Criticism of R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing

Spectrum

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Hello.

I just recently finished The Thousandfold Thought, the last book of R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series. The series was good, but had a number of flaws that detracted from my enjoyment of it. So I feel the need to make a thread a whine about it.

Warning: Will contain story spoilers for this series.

My main problem with the series is that I didn't want the "heroes" to win.

The main character, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is highly unlikable. First off, he is evil. He's allegedly the hero, but we never see him do anything heroic for anyone. On the contrary, he has several "Rape the Dog" moments: He sacrifices Serwë, sends Cnaiür off to get killed, and leads a campaign of bloody conquest devastating all of Kian. And for what? So far, for all the harm he's caused, the only constructive results he has to show is... some philosophical mumbling.

Second, he is a huge Marty Stu: He succeeds at everything he attempts, he learns new skills in the blink of an eye, all the "good guys" love him, all villains fear and envy him, and enemy women lust after him. Now, a super-powered character can be likable, but for me there would have to be something "cool" about him, such as a nice badass attitude. None of that.

Third, he has very little personality I can attempt to sympathize with. He has few POV chapters, and he spreads manipulation and lies everywhere, so I, as a reader, can never be sure if whatever personality he displays is genuine or fake. The books have some philosophy about how the Consult skin-spies have "no souls" and thus no personality of their own save what they can fake. Kellhus is the same to me. He's always putting up a front, so I don't get to know and understand his real personality.

Also, Kellhus claims that he's come to kill Moënghus for his "sins" and "wickedness". What wickedness? Now, maybe I am amnesiac, but the only crimes I remember Moënghus having committed was when he manipulated Cnaiür into killing his father. Kellhus is guilty of much worse crimes than that, so I am clearly rooting for Moënghus here.

Also, the whole "Kellhus = Jesus" angle is overdone IMO. Parallels to things like religion are fine and all, but the story of Kellhus being tried as a heretic, hung up and left to die and then returning to life to save everyone's souls is about as subtle as being smashed in the head with an anvil. And the "circumfix", upon which Kellhus was hung, and which later became his symbol, is just the last straw that makes it all ridiculous. It feels like Bakker was thinking: "Is it obvious enough yet? Has the reader figured out that Kellhus is Jesus? No, my reader is probably too stupid. I'd better give him a symbol with a name that sounds almost exactly like Jesus' symbol so the morons get the message."

Throughout the Holy War I found myself unreservedly rooting for the Kianene. They have done nothing that we know of to make them more evil than any other nation. They are innocent victims of a campaign of death and horror. The Men-of-the-Tusk, including Kellhus, commit one horrible atrocity after the other, and the Kianene are merely fighting to protect their homeland.

The ending is depressive because, as stated above, we have seen the destruction of an entire culture and the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians, all for the sake of nothing more than some philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

I found Cnaiür urs Skiötha a more likable character than Kellhus. Sure, Cnaiür is evil, but at least he's honest about it (calling himself "the most violent of all men"). He has a real, humanlike personality that I can understand and sympathize with, unlike Anasûrimbor "Skin-Spy" Kellhus. And all in all I think Cnaiür has caused less harm in the world than Kellhus has.

Overall, the characters were pretty unlikable. Drusas Achamian and Esmenet are OK, but they are too Wangsty for me to do much other than pity them. The only character I found myself really liking was Seswatha.

The background story is cool, and there are some interesting and well-developed cultures. The 100 pages glossary to The Thousandfold Thought makes it clear that the series is the work of a true geek, and I can only admire that. That said, I did feel that certain background elements were quite blatantly lifted from J.R.R. Tolkien's works.

I thought the Nonmen were cool at first (not least because of the name, which is creepy and ominous), but in The Thousandfold Thought it became more and more obvious that the Nonmen were in fact just Elves by a different name.

