The Second Apocalypse: Deadly Revelations

circumfix

If you knew that you faced eternal damnation after death, what would you be willing to do to avoid it?

If you knew that the world was going to be destroyed, how far would you go to stop it?

(Note: “Apocalypse” actually means “revelation” in Greek, but due to the Book of Revelation being a vision of the end of the world, the usual meaning has drifted to “world-ending disaster” instead.)

I decided to write this and post it up due to fear of the remaining Second Apocalypse books disappearing from the libraries. Singapore libraries now have a horrible practice of getting rid of older books only a few years after they acquire them, even though fiction doesn’t get outdated. In the case of the Second Apocalypse series, the first trilogy disappeared from the shelves while the sequel series was still in progress. How are new readers going to get the full story? (Plus I only skimmed through books 2 and 3 before they disappeared). Also, it seems that the National Library Board is not willing to buy the final 2 books after The White-Luck Warrior (my request on the NLB website was rejected).

If anyone’s interest is piqued after reading this post, the books are still in print and 2 of them are still available in Singapore libraries.

Introduction

The Second Apocalypse series by R. Scott Bakker consists of the following novels:

  • The Prince of Nothing (first trilogy)
    • The Darkness That Comes Before (great title by the way, very ominous and yet thematically very relevant to the story)
    • The Warrior Prophet
    • The Thousandfold Thought
  • The Aspect-Emperor
    • The Judging Eye*
    • The White-Luck Warrior*
    • The Great Ordeal (I recommended, but NLB is refusing to order)
    • The Unholy Consult (I recommended, but NLB is refusing to order)
    • *still available in library (while stocks last)
  • Side stories
    • The False Sun (prequel taking place 2000+ years before the main series, a good “sample” for new readers)
    • The Four Revelations of Cinial’jin (severely amnesiac character POV piece, present-day happenings and about 3-4 past memories jumbled together, very “experimental” type of writing)

Genre: Dark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy with real-world historical parallels and Science Fiction elements.

Themes: Faith and religion (damnation / salvation, prophets / messiahs, various interpretations of scripture, the nature of revelation, morality), the mind (free will, the subconscious, love and emotion, memory). All heavily remixed, inverted, subverted and often ambiguously presented.

Recommended for the reader who wants some thought-provoking, philosophical and occasionally disturbing fiction. Requires reader tolerance for a non-politically-correct setting featuring inequality, religious intolerance, oppression of women. This is a “medieval European fantasy” setting that is not sanitised to conform to our 21st-century sensibilities.

Story

The plot is kicked off by the two revelations at the beginning of this post. Essentially, the series can be summed up as: The false prophet / Antichrist is trying to stop the end of the world. Unlike Good Omens, this is not a comedy. You know things are bad when a sociopathic manipulator is best chance of saving humanity.

If you knew that you faced eternal damnation after death, what would you be willing to do to avoid it?

In the fantasy world of Eärwa, objective morality and eternal damnation are as real and absolute as the laws of physics in our universe (for a short story based on a similar idea, see “Hell is the absence of God” by Ted Chiang). Plenty of fantasy settings have gods and demons, but shy away from the horrible implications of an afterlife in hell.

The Inchoroi, a race of sadomasochistic rapist aliens, found themselves damned for their hedonism and depravity. Two thousand years ago, they attempted to seal off the afterlife and save their souls by killing off humanity in the Apocalypse. Human extinction was only prevented by a lucky shot from a stolen laser cannon that destroyed the Inchoroi’s monstrous No-God. However, the entire northern half of Eärwa was depopulated, and the Inchoroi and their local allies (the Consult) were not killed.

Now, two thousand years after the first Apocalypse, the Consult is ready to finish what they started in a second Apocalypse. Unfortunately, two thousand years is a long time for humans, so most people believe that the Consult is dead and the Apocalypse only a tragedy of the past, not an imminent threat.

“One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten.” (opening sentence of The Darkness That Comes Before)

If you knew that the world was going to be destroyed, how far would you go to stop it?

