Stealing the Holy War
By Cheryl Morgan
The classic structure of a fantasy trilogy is that the characters spend volume one finding out what is going on and getting together; they spend volume two getting from here to there; and volume three is the climactic finale. The Lord of the Rings illustrates this well. But volume two is a hard thing to get right. All too often it becomes just a travelogue with no real development of the characters or the plot. At worst it becomes an exercise in plot token collection or an excuse to have the characters visit every location on The Map. If you want to know how to do volume two well I recommend that you read The Warrior Prophet, part two of the Prince of Nothing series, by R. Scott Bakker.
When I read volume one, The Darkness That Comes Before, I found it a little hard to follow. Most fantasy writers create very simplistic worlds that are very easy to get to know. Bakker’s world is richly detailed with a mixture of different cultures and a wealth of political intrigue. It was hard work following multiple plotlines and getting to know everything that was going on in the book. With volume two, however, all of the introduction has been done and all of the major characters are in place. The Holy War is about to set out across the desert towards Shimeh, and Bakker can concentrate solely on his characters and his plot.
Having said that, the world of the book is very cleverly designed to be just familiar enough for a well-educated reader to know what is going on, but just different enough for no one to make the mistake that Bakker is talking directly about the Crusades rather than using that setting to talk more generally about political and philosophical issues. It would be wrong to see the book as a story about Christians and Muslims, and indeed you’d have to stretch things a lot to interpret it that way. As a book about the stupidities into which Faith can draw people, however, it is excellent.
As readers of the first volume will remember, the central character (the Prince of Nothing himself) is Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a clever young man who has been trained from birth in disciplines of science and psychology unknown to most of the rest of the characters in the book. Dropping Kellhus into the middle of the Holy War is rather like taking a rather more sane version of Gregori Rasputin, educating him in martial arts and science, and dropping him into the Crusaders with orders to subvert the whole enterprise to his own ends. The arrogant and egotistical war leaders are no match for him, and the frightened and superstitious soldiers are putty in his hands. Kellhus is, in fact, a master of spin who uses his manipulative talents to encourage people blinded by Faith to engage in reckless warfare that mainly benefits him and leaves most of them dead. Any connections between this and real world events that you may draw are entirely your own.
Telling that story, of course, takes time, and a lot of detailed characterization. But tell it he must because Bakker needs to get his main characters to the point where they can play a significant part in the grand finale. In particular he needs the involvement of the Mandate Schoolman, Drusas Achamain. Aside from us all-knowing readers, Achamain is the only character who fully understands that there is a deeper game being played, that the whole enterprise of the Holy War might actually be a charade, a distraction engineered by the mysterious Consult, the agents of the No-God who are plotting the resurrection of their dread master. It is also obvious to us readers that Kellhus will have a major role to play in that conflict, though quite what role is entirely another matter.
Interestingly Bakker drops a number of hints along the way that his world is not all that it seems. In particular there are characters known as "skin spies" who can take the form of other humans. They remind me a lot of the face dancers who worked for the Bene Tleilaxu in Dune, but there are hints that their powers are technological in nature rather than magical. If you are going to produce a three-volume series, the last thing you want to do is give away all of your secrets in volume one. Bakker seems to have a big surprise planned for the final volume, and as it has been released in the US I’m itching to get my hands on it.