of one more meaningless mission as he packs up his belongings.

Unlike the other Great Factions of the Three Seas, who vied for tangible ends, the Mandate warred against the Consult. But for 300 years, no sign of the Consult had been found ,and the Mandate waged a war without a foe. This has made the Mandate the laughingstock of the Three Seas. Now the Mandate was adrift without purpose, filling the time with pointless actions like spying of the Scarlet Spire. Achamian is hopeful that this sudden mission to the Thousand Temples will have real purpose.

My Thoughts

Achamian is an unusual protagonist in the genre of fantasy. Middle-aged and burned out at his job. He is world weary instead of the fresh-eyed youth (which Kellhus in the prologue almost is until you realize he is a man without emotions). We meet Achamian just as he underestimates the intelligence of Geshruuni. This is not the first dangerous situation Achamian has been in and it shows. While he panics internally, externally he continues his ruse as a merchant out drinking. We even see Achamian resolve when he thinks faces death or betrayal of his order and he chooses death.

When Geshruuni instead spares Achamian, Bakker compares being a spy to being a whore. Bakker uses this analogy a lot with Achamian. To be successful both must play a role. They have to adapt quickly, putting on the right performance to manipulate. Both must be good judges of character. Grave misjudgment can end badly for both the spy and the prostitute, particularly when no legal or social conventions protect them.

Achamian is unnerved by his underestimation of Geshruuni. By no skill of his own, Achamian uncovered powerful knowledge. But had Geshruuni been loyal to his masters, Achamian would be facing torture and death. Achamian has questions and worries about both his ability and his mission that will continue to haunt him going forward.

And poor Geshruuni. The abomination strips Geshruuni of his bravado with a few slaps. And for nothing. The Mandate aren’t really interested in his grand secret. They care so little, they have summoned Achamian away for a more important mission.

I’ll have more to say on the abominations when we learn more about them. Clearly, they are enemies of the Mandate. But if the Consult hasn’t been active for 300 years, maybe its because they were working on new, devious plans to continue their ancient war.

The Seswatha dreams are some of my favorite parts of the series. I love the glimpse Bakker gives us of the Apocalypse, showing us the consequences if the Mandate’s war against the Consult is lost. It wouldn’t be epic fantasy without apocalyptic prophecies. After Achamian awakens, he fanatically writes in his dream diary while cynically questioning the purpose in deciphering those dreams. He walks that line of fanaticism to follow and understand Seswatha’s life and the cynicism brought along by years of pointless, frivolous busy work.

Bakker drops such interesting tidbits about his world, seeding both the backstory and the past. At once he sets up the political maneuvering that will dominate the rest of the book and explains how his sorcery works, the differences between the schools, and why the Fanim Cishaurim are so feared by other sorcerers. He is building the foundation that the entire Prince of Nothing Series rests upon. Why did the Cishaurim assassinate Sasheoka? What are the Consult up to? Who are the abominations? And what is so important about the Thousand Temple?

The prophecy is very interesting. An Anasûrimbor shall return. But which one? We know Moënghus went ahead of Kellhus. He lurks somewhere in the three seas. Is he the one prophecy speaks of, or is Kellhus who is even know making his way across the sranc-infested wilderness.

Click here to continue on to Chapter Two!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Prologue

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Prologue

The Wastes of Kûniüri

If you missed out on the introduction to the series, click here.

Section 1

It is only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.”

—Ajencis, the Third Analytic of Men

My thoughts

darkness-that-comes-beforeBakker opens every chapter with quotes from various fictitious philosophers, historians, or folk sayings of his world. To me, Ajencis is saying the cause of man’s actions is the soul. To understand men’s actions we need to understand the soul. Another reference, I believe, to the title of the book. The cause that comes out of the “darkness” is the soul.

Bakker is a philosopher in the field of human consciousness (read his treaties on thought, they are dense and make my head spin), in his series the soul is a very real phenomenon that he will explore over the course of the books.

2147 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Mountains of Demua

 The prologue begins in the citadel of Ishuäl. Months earlier, High King Anasûrimbor Ganrelka II fled here with the remnants of his household. Here they thought they would be safe and survive the end of the world. They were wrong.

“The citadel of Ishuäl succumbed during the height of the Apocalypse. But no army of inhuman Sranc had scaled its ramparts. No furnace-hearted dragon had pulled down its might gates. Ishuäl was the secret refuge of the Kûniüric High Kings, and no one, not even the No-God, could besiege a secret.”

Ganrelka was the first to die of plague. Followed by his concubine and her daughter. It burned though the fortress, claiming the lives of mighty knights, viziers, and servants. Only Ganrelka’s bastard son and a Bardic Priest survived.