The Consult’s plot to start a second Apocalypse is discovered by Anasûrimbor Moënghus. Even though he doesn’t have any altruistic feelings since he’s a hyper-rational near-emotionless Dûnyain, human extinction is probably going to be bad for everyone, including himself. Deciding that religion is the best way to unite the feuding kingdoms and motivate them to fight the Consult, he sends his son Maithanet to take over the largest religious organisation (Thousand Temples) and declare a crusade Holy War. He also summons his elder son Kellhus, who joins and then takes over the Holy War.

Kellhus initially poses as a prophet, but may have become a real one (it’s ambiguous whether he had a divine vision or was hallucinating). He even goes through a non-fatal “crucifixion” scene, except that he’s tied to an iron ring and hanged like an inverted Vitruvian Man. It’s termed “circumfixion” and it becomes the symbol of his religion and followers, worn on necks and displayed on banners (my version of the Circumfix is at the top of this post).

Taking over his father’s Thousandfold Thought (the plan to defeat the Consult), he brutally conquers all opposition and unites the kingdoms of the Three Seas. Finally, as the divine Aspect-Emperor, he assembles a massive army of fanatical followers and leads them across half a continent to battle the Consult.

Essentially, Kellhus and Moënghus are like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars except that they’re trying to save the world (probably). The Shortest Path is hardly conducive to mercy, so he has seduced, betrayed, massacred and manipulated in the name of warring against the Consult. He’s left countless corpses and broken souls in his wake. In-story, there are plenty of characters who doubt he is the saviour he claims to be, or outright declare that he is evil.

Setting

The world might be based on medieval Europe, but I have to commend Bakker for not following the normal Western naming convention like almost every other author. Almost all character names are surname first, given name second, similar to East Asian names. The rest are mostly patronymics. It’s strange how English-language writers just assume that aliens, non-human races and future-Asians will automatically have first names and last names exactly like Europeans.

The heavy use of diacritics must have given the typesetter a headache though. For example the Aspect-Emperor himself: Anasûrimbor Kellhus, son of Anasûrimbor Moënghus, a Dûnyain from Ishuäl. Fortunately, the diacritics seem to be mostly confined to the Norsirai minority ethnic group.

The real-world parallels are quite extensive. The Three Seas region where most of the action takes place is a rearrangement of Earth’s Mediterranean Sea region. The major inspiration is probably the First Crusade plus the Book of Revelation. I only realised much later when re-reading certain scenes that Qirri-consumption in The White-Luck Warrior is probably supposed to parallel the Eucharist (“This is my body” indeed! Not going be specific, due to potential spoilers).

Sorcery is extensively discussed / analysed in the novels. This is might be the only fantasy world where an understanding of philosophy is required to exert your reality-bending powers. The magic system is partially based on the substances / properties and universals / particulars of Ancient Greek philosophy. A plausible reason is given for the use of a special “language of magic”: to keep the meanings pure. Of course, the author teaches philosophy, so it finds its way into the story.

In a pre-gunpowder setting, sorcerers essentially have the firepower of artillery barrages, modern attack helicopters or ground-attack aircraft. Armies rely on them so much that the Holy War officially includes sorcerers, even though sorcery is religiously condemned. It’s like having witches and warlocks joining the Crusades. The only thing preventing sorcerers from taking over is their small numbers, religious prejudice and anti-magic “chorae” which cancel sorcery and turn sorcerers to salt on contact (another Biblical reference).

Themes

Despite the fact that this fictional universe runs on black and white objective morality, in that there is literal and explicit Good and Evil, characters are quite grey. Even well-meaning and compassionate characters end up doing reprehensible things. Quite often, it’s just natural human self-centredness. The overall feel of the work tends towards cynical, actually.

Religion plays a large part in the books, and the plot explores the implications of eternal damnation and objective morality being true. In our world, while there’s plenty of talk of Hell, I’m sure most people, including religious adherents, do not really believe in it deep inside. Otherwise, why would so many supposed believers commit acts forbidden by their religion, buying a momentary pleasure at the cost of eternal suffering?

