Tag Archives: Grimdark

Review: Thief of the Night Guild (Queen of Thieves 2)

Thief of the Night Guild (Queen of Thieves 2)

by Andy Peloquin

Reviewed by JMD Reid

The Night Guild controls all crime in the city of Praamis. This brutal organization trains its members from childhood, pushing them through a gauntlet of pain and torment to harden them and make them hungry to steal, to kill, or do what else the Guild requires.

Ilanna survived their training. Now five years older from the events of Child of the Night Guild, Ilanna puts all her skills towards one task: protecting her young son. A son the Night Guild doesn’t know about. And she plans on keeping it that way. There’s only one way to do it. She’ll have to buy her way out of the Night Guild.

But the Night Guild doesn’t easily let go of useful tools. She will need to pull of a burglary of such prestige, of such wealth, to win her freedom. And Ilanna is nothing if not daring. She has a plan to not only destroy the most dangerous threat to the Night Guild in Praamis but to earn millions.

And it will require doing the impossible.

Peloquin shifts gears with this book. While the last one was more biopic, following GiRL from the age of seven until her early twenties as she has her ups and downs dealing with her rival, the brutal Sabot, this book is a heist thriller through and through. And with all the grimdark fantasy elements Peloquin is so skilled at balancing.

Thief of the Night Guild is a riveting read, keeping you following the intricacies of Ilanna plan as she has to overcome new obstacles, deal with dubious allies, and race against the clock to get everything ready for her window. Because if she doesn’t, more than she will pay the price.

Peloquin is swiftly joining my ranks of must-read fantasy authors.

I was given an ARC, but I liked it so much I bought the story.

You can buy Thief of the Night Guild form Amazon!

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Fourteen

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 4
The Warrior
Chapter 14
The Kyranae Plain

Welcome to Chapter Fourteen of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Twelve!

Some say men continually war against circumstances, but I say they perpetually flee. What are the works of men if not a momentary respite, a hiding place soon to be discovered by catastrophe? Life is endless flight before the hunter we call the world.

Ekyannus VIII, 111 Aphorisms

My Thoughts

Isn’t that they way of life. Trying to get ahead on bills. Worrying when the next problem is going to happen: the car break down, injury, or losing your job. Just when you think everything is fine then, bam! Of course, it also speaks to Cnaiür, Serwë, and Kellhus fleeing the Kidruhil in this chapter in a very literal sense.

Spring, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Nansur Empire

Cnaiür and Kellhus have started to travel at night across the Nansur Empire. For the first time, Serwë wakes up in the afternoon sleeping next to Kellhus. He had resisted her joining his sleeping mat for a while, but this morning had relented. Serwë enjoys the feel of Kellhus sleeping form against hers and marvels at how much she loves him and how he loves her despite her past.

Cnaiür is up and washing in a stream and Serwë watches him and fells no fear for the fist time, just pity at his loneliness. She notices a boy on the other side of the river and in her mind pleads with the boy to run. Kellhus, awake, whispers to Cnaiür in Scylvendi. Cnaiür sees the boy, and tells him to come close. Serwë yells at the boy to run and begs with Kellhus to spare the boy as Cnaiür chases him. Kellhus followed Cnaiür and Serwë realizes he also means to kill the child. Serwë follows.

As Serwë follows, it occurs to her she is no fugitive in the Nansur. This is her home and and she would not have to suffer Cnaiür anymore. However, she thinks on how Kellhus loves her, the first, and returning to the Empire would just mean more Gaunum wives and more blue babies. Serwë is pregnant and has convinced herself it is Kellhus’s child.

Serwë has lost Cnaiür and Kellhus and can’t locate the camp. She hears horses and believes it’s Kellhus come looking for her but instead runs across two Kidruhil cavalry of the Imperial Army. She is fearful, thinking the Kidruhil have been warned by the boy and that Kellhus may be dead because of her.

The older of the two Kidruhil sees her fear and thinks Serwë must be “with them.” The pair of soldiers argue, the younger saying they don’t have time for this while they older says there’s always time for sport with a girl as pretty as Serwë. The man advances on her and she begs for him to spare her. The man drives his dagger into the ground as he begins to grope her.

There is a sound, and the younger man is decapitated by Cnaiür. Cnaiür asks Serwë if she was hurt, and the scarred Kidruhil begins to beg to Cnaiür, apologizing for touching Serwë.

The officer moved away from Serwë, as though to disassociate himself from his crime. “C-come now, friend. Hmm? T-take the horses. All y-yours—”

To Serwë it seemed that she’d floated to her feet, that she’d flown at the scarred man, and that the knife had simply appeared in the side of his neck. Only his frantic backhand knocked her back to earth.

She watched him fall to his knees, his bewildered hands fumbling at his neck. He threw an arm backward, as though to ease his descent, but he toppled, lifting his back and hips from the ground, kicking up leaves with one foot. He turned to her, retching blood, his eyes round and shining. Begging her. . .

Cnaiür grabs Serwë and places the knife she killed the Kidruhil at her temple. She begs for her life and Cnaiür warns her never to betray them again or he will kill her. Then Cnaiür cuts her forearm, giving her a swazond, the ritual scaring of the Sclyvendi for kill the Kidruhil and calls her by name for the first time.

I don’t understand,” Serwë whimpered, as bewildered as she was terrified. Why was he doing this? Was this his punishment? Why had he called her by name?

You must suffer him . . .

You are my prize, Serwë. My tribe.”

Cnaiür and Serwë find Kellhus at camp and she raced to him and hugs him fiercely and he comforts her as she cries like a father. Kellhus confronts Cnaiür and tells him that Serwë is no longer his prize. Cnaiür laughs, and says more Kidruhil come, we have killed only a dozen out of fifty. Serwë apologizes to Kellhus for warning the boy.

Cnaiür laughs, and says the boy warned know one. “What mere boy could escape a Dûnyain?” Serwë is horrified and looks at Kellhus. She sees grief welling in his eyes and she feels shame, forcing Kellhus to commit this crime. Cnaiür announced they will ride the Kidruhil horses to death first.

For two days, the trio had eluded the Kidruhil thanks to the forest and Cnaiür’s skill. Serwë find the next two days an ordeal. At the end of the second day, Cnaiür thinks they may have lost the Kidruhil and they make camp. Cnaiür explains that the Kidruhil would think they went west, like any raiding party would after making contact with the Kidruhil. If they found their trail heading east, the Kidruhil would think it a ruse.

They ate a meal of raw fish, and Cnaiür explains they are safest in the western provinces, long abandoned because of Scylvendi raids. Once they cross the Phayus River, it will be a different matter. Serwë wonders why these two would risk this journey. The next day as they traveled, Serwë finds herself hungry. At midday, Kellhus stops and asks her is she’s hungry.

How do you know these things?” she asked. It never ceased to thrill her each time Kellhus guessed her thoughts, and the part of her that held him in reverent awe would find further confirmation.

How long has it been, Serwë?”

How long has what been?” she asked, suddenly fearful.

Since you’ve been with child.”

But it’s your child, Kellhus! Yours!

But we’ve not yet coupled,” he said gently.

Serwë suddenly felt bewildered, unsure as to what he meant, and more unsure still whether she had spoken aloud. But of course they had coupled. She was with child, wasn’t she? Who else could be his father?

Serwë starts to cry and Kellhus apologizes and tells her they will eat soon. Kellhus rides up to talk with Cnaiür and Serwë studies Kellhus and realizes she didn’t speak and he sill knew her thoughts and she begins to think he is a God. She remembers in the time of the Tusk, the Gods communing with Men. Serwë begins to think that her beauty was given her because one day her betrothed, a God, would arrive.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus.

She smiled tears of rapturous joy. She could see him as he truly was now, radiant with otherworldly light, haloes like golden discs shining about his hands. She could see him!

