The surviving heathens were strung from trees, and in the evening light they hanged, like drowned men floating up from the deeps. And though years passed, none dared touch them. They sagged from the nails that fixed them, collapsed into heaps at the trunks. And to anyone who listened, the bones would whisper a revelation...the secret of battle. Indomitable conviction. Unconquerable belief.
A dark and philosophical fantasy series by R. Scott Bakker that is planned to consist of three smaller series, only the first of which is currently completed. An additional two short stories have been published on Bakker's website, with more to come.The first sub-series, The Prince of Nothing, tells the tale of a son searching for his father during a Holy War, in a medieval world where Functional Magic exists and an obscure Ancient Conspiracy is plotting The End of the World as We Know It, although they have faded into myth. The characters who are embroiled in this include a tired Badass Bookworm sorcerer, a cunning whore, and a mentally unstable barbarian chieftain. But in the midst of the Holy War arrives a wandering monk, Anasûrimbor Kellhus. He is the scion of an isolated sect who have made themselves beings of pure logic over the years. At the beginning, he is completely ignorant about the outside world, yet at the same time, he is mentally superior to other humans and can easily read their emotions while he feels nothing himself.Opinions are highly divided on whether Kellhus is a scheming Villain Protagonist, the Big Bad himself, a Sociopathic Hero doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, or an insane but BadassAnti-Hero deserving of our admiration. This has a lot to do with an individual person's perception of what counts as Moral Dissonance, Black and Gray Morality, and Moral Event Horizon. Irredeemably evil? You be the judge. Ultimately a force for good? At the moment we can only speculate.The Second Apocalypse consists of:
The Prince of Nothing
The Darkness that Comes Before
The Warrior Prophet
The Thousandfold Thought
The Judging Eye
The White-Luck Warrior
The Unholy Consult (forthcoming)
TSTSNBN (Referred to as "The Series That Shall Not Be Named" by R. Scott Bakker in many interviews. This series was originally planned on being a Duology but may be a Trilogy. It is only ever referred to by this name since the true title would allegedly spoil the series)
After the End: The series takes place nearly two thousand years after a catastrophic conflict that destroyed the entire northern civilization of Earwa and resulted in all new births being born stillborn for eleven years.
And I Must Scream: The Nonmen, who are immortal but suffer from madness and amnesia as their memory decays with age.
Anti-Hero: Most of the main characters have anti-heroic elements.
Anti-Magic: The Chorae, magic-destroying spheres that are crucial to the power balance between the priesthood and sorcerers. A person bearing a skin-touching Chorae is immune to sorcery, and the mere touch of one will turn sorcerers into salt. They were created by the Nonmen sorcerers, who betrayed their race by giving the resulting creations to the Inchoroi (thousands of years ago). They are called "Tears of God" and "trinkets" by the residents of the Three Seas. While they are rare, they're common enough for most of the rulers to equip special forces of archers with them to specifically counter sorcerers on the battlefield.
Apocalypse How: The Ancient North was annihilated, and the most powerful nations of the Three Seas crashed into ruin, leaving the Three Seas in chaos. Some descendants of these Norsirai were later able to build new civilizations in the northern Three Seas, and things stabilized in the south. Now the Men of the Three Seas are the center of human civilization, and the desolate High North is only a cold wilderness roamed by bands of Sranc.
"War is ______." Conphas claims war is intellect, for example.
"WHAT DO YOU SEE?"
Armored Closet Gay: The source of all of Cnaiur's shame is being seduced by Moenghus into killing his father. He's entirely unable to handle the fact that he loves/loved Moenghus. He is attracted to women as well, however, so he's apparently somewhere toward the middle of the Kinsey scale.
Ax-Crazy: Cnaiur and the entire Sranc species (who are bred to be murderer-rapists).
Badass Bookworm: Achamian is a scholarly sorcerer with an unimposing personality, but he's also a war chant master of the Gnosis, meaning he can destroy whole battalions of soldiers and defeat multiple anagogic schoolmen at once.