The boy hid from the Bard, terrified of his strange manner and one white eye. The Bard pursued the boy and one night caught him. Crying and pleading for forgiveness, the Bard raped the boy. Afterward the Bard mumbled, “There are no crimes, when no one is left alive.” Five nights later, the boy pushed the Bard from the walls. “Was it murder when no one was left alive?”

Winter came and wolves howled in the forest beyond the walls. The boy survived alone in the fortress. When the snows broke, the boy heard shouts at the gate and found a group of refugees of the Apocalypse. The refugees scaled the walls and the boy hid in the fortress. Eventually, one of the refugees found him.

With a voice neither tender nor harsh, he said: “We are Dûnyain, child. What reason could you have to fear us?”

But the boy clutched his father’s sword, crying, “So long as men live, there are crimes!”

The man’s eyes filled with wonder. “No, child,” he said. “Only so long as men are deceived.”

For a moment, the young Anasûrimbor could only stare at him. The solemnly, he set aside his father’s sword and took the stranger’s hand. “I was a prince,” he mumbled.

The boy was brought to the refugees and together they celebrated. In Ishuäl they had found shelter against the end of the worlds. The Dûnyain buried the dead with their jewels and fine clothes, destroyed the sorcerous runes on the walls, and burned the Grand Vizier’s books. “And the world forgot them for two thousand years.

Thoughts

“One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten.” Bakker opens the book with a warning about the need to remember. The importance of keeping and remembering history is a prevalent theme in the series. From the Dûnyain deliberately forgetting about the outside world, to the world forgetting about the Apocalypse. And, of course, the world forgetting about the Dûnyain for two thousand years.

Bakker then starts to give us hints of the Apocalypse that dominates the rest of the series. Of cities burning, dragons, and inhuman Sranc. This Apocalypse is so terrible that not just any king, but a High King has fled it and written off the world as lost. Now just hopes to survive. And finally the sadness that even in this refuge, they almost all die anyway.

Bakker displays in this section his ability to paint events in a historical context. His books change from the tight focus, limited third person POV common in most of Fantasy today, allowing you to get into the thoughts of a single character in any scene to vast, more omniscient third person sections where he tells the events of the story almost as a bard reciting the story of history. Not a dry text book, but a vibrant story that keeps you interested.

In the description of Ganrelka’s retainers as they die, we get hints about the world and the Apocalypse. Bakker doesn’t dump his world building on us, but teases us with names that are almost familiar. The five Knights of Tyrsë who saved Ganrelka’s after the catastrophe on the Fields of Eleneöt. The Grand Vizier who dies upon sorcerous text. Ganrelka’s unnamed uncle, “who led the heartbreaking assault on Golgotterath’s gate.” Golgotterath resembles Golgatha where Jesus was crucified. When I read this name, I always picture something like the Black Gate of Mordor with skulls.

Bakker is skilled at using the familiar trappings of Fantasy, whose modern roots extend from Tolkien It roots the reader in the familiar while his style and story clearly deviates from anything you would read in Lord of the Rings.

Without showing us a single scene of the Apocalypse, Bakker still conveys the horror of it. After showing large scale horror, Bakker narrows his focus to the Boy. Left alone, he is preyed upon by an adult. Nietzsche’s philosophy at work here. Humans are selfish creatures who pursue their own desires and its only the fear of the consequences that keep us from acting upon all of them. Whether fear of a higher power, fear of a temporal power, or just the fear of the opinion of others. Once those are removed, there are no crimes any longer.

And finally, the Dûnyain arrive. Another group of refugees who fled the Apocalypse. The Dûnyain have rejected the gods. They deliberately destroy there history and anything connected to the supernatural. They bury all the wealth and trappings of power. They have survived the Apocalypse and decide to reject the former world they come from. As they say, “Here awareness most holy could be tended.”

Section 2

Nonmen, Sranc, and Men:

The first forgets,

The third regrets,

And the second has all of the fun.

Ancient Kûniüri nursery rhyme

This is a history of a great and tragic holy war, of the mighty factions that sought to possess and pervert it, and of a son searching for his father. And as with all histories, it is we, the survivors, who will write its conclusion.

—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

My thoughts

These two quotes began the second, much longer part of the prologue. Nonmen is one my favorite names for the “elf” race in a fantasy series. It also informs us about the most important part of a Nonman, they forget. Regret is definitely a large part of being human. And of course, Sranc just want to have fun—and by fun I mean murder and brutal rape.

The second quote is from a book written after the events of the Prince of Nothing trilogy and gives us a plot summary of what the overt plot Prince of Nothing series is about. The First Holy War is the obvious story, the one on which the true story hides in the shadows. The Compendium is written by Achamian, one of the main characters, and often a segment is before each chapter, teasing you about events that are up coming. The downside is you never can believe Achamian is in real danger because he has to survive the Holy War to write about it. But it does serve to keep you reading.

