Flatter your reader. That sounds like a pretty solid narrative strategy! Make your audience think they are really smart, and they’ll probably come back for more. Books can do this automatically, just by the virtue of taking us into the thoughts of other people – not so easy in real life.
Some stories take us into the minds of super-smart people destined to rule everything. Funny though… it’s usually true that the masses, who are us, tend to identify with the top of the pyramid and not the bottom, the rulers and not the downtrodden. R. Scott Bakker’s The Thousandfold Thought takes this tendency and plays with it in nifty ways.
This book is the conclusion to a fantasy trilogy called The Prince of Nothing that takes the Crusades as the basis for its main story. Bakker translates the historical events into a realm of magic – and sure enough, death, massacre, and destruction happen under the ostensible motivation to reclaim a holy land from infidels. And the magic only ups the destructive potential.
Bakker focuses on an incipient god-king named Kelhus, the prince of the trilogy’s title, who is kind of an oddity. Kelhus doesn’t grow; he starts as smart and incredibly insightful and he stays that way. He stands so far above the fray of Inrithism and Fanimry (Christianity and Islam respectively) that he pushes everyone around like pawns – by this book, he’s taken over the holy war for his own purposes. With his amazing comprehension, he can easily pierce the veil, so to speak. As Kelhus’ father puts it, in regard to the two sides:
Lies that have conquered and reproduced over the centuries. Delusional world views that have divided the world between them… Two great thoughtless beasts that take the souls of Men as their ground. (361)
So, Bakker uses the backdrop of a Crusades-analog as a way to discuss the power of competing forms of thought. Or rather: such power over the minds of the weak, people unlike Kelhus.
Of course things don’t resolve quite so clearly, since Kelhus is not the only character who can see what is going on. At least two other characters, Achamian and Cnaiur, both powerful in their own way, have an inkling of how manipulated the masses have been. And Achamian’s friendship with Kelhus doesn’t last past the end of the book.
That’s partly because of Kelhus’ merciless drive to another goal altogether. He sees beyond the crusade at hand to an even greater threat – there’s a dark lord called the No-God, and Kelhus needs to end the holy war in preparation to fight this evil being. In one sense, Bakker is loading his narrative dice – is he saying that religious impulses harm the real battle, prevent people from seeing the true dangers in the world? I don’t think you can apply this as an allegory in a straightforward way, but it’s definitely thought-provoking.
Other writers have used this identify-with-the-superbeing narrative strategy. I see similarities in Bakker’s thoughtful trilogy to Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which was made up of heavy tomes and sometimes mystified people about its popularity. As I see it, Dune‘s appeal was the process of becoming privy to absolute power and understanding. For example, we could see and understand a conspiracy on the scale of 100 centuries. Both Herbert’s series and Bakker’s trilogy share a certain chattiness, which might be necessary to get across such complicated stuff.
A few words about this book’s ending. In The Thousandfold Thought, Bakker wraps up a war, a trilogy, and a love triangle in about five confusing pages. Major issues seem unresolved. In one way, I admire this ending, since it’s the polar opposite of the absurdly stretched conclusion of Lord of the Rings – The Prince of Nothing becomes more like 2001 than a typical fantasy. What happens in the fight with the No-God? We simply don’t know yet.
I’ll be curious to see the fan reaction to the end of this book. I’ve complained about many endings in my Gutter pieces, but I’ve also defended the conclusion of other long fantasy series or books. Most notably, I liked the circuitous ending of Stephen King’s Dark Tower VII. Last month, I praised the diminish-the-protagonists conclusion of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. All told, these are three interesting endings, and I liked them because they didn’t go for the easy way out. They appeal to my perverse side too!
Looking back, I like what Bakker did with the Crusades. In the first two books (I’ve reviewed both over at Challenging Destiny, The Darkness That Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet), I could tell that the Crusades-analog was more than a skeleton to hang a story on. And while the series does have some stereotypical fantasy trappings – for example, this book might look like a 500+ page tome, but it’s got 100 pages of “Encyclopedic Glossary” at the end along with some quite Tolkienesque maps – Bakker torques the epic fantasy genre into some nifty shapes. Recommended.