Cnaiür, but only when he's in one of his violent moods. "I am Cnaiur urs Skiötha, breaker-of-horses-and-men!", "I am Cnaiür urs Skiötha, most violent of all men! I bear your fathers and brothers upon my arms!", or more straightforward, "Who will murder me?!"
"Demon! Demon! For a thousand years! Fucking your wives! Striking down your fathers! A thousand years I have stalked you!"
"I am Cleric and you will hear my sermon!"
Badass Normal: Cnaiür has no magical abilities or special genetic traits. He's just an amazingly tough guy with a heaping helping of crazy.
Barbarian Hero: Cnaiür is a deconstruction of this trope: he comes from a tribe with Mongolic customs who are obsessed with war and pride themselves on being pure and hardened by the difficulty of their life on the Jiünati Steppes. Cnaiür even looks like Conan the Barbarian: he has black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. However, rather than being a heroic counterweight to the corruption of the Three Seas and the Inrithi civilization, Cnaiür is even worse: he is insanely paranoid, cannot understand why the Inrithi soldiers bring prostitutes along as part of their campaign (when one can just rape the native women of the land one conquers), is on the constant brink of a murderous rage, and ends up working with the Consult.
The Scylvendi. Calling themselves "the People of War", they see war as a holy act and the men cut a scar on their arms to mark their every kill. They dedicate themselves to war so much that Scylvendi children know songs and stories about each division of their enemies' armies, so they'll know exactly who they are up against. During the Holy War, Cnaiür can simply analyze the enemy army and see who is who.
The Norsirai (northmen) of the Three Seas are this, if you scrape off the veneer of civilization their conversion to Inrithism gave them. Some of them even wear shrunken human heads as trophies.
Beat Still, My Heart: When Kellhus, after being crucified to a tree for days, stands up and pulls out his own beating heart. It's actually Serwë's heart, and he is either faking the Messiah act, or he's just performed a miracle, since he still manages to pull it out of his OWN chest.
Black and White Morality: Deconstructed by the topic of damnation. There are very objective and specific things that will make you damned to torment in 111 hells. One of these is using sorcery, even though the Mandate needs to use sorcery to prevent the entire world from being destroyed.
Body Horror: The Consult skin-spies, the Inchoroi, and Shaeönanra.
The Brainless Beauty: Serwë is flawlessly beautiful, but one of the dimmest characters in the series. It's almost too easy for Kellhus to manipulate her.
Break the Haughty: Conphas in The Thousandfold Thought. Also happens to the Scarlet Spires over the course of the trilogy, being forced to eat their books to survive Caraskand, finding out that the king of Ainon was a skin-spy, discovering that the Mandate had been right all along and finally losing every sorcerer they brought to the Holy War.
Bullying a Dragon: The Mandate is considered a joke by the other Schools even though their magic is much more powerful than any other. Other schools also try to capture and torture the secret of their power out of Mandate schoolmen, despite the danger.
Kellhus. He never, ever tells anyone to do his bidding "because I want to". Kellhus can find out everyone's innermost desire or motivation, and then appeal to that. Cnaiur scarily describes Kellhus' and his father's powers of manipulation by shouting "They make us love!".
Moenghus: The entire Holy War, from beginning to end, is his plan. He was the hidden leader of the heathens, his son Maithanet was the equivalent of Pope and launched the Holy war, and his other son Kellhus took control of this crusade, setting himself up as a Jesus figure. All to unite the Three Seas against the threat of the No-God.
Court Mage: The Imperial Saik are an entire order of Court Mages.
Crapsack World: The world is a brutal place to live, filled with religious zealotry that causes constant warring between various religions and nations as well as casual brutality to commonfolk for transgressing various religious laws. To top it all off, the world is threatened by a Religion of Evil and a host of psycho-sexual monsters and Eldritch Abominations who want to destroy enough life to escape damnation. The only people who can save the world include sociopathic supermen and sorcerers who suffer constant nightmares.
Depraved Bisexual: All the Inchoroi. Averted with Cnaiur. Moenghus did not seduce him because he was insane, he gradually went insane because Moenghus seduced him. Essentially, the experience of being manipulated into murdering his father by Moenghus, as well as his culture's extreme hatred for homosexuality, produced such stress in Cnaiur that he became a violent lunatic.