Now who is the son? Well, we’re about to find out.

Late Autumn, 4109 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Mountains of Demua

The section begins with dreams coming to a group of men. Dreams of clashes of culture, glimpses of history, and of a holy city—Shimeh. A voice “thin as though spoken through the reed of a serpent, saying ‘Send to me my son.‘” The dreamers follow the protocol they established after the first dream and meet in the Thousand Thousand Hall and decided that such desecration could not be tolerated.

The narrative shifts to Anasûrimbor Kellhus, transitioning to a limited, third person POV. He is on a mountain trail looking back at the monastic citadel of Ishuäl. He sees the elder Dûnyain abandoning their vigil. These Elders have been polluted by the dreams sent by Kellhus’ father. The Elders would die in the great Labyrinth beneath Ishuäl.

Kellhus has been sent alone on a mission. As he descends into the wilderness of Kûniüri, he wonders how many vistas he would cross before seeing his father at Shimeh. As he enters the forest he finds himself unnerved. He attempts to regain his composure using “ancient techniques to impose discipline on his intellect.” He wonders if this is the first trial. Kellhus is awed by the beauty of the natural world. “How could water taste so sweet. How could sunlight, broken across the back of rushing water, be so beautiful?

What comes before determines what comes after. Dûnyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance and meaning all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishuäl. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance—the gift of the Logos.

This mission was Kellhus’s first surprise. His childhood was strict ritual, study, and conditioning. Out of Ishuäl he is constantly barraged by new sights, sensations, and creatures. His mind, trained to drink in stimuli in the controlled environment of his home, is overwhelmed by the chaos of the natural world. For more than a month he wanders south through the foothills of Demua. He stops talking care of himself or his gear as the endless walk continues. On his 43rd day he comes across an immense valley dotted with ruins.

Kellhus explores the ruins. They are ancient, overgrown by the forest. Kellhus wanders who were the men who built this place. Bending to drink from a pool, he sees his unshaven face reflected in the water

Is this me?

He studied the squirrels and those birds he could pick from the dim confusion of the trees. Once he glimpsed a fox slipping through the brush.

I am not one more animal.

His intellect flailed, found purchase, and grasped. He could sense wild cause sweep around him in statistical tides. Touch him and leave him untouched.

I am a man. I stand apart from these things.

As evening waxed, it began to rain. Through branches he watched the clouds build chill and gray. For the first time in weeks, he sought shelter.

Kellhus continues his journey but his supplies begin to dwindle. He set out with as much as he could carry. Hunger and exposure begin to take their toll of Kellhus. The snows come and Kellhus could finally walk no farther. “The way is to narrow, Father. Shimeh to far.”

Kellhus is found by a trapper named Leweth and his sled dogs. Kellhus is half buried by the snow and barely alive. Leweth takes Kellhus to his home and cares for him through the winter.

Neither Kellhus or Leweth speak the same language. Kellhus picks up the basics and begins to communicate with Leweth. Kellhus learns he is the lands of Sobel, the northernmost province of the ancient city of Atrithau. Sobel has been abandoned for generations, but Leweth prefers the isolation.

Though Leweth was a sturdy man of middle years, for Kellhus he was little more than a child. The fine musculature of his face was utterly untrained, bound as though by strings to his passions. Whatever moved Leweth’s soul moved his expression as well, and after a short time Kellhus needed only to glance at his face to know his thoughts. The ability to anticipate his thoughts, to re-enact the movements of Leweth’s soul as though they were his own, would come later.

A routine forms between the two men, with Kellhus helping with chores to “earn his keep.” Kellhus studies Leweth during this time and learns that through small labors Leweth learned patience. The only times his hands were still was when he slept or was drunk. Leweth would drink all day, and by the end become drunk. While Kellhus learned much from observing drunk Leweth, he decides a sober Leweth would be more useful. While Leweth is passed out, Kellhus dumps out all his whiskey.

After Leweth’s painful detox, they discuss old pains. Leweth came to the wilderness after the death of his wife in Atrithau. Kellhus observes that Leweth pretends to morn to secure pity. Leweth lies to himself about why he came out here. That Atrithau reminds him or his wife. He even believes his family and neighbors secretly hated her and are glad she is dead. This forced Leweth to flee to the forest.

Why does he [Leweth] deceive himself this way?

“No soul moves alone through the world, Leweth. Our every though stems from the thoughts of others. Our every word is but a repetition of words spoken before. Every time we listen, we allow the movements of another soul to carry our own.” He paused, cutting short his reply in order to bewilder the man. Insight struck with so much more force when it clarified confusion. “This is truly why you fled to Sobel, Leweth.”

