The Thousandfold Thought, by R. Scott Bakker

Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein

A son's search for his father is a common theme in fiction, but probably nobody has ever done it like R. Scott Bakker in The Prince of Nothing trilogy. In his version both the father and son belong to an order that breeds for intelligence and practices the art of reading expressions as a way of discovering a person's innermost thoughts. When Anasûrimbor Kellhus ventures out into the wider world he discovers that ordinary humans regard him as a god, that he can pretty much make anyone do anything he wants. And so he ends up hijacking a holy war, just because their destination, the holy city of Shimeh, is close to where his father lives.

The Holy War begins when Maithanet, the spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples, calls upon his followers to take back Shimeh from the infidels. The men who answer his summons come from dozens of lands and cultures; many of the leaders have their own goals, which often have nothing to do with religion. The story of their long bloody journey to the holy city, the subject of the first two books of the trilogy, has the complexity of real history; there are even episodes taken directly from the Crusades.

In the third book, The Thousandfold Thought, the vast, ponderous army finally reaches Shimeh. By this time events have diverged sharply from our own time-line. Kellhus is now called the Warrior-Prophet and is worshipped by most of the army — and even he is starting to wonder about his true destiny.

Also traveling with the Holy War is a sorcerer named Drusas Achamian. Here too Bakker defies convention; his sorcerer — fortyish, overweight, melancholy, and slightly ridiculous — is unlike any in the fantasy canon. He's melancholy mostly because he and the rest of his School are forced to relive an apocalypse every night in their dreams; the war's atrocities, which took place two thousand years ago, were originally experienced by the School's founder. He's ridiculous because he, and the others in his School, know from their dreams that their enemy was not completely vanquished all those years ago, that the apocalypse will come again — but after two thousand years no one believes them.

He's also a subject of ridicule because he's fallen in love with a prostitute, Esmenet. Esmenet joins the Holy War as well, and, like everyone else, falls under Kellhus's spell. And poor Achamian discovers how hard it is to compete for a woman when your rival is a god.

Events comes to a boil in this third book: the army attacks Shimeh, Achamian's affection for Kellhus turns to hatred (Achamian, whose life has had its share of failures, makes an appealing contrast to the cold, calculating Kellhus), various Schools of sorcery contend with each other, Kellhus finds his father.

Unfortunately, a bare-bones summary of the plot cannot do justice to the complexity of this world. There is as much detail here as in George R.R. Martin's series, but Bakker goes for depth rather than breadth — instead of a cast of thousands he gives us a history that spans four thousand years. Whole civilizations rise, migrate, build cities, and fall; wars are fought; religions are founded and fight other religions and slowly change through the centuries. And there are other races on this world, strange and nearly incomprehensible; it was a war between two of them, four thousand years ago, that set everything in motion. (Don't worry — most of this is in the "Encyclopedic Glossary" at the back, not in the novels themselves. But the characters frequently refer to history, and it provides a very real foundation for the later events.)

This complexity extends even to the names, which grow organically from the cultures; they're not, as is often the case in fantasy, pale imitations of Norse or Celtic. Golgotterath, Junriüma, Momemn — it doesn't get any better than that.

The world, in other words, is whole and consistent, a real place. You don't have the feeling that you might accidentally fall through the cardboard scenery; it is constructed from the best materials, by a craftsman who knows what he is doing.

There are too many battles for my taste, and they go on too long, but fans of military fantasy will certainly enjoy them. And there are too many philosophical ruminations and discussions, especially when Kellhus makes one of his speeches, but fans of philosophical fantasy, if there are such people, will probably like these.

According to the publisher this is the conclusion of the series, but there seems to be a lot that's still unresolved. Perhaps there will be another trilogy after this one — and unlike with most continuing series, I'll be looking forward to it

Overlook Press
$26.95, 508pp, hc

Review first published in Locus, January 2006.

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