The Sranc, judging by their entry in the Thousandfold Thought glossary, are pretty lame. They are an Always Chaotic Evil race of ugly, monstrous humanoids bred to serve the Dark Lord(s), and they do nothing but evil all day. Yeah, so, in other words, Orcs. Oh, wait, no - the Sranc rape you before they kill you. So they are horny Orcs, but still Orcs. (In the books' defense, one might object that the glossary entry in question might be written from the POV of a human historian who is biased against Sranc and thus presents them as irredeemable monsters.)

Now that we are on the subject of the monster races, I can't help but notice that the Inchoroi have three races of monsters that serve them: Dragons, Bashrag and Sranc. We don't know about the Bashrag yet, but the name is eerily similar to "Balrog", so I am going to withhold the benefit of the doubt and assume that Bakker simply cloned all three monster races from Tolkien's Silmarillion.

Finally, the series seems to be aiming for a "gritty realism" feel akin to the one seen in George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. But this is coupled with a heroic idealism, reflected in the fact that battles seem to be driven very much by heroes and kings. Notice that it is King Anaxophus that destroys the No-God; it's Warrior-Prophet Kellhus who strikes down Kascamandri; and there are several more such examples of king-to-king combat. This combination of heroism and realism is jarring and makes the thing seem less consistent, and thus less believable.

What do you think?
 

purple_kathryn

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I really wasn't that keen on the female characters. All of them are whores (either as actual prostitutes or in the pursuit of power). Esmet is likeable but I find it really hard to identify with her.
 

Thadlerian

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I think you may have misunderstood a number of crucial concepts of the Prince of Nothing series.
The main character, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is highly unlikable. First off, he is evil. He's allegedly the hero, but we never see him do anything heroic for anyone. On the contrary, he has several "Rape the Dog" moments: He sacrifices Serwë, sends Cnaiür off to get killed, and leads a campaign of bloody conquest devastating all of Kian.
No-one ever said Kellhus is a hero. The key point to understand here is that you, as the reader, are allowed to se how Kellhus functions - the cruel cynicism behind all his actions - whereas the other characters only see what they can see. He appears as a hero because he consciously plays on how the other characters understand heroes. Bakker for sure never posits him to be a hero to the reader. He lets you see who Kellhus is, and remains completely honest about that.

And: Just because he's a central character and part protagonist in a fantasy story, he doesn't have to be a hero. Nor do the Inrithi or the Mandate or the Scylvendi have to be the "good guys".
Second, he is a huge Marty Stu: He succeeds at everything he attempts, he learns new skills in the blink of an eye, all the "good guys" love him, all villains fear and envy him, and enemy women lust after him.
Wrong, and very much so. Again, you have to understand the difference between the complete Kellhus the reader is allowed to see, and the limited Kellhus whom the other characters see.

The key point of a Mary Sue/Marty Stu is that he/she is loved because of a weakness on behalf of the writer - the writer employs the character as his own pet. A Mary Sue is complete with all the characteristics the writer finds virtuous.

Kellhus is nothing like that. He's a terrible person. You know that. The writer knows that. Kellhus is meant to be that way. Yes, he's been given near superpowers, but not to be some kind of character fulfillment for the writer (much unlike Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series). The other characters all love and desire him, because he manipulates them to do so. And you, as the reader, can see all of it.