Leweth fled Sobel so he could hold onto the ways his wife moved his soul—he fled to remember. Kellhus confronts Leweth with this truth. Kellhus does this to posses Leweth, but lies and says its because Leweth has suffered enough. They argue, but because Kellhus can predict Leweth’s reaction, he guides the argument in his own favor. In the end, Leweth breaks down and cries.

“I know it hurts, Leweth. Release from anguish can be purchased only through more anguish.” So much like a child …

“W-what should I do?” the trapper wept. “Kellhus … Please tell me!”

Thirty years, Father. What power you must wield over men such as this.

And Kellhus, his bearded face warm with firelight and compassion, answered. “No one’s soul moves alone, Leweth. When one love dies, one must learn to love another.”

Once Leweth regains his composure, the continue their conversation. Through his Dûnyain training, Kellhus could control the “legion of faces” that live within him. He can fake any emotional response with the same ease he can craft words. Pretending to happy and compassionate, Kellhus continues his cold scrutiny of Leweth.

Kellhus is disdainful of Leweth’s superstitions of gods and demons. To Leweth, finding Kellhus was fate. Leweth asks Kellhus why the gods sent him. Kellhus tells him of his mission to find his father Anasûrimbor Moënghus. Moënghus left when Kellhus was a child and has now summoned him to Shimeh. Leweth asks how that is possible since Shimeh is so far away and Kellhus answers through dreams. Leweth thinks sorcery explains the dreams. Kellhus doesn’t think that is possible. He dismiss Leweth’s talk of sorcerers and priests, of witches and demons.

Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.

But what came before, the Dûnyain had learned, was inhuman.

There must be some other explanation. There is no sorcery.

Leweth tells Kellhus about Shimeh. It is a holy city far to the south in the Three Seas. Leweth doesn’t know much about the nations of the Three Seas since the Sranc controlled the lands of the north save for Atrithau and Sakarpus. What Leweth knows is they were young lands when the north was destroyed by the No-God and the Consult. The only contact between Atrithau and the Three Seas is by a yearly caravan. Shimeh is holy city in the hands of heathens. In Atrithau, Kellhus could secure the means of reaching Shimeh. Only after the trapper tells Kellhus everything, does he let him sleep.

Near the cabin, Kellhus finds an ancient stone stele with runes upon it. In Kellhus’s own language it records the deeds of Anasûrimbor Celmomas II. Kellhus had dismissed Leweth’s talk of the apocalypse as superstition, but the stone proves the world is far older the Dûnyain. On one of these trips he notices strange tracks in the snow.

Kellhus informs Leweth of the tracks, and in horror, Leweth says they are Sranc. Leweth is amazed the Kellhus can be from the north and not no what those tracks mean. Leweth explain the Sranc will eat anything, but they enjoy to hunt men to “calm the madness of their hearts.” The Sranc have found them, and Kellhus and Leweth flee.

A small group Sranc catch them. Kellhus stays to fight the Sranc and tells Leweth to keep fleeing. In amazement, Leweth watches Kellhus charge the Sranc and kill them “like a pale wraith through the drifts.” Then Leweth is injured by an arrow.

Another group of Sranc are killing Leweth’s dogs. Leweth wants to save them but Kellhus grabs his arm and half drags Leweth. Eventually, Leweth’s strength fails him and Kellhus questions him on the way to go to get to safety. Leweth answers and Kellhus abandons Leweth to the Sranc. Leweth sobs in disbelief as he watch Kellhus, a man he has come to love and worship, disappear into the woods. But for the calculating Kellhus, the decision to abandon Leweth is simple—he has no further use for him.

Kellhus leaves the forest and climbs a hill. The Sranc have caught him. Before the ruins of a wall and gate, Kellhus makes his stand. They fired arrows at him. Calmly, he plucks one out of the air and examines it. In a rush they come at him and he “speared the ecstasy from their inhuman faces.”

They could not see that circumstance was holy. They only hungered. He, on the other hand, was one of the Conditioned, Dûnyain, and all events yielded to him.

The Sranc fall back. For a moment they surrounded him and Kellhus faces their menace with tranquility. They flee. One dying on the ground hisses something in an unknown language. Kellhus wanders what these creatures are.

More Sranc come, led by a figure on a horse. The figure wears a cloak stitched with abstract faces. In Kûniüric, the figure praises Kellhus and asks his name. Anasûrimbor Kellhus, he answers. The figure thinks he is being mocked, but then sees the resemblance in Kellhus’s face.

Kellhus studies the figure and realizes the cloak is made from skinned faces, stretched flat and sewn together. The figure is powerfully built, heavily armored, and unafraid. “This one was not like Leweth. Not at all.”

The figure is surprised that a mortal is not afraid of him. Fear is what separates the figure from humans. Kellhus mocks the figure, trying to bait him and is surprised by the figures reaction.