Why are the Consult trying to slaughter the human species? To save their own souls. The metaphysics of the universe are such that objective morality exists, along with redemption and (more importantly) damnation. The Inchoroi effectively crossed the Moral Event Horizon long ago and are wholly damned. However, as the Consult discovered, the reduction of the number of "ensouled" beings below a certain number - 144,000 souls - plus some additional work in the form of the No-God, serves to completely sever the world from the Outside, thus saving their souls from damnation.
Ikurei Xerius III plans to twist the Holy War to his own ends by forcing it to accept his nephew as its general and seizing control of the lands it conquers. He's prepared to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of his fellow Inrithi to get the land.
Evil Sorcerer: The Scarlet Spires and the Cishaurim serve this function in the first trilogy. Both stand in the way of our heroes, Achamian and Kellhus, in their fight against the Consult. However, they are actually morally gray at best, and the Scarlet Spires join the Holy War after Kellhus becomes the Aspect-Emperor.
Inrithi: A hybrid polytheistic/monotheistic religion with an overarching "church" and leader akin to Catholicism. The Shriah is the Pope.
Fanim: Arab Muslims. Their fashion, weaponry and symbols are all Arab, and their staunch monotheism in comparison to the slightly more polytheistic aspects of Inrithism is reminiscent of Islam versus Catholicism's Holy Trinity and abundance of saints. The Padirajah is the Sultan/Caliph.
Nansur Empire: The Eastern Roman Empire, a fragment of a larger empire. Their commitment to shaving their beards reflects Roman style.
Scylvendi: Scythians or Sarmatians, though many readers will associate them with Mongols.
Shimeh: Jerusalem, the holy city in two major competing religions.
Floorboard Failure: In the prequel story The False Sun, this is how the powerful sorcerer Titirga is defeated by the much weaker Shaeönanra.
The Fog of Ages: Affects the Nonmen, because they have mortal minds inside immortal bodies that live for millennia after millennia. Quite a few go insane from the amnesia. They have so many memories piled up inside them, that they can only remember the most traumatic events. The insane Nonmen who are addicted to violence for memory's sake are known as Erratics.
Forever War: The Nameless War, which has gone on for thousands of years. It began in Eärwa when the alien Inchoroi started a genocidal war against the Nonmen shortly after their ship crashed into northern Eärwa. Achamian sees a Nonman wall carving, thousands of years old, that depicts the first battle - and he realizes that war is still ongoing to this day.
For the Evulz: One of the motivations of the Inchoroi, who are wholly dedicated to their perverse, violent lusts (the other reasons being to ensure that enough humans die that they won't go to Hell, as well as vengeance against the Nonmen).
Freak Out!: Everybody has one. Even Kellhus, when he's lashed to the circumfix and starts hallucinating.
Functional Magic: In general, there are three types of sorcery: The logic-based Gnostic, Anagogis which uses creative metaphors to implement sorcery and the intuitive Psûkhe of the Cishaurim.
Kellhus has complete control over his entire body, including his facial muscles, so he is able to fake emotions without any difficulty. When someone finally figures out that he's been manipulating everyone the entire time and confronts him about it, every muscle in his face goes dead, like turning off a light.
Skin-spies are shapechanging assassins with faces that are entirely composed of "fingers" that compress together to form any face they can imagine and allow them to impersonate people. When they drop their disguise, their face falls apart into a mass of wiggling fingers around a blank center.
Gendercide: The Womb-Plague or death of all female Cûnuroi/Nonmen.
Genius Bruiser: Kellhus has the tall and athletic build of a warrior, but he's also the most brilliant mind yet seen in the series.
God of Evil: The No-God's purpose is to destroy enough life that the World is severed from the Outside.
Grim Up North: Golgotterath. To a lesser extent, the entirety of the Ancient North, which is infested with Sranc. Only a handful of ragged bands of human survivors and two deeply isolated cities - Sakarpus and Atrithau - dwell in its lands.
Guilt-Free Extermination War: The last Cûno-Inchoroi War was a centuries-long war of extermination and ended with the near-total extermination of the latter.
