I am hiding this behind a cut, because there are spoilers here for R. Scott Baker’s “Prince Of Nothing” series, and if you don’t want me to ruin it for you, come back tomorrow when perhaps I make the funny.
Let me first say that unlike certain other authors, Baker’s epic and well-populated saga is entirely contained within three volumes. For this and this alone, the rest is nearly forgiveable, but.
I am at the end of the third book, and I am left with the sense that I must be missing something. Specifically, I believe that I am missing the last half of the third book. There’s a meaty quarter-inch of appendix there, occupying the pages that I’m pretty sure were meant for the rest of the story.
Let me count the ways.
The dense core of my litany of complaints, strangely, is that this story ties up a huge swath of the raw material of fantasy literature, without hesitation or apology, and has frankly done a hell of a job of it.
I am going to horribly abuse some capitalization here, but I think you’ll see why, so bear with me. It has:
- A Feudal World complete with Complicated Political and Military History.
- Various Competing Schools of Magic, hence
- Lots Of Magicians.
- A Rebel From One Of The Aforementioned Magic Schools.
- Magic Weapons.
- A Powerful And Mysterious Religious Leader, Whose Goals Are Unclear.
- An Impending Apocalypse, featuring front and center a Horrifying, Unstoppable and Evil Godlike Foe.
- The One Magical Superweapon You Need To Defeat The Aforementioned Evil Godlike Foe
- Aliens, strangely.
- Prophecy Out The Wazoo.
- Court intrigue.
- The Most Brilliant Military Leader Of All Time.
- A Vain But Crafty Emperor.
- An Arrogant Prince.
- Demonic Entities Of Great Power.
- A Prostitue With A Heart Of Gold Who Endures Many Trials Before Finding Love.
- A Young Kid Who Means Well And Is Loved But Doesn’t Make It.
- A Crusty And Irascible Veteran General Who Is Nevertheless A Loyal Friend.
- Shapeshifters That Could Be Anybody, Seriously.
- An Unstoppable Barbarian Warrior.
- Ninja Monks.
…Christ, I can’t keep typing that. Seriously, that’s all in there. And the most appalling part of it is that it is so well done. Ninja Monks? Sure! Totally plausible! Unstoppable Barbarian? I’m right here with you! Magic schools? A Rebellious Magician? Hells yeah! It’s all in there, so well portrayed and seamlessly interwoven that you don’t get the sense you’ve just been made fun of for about two thousand pages of until well afterwards. Even the aliens have an interesting metaphysics, and it’s sharp enough to make it seem like the good guys might be in the wrong.
The fact that the long-advertised Impending Apocalypse doesn’t end up happening doesn’t bother me. That all, every last one, of the central characters’ core conceits and beliefs, some of which have significant material consequences, are completely demolished by the end of the story, and it just ends there; that doesn’t, in the end, trouble me that much. Magic starts the story being something innate and inborn, and ends being something you can learn, which should just turn the entire world on its head, but nothing much is made of it. Life is like that, sometimes the loose ends don’t get tied up. The fact that only one loose end gets tied up at all, and the rest of the plot looks like a grenade went off in the middle of a knitting circle, even that doesn’t bother me all that much.
The fact that there’s an entire book missing from the tail end of the series, well, I suppose I’ll have to live with that, or just get the why of it explained to me in short sentences made of small words. One story, perhaps the important one, got wrapped up, and one decision was ultimately made, and there’s no shortage of people who’ve gone way past the 2000 page mark with way less to show for it, so, you know, OK. Sure.
No, in the end what I couldn’t get over was how the Ninja Monk Jesus Guy’s big power was the fact that he was really good at reading people and manipulating them by telling them what he saw. Not just that, but this was something that nobody else could do, if you weren’t also part of the Ninja Monk Jesus Clan. So, in this huge sprawling, complicated world, there’s no such thing as a cold reading or a con artist or a, you know, relationship. The men and women of this world live, lust, love and lose, eat, drink, fight, suffer and die and apparently every single one of them is a simpleton loner with Asperger’s syndrome. Enormous edifices of philosophical and metaphysical knowledge are implied, but there’s no such thing as introspection, no evidence that anybody can look at anyone else and know what they’re thinking, or learn a little bit about their life by looking at the way they react to things. Nobody, in short, has ever been able to just look at somebody and size them up. Unless you’re Ninja Monk Jesus Guy.
This is such a basic element of human interaction that in the end I just couldn’t stomach the idea that it was the driving conceit of this epic saga, and the story started slowly spiraling the drain as soon as that stopper came out. Which is a shame, because it really is a very well-crafted story, with this so-very-weak spot right at the core.
I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about it, but I should warn you that if enough of you disagree, and think that sizing people up is all that esoteric a skill, I’m going to take that opportunity to assume that I’ve been Ninja Monk Jesus my entire life, and didn’t realize it until just now.