Kellhus’s provocation had been deliberate but had yielded little—or so it seemed at first. The stranger abruptly lowered his obscured face, rolled his head back and forth on the pivot of his chin, muttering, “It baits me! The mortal baits me … It reminds me, reminds …” He began fumbling with his cloak, seized upon a misshape face. “Of this one! Oh, impertinent—what a joy this was! Yes, I remember …” He looked up at Kellhus and hissed, “I remember!”

And Kellhus grasped the first principle of this encounter. A Nonman. Another of Leweth’s myths come true.

The Nonman points to a dead Sranc and says this one was his elju (book). He laments the Sranc’s death, although they are vicious creatures, they are “most…memorable.” Kellhus sees an opening, and presses the Nonman. The Nonman reveals that while the Sranc are their children now, before humans were. He was a companion to the great Norsirai kings and enjoyed the humans childish squabbles (wars). But as time passed, some Nonmen need more exquisite brutality than humans can provide to remember. This is the great curse of the Nonman.

“I am a warrior of ages, Anasûrimbor … ages. I have dipped my nimil in a thousand hearts. I have ridden both against and for the No-God in the great wars that authored this wilderness. I have scaled the ramparts of Golgotterath, watched the hearts of High Kings break for fury.”

“Then why,” Kellhus asked, “raise arms now, against a lone man?”

Laughter. The free hand gestured to the dead Sranc. “A pittance, I agree, but still you would be memorable.

They fight, trading blows. Kellhus fends off the Nonman blows, but his weapon own cannot penetrate the Nonman’s armor. The Nonman is surprised at Kellhus ability. Kellhus sword slashes the Nonman’s chin open. The Nonman is disarmed, on his back, Kellhus sword at his face. Kellhus begins to interrogate the Nonman.

The Nonman speaks a word and Kellhus is thrown back by incandescent. The Nonman rises up into the air. Confronted with sorcery, Kellhus flees into the forest. Behind him are explosions and fire. An unearthly voice yells his name. “RUN, ANASÛRIMBOR! I WILL REMEMBER!” Kellhus runs faster than he had before the Sranc and wonders if sorcery is one of the lessons from his father.

My Thoughts

When we first meet Kellhus he seems like a traditional hero of a fantasy journey. The quintessential character to go on the Campbellian Heroic Journey. A young man leaving home for the first time on a quest who is the unknowing descendant of kings. However, there are differences between Kellhus’s and the Hero’s Journey. While Kellhus has answered the Call of Adventure, he never Refuses the Call. Kellhus upbringing and training have left him with no doubt. This is his mission, and he will accomplish it.

The wilderness is not kind to Kellhus. The isolation and toil reduces Kellhus to a beast with only one thing on his mind: reaching Shimeh. Eventually, Kellhus realizes this and overcomes the Crossing of the First Threshold and becomes a man again.

Kellhus’s time with Leweth is where we see the products of Dûnyain training. They have embraced Nietzsche’s philosophy. These are the übermench he wrote of. They have trained their bodies and minds past the normal human limits. They have made of study of passions and have learned how to control their emotions. Kellhus listens to Leweth’s story about his dead wife and never once feels anything. Neither pity or compassion. Kellhus uses truth to make Leweth his slave and once Leweth is of no further use, abandons him to death without a second thought. The Dûnyain embody the Will to Power and have no morality to temper their methods. Kellhus will do anything to accomplish his mission.

Kellhus is a sociopath. To contrast Leweth and Kellhus: when Leweth first finds Kellhus in the snow, he thinks food for his dogs. Meat was scarce in the north. However, Leweth’s humanity cause him to show Kellhus compassion,. Leweth cares for Kellhus, using his own scarce resources.

We seen more of Kellhus’s abilities against the Sranc. He reminds me a lot of Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Their bodies are so under their control and their ability to read the movement of their enemies makes them almost invincible. Kellhus has a lot similarities to Paul Muad’dib. However, Paul’s abilities was tempered with emotions.

When Kellhus plucks the arrow out of the air, I recognized him as a D&D Monk (it’s a common ability the player class monks get). The setting of these books were originally Bakker’s D&D campaign he created. The Nonmen are elves, the Sranc are orcs, etc. Bakker also draws a lot on Tolkien. I read somewhere on the internet that the Second Apocalypse is Tolkien done with Nietzschean philosophy, and that is not far off. But only in the broad strokes does this series follow the Lord of the Rings. Take the sexual imagery that is used to describe the Sranc. It is the first hint about the nature of their creators.

Finally, Kellhus confronts the Nonman. A race so long lived, they forget, only remembering the bad stuff. No wonder the Nonman (revealed by Bakker to be Mekeritrig) seems slightly mad. You can see the delight the Nonman has at finding such a memorable man as Kellhus. He is really looking forward to the fight.

