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Praiseworthy but flawed
on 12 July 2005
This is an interesting series with great potential, rewarding in many ways, frustrating in others, and it deserves a review. What is written below covers both novels in the series published to date.
First, the good points. Bakker has created a genuinely interesting world. There is a good sense of his novel taking place across a great gulf of time, and he puts many of his set pieces in environments that stem from his world's antiquity. His writing often flows well, and many scenes are genuine page turners. In the Consult, he has fashioned something original, particularly its skin spies, and the scenes with them are excellent, sometimes spine-tingling, in particular the ravishing of Esmenet and the unmasking of Skeaos in Book 1. His politics are ambitious and have something of the complexity of the real world, although he seems to prefer attempting to psychoanalyse his characters and their actions and choices rather than deal with the really hard work and questions thrown up by the grand political vistas he lays out. His use of dreams to allow the propagation and preservation of knowledge across centuries is also interesting, although woefully under-exploited, as are the intriguing Cishaurim sorcerors. In Achamian and Esmenet he has fashioned two well thought out, usually sympathetic and engaging characters, and in the Scylvendi chieftain Cnaiur a genuinely nasty chap caught between two worlds and loyalties and for whom we end up rooting.
Now for the critical points. This is a world supposedly under threat from an old menace, the No-God, which brought about an Apocaplypse in earlier times. However, we have to wait until the end of Book 2 before we have any inkling of what the No-God is, and why we should fear it, and as the volume ends we still have no idea what it represents, or how near it might be to a resurrection. His world is genuinely interesting, as mentioned above, but the parallels with our own world's antiquity and history are at times a little too obvious. The Nansur come across as more Roman than the Romans, and the Kian and their religion are quite obviously inspired by Arabs and Islam, even to the point of their taking the opposing Inrithi religion's holy city. This city is supposed to be won back by a Holy War called by the Shriah - Jerusalem, crusades and popes...? Additionally, we do not know what its people know or believe about the Apocalypse and Consult; too many important points, like the existence of a weapon that has killed the No-God, or that the Scylvendi once fought for it and in fact justify their traditional bellicosity out of an attempt to avenge its death, are just dropped into the narrative and never developed.
Bakker's battles, politics and tactics of the Holy War are often not credible. His battles are something out of medieval tapestries, full of characters and people for most of whom we have absolutely no affinity, and consist of waves of horsemen charging into lines of infantry. Most students of military history would agree, the cinematically stunning images of the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King aside, that horses are not stupid enough to charge into disciplined footmen, although their riders might well be. One does not need to go back to antiquity or the Middle Ages to find proof of that - infantry tactics of the 18th and 19th century European wars show how cavalry was impotent in the face of footmen in square, Waterloo being the classic example. Additionally, the Holy War suffers from some quite shockingly inept leadership, and its supposed 'trial' in the desert, when it ends up massacring its camp followers and slaves, was just plain silly, and reflects Bakker's preference for psychology rather than the nitty gritty of logistics and planning.
He sets up clashing political interests, and then fails to follow up on how these interests play out, preferring some highly suspect, and at times very tedious and intractable, psychology instead. He puts great store in telling us that sorcerors are the blasphemers of this world but never really tells us why, nor why one like Achamian could still be the tutor of an heir to a throne, although his use of battlefield sorcery is imaginative. It seems that the mechanism to solve these clashing interests is Kellhus, but as a character he lacks a great deal of credibility, and it is hard to feel any sympathy for him or understanding of what he is after. The use of Kellhus involves much of the suspect and hard to follow psychology and philosophy, and Kellhus' skills in manipulation and understanding of other men are hard to believe coming as they do from someone who has spent his life in isolation with a monk-like sect that has cut itself off from civilisation for two thousand years. Where, for example, and how would he have learnt to read expressions? There is a silly scene, seemingly thrown in when Bakker realised this gap in the construction of Kellhus' character, in which he tries to explain it. It would be spoiling to reveal what it is, but the scene assumes that all men have the same expressions for the same things, and that such artificial circumstances can produce something that will be meaningful in the real world.
All that said, the series is good, one of the better recent ones, well worth a read, and all the more praiseworthy by being Bakker's first published work. As well, the final pages of Book 2 set things up nicely for future volumes.