Later, as they chewed strips of raw venison in a breezy stand of poplars, he turned to her and in her native tongue of Nymbricani said, “You understand.”

Serwë nods, and answers that she is to be Kellhus’s wife, and Kellhus promises her that it will be soon.

That afternoon, after crossing a valley, they catch glimpse of pursuers. Cnaiür leads them on, telling the group that these pursuers will not stop till they hunt them down. Their only advantage is reaching the plains ahead and using their extra mounts by running them to death and reach the Holy War ahead of their pursuers.

They ride until it is too dark to see, then lead their horses on foot. Serwë finds the pace almost more than she can handle. At dawn, they are able to ride their horses again and gallop over pastures. Serwë finds it exhilarating. They enter cultivated lands, passing slaves working in fields and small villas were minor nobles lived. They rode down roads know, passing teamsters who cursed at them and forcing people to dive out of their way or be trampled.

At mid-afternoon, they stop and Serwë falls off her horse in exhaustion. Cnaiür curses and Serwë looks behind them to see a dust cloud trailing them. Cnaiür asks Kellhus what he sees, and Kellhus says the same sixty-eight men, except know they have different horses. Cnaiür didn’t expect them to get remounts and asks Kellhus if they could take them at night. Kellhus is unsure, but says they should press their lead and continue riding.

They continue riding into twilight when Serwë’s horse, “her prize for having killed the scarred man” dies and she falls hard to the ground. Cnaiür urges them to abandon Serwë. To their pursuers she’s just stolen property. Kellhus, however, will not leave her.

This is not like you, Dûnyain… Not like you at all.”

Perhaps,” she heard Kellhus say, his voice now very close and very gentle. Hands cupped her cheeks.

Kellhus . . . No blue babies.

No blue babies, Serwë. Our child will be pink and alive.

But she’ll be safer—”

Darkness, and dreams of a great, shadowy race across heathen lands.

Serwë regains conscience on Kellhus’s horse, her hands tied around his waist. The three are still being chased. She looks around and realizes they have no spare mounts and the Kidruhil were closer. Cnaiür cries out a warning, as another group of horseman force the three to ride up a hill.

Three horseman erupt from some trees to intercept them, one felled by Cnaiür’s bow. A second hurls a javelin at Kellhus who easily catches it out of the air and throws it back, killing the man. The third raised a sword and prepared to attack Kellhus, but was disemboweled by the faster Dûnyain.

At the top of the hill, they find a sharp drop and abandon the horses and they skid down the drop. At the bottom, Serwë hits hard and is surprised by Cnaiür concern when he gently helps her up and asks if she’s fine. Kellhus is the last down and reports that they won’t follow them down the slope. Cnaiür fears that others have already started to go around the hill and Serwë begins to panic because they have no horses, now.

Kellhus knelt before her, his heavenly face blotting out the sun. Once again she could see his halo, the shimmering gold that marked him apart from all other men. He’ll save us! Don’t worry, my sweet, I know He will!

But he said, “Serwë, when they come, I want you to close your eyes.”

But you’re the promise,” she said, sobbing.

Kellhus brushed her cheek, then wordlessly withdrew to take his place at the Scylvendi’s side. She glimpsed flashes of movement beyond them, heard the neigh and snort of fierce warhorses.

A group of horseman, not Kidruhil, burst out of brush and surround them. Each wore mail skirts and had white-and-blue surcoats. Silver war masks cover their faces and Serwë thinks these men are here to save them, “to shelter the promise.” The leader identifies himself as Krijates Iryssas, one of Xinemus’s knights. Iryssas asks, “Have you seen any fugitive criminals about?”

Stunned silence. At last Cnaiür said, “Why do you ask?”

The knight looked askance at his comrades then leaned forward in his saddle. His eyes twinkled. “Because I’m dying for the lack of honest conversation.”

The Scylvendi smiled.

My Thoughts

Serwë has a moment of peace with Kellhus. It seems like Serwë’s lot is improving slightly with Kellhus taking an interest. Sadly, Serwë is suffering some serious Stockholm Syndrome here. She’s even starting to feel pity for Cnaiür.

So, Serwë is pregnant and thinks Kellhus is the father even though this morning was they only time they’ve shared a bed and they didn’t even have sex. Serwë is delusional, but I don’t blame her for wanting the man she loves to be the father than her rapist.

I am wondering how long they’ve been traveling. It doesn’t seem more than a week or two since she was captured. She might just now be missing her period. Seems a little early for her to jump to pregnancy just yet. Unless they’ve been traveling longer.

Gah! Just when she’s thinking she’ll be fine if anyone from the Empire finds her, they do and try to rape her. Their is a great amount irony of Cnaiür, her rapist, asking if the other rapist hurt her. Cnaiür is a dick.

Go Serwë! Stab that asshole. Great description here. The shock hasn’t worn off and she just finds herself killing the guy. By killing the Kidruhil, Cnaiür seems to think of Serwë as Scylvendi now. Its like in his mind she’s one of his wives know. Didn’t know women in Scylvendi could get a swazond. But then, Cnaiür does think outside of the norm for a Scylvendi. I do want to draw attention to what Cnaiür says about the swazond:

The man you have killed is gone from the world, Serwë. He exists only here, a scar upon your arm. It is the mark of his absence, of all the ways his soul will not move, and all the acts he will not commit. A mark of the weight you now bear.”

In light of what we learn in The Great Ordeal about the gods, damnation, and souls, this is a very interesting statement. I won’t say more, but try to remember it when you get to the end of The Great Ordeal and what is seen in through the Judging Eye. It might answer why the person seen is damned more than other men.

Kellhus can even cry on demand. Poor Serwë, now she feels guilty for forcing Kellhus to kill the boy. Don’t, Serwë, don’t. You gave the boy a chance to live, don’t feel guilty about that. You were the only decent human at that camp. Don’t let the Dûnyain take that away from you.

Serwë is amazed that she could not only eat raw fish, but enjoy it. Hunger is the best seasoning, they say. She is a resilient character. She doesn’t complain when she’s hungry, she does her best to keep up. She thinks she is weak, but I see strength in her.

And Serwë now thinks Kellhus is a God. And why not, he seems to read her mind, he’s kind to her. She has contextualized her years of rape and suffering as preparing her for the arrival of Kellhus. Why else was she given the gift to be so beautiful that every man who comes across her, wants her. “She was also something too beautiful for the world.” So convinced is she, that halos appear about his hands. And Kellhus allows this delusion to continue because it most benefit him. Can’t blame Serwë, though. Who doesn’t want to think that their suffering mattered, that all that pain wasn’t in vain.

Kellhus doesn’t want to abandon Serwë, even though it would increase his and Cnaiür chance of success. It’s hard to say what’s going through Kellhus mind right now. He must see some greater advantage with Serwë, unless seeing her tormented night after night by Cnaiür has actually affected him. He was stirred to some emotion in the last chapter and was surprised by it. I’m siding with seeing a greater advantage. After all, she has proven very useful in dealing with Cnaiür. Kellhus is seeing how men view Serwë. And, as we’ll see, Kellhus will use that over and over again.

Don’t know if its Serwë’s concussion or delusion (probably both) that makes her think Kellhus is communicating in her mind with the “our baby will be born pink and alive.”

Kellhus comforts Serwë, an unnecessary thing to do. I think pity has moved Kellhus. Even a Dûnyain doesn’t see a way out of their predicament. There’s just too many hunters. And then they are saved by Xinemus’s men. Even by proxy, Xinemus continues to be awesome. This was quite an exciting chapter. Luckily for them, the Man of the Tusk really hate the Nansur Empire.

Want to read more, click here for Chapter Fifteen!