Bakker’s description of sorcerery is always very minimal and ethereal. He uses phrases like “petals blowing from a palm” and “pale watery light.” The Dûnyain rejection of the supernatural have left Kellhus without the training on how to deal with it. There is no pride that holds back Kellhus decision to flee. It is instantaneous. He has determined he has no chance of winning and the only option is flight. Even then, his mind is still working normally, cataloging the event and shifting his world view. Kellhus has almost died and no fear assails him.

Kellhus is the reason I love this series. He is so different from any character I have read. Everyone of his POV’s is fascinating to read. As you shall see, he is our prophesied hero and his appearance ushers in the end of the world.

But will Kellhus be the one to save it or cause its destruction?

Click here to continue on to Chapter One

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Intro

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Intro

darkness-that-comes-beforeMore than a few years back, I was in the Borders (yep, that far back, I miss you Borders) at the SeaTac Airport killing time before my flight. While browsing the fantasy section, the Darkness that Comes Before caught my eye. I read the description on the back with talk of an apocalyptic past and a gathering crusade. The book promised a mysterious traveler named Anasûrimbor Kellhus. I was hooked. I bought the book on the spot and devoured it on my trip. I have since come to love the Prince of Nothing Trilogy and its sequel the Aspect Emperor Trilogy. Together these two series plus a third as yet written series form the greater Second Apocalypse meta-series.

R. Scott Bakker is a controversial author. His books are deep in the genre of modern fantasy called Grimdark. And that is what it is. He has created a world whose roots mankind struggles to rise from. It is not a pleasant place. Very few people are allowed the luxury of agency, and those tend to be men. Like most of human history, women hold little power in his series. He is accused of misogyny. There will be no female character bootstrapping feminism and rising above the shackles placed upon her.

But calling his books misogyny is missing the point. R. Scott Bakker is showing just how bad humans can get. He is also writing this towards men, not to show them treating women is bad but to illuminate some of the darker aspects of male fantasy and thoughts while at the same time showcasing the misery most of human kind has toiled under through most of our history. If anything, I would say the books are more misandrist. The every man a rapist trope is almost a reality in this series.

But there is still hope and light to be found.

With the third book of the Aspect Emperor Trilogy, the Great Ordeal (formally titled the Unholy Consult), release approaching in July I felt the need to reread the series in preparation. Of course, there is no way for me to even hope to catch up before the release, but I’ll give it a valiant try. This is a repost of a blog series I never finished from four years ago on my original blog, the ReReid blog (see, I was trying to be clever). But no one ever visited my blog so after several months, well, my interest wained.

So without further ado, let’s dive into the Darkness that Comes Before.

SPOILOR WARNING: Please read the book before any of these posts. This is intended for those who have read the books. I will discuss both the events of the chapter and even their ramification for future events.

Bakker opens the book with a quote. Not a fictitious quote from his own setting, but a quote of the German philosopher Nietzsche.

“I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact which those superstitious people are loath to admit—namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want…”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

My Thoughts

Philosophy is a large part of the Second Apocalypse and Bakker starting the series with a quote of Nietzsche informs us of one of the major themes he will explore in the series. Nietzsche was an atheist who promoted the philosophy that without God there is no moral authority upon man. Nietzsche believed in ideas like “self-consciousness,” “knowledge,” “truth,” and “free will” were inventions of moral consciousness. Nietzsche believed the “will to power” explained all human behavior.

According to Nietzsche, the will to power illuminated all human ambition—the drive to succeed, and reaching the highest position in life. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes, “Even the body within which individuals treat each other as equals…will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.”

The quote that Bakker opens his book is quite clear that we human have no control over the origin of our thoughts. This idea is directly related to the title of the book and one of the overarching themes of the series—the Illusion of Free Will.

If you haven’t gotten bored yet, click her for the Prologue

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Sailing over the Skyrift

Sailing over the Skyrift

by JMD Reid

 

Here is my addition to the Story Hop Blog Tour. Sailing over the Skyrift is a short tale taken from the history of my Above the Storm Fantasy series. It is a world of floating islands and flying ships over an ever churning storm. Join Xostrial, a scholar and member of a bird-like race, as she seeks to discover the secrets of the skyrifts. If you want to read more entries, click here!

The Neta Skyrift, 313 VF (1874 SR)

TheStoryHopLogoXostrial stood on the stern deck as the Uastraes hurtled towards the Neta Skyrift at full sail, the fierce winds propelling the wooden sky ship at breakneck speeds. The sleek, Soweral rake’s crimson sails billowed behind the combined force of two Windwardens. A third Windwarden stood ready to ward the Uastraes from the violent winds of the skyrift. The trio of Windwardens, individuals blessed by Riasruo the sun goddess with the Blessing of Major Wind, were tied securely to the railing of the stern deck of the Uastraes near Xostrial, their beaks tight with concentration.

