Jun 12, 2011

The White Luck Warrior - R. Scott Bakker

After the relative disappointment that The Judging Eye turned out to be (if only in comparison with the original Prince of Nothing trilogy), it took me a while to actually get into The White Luck Warrior. Part of it was fear of another disappointment, one that would cement the realization that even Bakker could not keep the quality and measure to his own high standards. Another part was the fact that the book was big, and in recent times it's been getting progressively hard for me to start large volumes, little reading time that I have.

Now I feel slightly silly for waiting so long, but better late than later. I have been denying myself one of the best fantasy novels in recent years.


The Aspect-Emperor's Great Ordeal marches on the Istyuli Plains, bound for ancient Kuniuri. In front of them the Sranc mob, more and more clans combining and running back, to turn into a Horde that would end up dwarfing the great army of Men. Varalt Sorweel, the young King of conquered Sakarpus, is trying to come to terms with the fact that the goddess Yatwer has chosen him to be her weapon against the Aspect-Emperor, hiding his face from the man's dread Dunyain gaze and that of his uncanny children, and positioning him in ever greater positions of power.

Meanwhile, the Skin Eaters continue their journey for ancient Sauglish and its fabled Library, where the Wizard Achamian hopes to find the secret location of Ishual - the ancient citadel of the Dunyain, the birth-place of Anasurimbor Kellhus. Mimara, daughter of the woman who left him for divinity, is struggling with the gift she has - the Judging Eye - and the knowledge that it reveals to her every time it opens, as well as her doubts about the old Wizard's mission.

And in Momemn, capital of the New Empire, the Holy Empress Esmenet is struggling to hold everything together. Assailed by Fanayal ab Kascamandri, the Bandit Padirajah and his Kianene rebels, Psatma Nannaferi, the Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer, the threat of civil war and the possible machinations of Maithanet, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, she is blind to the biggest threat of all - her own little son Kelmomas, whose blood-thirsty manipulation threatens to destroy everything she cares about.

And the White Luck Warrior follows a path already trodden, an instrument of circumstances that will inevitably deliver him at the right moment in time and space where the Aspect-Emperor could be killed. But his journey has first taken him to Momemn...

The White Luck Warrior is split into those three lines, with multiple view-points in each one. The Ordeal is seen through Sorweel's POV and my favorite bird's eye view, which Bakker proved to be magnificent at in the original trilogy. The Slog of Slogs is told through Mimara and Achamion's perspectives, while the Momemn line is split into multiple sections - each of its chapters starts with a short scene with the White Luck Warrior, written in italic, and told in a very Gene Wolfean style - due to the man's divine nature - following his inexorable progress towards the death of Anasurimbor Kellhus. Other major POVs are Esmenet and little Kelmomas', as well as the Zeumi sorcerer Malowebi, sent to live among the Kianene rebels to determine whether they are worth Zeum's help.

After The Judging Eye seemed to do nothing but set the new stage and spend half of its length in Moria - pardon, Cil'Aujas - the second part of The Aspect-Emperor propels the plot forward. Unlike with The Prince of Nothing, entire major story-lines end in this novel, leaving many characters' future open for speculation. Of the major POVs, it is Sorweel's that sees the most development. This was the character I hated the most in the first book, as he represented all that is unholy in Steven Erikson's writing, come to Bakker's work as a spreading of cancer. Not so in The White Luck Warrior. Instead of continuing feeling super sorry for himself, the young "Horse-King" actually grows up, his doubts no longer directed at the measure of his worth as a human being, but at his conflicting passions and loyalties where his monstrous enemy and even more monstrous patroness are concerned.

Description of epic battles and sorcerous displays has always been one of Bakker's strongest points, and he more than delivers in both aspects. The Ordeal faces multitudes of Sranc so vast as to obscure the horizon - a plague that does not dwindle even when hundreds of thousands of the abominations are destroyed by the army's four Schools. Where sorcery is concerned, nothing leaves quite as big an impression as the Swayali witches and their gloriously beautiful Grandmistress Anasurimbor Serwa. Kellhus has invented special clothing for his Schools - billows that allow protection against Chorae - and wearing those, the witches are described as flowers of light blooming in the sky. The words used to paint their glory resonated so well with me, at times I felt I was the sole focus of Bakker's writing.

There are two things that prevent The White Luck Warrior from being the perfect fantasy. One is the Mimara/Achamian story-line. It is just too devoid of events, too steeped in despair and drug-warped misery, as all the Skin Eaters slowly succumb to the lull of the mystical Qirri that the Nonman Incariol dispenses every night. At some point those chapters become almost unbearably hard to plod through, and even though the ending to that line more than pays off, less pages could have been spent on it, either leaving them for other lines, or making the book itself shorter.

The one true element I could not stand though, is Anasurimbor Kelmomas. I don't mind that he is a deranged little Stewie, and honestly, if he were only that, he would just spice things up in Momemn. But no, he has to be a Wesley as well! Bakker gives the little abortion an inordinate amount of plot-influence, spinning the entire Momemn line on the juvenile evil genius machinations, and every time something disastrous happened because of him, it made me cringe. There is this syndrome in some fantasy novels, that I can't describe properly. It is when events just turn bad in a bad way that you hate, not because you are attached to certain characters, but just because it's bad and not right. I know that those of you who have shared the feeling - the syndrome has been more than abundant in latter Malazan novels - will know exactly what I mean, and I apologize to the rest if I am unclear. Well, Kelmomas and his argh-inducing plot-direction are exactly that, and in a bad way. I do hope he has a less prominent role in the last book - I mean, he already fraked up everything that could be fraked up...

But despite that one ugly Anasurimbor tumor, The White Luck Warrior is superb. It is Bakker at his best, easily comparable with The Warrior Prophet in terms of quality. The story progresses toward the inevitable battle with Golgotterath, and The Unholy Consult promises to be an epic conclusion to The Aspect-Emperor. The writer himself has promised to basically shatter our world with that one, so I can only wait and hope.


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