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Book Review: Walking with Monsters (The Monster Series Book 1)

Walking with Monsters (The Monster Series Book 1)

by Amber Naralim

Reviewed by JMD Reid

B01GHNIB68.01.LZZZZZZZEllie, a young woman, is hunting for her brother. Months ago, a shady, quasi-governmental organization kidnapped her brother and is experimenting on him. With the help of Reese, an escape test subject and man with a dark beast lurking inside him, she is on a quest do what it takes to free Edward.

To do so, she has to trust Reese. And she does, but she doesn’t trust the monster lurking with in him. Reese is a man who has a literal monster in him waiting to burst out and kill anyone, even her. She needs Reese’s monster to save her brother, but each time he unleashes it, the monster, as personified by Reese’s alter-ego Vincent, stays in control longer and longer.

But as much as Vincent scares Ellie, he also attracts her. Dark, powerful, and deadly. Every moment around Vincent is walking a tight-rope with death. But Ellie needs to save her brother, and if that means walking with a man-eating monster, she’ll do it.

Walking with Monsters is a roller coaster of a novel. It plays with many of the tropes we see in modern vampire and werewolf romances, the woman in love with a man who has a dark, predatory beast bursting to come out. But Reese/Vincent’s beast isn’t lovable or tamable. It is out of control. It is murderous. Naralim does not shy away from the destructive power or uncontrollable hungers of the beast and how it affects Ellie.

But Ellie is driven. Bad people have her brother, and she grows more and more calloused the more violence she sees. She’ll do what it takes to save him. She’ll become a monster herself if that’s what it takes.

The story hops between Ellie and Reese/Vincent, delving deep into the complexity of their relationship as they travel as fugitives across the US, hunted by the police and shady organization’s mercenaries, and then to other characters, including the chief scientist behind the experiments, an investigative reporter, and the FBI Agents tracking down Ellie and her monster.

The story is great, fast paced, with the evolving relationship of Ellie and Reese/Vincent at its heart, keeping you reading through the twists and turns. Naralim pulls out a few surprises. My only gripe is the constant POV shifts in a scene, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of this amazing book one bit. Walking with Monsters is a gem in the Indie publishing world and the paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

You can buy Walking with Monsters from Amazon.

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Ten

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 3
The Harlot
Chapter 10
Sumna

Welcome to Chapter Ten of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Nine!

 How should one describe the terrible majesty of the Holy War? Even then, still unblooded, it was both frightening and wondrous to behold, a great beast whose limbs were composed of entire nations—Galeoth, Thunyerus, Ce Tydonn, Conriya, High Ainon, and the Nansurium—and with the Scarlet Spires as the dragon’s maw, no less. Not since the days of the Ceneian Empire or the Ancient North has the world witnessed such an assembly. Even diseased by politics, it was a thing of awe.

—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

My Thoughts

“Even diseased by politics, it was a thing of awe,” is a great line. A nice passage to set up the Holy war and I do love the “dragon’s maw” line since one of the greatest Angogic Sorceries practiced by the Scarlet Spires is the Dragon’s Maw.

Midwinter, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna

It is night now since Esmenet left Sumna on her journey to Momemn. At times she is intoxicated by the journey, running through grass and twirling “beneath the Nail of Heaven.” Other times she remembers the nauseating horror of the stranger and his black seed. Shame filled her, not the shame of betraying Achamian (who would understand), but the shame of enjoying her violation.

But not that night. The pleasure had been more intense than any she’d ever experienced. She had felt it. Gasped it. Shuddered it. But she had not owned it. Her body had been notched that night. And it shamed her to fury.

She often grew wet at the thought of his abdomen against her belly. Sometimes she flushed and tensed at the memory of her climaxes. Whoever he was, whatever he was, he had taken her body captive, had seized what was hers and remade it not in his own image, but in the image of what he needed her to be. Infinitely receptive. Infinitely docile. Infinitely gratified.

Esmenet realized that the stranger knew about Inrau and concluded that Inrau did not kill himself. Achamian almost broke thinking Inrau killed himself and this is the most important thing Esmenet needs to tell him. The Consult has appeared and murdered Inrau.

In the morning, she joins a group setting out from a hostel. A short time latter, the band on her sandal snapped and slowed her down. She’s forced to take off the sandal and walk with just a sock on. Soon, her sock is worn ragged and her foot pains her, forcing her to limp and fall farther and farther behind her group until she is alone.

Esmenet was talking the Karian Way to the Pon Way which lead to Momemn. Despite never looking at a map, Esmenet knew from her customers the best way to Momemn. As a prostitute, she sought out clients that had experienced the world, mostly soldiers, so that she could vicariously live through their experiences. She always questioned them, both flattering them and cajoling them to speak. Only Achamian ever saw the truth behind her questions.

“You do this with all your custom?” he [Achamian] once asked without warning.

She wasn’t shocked. Others had asked as much. “It comforts me to know my men are more than cocks.”

A half-truth. But true to form, Achamian was skeptical. He frowned, saying, “It’s a pity.”

This had stung, even though she had no idea what he meant. “What’s a pity?”

“That you’re not a man,” he replied. “If you were a man, you wouldn’t need to make teachers of everyone who used you.”

She had wept in his arms that night.

Thanks to her studies, she knew it was safest for a lone woman to take the Karian Way to the Pon Way to get to Momemn and that she would need to stay with a group. With her sandal broken, Esmenet could not keep up with her group and was becoming more frightened as she fell farther and farther behind.

Esmenet spies a village and hopes she can get her sandal repaired here. Esmenet hobbles into the village and starts looking for a cobbler. A group of five boys spot her and one walks up to her and asks if she is a whore, spotting the tattoo on her hand that marked her as one from Sumna. Esmenet tries to scare the boy off with soldier curses and strikes the boy when tries to grab her hand.

The boy she struck grabs a stone and throws it at her, and the other four boys follow suit. Esmenet, being pelted by stones, grabs her own and returns fire, hitting a fat boy in the face and drawing blood. The local village priest walks up to her and asks if she’s a whore. Esmenet sees the look in his eyes and realizes she’s in trouble. She lies, saying she’s not, and walks away.

“Do not walk away from me!” the old priest howled. “Do not walk away from me!”

She continued walking with what dignity she could muster.

“Suffer not a whore to live,” the old priest recited, “for she maketh a pit of her womb!”

Esmenet halted.

“Suffer not a whore to breathe,” the priest continued, his tone now gleeful, “for she mocks the seed of the righteous! Stone her so that thy hand shall not be tempt—”

Esmenet whirled. “Enough!” she exploded.

Stunned silence.

“I am damned!” she cried. “Don’t you see? I’m already dead! Isn’t that enough?”

A stone hits her in the back of the head, and a crowd forms around her and begins to stone her. Esmenet curls up, weeping, and tries to protect herself. She cries for help and then realizes the stones have stopped. A Shrial Knight has ridden up, demanding what is going on.

The priest starts to explain and the knight strikes him in the face. The priest protests and the knight begins to beat him. Esmenet struggles to her feat, bruised and bloodied and calms down. Finally, the knight finishes beating the priest and turns to Esmenet, introducing himself as Cutias Sarcellus, First Knight-Commander of the Shrial Knights.

The story jumps to Achamian as he moves through the camp of the Men of the Tusk and is amazed by how many men are gathered. He had climbed hills in the midst of camp and saw their campfire spread across the entire landscape. Achamian finally finds Krijates Xinemus’s camp, his old friend and Marshal of Attrempus. Xinemus and Achamian greet each other, hug, and joke with each other.

Xinemus helps Achamian set up his tent and care for his mule. The two exchange small talk and Achamian is a little embarrassed meeting his friend while on a mission and unsure if his presence in Xinemus camp will be a problem seeing as he’s an unclean sorcerer in the midst of a holy war. Xinemus doesn’t have a problem with it.

