If one doubts that passion and unreason govern the fate of nations, one need only look to meetings between the Great. Kings and emperors are unused to treating with equals, and are often excessively relieved or repelled as a result. The Nilnameshi have a saying, “When princes meet, they find either brothers or themselves,” which is to say, peace or war.
The Second Apocalypse is an epic fantasy series written by Canadian philosopher R. Scott Bakker. It consists of a trilogy named The Prince of Nothing, a tetralogy called The Aspect Emperor, and will be concluded with a final upcoming series whose title has not been revealed yet. The Second Apocalypse is a fantasy reader’s fantasy series, and the ultimate rebuke to those who see fantasy as shallow entertainment and juvenile wish fulfilment.
A philosopher by training, Bakker has filled his work to the brim with deep philosophical observations and clever aphorisms. Every chapter in each of the books is preceded by one or two short “quotations” from a fictitious book written by a character within the setting. The quotation with which I opened this review is one such example. Other gems include the following:
The world is a circle that possesses as many centres as it does men.
Kings never lie. They demand the world be mistaken.
Love is lust made meaningful. Hope is hunger made human.
Complexity begets ambiguity, which yields in all ways to prejudice and avarice. Complication does not so much defeat Men as arm them with fancy.
Nor is the philosophical content of Bakker’s work confined to clever fictitious quotations. Throughout the narrative, countless philosophical questions are explored in depth: Do we have free will? How are our beliefs and perspectives changed and influenced? To what extent do the ends justify the means? What is the nature of consciousness? And most poignantly to me, what are the implications of Hell being real?
Having never been religious, I had never taken the idea of Hell seriously. Although I understood the horror of Hell on an intellectual level, it only really hit me when I read The Great Ordeal, the sixth book in the series. In Bakker’s world of Eärwa, Hell is a metaphysical reality. Damnation is not only reserved for those who commit atrocities, but sorcerors are also doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal torment; it is the price they pay for attaining immense temporal power by changing the nature of reality and thereby defying the will of the God. As the Mandate, one of the sorcerous Schools, has it, “Though you lose your soul, you shall win the world.”
What would you do, to what lengths would you be willing to go, if you knew yourself to be irrevocably damned? The Consult, an ancient cabal of sorcerors and Inchoroi (a race of demon-like aliens), have found their answer. They believe that by raping, torturing, and murdering as many people as possible and by reducing the number of souls on Eärwa below a certain threshold, the World can be closed off from the Outside, the realm of the gods, thus preventing all remaining souls from going to Hell. Their plans come to a head two millenia before the main action of the books, during a series of wars known as the Apocalypse, in which human civilization across the entire North of Eärwa is wiped out and during which for twelve long years, every single child is stillborn.
The first book, The Darkness That Comes Before, opens in the hidden mountain fortress of Ishuäl during the Apocalypse (or the First Apocalypse, as the chapter heading ominously informs us). Some of the last remnants of human civilization in the North have fled here, but they are soon visited by a terrible plague which kills all but two of them, a boy and a bard. The bard then proceeds to rape the boy, muttering to him that “[t]here are no crimes (…) when no one is left alive.” Thus the tone for the rest of the series has been set. This is not a nice, uplifting fantasy story about heroism and triumph. Bakker’s work is about as grimdark as it gets.
Two thousand years later, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a descendant of the boy from the prologue, is sent out from the hidden citadel of Ishuäl to find his father, Anasûrimbor Moënghus, who had left Ishuäl thirty years earlier. Kellhus and Moënghus are both part of the Dûnyain, a secretive monastic order, who, through strict training and thousands of years of selective breeding, have turned themselves into Übermenschen of sorts: They have been bred for supreme intelligence and rationality and have set aside all concerns for morality in favour of pursuing the Shortest Path to their goals. On this way to his father in far away Shimeh, he uses and manipulates the people he meets, treating them as little more than tools for his will.
One of those people is Drusas Achamian, the closest thing the series has to a protagonist. Achamian is not your typical fantasy hero: He is a portly, middle-aged scholar who is filled with regrets, weary of the world, and finds his job as a Mandate spy distasteful. He is plagued by dreams of the First Apocalypse, in which he relives the memories of Seswatha, the founder of the Mandate School, who spent a sorrow-filled life battling the Consult. It is primarily through these dreams that we as readers slowly get filled in on the events of the First Apocalypse. Behind Achamian’s bumbling exterior, it is often easy to forget that he is a Mandate sorceror of rank, who could kill hundreds with but a few sorcerous words.
Drusas Achamian is perhaps my favourite character in all of fiction. The juxtaposition between his many weaknesses and insecurities and his arcane power makes him a much more compelling character than the typical chosen-one fare prevalent in all too many fantasy stories. In the inhumane world of Bakker’s creation, Achamian’s humanity shines through all the brighter and through his many trials and tribulations, it is impossible not to root for Akka, as his few friends call him. That said, Achamian is no innocent victim. Throughout his eventful life, he has had to make many difficult decision, and he did not always do what is right or what is honourable. These moments of moral weakness and corruptibility serve to make him not just a more complex, but also a more relatable character. For who here has not at some point in their lives wronged others out of weakness or cowardice?
As you may have been able to surmise, I love these books. They are among the best the fantasy genre has to offer, but they are certainly not for everyone. The Second Apocalypse is an acquired taste, and readers who are not experienced with epic fantasy are likely to get lost in the multitude of characters and locations with weird names and will likely put down the book early because they are just too confused by the exotic setting and all the jumps in time and place. In The Darkness That Comes Before, it takes fifty to a hundred pages before you start figuring out what in the World is going on. To veteran fantasy readers, this is a familiar task, but novices are likely to be frustrated. These books are also definitely not for the squeamish; if depictions of injustice, oppression, violence, torture, and rape offend you, you should give The Second Apocalypse a wide berth.
But if you love complex and challenging fantasy, you are in for a treat. Bakker’s work retains all the elements that make fantasy awesome, while mixing them up and giving them a fresh spin. His setting is not only extremely complex and detailed, but also refreshingly different from the standard Medieval-ish fantasy realm. And most of all, these are books that make you think, long after you have put them down. In my mind there is no doubt that The Second Apocalypse is not just an entertaining tale, but also a great work of literature.
Where to Buy
Probably the Shortest Path to obtaining your copies of The Second Apocalypse are the Amazon links below. (These are affiliate links. If you buy the books through them, I receive a small commission, at not additional expense to you.)
The Prince of Nothing
The Aspect Emperor