The Thousandfold Thought - R. Scott Bakker This review applies to all three volumes of Bakker's 'The Prince of Nothing' series. First off, let me say that I'm really impressed with what Bakker achieved here. I'm reminded of something Guy Kay said when asked why he wrote The Fionavar Tapestry about wanting to prove that there was still life in the old tropes of high fantasy, as designed by Tolkien, and that new things could be done with them as opposed to mere slavish imitation. I think Bakker succeeded admirably in this (whereas Guy Kay's actual creation of something really new, in Fionavar at least, is debatable).

From the explanation of the Elves' immortality, as well as a really interesting extrapolation of what that would mean for a contigent being, to the depiction of evil so utterly repulsive and frightening that it makes Melkor and Sauron look like Sunday school teachers this series really played with the traditional high fantasy motifs in ways I found very intriguing. Add to that a magic system based on principles from the epistomology of different schools of philosophy and a cast of characters whose flaws make them almost painfully real to the reader and you'd expect to get a smash hit on your hands. Except that doesn't really seem to have happened and I think I know why.

In a nutshell the books, and the world they present, are just so unambiguosuly dark that I think few readers have the stomach to follow Bakker where he wants to lead them. The most redeeming character of the series, the downtrodden wizard Drusus Achamian, is ultimately a loser who seems only to be a relative good-guy in that he's too feckless to be effectively out for himself. Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the character who would be the titular hero of the series as written by anyone else, is more akin to a natural force than a man and the utter vacuity of his moral centre is so frightening that it makes him both more and less human than any other character of the novel. Cnaiür urs Skiötha, another incredibly well-drawn and fascinating character, is also so driven by his broken nature that while what he is capable of is impressive, it certainly isn't anything the reader is likely to relate to. Bakker obviously has a point to make in his story about human nature, and even the nature of reality, but it certainly isn't a point that is likely to sit well with too many readers unless they like their world view leavened with a heaping portion of nihilism. One begins to wonder, as we learn more about this world and the sleeping great evil that is apparently looming on the horizon, why anyone would bother trying to save such an utterly flawed universe anyway. Despite all of this, though, the world as Bakker paints it is an incredibly vivid and interesting one. The hints of 'what has gone before' that are dropped in the story give real texture to this place and the mysteries still left unanswered are as tantalising as those for which we do receive some explanation. It is really fascinating to see how someone using similar tropes and building blocks to Tolkien could have built something so completely different, and yet still so compelling.

The story itself follows the rise of a great crusade between warring nations against the backdrop of the rise to power of an ancient force of evil which most of the world does not even believe in anymore. Behind and within this backdrop are woven the tales of the three main characters (Achaimian, Kellhus, and Cnaiur) as they each pursue their own goals and are inextricably led to one another. The climax of the series could be considered something of an anti-climax, for while each of the characters has, in some sense, found what they were seeking and begun upon a new path, the much larger movements of the story (both the crusade and the rise of sleeping evil) are left in media res for another series to pick up on. Bakker has now released two books in this continuation of the larger story, but many readers may find it frustrating that so much of what could be considered the overarching plot of the novels is left completely hanging by the end of volume three.

Overall I was torn by this series. One the one hand I think Bakker did a commendable job in building a world that did truly new things with the high fantasy genre and I was always fascinated by each new mystery he revealed; on the other hand I ended up feeling like I needed a shower after reading these books. The evil in it is presented so convincingly, and the very nature of the world he created is so bleak, that I just don't relish the thought of visiting the place again. Add to that the fact that the term "sympathetic character" doesn't seem to be in Bakker's vocabulary and you are left with a series that is definitely tailored to the tastes of the minority...but then again, maybe that's a good thing.