Henchmen Race: The Sranc and the other weapon races who were bred by the Inchoroi to serve as an army.
Horny Devils: The Inchoroi, the genocidal alien invaders who describe themselves as "the race of lovers".
The Sranc are a horrifying subversion of this trope. They have the libido for it, but their appearance is extremely disturbing (hairless dog-like bodies with the extremely beautiful, bone-white faces of Nonmen), and "rape" is far too mild to describe what they'll do to you.
Cnaiur is often described as having intensely blue eyes. At one point they're even described as turquoise. They make his insanity all the more apparent.
Kellhus has blue eyes, which match the icy coldness of his true self and help sell him as an angelic being.
Impossible Genius: Kellhus uses his superhuman intelligence and Hyper Awareness to surpass the possibilities of any normal human. Achamian is shocked when Kellhus begins improving established mathematics formulas moments after being taught them.
Informed Attractiveness: We're told that Serwë is flawlessly beautiful. Esmenet is also said to be beautiful, though not as perfect as Serwë.
Instant Awesome, Just Add Dragons: The dragons (called Wracu) are the most powerful of the Consult's creatures. They're also unique among the Consult "weapon races", since they're not a creation of Inchoroi bio-technology but rather an alien species who co-existed with the Inchoroi and came with them to Eärwa.
Irony: Moenghus did everything Kellhus did, setting himself up as the prophet to the Fanim instead of the Inrithi, only to discover too late that the Psukhe is powered by the passion and emotions of the sorcerer, things which the Dunyain almost completely lack due to their conditioning. As a result, Moenghus is practically rejected from the Cishaurim, blind and able to cast only the simplest spells.
Kansas City Shuffle: The Kellian Empire. Kellhus has basically abandoned the empire, because this super-state was never meant to last in the long run, only to draw enemy attention away from the Great Ordeal.
Few people are taller than Kellhus, and he's the Aspect-Emperor.
Maithanet, the Shriah, has a a large and impressive stature. In fact, he's the half-brother of Kellhus.
Laughing Mad: After Sarl goes insane, he becomes prone to cackling maniacally.
Law of Conservation of Detail: Discussed in-universe on the matter of Seswatha's memories. Mandate Schoolmen only relive the momentous parts of his life, to the point that they have a saying, "Seswatha never shits." This becomes a plot point when Achamian starts dreaming new, seemingly inconsequential parts of Seswatha's life and puzzles over their significance.
Let's Get Dangerous: Achamian is a fairly put-upon schlub for a good part of the first trilogy, often resorting to impotent internal tirades about the power of his Gnosis. When he's ambushed by seven Crimson Spires schoolmen, however, he completely cuts loose on his War Cants, and the reader learns that all his big talk was not embellished in the slightest.
Lightning Bruiser: Skin-spies are supernaturally fast and strong, to the point that they'll be revealed as inhuman when they fight at full speed.
Living Lie Detector: Dunyain can practically read a person's mind by looking at their expression, so detecting lies is pretty simple stuff. They do have to be able to see your face, though.
Lost Technology: The "Tekne" of the Inchoroi. This included beam weapons (such as the Heron Spear); flying machines equipped with them; a huge, nearly indestructible starship; and incredibly advanced and sophisticated genetic engineering (the skin-spies, the "Weapon Races", and so forth).
Love Hurts: There's nary a single relationship in the series that is happy or does not end in tragedy.
Made of Iron: It's implied that the Dunyain bloodline tends to have very strong bone structure. Maithanet crushes Inrilatas's face in with a punch, then turns to Kelmomas and asks if he, too, has "his mother's bones."
The Magocracy: The Scarlet Spires, one of the sorcerous schools, controls High Ainon, a large southeastern nation. High Ainon's nominal ruler, the King-Regent, answers directly to the Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires.
The Man Behind the Man: The Cishaurim, sorcerer-priests of a heretical religion, are the target of the Holy War. They are in fact a front for Anasurimbor Moenghus, who is the true mastermind behind the Holy War.
