“Faith is the truth of passion. Since no passion is more true than another, faith is the truth of nothing.”
So what’s the book about?
Maithanet, the ruler of a thousand temples, calls for a holy war against the infidels – an enterprise that attracts a wide variety of profiteers and interested parties. Somewhat less obviously, the sorcerer Achamian, as an agent of his order, is on the trail of a mysterious and much more dangerous enemy: an assassin behind whom perhaps something worse lurks – the power of the “Counsellors”, long thought to have disappeared. What does it mean when they reappear? Will it fulfil a 2000-year-old prophecy? Is the Second Apocalypse looming? But even if so, in whom should Achamian confide? No one outside the Order believes in the ancient prophecy anyway, and among the few who might be interested in it in this snake pit of power tacticians, schemers and fanatics, the truth might be in exactly the wrong hands …
“The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?”
These aspects attracted me the most while reading.
- So what is so special about Bakker’s work? Well, this question cannot be answered unequivocally, because basically the starting situation could hardly be more classic: a sinister threat awakens after millennia and prepares to plunge the world into ruin forever. But if there’s one thing Bakker can’t be accused of, it’s simply rehashing familiar motifs and packaging them in a classic way, because the fact that Tolkien is one of his models only becomes apparent at second or third glance: True, we encounter alien peoples who take on the functions of elves or orcs, and yet Bakker places every familiar motif in a completely different context. He plays with classical elements with aplomb and often sets out to lead the reader to false conclusions and then to disrupt or even overthrow time-honoured patterns. Thus the focus is solely on the humans, whose peoples he has elaborated with great attention to detail, while the alien Cûnuroi are little more than relics from a distant past. Through his unsparing depiction of a cruel world, the author succeeds in breaking almost every cliché; a few unusual ideas, some of which one would rather attribute to science fiction, do the rest. And so a multi-faceted fantasy world emerges with a depth that is expressed in the smallest details: In idioms of various tribes and peoples, in thought-provoking quotations from fictional philosophers, in a multitude of historical figures that seem almost tangible, in an extensive backstory and in wonderful descriptions of the landscape. But above all in the philosophically tinged trains of thought that Bakker always lets flow in and thus occasionally subtly directs the reader’s attention without patronising him.
- In addition, there is a darkly poetic style of writing, which is just as convincing with short, apt formulations and a linguistic density as with long, artfully interwoven descriptions, into which Bakker lets his philosophical thoughts flow. The result is an atmosphere of such tangible density that some readers may feel constricted by it. On the other hand, after a certain point I was only fascinated by how skilfully and consistently Bakker builds up his gloomy-pessimistic scenario. A catastrophe is brewing in the background and yet the apocalypse is no more than a legend that is hardly believed after two thousand years. In the dreams of the mages of the Order of the Mandati, however, events of the past are omnipresent, and in this form they run like a thread through history.
- The characters will divide opinions, because on the one hand Bakker describes his characters as detailed and vividly as everything else, on the other hand he consistently does without clear sympathetic figures; only Achamian, a sorcerer plagued by self-doubt, could pass for one. We only encounter women in the form of will-less or tearful prostitutes or in the shape of a scheming emperor’s mother, and otherwise there are an unusually large number of psychopaths among the characters: paranoid emperors, megalomaniac, narcissistic emperor’s monkeys and tribal warriors celebrating violence. Above all, however, Dûnyain, members of a millennia-old order who train their superior intellect in complete isolation and detach themselves from any supposedly irrational moral concept until only the end justifies the means. Kellhus is one of them. Thanks to his supposedly godlike intellect, he is able to literally look into the soul of every human being and make them submissive without them noticing. Some readers might find it unbelievable how easily he manages to do this – I, on the other hand, was fascinated by his clear, merciless, utilitarian view of things.
“This is the problem of all great revelations: their significance so often exceeds the frame of our comprehension. We understand only after, always after. Not simply when it is too late, but precisely because it is too late.”
What did not work for me!
- The plot is quite manageable because of its density, but that need not be a point of criticism. Although Bakker spends a large part of the pages in his first novel presenting his world to the reader and letting the plot threads converge towards the end, this is not at the expense of suspense – or rather: fascination. You notice that the story only starts here and that the great variety of this story can only be presented in the next volumes. I could not yet feel connected to the characters because I could not understand their way of thinking due to the still manageable plot. Nevertheless, I know that something big is in store for me here.
“Answers are like opium: the more you imbibe, the more you need. Which is why the sober man finds solace in mystery.”
So what are my final thoughts about it?
I cannot recommend Bakker without reservation because with him – more than with many other fantasy authors – it depends very much on the individual taste of the reader. As far as I am concerned, the series was a hit on the bull’s eye, but I can understand if one is offended by his character portrayal, the overly clearly drawn enemy images, the overly gloomy, depressive atmosphere or other things. That’s why I advise anyone interested to find out exactly what to expect beforehand. However, if they are prepared to get involved with the work, they will be rewarded with a story and a world that is unparalleled in terms of depth, richness of facets and detail.
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