The Warrior-Prophet - R Scott Bakker
This book has been sitting in the To Read pile for a while, and I finally got round to picking it up last week. It is, of course, the sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before, and the new title gives a lot away about the book's change of focus - as you'd expect, there's less infodump, more Kellhus. The Holy War has started its long grind southwards towards the sacred city of Shimeh, and Kellhus knows that in order to survive, he needs to build a following among the crusaders. This he achieves with his characteristic amoral manipulation, gradually setting himself up as a prophet while avoiding murderous attacks from Consult spies and jealous lords. Meanwhile, the sorceror Achamian, suffering through his inherited dreams of the First Apocalypse, is convinced that Kellhus is the harbinger of the Second, but is strangely reluctant to turn him over to the Mandate, and instead takes him on as a pupil. There's more of the political scheming between the various commanders and the sorcerous Schools, amid huge and bloody battles, sieges and massacres; more is revealed about the Consult and the No-God, and we even get to see some magic in play. In short, this was a very fine follow-up, much more enjoyable than the first book, and I rather wish I'd read it sooner.
Unlike the previous episode, there's no long build-up to slow down the action, and instead we get straight into it as soon as the book opens. I've always had a big soft-spot for intelligent and amoral villains and Kellhus fits the bill quite nicely, despite being nominally on the good side - there's a beautifully chilling moment about halfway through when we find out exactly how he views the "defective" humans that he's manipulating so efficiently. The Consult themselves, the real bad guys, are a bit too mwahahaha-we're-just-evil-for-its-own-sake to take entirely seriously, but Achamian's memories of the First Apocalypse show the true horror of the No-God with bleak efficiency; not needing a catalogue of atrocities, Bakker takes barely a page to sum up what's at stake, and it's enough.
The characters are also more fleshed-out here than in book 1, particularly Achamian himself, with some glorious No More Mr Nice Guy unleashing of power that show us exactly what it means to be a Mandate Schoolman. The female characters are still a bit weak and uninteresting, but at least this time round they have an excuse (being under the spell of Kellhus), and we do get to see a bit more of Esmenet and find out what really happened to her daughter. Of course, this new rapport we have with the characters gives the opportunity for some truly heartbreaking moments later on; and the character interaction provides the plot-detail missing from the long slog south.
For all the (very) Tolkienesque maps in the front, the setting has a rather unusual Middle Eastern feel to it; the place-names, too, seem a hybrid mix of Tolkien and Biblical (Golgotterath, Asgilioch). The strangely-accented character names are less annoying than I thought they'd be, and in fact give the book a refreshingly different feel. Aside from the frequency with which death comes swirling down, the language Bakker uses is evocative without being too purple, and much less dry and opaque than in the last book. This was a very enjoyable read, and now I start to see what all the Bakker fuss is about; it won't be long before I get onto Book 3.