Master Actor: Pure Dunyain have complete control over themselves and an intimate understanding of what people need to see and hear to provoke the desired reaction, so they are terrific actors. Kellhus is a perfect actor, and Kelmomas has hidden his true nature from everyone.
Mind Screw: The journey through Cil-Aujas. It starts off unsettling but straightforward, then... hordes of Sranc out of nowhere? Then a guy with an eye in his heart? Then a Nonman King who's trapped in Hell, can only speak through unconscious people, possesses Cleric, and dreams that he's a hungry god? And, in a superbly baffling moment that is still a Crowning Moment Of Awesome, Mimara somehow banishes the Nonman King with a Chorae that shuts the Gates of Hell. It's a Mind Screw for the characters, too: Sarl's sanity doesn't fare too well.
Moral Dissonance: Kellhus commits multiple atrocities for "the greater good", such as sacrificing Serwë's life and ordering the massacre of twenty thousand Kianene civilians, not to mention his early betrayal of Leweth, who saved his life.
Moral Event Horizon: The march of the Vulgar Holy War was a definite crossing of the Moral Event Horizon for Emperor Xerius, both in-universe and out. Basically, he arranged for over a hundred thousand old men, women and orphans to march into enemy lands and get slaughtered - only so Xerius could prove a point to his "allies" and advance a political agenda he didn't even believe in.
Mutant Draft Board: Men who practice sorcery but don't belong to a School are called wizards and are extremely rare. Schools hunt down and kill any known wizard so as to maintain their monopoly on the secrets of magic.
Omniglot: Dunyain need only a few days of observing a language to become completely fluent.
Organic Technology: The Inchoroi are masters of this, creating the Sranc, Wracu, and Bashrags.
Our Demons Are Different: The Ciphrang are demons from "the Outside" that can be summoned and enslaved by powerful sorcerers. Alien Geometries are implied, as being in the physical world is excruciatingly unpleasant for them and they are described as warping and wavering.
Our Dragons Are Different: Of all the bioweapon creatures created by the Inchoroi, the Wracu are the oldest and most powerful.
Our Elves Are Better: The Nonmen are similar to Elves, immortal and wisest of all living creatures. They were more intelligent and beautiful than humans, but also much worse in anger or jealousy. However, when we finally get detailed physical descriptions of a Nonman in The Judging Eye, the "beautiful" aspect starts to get subverted: for example, their teeth are fused together, they don't have a single hair on their body (not even eyelashes), their skin is marble-white, and the repulsive beauty of Sranc is borrowed from the appearance of Nonmen.
Our Orcs Are Different: The Sranc, a race of monsters engineered to achieve sexual pleasure from violence and rape. As a homage to JRR Tolkien, they are "corruptions" of the Nonmen (the "Elves" of this setting), and genetically engineered to have Nonman faces.
Our Ogres Are Hungrier: Bashrags, another race of bioweapon creatures. They have the appearance of three bodies fused into one.
The Inchoroi were an interstellar race of technology perverts who crashed into the Nonmen's magical world and started a war.
Although not "villains" per se, the Dunyain are unknown to everyone when Kellhus gets dropped into the middle of the Holy War and soon takes control of it. Neither the "heroes" nor the "villains" have any idea who or what they are or how to react to them.
Poisonous Captive: Anasûrimbor Moënghus, during the time he was a prisoner of Cnaiür urs Skiötha's tribe.
Precursors: Averted, actually. There are still Nonmen around, but thanks to humans and the Inchoroi, all but one of their Mansions are destroyed and empty. The one Mansion that's inhabited, Ishterebinth, is in the far northwest, and cut off from the human world. In the Three Seas, Nonmen are effectively thought of as extinct because they tend to avoid humans, especially after Cil-Aujas (one of only two Mansions to survive the first invasions of Men) was destroyed in the aftermath of the Apocalypse.
Psychic Dreams for Everyone: The ruins of Mengedda, which make people dream of all the people who died there across the ages. Also, the Mandate sorcerers, who willingly undergo a procedure that makes them dream each night of the horrific events that happened during their founder's life. It's also implied that the "Mop" - a forest that the Skin Eaters pass through on the path to Sauglish - does this to the characters.