Xinemus asks about the Dreams, and Achamian changes the subject to the Scarlet Spire. Xinemus tells Achamian where the Scarlet Spire is camped and asks if he’s worried about them. Achamian explains how they covet the knowledge of Gnosis, saying “the Gnosis is iron to their bronze.”

Xinemus figures out that Achamian is here to spy on the Scarlet Spire and sees the pain in Achamian’s face about Inrau. Achamian wants to tell Xinemus everything, but can’t bring himself to. They return to Xinemus’s fire where three men waited. Two are captains, Dinchases and Zenkappa, and the third is Iryssas, Xinemus’s Majordomo.

Iryssas is uncomfortable with Achamian’s presence and Xinemus points out that the Scarlet Spire are part of the Holy War. Iryssas drunkenly insults Achamian and Xinemus kicks the fire at the man. The other two men apologize the Achamian for Iryssas behavior.

Iryssas scrambled back to his seat, his hair askew and his black beard streaked with ash. At once smiling and frowning, he leaned forward on his camp stool toward Achamian. He was bowing, Achamian realized, but was too lazy to lift his ass from his seat. “I do apologize,” he said, looking to Achamian with bemused sincerity. “And I do like you, Achamian, even though you are”—he shot a ducking look at his lord and cousin—“a damned sorcerer.”

Zenkappa began howling anew. Despite himself, Achamian smiled and bowed in return. Iryssas, he realized, was one of those men whose hatreds were far too whimsical to become the fixed point of an obsession. He could despise and embrace by guileless turns. Such men, Achamian had learned, inevitably mirrored the integrity or depravity of their lords.

Jokes are shared and for the first time in a while, Achamian laughs.

The next morning, Achamian joins Xinemus in a chess-like game called benjuka. The pair talk about the Holy War and Achamian reveals he was at the Hagerna when it was announced. Xinemus appeared annoyed that Achamian had been in the Hagerna and Achamian remembers how benjuka always causes the pair to bicker like “harem eunuchs.”

Achamian makes a bad move and Xinemus mocks him. Then he brings up Proyas and the disaster of the Vulgar Holy War. Achamian has heard of the march of the Vulgar Holy War but not its disasters end. Xinemus explains how Calmemunis feared Proyas’s arrival, knowing he would just be Proyas’s lapdog. Calmemunis was still angry that Proyas had him whipped for impiety at the Battle of Paremti a few years ago. Achamian is stunned, asking how far Proyas’s fanaticism has gone.

“Too far,” Xinemus said quickly, as though ashamed for his lord. “But for a brief time only. I was sorely disappointed in him, Akka. Heartbroken that the godlike child you and I had taught had grown to be a man of such . . . extremes.”

Proyas had been a godlike child. Over the four years he had spent as court tutor in the Conriyan capital of Aöknyssus, Achamian had fallen in love with the boy—even more than with his legendary mother. Sweet memories. Strolling through sunlit foyers and along murky garden paths, discussing history, logic, and mathematics, and answering a never-ending cataract of questions…

At the time, Xinemus was Proyas’s sword trainer. Achamian and Xinemus became friends through their tutelage of Proyas. Xinemus continues his story, explaining that he left the court in disgust over what Proyas had done. Proyas tracked him done and rebuked him for abandoning him. Proyas was in trouble, Calmemunis had protested his punishment. Achamian points out the Proyas just wanted his approval.

Xinemus continues, saying that after listening to Proyas’s rant, he gave Proyas a training sword and told Proyas to punish him. Proyas fought tenaciously and Xinemus soundly defeated him.

“The following morning he said nothing, avoided me like pestilence. But come afternoon he sought me out, his face bruised like apples. ‘I understand,’ he said. I asked him, ‘Understand what?’ ‘Your lesson,’ he replied. ‘I understand your lesson.’ I said, ‘Oh, and what lesson was that?’ And he said: ‘That I’ve forgotten how to learn. That life is the God’s lesson, and that even if we undertake to teach impious men, we must be ready to learn from them as well.’”

Achamian stared at his friend with candid awe. “Is that what you’d intended to teach him?”

Xinemus frowned and shook his head. “No. I just wanted to pound the arrogant piss out of him. But it sounded good to me, so I simply said, ‘Indeed, my Lord Prince, indeed,’ then nodded the sage way you do when you agree with someone you think isn’t as clever as you.”

Proyas returned to court and before his father, the king, offered to allow Calmemunis to whip him as compensation. Calmemunis agreed, and “lashed away his last shreds of honor.” This is the reason that a hundred thousand men are dead. Achamian makes a good move on benjuka plate and wonders if the death of the Vulgar Holy War was someone’s move.

Xinemus explains how the Emperor is capitalizing on the Vulgar Holy War’s destruction, pointing out the folly of marching without Ikurei Conphas. Achamian asks Xinemus his opinion on the politicking surrounding the Holy War. Xinemus is worried about Proyas’s reaction. All know of Proyas’s close relationship with Maithanet and the pious men are waiting to see how he’ll react. Xinemus fears that the Emperor will provoke Proyas into something rash.

Whether the Holy War fights for Inri Sejenus or Ikurei Xerius III depends on whether Proyas will be able to outmaneuver the Emperor. Achamian realizes how difficult it will be to tell Proyas that his beloved Shriah plays “some dark game.”

The chapter ends with Esmenet, sore from riding, in Sarcellus’s tent, sharing his bed. She sits up and Sarcellus asks if she’s thinking of Achamian.

“What of it?” she asked.

He smiled, and as always she found herself at once thrilled and unsettled. Something about his teeth maybe? Or his lips?

“Exactly,” he said. “Mandate Schoolmen are fools. Everyone in the Three Seas knows this… Do you know what the Nilnameshi say of women who love fools?”

She turned her face to him, fixed him with a languid look.

“No. What do the Nilnameshi say?”

“That when they sleep, they do not dream.”

He pressed her gently to his pillow.

My Thoughts

Not sure what the Nail of Heaven is. I think its a star like the North Star. The point in the sky where the stars seem to rotate about. Like the North Star, it would always be in the same place, I guess like a nail holding in the roof of the heavens. Other times, it is described as shining bright enough to give light. So maybe it’s not a star. The moon? A spaceship in orbit (and that’s not that crazy given the Inchoroi are aliens who crash-landed on the planet and Golgotterath is the ruins of their crashed ship).

Why, Nansur Empire, is it illegal for women to wear boots? To force them to stay home? It also outlaws pants for men to wear.

We see Esmenet’s keen intellect again. As she dissects what happened to her in Sumna (“But where her body groped, her intellect grasped.” She realizes the significance of the Consult syntheses coming to her. It means Achamian was right and Inrau found out something important. He did not kill himself and Achamian could alleviate the guilt of believing he drove Inrau to suicide.

And then there is her selfishness. She hates how she acted and blamed Inrau for Achamian leaving her. We are all selfish creatures. And now, in light of her new knowledge, she feels such guilt for how she acted. Someone I knew online once died and my first thought was, “He promised to do X, how’s that going to happen now.” I felt so guilty the second afterward.

As she walks, Esmenet “styled herself a character from The Sagas, like Ginsil or Ysilka, a wife mortally ensnared in her husband’s machinations.” How true this will be over the course of the series.

Esmenet’s fears of being left alone turn out not to be unfounded. Teenage bullies exist everywhere. It was nice to see Esmenet nail one of the boys with a rock. And then the adult bully wonders out. What a shitty guy.

While I’m not in favor of legal prostitution, stoning a woman for it is really wrong. Especially in this world where women have very few ways to support themselves. If they’re not married, and not a priestess (which apparently just makes you a legal prostitute), how is Esmenet supposed to survive when society denies her any other way to make a living?