A Mary Sue approaches perfect for no good reason. Kellhus approaches perfect because the story and its sociological/philosophical reflections require it.
Now, a super-powered character can be likable, but for me there would have to be something "cool" about him, such as a nice badass attitude. None of that.
Again, why should Kellhus be likeable? He's in this story because Bakker wants to explore the implications of a character with a terrifying insight of how human beings tick, and who has the cynicism to use it.
Third, he has very little personality I can attempt to sympathize with. He has few POV chapters, and he spreads manipulation and lies everywhere, so I, as a reader, can never be sure if whatever personality he displays is genuine or fake.
Yes you can: It's fake. That's what Bakker lets you know, almost from the start.
The books have some philosophy about how the Consult skin-spies have "no souls" and thus no personality of their own save what they can fake. Kellhus is the same to me. He's always putting up a front, so I don't get to know and understand his real personality.
Perhaps that's what it's all like not to have a personality. Having no errors, just acting rationally and mechanically, like a computer.
Also, the whole "Kellhus = Jesus" angle is overdone IMO. Parallels to things like religion are fine and all, but the story of Kellhus being tried as a heretic, hung up and left to die and then returning to life to save everyone's souls is about as subtle as being smashed in the head with an anvil. And the "circumfix", upon which Kellhus was hung, and which later became his symbol, is just the last straw that makes it all ridiculous. It feels like Bakker was thinking: "Is it obvious enough yet? Has the reader figured out that Kellhus is Jesus?
You've been using TV Tropes blindly for a while, and this one is yet again wrong. Bakker never, openly or implicitly, tries to make the reader accept Kellhus as a messianic figure. He's shown you far too much of his ruthless nature for you to be able to claim that.

That, on the other hand, doesn't mean Kellhus can't posit himself as a messianic figure to the other characters. Again, the difference between the Kellhus you see, and the Kellhus the characters see.



Throughout the Holy War I found myself unreservedly rooting for the Kianene. They have done nothing that we know of to make them more evil than any other nation.
Well, that's what war is all about. Especially holy wars.

some philosophical mumbling.
(...)
philosophical mumbo-jumbo.
Seeing as how you rely almost entirely on TV Tropes to provide you with ready-made analysis, and seeing as how you blindly attribute it to various parts of the story just because it vaguely looks like Mary Sue or Anvilism, I don't think you're really entitled to idly reject the philosophical essence of the Prince of Nothing series like that.


Now that we are on the subject of the monster races, I can't help but notice that the Inchoroi have three races of monsters that serve them: Dragons, Bashrag and Sranc. We don't know about the Bashrag yet, but the name is eerily similar to "Balrog", so I am going to withhold the benefit of the doubt and assume that Bakker simply cloned all three monster races from Tolkien's Silmarillion.
The fuel of this claim hardly seems to be more than your built-up momentum from the rest of the post. Claiming Bakker took dragons from Tolkien is, honestly, a little lame.

What do you think?
I think you approached this book looking for idle entertainment, and expected to find a black and white, good and evil, hero and villain sort of story. I find it strange, though, that you kept thinking in those terms even after Bakker clearly proved to you that Kellhus is not a hero.
 

Spectrum

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And: Just because he's a central character and part protagonist in a fantasy story, he doesn't have to be a hero. Nor do the Inrithi or the Mandate or the Scylvendi have to be the "good guys".

...

Again, why should Kellhus be likeable? He's in this story because Bakker wants to explore the implications of a character with a terrifying insight of how human beings tick, and who has the cynicism to use it.
Because stories suck if you can't somehow sympathize, or at least empathize, with the major characters. Character identification (in some form) is one of the main driving forces that make fiction enjoyable. At least for me.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a villain protagonist. Indeed, such a character can be awesome, potentially much better than most pure good heroes. Lord Soth of Dragonlance/Ravenloft and Yagami Light from the anime/manga Death Note (which I have only seen the beginning of) are great examples of this. But they have to be cool and appealing. Kellhus is just... unlikable.

You've been using TV Tropes blindly for a while, and this one is yet again wrong. Bakker never, openly or implicitly, tries to make the reader accept Kellhus as a messianic figure. He's shown you far too much of his ruthless nature for you to be able to claim that.

That, on the other hand, doesn't mean Kellhus can't posit himself as a messianic figure to the other characters. Again, the difference between the Kellhus you see, and the Kellhus the characters see.
Kellhus is meant to parallel Jesus. You cannot possibly deny that. There are so many similarities they cannot be coincidental. It is fully deliberate, and IMO clumsily overdone.

Well, that's what war is all about. Especially holy wars.
True. I didn't say the portrayal was unrealistic. But I maintain that it is unenjoyable.