Rags to Riches: Kellhus is this trope taken to its ultimate extreme: he goes from being a starving drifter wandering the wastes of the Ancient North, to the leader of a religious cult disguised as a prince, to a Prophet, to the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas. His ascent has been so total that his name is used as a swear-word ('Kellah!), as we might use 'Jesus Christ'.
Self-Destructive Charge: Saubon "punishes" the Shrial Knights by making them charge the Cishaurim. The Cishaurim are sorcerers able to burn hundreds alive with a glance. Unfortunately for the Cishaurim, some—not many, but enough—of the Shrial Knights are wearing chorae...
Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In The Aspect-Emperor, Akka spends the first two books throwing away everything he's built in the past twenty years, along with the lives of the Skin Eaters, to find the Coffers which he hopes will lead him to Ishual and the truth about Kellhus and the Dunyain. And when he gets to Ishual, only he and Mimara surviving, both of them addicted to Qirri, stuck in the middle of nowhere...they discover that it's already been destroyed by an unknown force.
Shout-Out: A subtle one in The Thousandfold Thought. One character, ruminating on a birdlike abomination, speaks of "nepenthe," cries out "Bird! Devil!" and comments that the bird is like a "demon dreaming" - all lines from Poe's "The Raven."
Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Highly cynical. Religious hatred, racism and violent misogyny are rampant in this world - Bakker has stated more than once that he aims to portray the Dark Ages world realistically.
Smart People Play Chess: Achamian and Xin play a complicated strategy game where the rules change after every move, much like life.
The Sranc are an odd variety. They aren't particularly great fighters and are too undisciplined to fight in any formation other than Zerg Rush, but they can easily live off bugs and scavenging, reproduce very rapidly, and have almost unbreakable morale. They were specifically created to wipe out humanity like a plague.
The Ursranc are the super-variant of the Sranc; bigger, stronger, and most importantly, obedient. They are used as Mook Lieutenants.
Throat Light: Sorcerous Chants cause light to emit from your eyes and throat.
Took a Level in Badass: Kellhus begins the series barely able to walk through a forest due to the sensory overload, and needs to be rescued. Using his innate Dunyain talents, however, he quickly gains seemingly impossible levels of power.
Too Kinky to Torture: The skin-spies cannot be tortured by regular means due to their warped perceptions of pain and pleasure. However, Moenghus learns of neuropressure points that can cause them extreme pain, allowing him and later Kellhus to torture them.
Torture Technician: The Ikurei dynasty has a dungeon featuring their imperial torturers. Kellhus makes use of the same dungeons and torturers as Aspect-Emperor. The Scarlet Spires also have theirs, though they never manage to torture the Gnosis out of Mandate Schoolman.
Übermensch: Kellhus, Moenghus and all the Dûnyain.
Unwilling Suspension: Kellhus is lashed to a large ring (visually, think of the Vitruvian Man, minus the extra limbs) and suspended from a tree. The incident is later referred to as the Circumfixion, and is clearly meant to parallel the biblical Crucifixion as Kellhus continues to build his role as a Messianic Archetype.
Vestigial Empire: The Nansur Empire under Ikurei Xerius III. It's been losing territory to Fanim jihads for hundreds of years, and Xerius plans to use the Holy War to get some of it back.
Who Wants to Live Forever?: Nonmen are cursed with immortality, with some being over 10,000 years old. With no women, they have lived for millennia as a doomed race with no purpose. The Erratics of their number live in a perpetual state of partial amnesia.
Worthy Opponent: The Fanim and the Nansur treat each other like honorable opponents. The Nansur do not view the Scylvendi barbarians as this, and all Scylvendi prisoners are publicly raped.
Xanatos Speed Chess: Dunyain are masters of this with their ability to analyze and recalculate their plans on the fly as new situations arise.
Zerg Rush: Sranc are not very powerful warriors individually, but they attack ferociously, en masse, and in mind-boggling numbers to wear down even the strongest companies of soldiers by sheer attrition. There are tales of Scranc simply throwing themselves on the spears of soldiers to make them unable to defend themselves from the next wave of Scranc.