Cutias Sarcellus, the Consult abomination, just happens to run into Esmenet the day after her encounter with the syntheses. Coincident, I think not. Why is he rescuing her? The Consult must think they have some use for her still. After all, she was compliant.

The hand gesture Esmenet gives to the boys who started everything, implying the one that bullied her had a small penis was hilarious.

Achamian reunion with his friend was great. Xinemus is one of my favorite characters in the series. A great guy. He doesn’t put up with his men talking shit to Achamian. And the way they all end up laughing afterwards was great.

Benjuka is an interesting game with the rules changing based on the players actions, mimicking life more than other games. I’m not surprised Achamian isn’t good at the game. He’s not that great at life, either.

We learn a lot learned about Proyas. He sounds like a pretty immature guy, but hopefully Xinemus’s lesson has stuck with him. Especially since the fate of the Holy War is now riding on his shoulders. Fanaticism and politics is not a good combination. Fanaticism rarely allows for any sort of comprise and that is at the heart of politics.

The last scene with Esmenet in bed with the abomination Sarcellus is not a story development I liked. Not cool, Consult. Haven’t you done enough to Esmenet?

I do like this little observation Esmenet has of Sarcellus. “He smiled, and as always she found herself once thrilled and unsettled. Something about his teeth maybe? Or his lips?” Yeah, because he’s a skin spy, Esmenet. But good on you for noticing something off.

If you want to keep reading, click here for my reread of Chapter Eleven.

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Nine

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 3
The Harlot
Chapter 9
Sumna

Welcome to Chapter Nine of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Eight!

And the Nonman King cried words that sting:

Now to me you must confess,

For death above you hovers!”

And the Emissary answered ever wary:

We are the race of flesh,

We are the race of lovers.”

—“Ballad of the Inchoroi,” Ancient Kûniüri Folk Song

My Thoughts

Our first mention of the Inchoroi, the race behind the Sranc, the Second Apocalypse, and the other horrors. This poem describes the first meeting between the Nonmen and the Inchoroi. We learn the most important aspect of the Inchoroi: they are the race of flesh and lovers. Sex is everything to them. They use it as a weapon, they use it to interrogate, and they motivate their creations with it. Back in the prologue, Leweth tells Kellhus how Sranc hunt men for other hungers.

Inchoroi seems derived from inchoate, a word that means (from Merriam-Webster online dictionary) “being only partly in existence or operation; especially imperfectly formed or formulated.” This implies that the Inchoroi, or their creations, are flawed (probably both). Bakker is always adding to my vocabulary.

Early Winter, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna

Esmenet has just finished with a client, a priest named Psammatus, who tells her this will be his last visit. Esmenet tells him he’s found a younger whore and he apologizes. Esmenet responds, “No. Don’t be sorry. Whores know better than to pout like wives.” As he dresses, Esmenet thinks that she’s becoming old, and that is one of the reasons Akka left her.

Inrau’s death had broken Achamian and he left Sumna. She had begged him to take her with him or to stay with her. She doesn’t want her life to return back to the drudgery. She was enamored with greater events.

And this was the irony that held her breathless. For even in the midst of enjoying that new life through Achamian, she’d been unable to relinquish the old. “You say you love me,” Achamian had cried, “and yet you still take custom. Tell me why, Esmi! Why?”

Because I knew you would leave me. All of you leave me . . . all the ones I love.

Esmi,” Psammatus was saying. “Esmi. Please don’t cry, my sweet. I’ll return next week. I promise.” She shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. Said nothing.

Weeping for a man! I’m stronger than this!

Esmenet wipes her tears and asks Psammatus if he knew Inrau. Psammatus answers that he’s the priest who killed himself in the Hagerna, causing a scandal. She asks if he’s sure, and he answers yes. Psammatus leaves, and Esmenet lies in her bed, depressed. She thinks of Inrau, Achamian, and her daughter. Esmenet notices someone at her door.

The man is handsome and richly dress. Esmenet tells him her price, twelve silver talents, and the man strikes her hard, telling her she’s not a “twelve-talent whore.” He tells her relationships should not begin with lies and reveals he’s after information on a Mandate Schoolman, Achamian.

Before Achamian left, he warned her that someone might come, that she would need to play the whore and not ask questions. So she agrees to sell both herself and the information. The pair negotiate the price and the man pulls out a single, gold coin. Esmenet agreed, staring at the coin with greed. The man begins to caress her and Esmenet instantly realizes something is wrong, something inhuman.

Pleasure floods Esmenet, more than she’s ever felt. She is willing to tell the man anything as he interrogates her in the midst of their coupling. She just wants the “nightmarish ecstasy” to continue. She realizes she would do anything to keep feeling this pleasure. She tells him everything about Achamian. Finally, as dawn approaches, the man finish, spilling his seed on her belly.

The golden coin fluttered in his hand, bewitching her with its glitter. He held it above her and let it slip between his fingers. It plopped onto the sticky pools across her belly. She glanced down and gasped in horror.

His seed was black.

Shush,” he said, gathering his finery. “Say a word of this to no one. Do you understand, whore?”

I understand,” she managed, tears now streaming. What have I done?

Esmenet is trying not to throw up as the man opens the shutters. She hears a flap of wings and the man is gone. The man leaves an inhuman stench behind and Esmenet vomits on the floor.

When she finally recovers, Esmenet washes and leaves her room, knowing she can never return. She wanders to the Ecosium Market. It is busy in the morning, and Esmenet is drinking in the sights. She loves Sumna but she had to leave.

She remembers that Achamian told her this might happen. That she would have to barter with whoever comes and be compliant. She would have to sell him out and tell them the truth and she’ll survive. She asks why they would spare her. Achamian answers, by hiding her strength and being useful, they will hope to use you again. She asks if that won’t put him in danger.

I’m a Schoolman, Esmi,” he had replied. “A Mandate Schoolman.”

At last, through a screen of passing people, she saw a little girl standing barefoot in dusty sunlight. She would do. With large brown eyes the girl watched Esmenet approach, too wary to return her smile. She clutched a stick to the breast of her threadbare shift.

I survived, Akka. And I did not survive.

Esmenet stooped before the child and astounded her with the gold talent. “Here,” she said, pressing it into small palms.

So like my daughter.

Achamian is ridding on a mule through the valley of Sudica on his way from Sumna to Momemn. Achamian is taking a longer route to avoid people. The valley, once inhabited in the days of Kyraneas, is no mostly abandoned thanks to Scylvendi raids. Achamian makes his way up to the ruined Fortress-Temple of Batathent and absently wanders through the ruin until nightfall, making his camp in the ruins.

In his sleep, he dreamed of that day when every child was stillborn, that day when the Consult, beaten back to the black ramparts of Golgotterath by the Nonmen and the ancient Norsirai, brought emptiness, absolute and terrible, into the world: Mog-Pharau, the No-God. In his sleep, Achamian watched glory after glory flicker out through Seswatha’s anguished eyes. And he awoke, as he always awoke, a witness to the end of the world.

Achamian is suffering from guilt and depression, fearing that if Inrau really committed suicide then Achamian murdered his student. Achamian tried to find the truth of Inrau’s death but got no where. He was relieved when Nautzera and the Quorum ordered him to Momemn to join the Holy War, to watch the Scarlet Spire.

After Inrau’s death, Achamian relationship with Esmenet deteriorated. He wanted her to distract him from his problems while she endlessly asked him questions, debated the meanings of what he learned. She also continued to see clients. When Achamian offered to pay for her exclusivity, she cried. Esmenet does not want to be Achamian’s whore. Achamian thinks about why he fell in love with her.

Often, in his soul’s eye, she was inexplicably thin and wild, buffeted by rain and winds, obscured by the swaying of forest branches. This woman who had once lifted her hand to the sun, holding it so that for him its light lay cupped in her palm, and telling him that truth was air, was sky, and could only be claimed, never touched by the limbs and fingers of a man. He couldn’t tell her how profoundly her musings affected him, that they thrashed like living things in the wells of his soul and gathered stones about them.