And fear.

Xostrial buzzed with excitement. Like the rest of the crew, she was a bird-like Luastria of the Soweral flock. She stood shorter than a human, her delicate, gray-feathered body cloaked in a thick, brown robe. Two ropes bound her waist, cinching her robe and irritating her feathers beneath. The scholar held a wax writing slate in one wing. The distal feathers—five prehensile feathers found in a Luastria’s wings between their flight feathers—gripped a bone writing stylus, ready to scrawl her notes into the impressionable wax as the Uastraes flew over the skyrift.

No one in the history of the skies had ever flown over one.

Sensible captains avoided skyrifts, giving them a wide berth as they sailed over the Storm Below. The Storm was far below. The Uastraes flew at the height of her altitude ceiling, the air thin, increasing Xostrial’s light-headed excitement. Xostrial hoped the high altitude would counteract the sucking winds found at the edges of a skyrift. Her heart fluttered in her chest, and her talons dug into the iron oak planks.

“Brace,” chirped Captain Dwaifeed, her head snapping around in quick jerks as she scanned the deck of her sailing ship. Her eyes twinkled with excitement. Captain Dwaifeed was not a sensible captain. “Every hen and drake stay secure. We make history today.”

It had taken Xostrial three years to find a captain willing to entertain her proposal. Xostrial studied the mysterious skyrifts. They were strange anomalies. Only five were known to exist in the entirety of the skies. They were breaks in the ever-churning Storm, the vast blanket of angry clouds created two thousand years ago by the Goddess Theisseg to cover the world and block her sister’s sun from the mythical ground.

But Riasruo had raised the skylands and created a new way of life for her chosen children to live above the Storm, thwarting Theisseg’s petty cruelty.

But in these five rare spots, rifts had formed, sucking air down into the Storm. The skyrifts were surrounded by dangerous winds. Clouds were drawn in, forming vast walls of boiling gray rushing down into the Storm. The rifts could be leagues wide. Xostrial’s careful measurements had shown they were widest in their centers and then tapered into points at their edges.

What caused them? Xostrial hoped today’s flight would answer that question.

“We’re almost there,” she chirped, staring at the gray cloud wall.

“Windwardens, ready,” Captain Dwaifeed sang.

The Windwardens were crucial. They not only charged the Uastraes engine, allowing the ship to fly, but they conjured the breezes that propelled the ship. A Windwarden could also protect a ship, deflecting winds away from it.

But could a Windwarden stop the force of the descending column of air ahead?

Fear and excitement warred in Xostrial’s gizzard as the skyrifts roar grew louder and louder. A tumultuous cacophony of sounds assaulted her ears, drowning out Dwaifeed’s commanding chirps. Xostrial, on the corner of the stern, leaned over the railing to peer down the side of the ship.

The Storm Below was a vast carpet of dark gray striated with ever-changing patterns of near-blacks and paler ash. The clouds boiled and crashed together. But at the edge of the skyrift, the Storm’s clouds undulated almost like waves washing on the shore of a lake.

The wall of gray rushing down approached. Soweral rakes were the fastest ships in the sky, and this one flew without cargo. Xostrial hoped the speed and altitude would allow them to punch through the narrow edge near the end of the Neta Skyrift.

She trembled, clutching onto her wax writing board. She took in a final breath through her beak. Every feather on her body stood up. Her talons dug deeper into the planks. The captain would be angry at the damage, but Xostrial was too scared by their impending clash with nature to fear the captain’s chirps.

The wall loomed over the ship. It filled Xostrial’s vision. Her gizzard churned around her stone. She wanted to retch it up. The bow of the ship knifed for the wall. The roar was so loud it threatened to crush her.

The edge of the Windwarden’s influence struck the skyrift. The gray clouds parted like a stone outcropping jutting through the flow of a waterfall. Hope relaxed Xostrial’s gizzard for one moment as the spar of the ship entered the skyrift. The bubble widened, clearing space for the ship’s two masts and wide spars to enter.

And then the ship shuddered. The winds hammered at the bubble of calm. The clouds pressed in on it. In heartbeats, the entire ship had penetrated the skyrift. Around Xostrial, angry winds reached for the ship. The masts waved and the hull groaned beneath her talons.

The cloud wall was thick. She glanced up at the masts. They waved and flexed. The rigging creaked and the sails snapped. Downdrafts burst through the Windwarden’s controls, crashing across the ship and sending errant gusts swirling across the deck and the crew.

Captain Dwaifeed chirped at Xostrial, but the words were lost. The ship shuddered again, and then Xostrial’s gizzard swam up her throat. She let out a frightened chirp as the ship dropped several ropes in altitude. She stumbled forward and then was jerked short by the ropes about her waist.

