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With all of the complex narrative established in The Darkness That Comes Before, fans of that novel will be going into The Warrior-Prophet ready to kick up their heels and enjoy some righteous, carnage-laden Holy War ass-kicking. And yet R. Scott Bakker keeps this volume every bit as centered on its characters as he did his first. In The Warrior-Prophet, Bakker is far more interested in depicting how the looming end of the world affects his protagonists — their lives, loves, states of mind — on the most intimate possible level.

He certainly doesn't give short shrift to action. But while anybody can cobble together a cliché-festooned saga about dark lords and dire prophecies and wars to end all wars with swaggering hero archetypes who strap on broadswords and boldly go (oops, go boldly, sorry) forth to meet their noble destinies, Bakker is more interested in people as they really are, and not as myths romanticize them to be. He uses fantasy tropes as the framework for a monumental study of fanaticism and greed, and how such base desires more often than not inform, then drastically alter, the pursuit of ostensibly noble goals. The truth about long journeys and their hardships is that one often ends up in a vastly different place than anticipated; not just in terms of the physical destination, but in the changes wrought in the hearts and minds of the travelers. By focusing more and more on the individual, Bakker has found a way to make his themes universal.

In this way he approaches the rarified realm of modern fantasy's top talents. Approaches, but doesn't yet become a VIP member of the club. For all his sensitivity to nuances of character, he still has some serious pacing issues in his storytelling. Large blocks of his prose are laden with exposition, philosophical (he was working on his doctorate in this while writing this trilogy) and otherwise. But there is, in the end, a story with a clear direction unspooling here, rather than, say, the rambling and fractured narrative of fellow Canadian Steven Erikson. I continue to be impressed by Scott Bakker. I think fans of character-driven epic fantasy will be too.

The Warrior-Prophet joins the Inrithi Holy War flush from several initial victories, now marching proudly south to the holy city of Shimeh. Yet internal conflicts loom. Most of the rabble have found themselves drawn to the leadership of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the enigmatic figure from the far north whose reasons for joining the crusade are fully known only to his erstwhile travelling companion, the barbarian Cnaiür. Drusas Achamian, the sorcerer/spy from the Mandate school, is thoroughly convinced Kellhus is the long-anticipated figure whose arrival will trigger the Second Apocalypse. But he's consistently frustrated that he cannot convince anyone that his fears over the return of the evil sorcerers named the Consult should be taken seriously. Also, Ikurei Conphas, nephew to the Nansurian emperor Xerius III, grows desperate as he feels his own influence slipping away — desperate enough to order a few attempts on Kellhus' life.

Yes, there are tremendous battles. But what is most striking about the book is the way Bakker delves deep into his characters and conveys the insecurities and fears that motivate them. Drusas, for instance, has violated his orders by refusing to inform the Mandate School about his suspicions concerning Kellhus. He believes he's made the right decision, for if the prophecies are true, then they need Kellhus to strike against the No-God should it arise. But Drusas' devotion to his other duties — Kellhus asks Drusus to teach him the ancient sorcery called the Gnosis, which Drusas can't quite make up his mind to do — almost costs him his life.

Some readers may be discomfited by the continued demeaning characterizations of women. But it should be considered that this trilogy — whose exotically-named locales conjure up extremely ancient civilzations in readers' minds, much more Fertile Crescent than the usual medieval European setting — is set in a world where women really do have only two roles, that of wife or whore. Esmenet, the former prostitute whose rocky affections towards Drusas are now drifting more and more towards Kellhus, might well annoy readers throughout the book's first half, as all she seems to do is cry and sob at the indignities life continues to deal her. But it will turn out that she is poised to undergo one of the series' most profound character arcs.

Bakker's prose favors detail and intricacy. While it's not exactly the sort of unreadably dense style one often encounters in these kinds of books, readers must tolerate some pretty long-winded exposition all the same. So while The Warrior-Prophet, at 600 pages, is actually shorter than a number of epics on the racks (even Martin's), inconsistent pacing sometimes makes it feel longer. Bakker could have tightened the first half of the book by about 75 pages or so and lost nothing indispensible.

But flaws of the early chapters are more than compensated for in the last 200 pages. If there's a fantasy writer better than Bakker at portraying war as nothing less than an exercise in madness and demolished hope, I'd like to read him. Two of the most powerful scenes in the book — one a death march through a vast desert that claims hundreds of thousands of lives, the other involving the siege of the city of Caraskand, one of the most nightmarish setpieces you're likely to encounter int he genre — are written in almost a journalistically detached style that only serves to enhance their dramatic power. We are given a grim front-row seat to witness both the heights and depths people will willingly experience when in the throes of fanatical fervor.

The Warrior-Prophet is demanding. But unlike so many other books of its kind, it really does pay off the reader's effort. Bakker still has a little way to go before he produces epics that flow seamlessly. But he's on the right track. I gotta say, The Prince of Nothing is really something.

Followed by The Thousandfold Thought.