Regret fills Achamian, and he realizes he has become overwhelmed by circumstances and decides to try to make sense of things. He pulls at a sheet of parchment and writes Maithanet’s name in the center, whom Achamian suspects of murdering Inrau. He writes Holy War to the right, “Maithanet’s hammer.” Below, he writes Shimeh, the objective To the right of Shimeh he writes, Cishaurim. He writes Scarlet Spire and traces a line from Cishaurim through Scarlet Spire to the Holy War. Achamian again wonders how Maithanet knew their secret war. Adjacent to Holy War, he writes the Emperor, based on rumors of Xerius’s Investiture.

In the upper, right corner, he adds the Consult. Achamian ponders the Consult, wandering where they were and if they were involved. Finally, he writes Inrau below Maithanet. Achamian shakes away thoughts of guilt, he could not avenge Inrau if he wallowed in self-pity. The answers were on this map.

Achamian often made such maps—not because he worried he might forget something, but because he worried he might overlook something. Visualizing the connections, he found, always suggested further possible connections. Moreover, this simple exercise had often proved a valuable guide for his inquiries in the past. The crucial difference this time, however, was that instead of naming individuals and their connections to some petty agenda, this map named Great Factions and their connections to a Holy War. The scale of this mystery, the stakes, far exceeded anything he had encountered before . . . aside from his dreams.

His breath caught.

A prelude to the Second Apocalypse? Could it be?

Achamian is certain the Consult is involved They could never stay out of something this large. Achamian fixes on Maithanet and ponders how to learn his secrets. And then it comes to him—Proyas. Achamian writes Proyas’s name between Maithanet’s and the Holy War. Proyas, his former student, was a confident of Maithanet. If Achamian could mend his relationship with Proyas, he could learn more of Maithanet. “He needed answers, both to quiet his heart and, perhaps, to save the world.”

Achamian breaks camp and continues his lonely journey.

Esmenet walks through the Gates of Pelts and leaves Sumna. She pauses, looking out over the landscape, fearful. She told herself that everything would be fine. She would “sell peaches” as the soldiers say. “Men mights stand midway between women and the Gods, but they hungered like beasts.”

The road would be kind. Eventually, she would find the Holy War. And in the Holy War she would find Achamian. She would clutch his cheek and kiss him, at long last a fellow traveler.

Then she would tell him what had happened, of the danger.

Deep breath. She tasted dust and cold.

She began walking, her limbs so light they might have danced.

It would be dark soon.

My Thoughts

The Synthese returns, in the guise of a man, and know we have a name to call this abomination—an Inchoroi. As the folk song at the start of the passage says, they are a race of lovers. His interrogation is a hard part of the book to read. The Inchoroi violates her and makes her enjoy it more than anything she’s ever felt.

My heart breaks for Esmenet.

The Inchoroi has polluted her home and Sumna. Even the gold coin, a lot of money for Esmenet, was tainted. And as always with Esmenet, her thoughts turn to her daughter. She’s trying to have some good come out of that terrible encounter.

The Inchoroi embodies sex and yet his seed is black: death. This informs why they make creatures the Sranc, dragons, and the abominations like Sarcellus. They are a the race of flesh and they seem masters forming new things. His very touch stirs pleasure. We’ll learn later that this is a sorcerous glamor.

Achamian has been deeply depressed since Inrau died. And as often happens, it creates a rift between Achamian and Esmenet. He wants to forget his problems and she, I believe, is trying to help Achamian move past his hurt. Achamian, however, was not ready. He needed more to time to grieve.

Finally, sitting in these ruins, Achamian takes action. He realizes he has been wallowing in self-pity and to avenge Inrau, he needs to stop being overwhelmed. The map he draws is a great way to do this. Putting everything on paper, drawing lines, trying to see how everything connects. Achamian has a plan for the first time in the book.

We learn more about the horror of the No-God. The fact that once it was created, every child was stillborn. That is horrible. It goes back to the Inchoroi and what really makes them flawed. While they are creatures of sex and thus of creation, all they create is death. Achamian fears that the first steps of the Second Apocalypse have begun.

And we come back to Esmenet, who like Achamian is also making her own plans, seizing her own actions. She knows the Consult is involved and she is going to track Achamian down and tell him. I’m concerned that she doesn’t appear to have supplies. She is putting a lot of trust into her fellow travelers. Esmenet, you need to be careful. This world is terrible to women, watch your back.

I also hope that Esmenet thoughts on “men stand midway between women and Gods” as lies that men tell women as opposed to actual scripture. Though, in this world, it might be actually in there. And, of course, there is a clear that beliefs shape the metaphysics of this world which is why there is a theory that the Tusk, the old testament of this world, came from the Inchoroi. As Esmenet rightly points out, men are no more holy then women.

Below is a scan of Achamian’s map from the end of the book. I edited out the changes Achamian adds later on in the story. I really like the script that Bakker came up with. Similar to Arabic in its cursive style, but written top to bottom like many Southeast Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean).

Click here to go onto Chapter 10

achamian

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Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Eight

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 2
The Emperor
Chapter 8
Momemn

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

 Kings never lie. They demand the world be mistaken.

Conriyan Proverb

When we truly apprehend the Gods, the Nilnameshi sages say, we recognize them not as kings but as thieves. This is among the wisest of blasphemies, for we always see the king who cheats us, never the thief.

Olekaros, Avowals

My Thoughts

Not much to say on Kings never lie. Many rulers with to much power become egotistical and self-centered. We have seen as much with Xerius so far, and you could apply this saying to any politician.

The second one is a very cynical and disillusioned. The final lines of the novel illuminate this quote, Conphas musing on his role in the destruction, finds it erotic how his actions led to so many dead. He feels like a thief because he did in the dark where no one saw his actions. It makes him feel like a god, hidden and safe from the scrutiny of mere mortals.

Autumn, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Northern Jiünati Steppe

Yursalka, the Utemot who betrayed Cnaiür, is awoken in the night by the sound of something tapping at the hide of his yaksh. He hopes its his young son, Ogatha, who had been missing since yesterday. The taps continue and Yursalka hopes its Ogatha playing a prank, but times have been rough since Kiyuth, and he draws his sword and cautiously heads out into the darkness.

Yursalka spots what had been hitting his tent, not a rock but a piece of a child’s finger. Through lightning, Yursalka spots a figure and yells out, “Murderer!” The figure boasts of finding his son on the steppe and returns him, throwing Ogatha’s severed head at him. Yursalka attacks, but is thrown down by Cnaiür and disemboweled.

A brief flutter of white light, and Yursalka saw him crouching above, saw deranged eyes and a famished grin. Then everything went black.

Who am I?” the blackness asked. “

Nnn-Cnaiür,” he gasped. “M-man-killer . . . M-most v-violent of all men . . .”

A slap, open-handed as though he were a slave.

No. I am your end. Before your eyes I will put your seed to the knife. I will quarter your carcass and feed it to the dogs. Your bones I will grind to dust and cast to the winds. I will strike down those who speak your name or the name of your fathers, until ‘Yursalka’ becomes as meaningless as infant babble. I will blot you out, hunt down your every trace! The track of your life has come to me, and it goes no further. I am your end, your utter obliteration!”

The fight awakens the Utemot, who are stunned to see Cnaiür alive after a year. Cnaiür proclaims himself chieftain and tells them to, “Challenge me or witness my justice!” Cnaiür proclaims Yursalka’s crimes, his betrayal of Cnaiür and the other Utemot who charged with him. Yursalka protests, saying it was to free the Utemot from Cnaiür. Yursalka is outraged, he betrayed his chieftain for honour, not the love of another man. Cnaiür demands to know who objects to his judgment.