The violent downdrafts slammed over and over into the ship. Wood snapped above. A spar collapsed on the foremast. The middle sail fluttered as half of it dangled towards the deck. The ship rocked again, pitching Xostrial forward.

And then they dropped again.

Her talons rose from the decking. Xostrial released her wax tablet in her panic. It tumbled in the air beside her as she sang in fear. The ropes went taut, keeping her hovering above the deck. She spread her wings wide.

The driving wind caught them and spun her about. Wing feathers ripped off, points of pain pricking down her wings. Her torso burned as the rope dug deep into her flesh. She closed her wings and fell hard to the deck.

The ship had stopped falling. Her tailbone ached as she gained her feet.

“Don’t try to fly with a wind that strong behind us,” chided the Captain, her voice audible over the roar.

The skyrift’s roar had diminished.

Excitement burst through Xostrial. She rushed to the railing and peered down. The clouds roaring down around the ship thinned. Her gizzard twisted. “Is it the edge? Are we through to the interior?”

She gripped her stylus, eager to write down her estimate of the cloud wall’s thickness. Her wax tablet was gone. Pieces lay shattered across the decking. Xostrial chirped in disappointment, but she had her memory.

The clouds thinned more, and then they were through. Her eyes widened. The noon sun shown down overhead. She stared at the ground. The world went silent around her. Xostrial’s heart hammered in her chest as she stared at a dark, glistening muck. Pools of water reflected sunlight as their surfaces rippled. The ground rose to her right towards the center of the skyrift. She let her gaze follow along it. A sluggish river wound through the murk, flowing down an outcropping of stone.

“Beautiful,” she chirped to herself. It may have been a brackish swamp, but once her ancestors had lived far below. “Why didn’t we fly lower? We could see more details. I can’t tell if anything lives down there. Are those brownish-red patches more dirt? Or vegetation? And is that a mountain rising to our right, or just a large hill?”

The ship’s bow pitched down, knocking Xostrial out of her thoughts. The front of the ship had reached the other side already. She clutched to the railing with her distal feathers, her vision absorbing everything she saw as the ship struggled to gain level flight.

The roar grew louder again. The winds slammed down. The ship creaked and flexed beneath her talons. The masts swayed over her head. Xostrial ignored it all, twisting her head to look behind the ship. She had a final glance at the ground below and what may have been a peak rising up into the heart of the skyrift before the gray clouds engulfed the stern of the ship. The ship dropped as she stared in awe.

“I saw the ground. It does exist.”

A loud, booming snap crashed across the deck. Xostrial jump and chirped in surprise. She whirled and her gizzard clenched. The main mast teetered. Wood splintered where the mast had cracked near the base. It swayed, the rigging almost holding it upright.

And then it crashed towards the stern of the ship.

Canvas sail smacked into Xostrial, driving her to the decking. Her world became crimson. She panicked, crushed beneath its weight. Her wings tried to lift the heavy canvas. Her legs kicked, her talons scraping along the fabric. The ship plummeted again. She rose from the decking, pressed into the canvas. It wrapped about her, cocooning her.

“No,” she chirped as she crashed back into the decking. “Please, no. Help, help.”

Only the roar of the skyrift answered her. She strained with her wings to break free. Her sharp talons caught the fabric. Canvas ripped and her foot broke through to free air. She chirped in relief, using her feet to rip the canvas apart. The tear surged up her body and then broke through to her face.

Gray boiled above her. The ship rocked and shuddered. She stood up through the tear and gripped the railing. The ship dropped again, driven down by the powerful force of the skyrift. Her gizzard rose into her throat. It clenched and rebelled, and she coughed out her small stone. It spun in the air before her, wet and rounded smooth before it crashed to the deck along with her.

Xostrial ached. Fear hammered her heart. Her plan had failed. The rake wasn’t fast enough to penetrate the skyrift. She had killed all forty members of the crew along with herself. She closed her eyes, remembering the ground, wanting to take the image up with her to Riasruo’s sun.

The ship stopped shaking. Sunlight beamed down. Xostrial sat up and let out a chirp of relief.

The Uastraes had broken free. She sang for joy, praising Riasruo Above as she stood up. Other members of the crew, the captain included, unburied themselves from the collapsed sail and rigging. The ship groaned and creaked.

“We did it,” chirped Captain Dwaifeed. She spread her wings wide as the Uastraes drifted to a halt.

Xostrial turned and looked at the Neta Skyrift. They had penetrated it. They were on the eastern side now. The Storm was far closer. They had dropped over three thousand ropes in altitude. Another few hundred, and they would have been lost to the Storm.

The scholar kept singing out her fear as she stared at the skyrift. She had seen the ground and it was beautiful. The risk to their lives had been worth this insight into the natural world. She had glimpsed a peak.

Theories formed in her head. She unknotted the ropes and rushed to find quill and parchment.

THE END

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