Mar 31, 2011

The Judging Eye - R. Scott Bakker

The White Luck Warrior, part two of Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, is almost here, and so I thought I'd get up to date by reviewing the first one. Apparently this review will MASSIVELY SPOIL the ending of the original Prince of Nothing trilogy (Review), so if you haven't read that one, do be ashamed and stop here.

Twenty years have passed since the Warrior Prophet Kellhus united the disparate peoples of the Three Seas and was proclaimed Aspect Emperor. Now the New Empire rules throughout the land and is spreading its boundaries ever northward. The Consult is no longer a children's tale, but a threat made real by edict of the throne, its insidious skin-spies expertly hunted and executed publically. The Few are no longer damned. The Aspect Emperor in his divinity has rewritten scripture and the ages long enmity between the Thousand Temples and the sorcerous Schools is no more.

Now the Aspect Emperor has called all his forces to arms. The Great Ordeal is about to begin - a crusade against Golgoterath itself, and the Consult. For two decades the scalpoi - a new breed of bounty hunters who collect Sranc scalps for money - have been cleaving a path throughout the northern wastes, and now the armies of the Three Seas finally have a chance to reach the ancient enemy of mankind.

In Momemn, empress Esmeneth rules in her husband's name, surrounded by their inhuman children. Meanwhile, her long lost daughter Mimara joins the outcast wizard Achamian in his own quest to uncover the secret of the Duniain and the origin of Anasurimbor Kellhus. But other powers also look north, and even some of the gods seem to have set themselves against the Aspect Emperor.

The Judging Eye is structured the same way The Darkness That Comes Before was. Which is to say, it is only the beginning of a story, the first third of it, even though it has a lot more of a climax than the other one had. In some ways it is a better beginning, but at the same time it is a slightly worse book. In the twenty years that have passed, a lot of things have changed, and whereas the characters in The Darkness had to start humble and develop throughout the original trilogy, here they are already on the board, and in important positions. There is no "exploratory" element, and that leaves room for far less character development. However, what I had actual problem with while reading the novel, was what I call "Eriksonisms". Little chunks of aimless meandering introspection that goes nowhere and serves no visible purpose. I am a huge fan of characters overanalyzing and being all philosophical, but while in The Prince of Nothing it served the plot and character development, here it feels like page filler.

Another thing that didn't agree with me are certain plot-lines that are just too dragged. The whole White Luck Warrior arc and the meddling goddess behind him seem completely out of sync with the rest of the series, and it reminded me way too much of Malazan for its own good. The whiny annoying emo creature Sorweel that we are not only forced to endure throughout the entire Great Ordeal storyline, but is also given a very important role towards the end, is also something I'd expect Steven Erikson to pull. The "Moria" part takes up a good half of the book, but for some reason it doesn't really feel stolen from Tolkien, perhaps due to the utter obviousness of the connection.

Negative stuff being out of the way, The Judging Eye is still pretty effing awesome! The New Empire is a place in turns magnificent and fake, as it has been created by a mind designed to deceive and manipulate, but also one bred for efficiency and optimal results. The changes in the social order compared to twenty years ago are interesting, but Bakker doesn't spend too much time on them, busy as he is with the messed up children of Esmeneth and Kellhus. All of them are wrong in some way, each of them mad and broken in their inhuman brilliance, the Warrior Prophet's seed having been too strong for any mortal woman to take.

The Aspect Emperor himself is almost never talked about using his name. Bakker does his best to put him as far away from the reader as possible, and Kellhus is no longer a POV character in the story. He is a figure of immeasurable power, a godlike being that compels awe, adoration, terror and utter obedience. I found this stylistic decision a very good one, as Kellhus can no longer be manageable as an actual character. Twenty years in the real world, in possession of all the economical and sorcerous power of the Three Seas, not to mention their vast knowledge, have turned him into something well beyond what any writer could hope to believably describe, should they try to get in his head.

The rest of the old cast are more or less the same, even if thrust into different situations. Esmeneth and Achamian still feel way too sorry for themselves for their own good, and whine to their support characters. The new additions are sometimes awesome (like most of Kellhus' children) and sometimes cringe-worthy (like Mimara and Sorweel), but none are especially memorable. An interesting element in Achamian's development is the evolution of his Dreams that start revealing to him information previously hidden from the Mandate schoolmen.

Unfortunately, Bakker seems to not be rooting for Kellhus, and the story is going in a direction I am not sure I appreciate. Of course, the writer has proven himself as perfectly capable to develop an unpredictable and epic conclusion, no matter how bad things may seem at any given moment, but the "Erikson" arcs really grated on my nerves, and I am rarely the type of reader to get pissed when a story doesn't go the way he likes. So I'm just hoping The White Luck Warrior goes back on track in that aspect. Because the war with the Consult is coming, and it promises to be epic!


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