While everyone looks on in awe and terror, a “half-Norsirai mongrel Cnaiür taken wife” flung herself at Cnaiür and hugs him. Cnaiür greets Anissi tenderly. Cnaiür then turns to Yursalka’s family, starting with his youngest daughter, and killing all his children and wives until only Omiri, the daughter of Xunnurit is left. He spares her to watch Yursalka suffering before paying for the sins of her father.

Surrounded by his dead and dying family, Yursalka watched Cnaiür loop his bowel like rope about scarred arms. He glimpsed the callous eyes of his tribesman, knew they would do nothing.

Not because they feared their lunatic chieftain, but because it was the way.

My Thoughts

Wow! That’s a little overkill, Cnaiür. Yursalka surely deserved to die like the spineless traitor he was, but to make him watch as you murder his entire family. And god only knows what he did to Omiri after he tortured Yursalka slowly to death. Yursalka believed he did the right thing and is horrified how there is no justice. “Where was the justice in this? He’d [Yursalka] betrayed his chieftain, yes, but for honor. Cnaiür had betrayed his chieftain, his father, for the love of another man! For an outlander who could speak killing words! Where was the justice in this?”

And “killing words” is a great way to describe the Dûnyain.

Cnaiür is half-mad in the section. He is suffering from starvation and has been surviving somehow on the steppes for a year. Not sure why it took him that long to get home. Perhaps there was a lot of dodging other tribes, going slow on foot, and just taking care of the necessities of survival, but it seems long. Then again, I’ve never trudged across the steppes before on foot.

Cnaiür ferocity is softened around Anissi. He clearly cares for her and shows the affection publicly, which Yursalka found to be shameful. Just another reason for the tradition-bound Scylvendi to hate Cnaiür.

Late Autumn, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn

In the year and a half since the Holy War was called, thousands have reached Momemn. Rumor has it, the Shriah was surprised by how many of the low caste joined the Holy War. Freeman were selling wives and children into slavery to pay for passage. Hundreds of atrocities are committed in the name of Holy War and Maithanet was said to weep for all of them.

All these incidents palled in comparison to the Vulgar Holy War led by Calmemunis, Tharschilka, and Kumrezzer. All three signed Xerius Indenture and marched with all the low born that had so far gathered. Maithanet tries to stop the march, but Calmemunis ignores him. Calmemunis and the other Great Names led the host in name only, but most of the host was sworn to no one. At first, they kept the host in line but by the time it reached the frontier, may of the fanatics turned bandits.

General Martemus, shadowing the host, had to fight several battles against them to protect Nansur citizens. Martemus is driven back into the fortress of Gielgath, unable to fight the vast host numbers with two columns. Calmemunis blames the emperor for stopping the supplies, but that was done by Shrial edict. The Shriah then issued Censor on the Vulgar Holy War, and this stopped them for a day. The bulk of the host almost turned back when, by “accident,” an imperial supply train fell into their hands.

The Vulgar Holy War pressed on, looting, massacring and raping as they went. They reached the last obstacle before the heathen lands, the fortress of Asgilioch where three Fanim invasions had been stopped. Prophilas, commander of the fortress, invited the Great Names into the fortress. Calmemunis demanded hostages, received them, and agreed to enter and was promptly captured with the other Great Names. Prophilas had a Shrial Warrant and told them they would be held here until they commanded the Vulgar Holy War to return to Momemn. He assures Calmemunis that they have no hope of defeating the Kianene.

Calmemunis, however, replied with laughter. He admitted that sinew for sinew, weapon for weapon, the Vulgar Holy War was likely no match for the Padirajah’s armies. But this, he claimed, was of no consequence, for surely the Latter Prophet had shown that frailty, when suffused with righteousness, was unconquerable. “We have left Sumna and the Shriah behind us,” he said. “With every step we draw nearer Holy Shimeh. With every step we draw closer to Paradise! Proceed with care, Prophilas, for as Inri Sejenus himself says, ‘Woe to he who obstructs the Way!’”

Prophilas released Calmemunis and the other Great Names before sunset.

The Vulgar Holy War passed into heathen lands and Maithanet retired to prayer until he learned of their fate.

In Momemn, Conphas is being led by Skeaös to Privy Chamber. The Ainoni have arrived early, an old trick by the Scarlet Spire. They had arrived the previous morning and it seemed as if all High Ainon had marched with them. Xerius was hopeful that they would sign his Indenture. At the least, he expected the Ainoni to be civil since they were fellow Ketyai not Norsirai like the Thunyeri and the Tydonni that had already arrived and refused to sign the Indenture. Ainoni were civilized.

Conphas asks if they intentionally showed up early to throw them off balance and Skeaös agrees. The pair hike up Andiamine Heights to the Privy Chamber and Conphas wonders if Skeaös, like many older courtiers, would die of the “clutch” making the climb. Curious, Conphas quickens his pace and Skeaös is able to keep up and shows no sign of strain. Skeaös even continues their conversation, and Conphas grows board with his game.

Skeaös begins briefing Conphas on Eleäzaras, Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spire. When Sasheoka died he was a Subdidact and somehow became the Grandmaster in two years. Skeaös reveals that Conphas was to be excluded from this meeting but that Eleäzaras had requested him. Conphas is reluctant to believe Skeaös, and wonders what game he is playing with him.

Conphas demands to know why, if he’s the linchpin of the plan, did his uncle want to exclude him from the meeting. Conphas realizes Skeaös lied, and forces the old man to admit it. Skeaös reveals that he is troubled by Xerius plan to destroy the Holy War. Skeaös fears for his soul. Conphas is shocked, and asks if Skeaös if Maithanet has “ensnared you as well?” Skeaös say no, saying Conphas is to young to understand. He is to old to make amends before he dies. Conphas realizes Skeaös has been conspiring with his grandmother, hoping to drive a wedge between Conphas and Xerius and have Conphas come running to his grandmother.

Conphas is surprised that Skeaös would do something so close to treachery and rebukes him. Conphas likes his uncle’s plan, as much as it galls him to admit, and tells Skeaös that his soul is a small price to pay to restore the Empire.

In the Privy Chamber, Conphas takes a seat next to his uncle. Skeaös and Cememketri stand by the Emperor and the galleries are filled with Eothic Guardsmen and Imperial Saik. Xerius asks Conphas his opinion on how to handle Eleäzaras. Conphas replies that since they do not know why Eleäzaras joined the Holy War, it will be hard to get him to support the Indenture. Instead, they should bargain in good faith. Xerius agrees.

While Chepheramunni, King-Regent of High Ainon, was announced first, he followed Eleäzaras into the room revealing who really ruled Ainon. Pleasantries are exchanged and Xerius asks why they Scarlet Spire joined the Holy War. Eleäzaras answers they were purchased. Eleäzaras refuses to divulge the details of the contract. Conphas thinks it is a lie, not even the Shriah could afford to purchase them.

Eleäzaras says that Chepheramunni will sign the Indenture gladly in exchange for some concessions. Xerius feigns outrage and begins to explain why those lands belong to Nansur but is interrupted by Eleäzaras. The sorcerer dismiss that as dross and asks if they know what truly is at stake. Conphas answers, “power.” Eleäzaras agrees and asks why Xerius provisioned Calmemunis. Xerius gives the official answer, to end their depredations. Eleäzaras disagrees, revealing he knows the truth.

Xerius protests, asking what he would gain by destroying them. Eleäzaras responds, you would gain the Holy War. Eleäzaras admires their plan, saying the Indenture is a splendid idea.

This small flattery was Xerius’s undoing. For a brief instant his eyes flashed with jubilant conceit. Stupid men, Conphas had found, tended to be excessively proud of their few brilliant moments.