Psychological themes also feature heavily. Kellhus is able to manipulate people thanks to his greater awareness of their blind spots, assumptions and subconscious. Basically, human beings don’t really have as much “free will” as they believe, since their thoughts arise from the “darkness” (unconscious/subconscious) and they are constantly influenced by outside circumstances.

A more concrete and physical theme in the books is war, and lots of it. There are plenty of battle scenes but it also touches on less glamorous things like logistics. The importance of properly coordinating and deploying the various units like infantry, calvary, archers and sorcerors is emphasised (combined arms tactics).

Characters

Fortunately for those of us who are tired of cardboard static characters, the novels have plenty of ambiguously grey characters, even though they might be living in a universe of black-and-white objective morality.

The plot might revolve around Kellhus (this is noted by some of the characters) but his POV is rarely shown in the first series and he hardly appears in the first 2 Aspect-Emperor books. This helps to preserve the ambiguity surrounding his real motives and keeps his superhuman credibility intact. As the author has noted in interviews, it’s really difficult for a normal human author to depict a superhuman intelligence convincingly. When he does appear, the effect is awesome, especially his fight scenes. There might be less of an impact if he appeared too often.

The bulk of the story follows the normal and not-so-normal humans caught up in Kellhus’ machinations:

  • Sorcerer Drusas Achamian: He’s probably closest to “main protagonist” in this series, out of the ensemble cast. A well-read middle-aged man prone to philosophical musings on life, the universe and everything. As a sorcerer belonging to the Mandate, an organisation dedicated to fighting the Consult, he’s the main source of information on the Consult and the First Apocalypse. Initially he becomes a loyal follower of Kellhus, but later rejects him after realising how much he has been manipulated and used.
  • Prostitute-turned-Empress Esmenet: A Book of Revelation reference (whore of Babylon)? Kellhus seduced her purely for breeding purposes, but she has found out that Dûnyain like her husband and children cannot truly love (they are purely rational creatures, after all).
  • Barbarian warrior Cnaiür urs Skiötha: The only one who has any idea what Dûnyain are capable of, because he was manipulated by Kellhus’ father Moënghus many years ago.
  • And many others which I don’t have the space to introduce.

The Aspect-Emperor series introduces the next-generation major characters after a 20-year timeskip:

  • Mimara: Esmenet’s estranged daughter and probably another Book of Revelation reference. Bearer of the mysterious Judging Eye, an embodiment of the objective morality of this universe, a non-sorcerous (divine?) power that activates randomly and enables the bearer to “see” the salvation or damnation of others. Sometimes it even reveals details of the sins committed e.g. murder. Not an enjoyable power to have, but Mimara’s life hasn’t been a good one so a “blessed with suck” superpower is more of the same.
  • Varalt Sorweel: A reluctant royal participant / hostage in Kellhus’ Great Ordeal (the attack on the Consult). An “outside observer” from an isolated city which has remained aloof from Kellhus’ New Empire and religion until now. Torn between hatred of Kellhus for killing his father and increasing evidence of the Great Ordeal’s righteous mission, he has also been “chosen” by a goddess (which is probably going to end badly).
  • Kelmomas: Kellhus’ and Esmenet’s half-Dûnyain youngest child. A vicious sociopath acting cute to deceive others. However, his action sequences are Dûnyain-level badass. Imagine an 8-year-old boy killing trained soldiers with nothing but a kitchen skewer.
  • Malowebi: Another “outside observer” from a foreign land, trying to make sense of Kellhus’ sudden rise to power, the fanaticism of his followers and the impossible mission of the Great Ordeal. Catchphrase: “curse you, Likaro!” directed at his ex-friend who saddled him with this diplomatic mission. The grumpy and sarcastic tone of his sections is a fun and humorous contrast to the other characters’ sections. One of my favourites.

Well, this post has gone on for WAY longer than I planned. To find out more, check out the fan-wiki (http://princeofnothing.wikia.com/wiki/Prince_of_Nothing_Wiki) or even better, read the novels!

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