Nearly all stories need some persons or factions whom the reader can, in some form, "root for" and want to "win". Most of the time this will be the ones that do "win" in the end. In a tragedy, the sympathetic side can also be the "losers", but PON doesn't work properly as a tragedy either, IMO. (Although there was at least one tragic subplot I enjoyed, namely Serwë and her story. She was one of the most sympathetic characters for me.)

Seeing as how you rely almost entirely on TV Tropes to provide you with ready-made analysis, and seeing as how you blindly attribute it to various parts of the story just because it vaguely looks like Mary Sue or Anvilism, I don't think you're really entitled to idly reject the philosophical essence of the Prince of Nothing series like that.
I rely on TV Tropes for terminology.

Also, I don't necessarily reject Bakker's philosophy. But I do claim that philosophy alone cannot carry a story. Philosophy and messages and stuff about "the human condition" can sometimes add value to a story. But they should not be the only "pay-off" there is. IMO it only works if the story is good and enjoyable to begin with.

If the story is weak on its own, then adding "meaning" only makes it worse. It annoys me and makes me think: "If you can't even entertain me properly, then what makes you think you can teach me about life?"

But that wasn't my original point, actually. My point was just that internally in the story, the characters walk out of the ruins with little more than some alleged insight and a vague promise that it will be useful later on.

The fuel of this claim hardly seems to be more than your built-up momentum from the rest of the post. Claiming Bakker took dragons from Tolkien is, honestly, a little lame.
True, this isn't one of the stronger of my arguments. But notice that the dragons are used in the same way as they are in the Silmarillion: Artificially bred, (presumably) inherently evil monsters that serve in the Dark Lord's armies and are occasionally slain by great and noble heroes. And the combination with Sranc-Orcs and possibly Bashrag-
Balrogs (admittedly a guess) makes them more suspicious.

I think you approached this book looking for idle entertainment, and expected to find a black and white, good and evil, hero and villain sort of story.
Actually this couldn't be further from the truth. I approached it looking for some dark fantasy with moral ambiguity, but still with likable characters and emotional pay-off. Many other stories manage to deliver on this account. PON, while it had parts I liked, did not really deliver.

PS: Sorry about any bad typing. I'm trying to get used to my new keyboard.
 

Jason_Taverner

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Yeah it was pretty rubbish great post Spectrum I am glad its not just me who felt this way. Thanks I was begining to think there was something wrong with me.
 

Spectrum

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Yeah it was pretty rubbish great post Spectrum I am glad its not just me who felt this way. Thanks I was begining to think there was something wrong with me.
Hehe, NP.

I don't think it was rubbish, though. It had many good elements and the potential to be even greater. It just had some major flaws. Anasûrimbor Kellhus, for instance, is a great concept and had the potential to be an awesome character, if only he were portrayed as a cool and badass Magnificent Bastard. (Oh, no, I'm using TV Tropes terminology again. Thadlerian must hate me. :p)
 

xeal

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Jun 3, 2015
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This series was heavily recommended by a lot of friends so there may be something wrong with me, but I'm not a fan of it. Prince of Nothing was frustrating series to read through, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to handle the sequel.

First, I strongly dislike that the series was called a Trilogy when it wasn't exactly conclusive and self-contained. The ending was clearly unfinished and was just a step to the whole.

Second, the writing bordered on purple prose - it just had too many unnecessary fillers, and was frankly a bit boring. The action was vague and unimaginative, and the dialogue was poor - or rather, too essay-esque. There was very little in the writing (dialogue, plot, action) in itself to compel me to keep on reading by the third book. The first book didn't suffer as much, but it the story and the book, as a fantasy series, just fell apart. It felt like a poor disguise as the author's philosophy thesis. Worst of all, most of the characters were unlikeable and weak, almost unreal.

