Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review of The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker is one of my guilty pleasures.  His Prince of Nothing trilogy is a tense, superbly paced yet detailed series that settles firmly on both sides of the traditional/contemporary epic fantasy fence.  Dune meets Lord of the Rings, Bakker imbues his world with a mood of brooding darkness that showed great focus—Prince of Nothing building steadily to a rousing climax that many fantasy series seem to promise but so few payoff in similar style.  Yes, it retreads the hamburger themes of power, control, ego, honor, etc., but Bakker’s rich imagination, tight control of prose (how often can you say that of epic fantasy?), and narrative structure make for a series that vies with the very best of epic fantasy ever published.

Opening the next chapter in the story of Kellhus, Esmenet, and Achamian, in 2009 Bakker started a second of a projected three sub-series.  Called The Aspect-Emperor, the first book is The Judging Eye.  Picking up events in the Three Seas roughly twenty years after the close of The Thousand Fold Thought, Kellhus has used his powers of intellect and sorcery to create the largest empire the world has ever known.  Having gathered all the martial strength of the lands behind him, he marches with the Great Ordeal north to crush the No-God before it can unleash the second apocalypse on humanity.  His wife, Esmenet has bore eight children, some of which are abomination.  Yet, she maintains clear power of the throne as her husband’s grand army make their way north.  And Achamian, exiled at the end of the first series, lives a life of solitude, contemplating what his dreams of Seswatha mean each morning.  A surprise visit from his past, however, sets his sights northward, as well.

A tiny handful of major characters introduced, foremost is that visitor to Achamian: his long lost daughter Mimara.  Wanting to learn the wizard’s ways, Achamian is reluctant to teach her, knowing the evils of sorcery, and sends the young woman on her way.  Tenacious, however, she finds a way back in.  Sorweel is prince of one of the last independent kingdoms not under the Aspect-Emperor’s thumb.  Trampled by Kellhus as he marches north, however, Sorweel is press-ganged into the Great Ordeal.  His role in larger events, however, has yet to surface.  Along with the Esmenet’s children, the last major player introduced is the cult of Yatwer and its pagan witch leader, Nannaferi.  Likewise just introduced to the gameboard, only time will tell how it affects Three Seas affairs as the series continues.  The pagan rituals, however, promise to be fundamentally human in belief.

The first book in the Prince of Nothing series, The Darkness that Comes Before, made a strong impression on me for its ability to do a lot with little.  Bakker patiently built the background of his world while effectively pressing the character’s stories in the moment—all without depending on a major event at the end to segue.  The Judging Eye, likewise first book in a trilogy (or tetrology: yet to be determined) has a different m.o.  Placing most of its emphasis on Achamian’s storyline, the other three major storylines serve more as scene setters and character introductions—escalating but not arcing like Achamian’s.  Readers looking for smash-fire-bang may be disappointed by this.  The height of Achamian’s story, however, may be enough.  One of the best action-sequences I’ve read, it plumbs the meaty depths of what epic fantasy can be, all the while moving from one surprise into another.  On balance, The Judging Eye a slow start to what promises to be another terrific series, a clash with the impossibly powerful No-God awaiting at the end.

As spread but more focused than George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and less pretentious but as brooding as Steve Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy series ranks among the best currently on the market.  And The Judging Eye is one of the reasons why.  A patient opening to a trilogy, readers who enjoyed the first series will have no problems enjoying the beginning of the second.  If anything, Bakker has tightened his prose, is deeper ensconced in his vision, and is laying stronger groundwork for what lies ahead.  The incest scene I’m still scratching my head about, as well as genderized quotes that seem to exist solely to rile the p.c. crowd, but all else is as good as epic fantasy gets.  Context established, the pleasure is guilty indeed.

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