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The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott BakkerPaperback edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn The Thousandfold Thought, R. Scott Bakker comes so close to being crushed under the weight of his literary ambitions that you almost jump for joy to see him emerge at the end of it all relatively unscathed. Bakker has really dared a great deal in constructing this trilogy, and he’s broken virtually every rule fantasy fans have come to expect. 

These are, on general principle, good things. Some of Bakker’s choices have amounted to biting off more than he can chew. But so what? His willingness to do it is admirable enough that when all of the smoke from this book’s breathless final chapters has cleared, you’ll be happy to give the guy a big hand. I’m going to be a lot more impressed by an author who strives to take his work beyond the ordinary, and succeeds as best he can, than one who simply takes the easy road and succeeds at formula 100% of the time, solely because the roadmarks have already been laid. 

The Thousandfold Thought is, interestingly, the shortest volume of the trilogy — two-thirds the length of The Warrior-Prophet — but it provides the clearest picture of the intended scope of Bakker’s story. (Instead of his usual brief, explanatory appendices, Bakker closes out this book with an aptly titled “encyclopedic glossary” that’s 100 pages long!) In The Prince of Nothing, Bakker is a grimdark pioneer, reframing escapist epic fantasy as a vehicle for an elaborate philosophical exegesis on the nature of belief, knowledge, memetics and free will. The comforting moral clarity of the genre’s past is left at the door. What’s empirically true or false, objectively right or wrong, becomes irrelevant in a world where a person’s actions are rooted in beliefs, ideologies, assumptions he often doesn’t realize he has just absorbed from his culture — an ignorance the Warrior-Prophet Kellhus calls the “darkness that comes before.” When entire nations of men are swept up in a frenzy of righteous fervor, all too easily manipulated by leaders who know exactly which hot buttons to push and how hard, the very notion of freethought dies, and people no longer move events but are moved by them. And the downfall of civilizations is found in men’s insistence on foregoing cold hard truth in favor of taking sides between their conflicting beliefs/ideologies. Gee, fantasy sure was easier to wrap your head around when all you had to do to defeat Evil was toss a ring into a volcano.

I don’t think that Bakker is arguing that free will flat does not exist, only that to live in total freedom, utterly uninfluenced by the received beliefs and circumstances of one’s culture or environment, is just not possible. Moreover, you’re never going to find anyone on any side in any conflict who will say outright, “We’re the bad guys!” Bakker explores this premise rather niftily through his creation of the Dûnyain, the race to which Kellhus belongs. The Dûnyain have isolated themselves for centuries and have selectively bred and trained their people to master their desires and circumstances rather than be mastered by them. It is because of his training in understanding human nature that Kellhus is so easily able to wrest control of the Holy War. He knows the importance of perceptions — if someone chooses to think of you as their superior then that’s how they’ll treat you — and how easy it is to manipulate them. The interesting paradox here is that for all their training, the Dûnyain are in the end at the mercy of events as much as anyone else. After all, Kellhus’s whole odyssey began with nothing less than a summons from his father. And the actions of the sinister Consult threaten all. 

Yes, Bakker’s choice to tackle such weighty themes does sometimes make his books slow-moving, difficult, expository. It’s fair to say that not a lot actually happens in much of this final volume, which can seem kind of a letdown considering we’ve been plowing through a thousand pages waiting for this massive Holy War to reach its gory and apocalyptic climax. Bakker lets the first half of this book take its sweet time. We get some pompous speechifying. The motivations and desire lines of some characters often lack focus or apparent sense. Drusas Achamian, despite the existential terror he’s been experiencing over the looming Second Apocalypse, spends most of his time brooding over losing the love of Esmenet to Kellhus, indicating he rally needs to prioritize. 

But when Bakker pulls out the stops in the last hundred pages, the resulting flash flood of action is spectacular enough to offset the mildly disappointing fact that the resolution of Kellhus’ primary goal — the meeting with his father Moënghus and the culmination of the saga’s themes — is played out mostly through dialogue. Bakker intercuts their scenes with gloriously chaotic moments of battle that often play out like a Heironymous Bosch painting come to hellish life. It makes for one of the most freakishly unputdownable conclusions to a fantasy trilogy I’ve read in a long time.

A wildly uneven, overreaching, too often humorless, full of itself, and just plain messy epic The Prince of Nothing may well be. But it’s a worthy mess all the same, even if Bakker wound up in the end being just as swept away by the story he set in motion as any of his hapless characters. 

Followed by The Judging Eye, the first volume of a sequel series titled The Aspect-Emperor.