The problem being that many of the characters were flat or lacked depth, lacked personality, and was very much unlikeable. Achamian was the only one I ended up remotely liking at the end (and I was much undecided until the end of the second series) and Kellus, who I thought I'd like, ended up being extremely unlikable.

Now, I understand Kellus is supposed to be the protagonist according to the titles of the two series (although argument could be made that Achamian is the true protagonist), but he disappointed me by being a robot, with god-mode enabled. Worst of all, he was given an instant win button that he can use anytime, as well being able to mind-control all of humanity by simply looking at them. I'm not sure what's so fun reading about a super-god who can revive, mass mind-control, can upgrade/learn things instantly, shoot laser beams out of his eyes, kill everyone with just his little finger, instantly generate gold/equips/everything he needs, see the future, fly, and is invulnerable to everything, including kryptonite. The character development of Kellus (if you can say he had much development) really killed the series to having a great story. "So a robot god landed on earth one day and made everyone his slave. Everything and everyone else is just filler. The end."

Another huge issue is that "resemblance to previous context is missing." The books basically say, oh here is this pathetic but extremely clever Emperor. Then he is randomly and instantly killed for no reason in TTT. Oh, and look here, the greatest general, the Lion of Kiyuth! Then of course, no one rallies to him, and he's instantly killed for convenience by a "King" who barely had anyone left in his city for no explainable reason. Oh, and his father? Instant killed. Really, everyone just dies to make Kellus the god of the entire world, and now he's going to supposedly fight the consult just because he has to be the only god of the world. Even Maithanet and the Mandate School became unrecognizable at the end, just more trivialized slaves to the god that is Kellus.

Also, I really don't mind sex, but I came to the conclusion that Bakker's philosophical stance on sex is rather pubescent. At a point, especially after the first book, there was just too much meaningless sex that did nothing except to fill up the chapter or be a distraction. It series couldn't go a chapter, no, a eighth of a chapter without some intercourse. I'm also not convinced that everyone is not only bisexual, but all livings things would have no problems screwing anything, be it a son, a student, a child, a bird, a friend, a Sranc, or a tree with a hole in it. It seemed that to the author, no living thing can become close without sex. Every female in the series was pretty disappointing and lack depth, and were nothing more than objects of gratification. Even worst, they begged for it. It would have been interesting if it was only Esmenet, but apparently all females are good for nothing in this world except to be whores by nature (and in Esmenet's case, she was also slutty and would do it for free if she forgot she needed money, as some early scenes with her implied). And the punchline is of course the Inchoroi is a race of love. Yes, they're doing it all for love and only wants to have sex with the world. The series, when it wanted to take a break from the story, acted like it was a script for bad porn.

The third book also introduced the Consult/Inchoroi's whole motive to their destroying the world: they don't want to go to hell. If the Inchoroi cared about their souls so much, more than the millions of schoolman and whores that were condemned throughout history and the present, then why the hell (pun intended) did they even decide to condemn themselves in the first place? "We're going to do the act that sends us to hell, then we're going to decide we need to destroy the world to avoid hell altogether." Say what? Maybe the author didn't think things through for this one, as if he was writing the third book and thought, "Hey, I forgot to give the antagonists a motive!" And being the philosophical guy he is, they're all about saving their souls and being a race of lovers. /forehead to desk

Only two things kept me going, that I'm a completionist and also the philosophical writing. And I'm not too sure about the latter, since it's all nothing new and done mostly through dialogue of flat people (and an invincible robot god pretending to be human).

I don't mind that Kellus is unlikable. Hell, a lot of unlikable characters in stories often help makes a great story (or an amazing villain). My problem is that Kellus is really just a self-indulgence imagination of the author being an all-powerful god of invincibility, control, and sex in a fantasy world of his making.

The one way this series can redeem itself is if in the next Trilogy (The Aspect-Emperor), it turns out Kellus is the no-god and he dies a long, painful, miserable death to Achamian, with Achamian somehow surviving Kellus' instant-kill switch that Kellus will surely use at the end.
 
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