Eleäzaras smiled.

He plays you, Uncle, and you cannot even see.

Eleäzaras then threatens Xerius should he betray the Holy War, and thus, by extension, betray the Scarlet Spire. Not even the Imperial Saik will save him from their wrath. Cememketri rebukes Eleäzaras, pointing out they are in Momemn not Carythusal. Eleäzaras ignores Cememketri and turns to Conphas and asks after the battle, complementing him.

Conphas smiled, deciding the Grandmaster would lick his ass as clean as a cat’s if given the opportunity. For all his penetration, Eleäzaras had misjudged him.

It was time to set him straight. “What Cememketri said just now is true, you know. No matter what your deal with Maithanet, you’ve delivered your School to its greatest peril since the Scholastic Wars. And not just because of the Cishaurim. You’ll be a small enclave of profanity within a great tribe of fanatics. You’ll need every friend you can get.”

For the first time something like real anger surfaced in Eleäzaras’s eyes, like a glimpse of coals through a smoky fire. “We can make the world burn with our song, young Conphas. We need no one.”

The negotiations continue successfully. Chepheramunni signs then Indenture in exchange for all the intelligence the Empire had on the Cishaurim. Conphas notes the hatred in Eleäzaras voice when he said Cishaurim. Conphas realizes the Scarlet Spire already warred with the Cishaurim. Xerius dismissed Conphas theory until Skeaös and Cememketri agreed, and then the Emperor reveals he already had the same suspicions. Conphas wonders if Maithanet knew about this secret war. “Maithanet. What game did he play? For that matter, who was he?”

Days later, news of the Vulgar Holy War’s annihilation reached them. Survivors reported they were destroyed on the Plains of Mengedda. Two courtiers arrived from Kian bearing Calmemunis and the other leader’s severed heads and a secret message for Conphas from Skauras.

We cannot count the carcasses of your idolatrous kin, so many have been felled by the fury of our righteous hand. Praise be the Solitary God. Know that House Ikurei has been heard.

Conphas is stunned, realizing for the first time they had sacrificed an army. “Only the Gods dared such acts.” Many would suspect House Ikurei, but it would not be recorded in the annals. Conphas felt great pride in his secret manipulation of events.

For an instant, Conphas felt like a thief, the hidden author of a great loss. And the exhilaration he felt almost possessed a sexual intensity. He saw clearly now why he so loved this species of war. On the field of battle, his every act was open to the scrutiny of others. Here, however, he stood outside scrutiny, enacted destiny from a place that transcended judgment or recrimination. He lay hidden in the womb of events.

Like a God.

My Thoughts

It is terrible to sell you family into slavery so you can go crusading, but fitting with Bakker’s theme of exposing humanity in all its terrible flaws. It sad how so many of these “Men of the Tusk” end of killing their fellow Inrithi. From the band of Galeoth freebooters to King Nrezza Barisullas of Cironj, high and low take advantage of the Holy War.

Even the Vulgar Holy War, the most faithful and fanatic, turn to rape and plunder on their fellow Inrithi on the march south. I can understand the need to forage for supplies, but to massacre the men and rape their women is over the pale. And Calmemunis and the other, so greedy for land and power, they don’t care. Nothing deters their monumental stupidity. Prophilas is so stunned by his stupidity he just releases them. Not sad to see their severed heads show up after leading so many men to their needless deaths, even if these same men were raping and pillaging and deserved to hang for their crimes.

The Vulgar Holy War is a parallel to the People’s Crusade. When the First Crusade was called, a German priest rallied peasants and mercenaries then marched east to the holy lands. Along the way, the pillaged Christian lands, including sacking the city of Belgrade. Eventually, the People’s Crusade crossed the Byzantine Lands and were destroyed by the Turks.

Conphas self-centered narcissism leads him to attempt murder Skeaös via heart attack just to satisfy his morbid curiosity. Boy do I hate Conphas. This entire chapter shows just what a tool this guy is. At the end of the chapter, he thinks he just like a god, manipulating events from outside the lives of men, and he gets off on it. He is stunned, not by how many deaths can be laid at the feat of House Ikurei, but by the fact that only gods would dare to it.

Skeaös conspiring with Istiya is interesting. Conphas is surprised that the old man has problems with the plan. Religion does strange things to people, and Skeaös is seeing the end of his life approaching. I can see how that leads you to re-prioritize. And the prospect of damnation is not a pleasant one. He’s also in great shape. He climb up all those stairs, kept up with young, in shape Conphas, while talking. Wish I was in that great of shape.

Eleäzaras is so focused on revenge against the Cishaurim, he doesn’t care at all about the Indenture. Conphas is not shaken by Eleäzaras‘s threat, believing the men of the tusk won’t protect the Scarlet Spire well and they will be destroyed in the war and thus will be unable to retaliate against House Ikurei once they betray the war.

More speculation on Maithanet and his mysterious origins and strange ability to know hidden secrets. Conphas is right to have misgivings about the Shriah and whether House Ikurei is actually going to be able to seize the Holy War from the man or not.

The pieces are moving into place, setting the stage for the stage for the novel’s climax as we finish Part 2.

Click here for Chapter Nine!

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Review: The Darkness That Comes Before

The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing 1)

by R. Scott Bakker

Reviewed by JMD Reid

darkness-that-comes-beforeThe Darkness that Comes Before is the start of R. Scott Bakker’s metaseries The Second Apocalypse. Here he unfolds the rich, grimy world of the Three Seas and beyond. I was hooked with this series right from the beginning reading about refugees fleeing the end of the world and the founding of the Dûnyain. I was intrigued by the history teased before me and glad I found this book in the SeaTac Airport’s Borders.

What follows is a Fatnasy series unlike any I had read. Its roots are firmly in the heroic fantasy that developed over the twentieth century, including Tolkein. There are many illusions and parallels to the Lord of the Rings, but make no mistake, Bakker isn’t copying, he’s twisting, bending, creating a world that is grimy, filthy, myriad in the perversity of human lust, greed, envy, and religious fervor.

When a young man name Kellhus, who unknowingly carries the blood of ancient kings sets out on a quest inot the greater world, it is a familiar story. But Kellhus is a product of two thousand years of breeding by his secretive group the Dûnyain. His intellect is beyond normal men. He has been trained to understand the source of men’s passions. To us world-born, we are but children before him. With cold logic, Kellhus will do anything to accomplish his mission—even dominating an entire Holy War.

In the average Fantasy, Kellhus would be our protagonist. But he’s not. That is Achamian, the middle-aged sorcerer and spy, an overweight man prone to drink, drugs, and prostitutes. A man whose decades working as a spy has made him cynical of the world. He has drunk with kings and beggars and realizes not much separates them. He is on another mission for the Mandate, his order of sorcerers, to discover if the Consult has any role in the Holy War called by the new Shriah (Pope). Achamian will return to the holy city of Sumna, and to Esmenet the Whore, perhaps the only person who truly knows him.

Politics and maneuvering dominate this book. While there is warfare and action, much of the book is a contest between men seeking to dominate their circumstances, from Emperor Ikurie Xerius who plans to harness the Holy War to restore the glory of his waning Empire to Cnaiür urs Skiötha who seeks to prove himself the best of his nomadic people. And at the heart, Kellhus, the Prince of Nothing and harbinger of the Apocalypse, arriving out of the wastelands. He is one of the conditioned and all will yield before him.

Intrigue, politics, cryptic prophecies declaring the end of the world, philosophy, faith, sin, sorcererous battles, warfare and the battered souls who strive to make sense of their world. The Darkness that Comes Before is both sweeping and historical at the same time is it deeply personal as R. Scott Bakker delves into human nature in all its vagaries, the good and the ill. This series has a rich cast of flawed characters.

You can buy The Darkness that Comes Before on Amazon!

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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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