If you like grimdark fantasy then surely you’ve already heard of R. Scott Bakker’s trilogy: The Prince of Nothing, and subsequent quadrilogy: The Aspect Emperor. But if you like fantasy at all and you’ve got a strong stomach, you need to read these books. There is nothing out there that comes close to matching the poetic prose, historical acumen, and hard hitting battles and emotions of this fantasy series.
The old wizard sought to purge the injury from his glare. This was what Kellhus always did, a mad part of him recalled. Always exhuming shallow graves. Always murdering what piety you hoped to raise against him.The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker
“Dif-different times! he stammered. “Different days!”
Anasurimbor Kellhus, Holy Aspect-Emperor of the Three seas, loomed as the incarnation of tempest, as drought and plague. “I am a tyrant, Akka, the most terrible soul to walk this World in an Age. I have butchered whole nations merely to terrorize their neighbors. I have authored the death of a thousand thousand souls, glutted the Outside with the fat of the living. Never has a mortal been so feared, so hated, so adored as I.”
This is gonna be a no-spoiler review for The Prince of Nothing trilogy and The Aspect Emperor quadrilogy written by R. Scott Bakker.
Who’s going to love it?
Readers who want the most epic, grandiose, intellectual fantasy ever conceived, written in a style that almost feels archaic, which adds to the sense of otherworldliness. Readers who want worldbuilding as deep and intricate as the flaws and emotions of the characters. Are going to love this book series.
Who’s going to hate it?
If you have no patience for pretentious writing, unpronounceable names, convoluted histories. If you gag at lurid descriptions of bodily fluids spilled in violence and passion. Anyone who would excuse themselves at the first sign of murder erection. (I’m sadly not being metaphorical about that.) You might want to steer clear of these books.
What I thought of it
If I were writing the cover blurb for The Prince of Nothing, the first book in the first trilogy, here’s what I might say:
One man has almost limitless arcane power. He can sing mountains to rubble or kingdoms to ash, but he’s ruled by his body and his passions, he’s an addict and he’s in love with a woman he can’t have. Enter a second man, a literal Prince of Nothing, a pauper, without magic, without anything, other than an inhuman amount of self-control…
That’s just the setup of just two characters in this sprawling epic.
I actually found the very first book a little bit hard to get into. The first half was merely okay or good fantasy from an author who’d clearly studied a lot of history and was interested in Roman conquests, the crusades, things like that, but then, in that first book, comes a twist and it was full tilt cavalry charge from there to the very end of book seven.
This is lush historical fantasy, but that historical inspiration comes with a price.
There’s a ton of violence and gore in these books and way more rape and murder erections than I think are necessary. The first trilogy, The Prince of Nothing, is pretty violent, pretty dark. But the next quadrilogy, The Aspect Emperor, is darker.
…and this might sound like I’m giving a negative review, but there are also thoughtful and emotional moments that stick me and for better or for worse this author is smart, he has something to say, and he writes pretty. He is painting with words whether he’s painting character tragedy:
“You are my child, my son, Moenghus-never forget that! But you are also the child of legends, of martyrs. Short your mother or your father, none of this would be, and the very world would be doomed.” She spoke in the rush to make reparations, to recast things lost as things gained. But the heart knows catastrophe as well as the mouth knows the tongue and its propensity to lie. Either way, there was very little she could say that would long survive the ruthless scrutiny of his brothers and sisters. They would decide what he thought and how he felt about the matter. They always had.The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker
or he’s painting landscapes:
Distances piled upon distances as with any other vista, but the land was so scalloped as to possess an edge, to scrape as an oyster shell against the habits of the eye. Men are but one more fruit of the earth, at least apart from the divinity that animates them. To gaze upon land, any land, is to gaze upon what can sustain Men. But to peer across the Field Apalling was to look upon a land that suffered no life whatsoever, that rebuked not simply Men, but their very foundation. “No ants,” the Southron Men would say, disguising their unease by pretending to marvel. “The land has no ants.” And they shuddered for the premonition of poison.The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker
If you are a lover of fantasy and you don’t mind some violence, some gore, these books are a fantasy tour of Nietzschean philosophy with the Lannisters or even the Boltons as your guides. And less a tour really than a graduate course with hands-on practical labs in which you will need your safety goggles and your lab gloves because there’s gonna be a lot of bodily fluids flying around.
High brow, philosophical “what ifs” are rendered into the life and death reality of this fantasy setting with the interesting metaphysics of the afterlife and the magic system. It matters in this world if god exists, if heaven and hell, free will, the ubermensch, morality, good and evil, these things are real or not, and how they manifest. It impacts the application of magic, the outcome of wars, the lives and afterlives of peasants, soldiers, and God Emperors.
This haymaker punch of a seven book series is the love child of George RR Martin, Frank Herbert, and Tolkien. George RR Martin’s character development and cruelty is present, as are Herbert’s socio political religious philsophical depths, and Tolkien’s worldbuilding and histories. Notably absent, however, is Tolkien’s compassion. This is a grimdark world.
But if you like fantasy and can handle Game of Thrones at its absolute worst, its most shocking, violent, depraved, then you owe it to yourself to read these books.
Did I enjoy reading these books?
I was certainly possessed. I was driven by the darkness that comes before, unable to be a self-moving soul, I had to keep turning pages.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: Prince of Nothing & Aspect Emperor”
Terrific review as usual, Neal. This definitely sounds like the kind of thing that would be lots of fun… for someone else. Grimdark and “edgy” are huge right now. Whole game systems, especially Warhammer 40k, are built around a premise of endless fighting and no hope. Example:
“After a longwinded journey, Lucius reached Sanakht’s tower. The swordsman welcomed Lucius’s challenge. Sure of his own victory, Sanakht asked Lucius if he was eager to die, to which Lucius replied that he has already experienced death once. Sanakht accurately claims that Lucius sought him out to understand why he came back from the dead. In the unfolding duel, Sanakht was always a step ahead of Lucius, taunting his natural ability as being inferior to his own learned skill. Lucius was surprised to receive tips on his own technique from the Thousand Son swordsman, but refused the notion of requiring help.”
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I don’t think this series would be a fit for you, but I’m hesitant to compare it even to Warhammer (which I’ve neither read nor played). The grim darkness in the Bakker books isn’t so much constant battle as constant misery and suffering, elegantly described (but also some battle and plenty of bloodlust in the most literal sense).
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Warhammer’s novel and source material is page after page of grim, relentless, and futile war between a Nazilike human empire and horrifying, pitiless, inhuman foes. It all reads like fan fiction written by bros who have never picked up a weapon in their lives. If you really want to you can peruse it here, but once you’ve read a few sections you’ve read them all.
There are a lot of authors like Bakker, some better than others. There has also been a trend of making existing material more “edgy” and grimdark because it has big appeal to the fanboy base.
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