Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker (Aspect-Emperor trilogy)

I mentioned this one in my review of The Skybound Sea--where I hoped for the sake of Aeon's Gate fans Skyes goes on to write a sequel trilogy like this.

I cannot remember enjoying a sequel so much in years!

Although the worldbuilding behind what Bakker is now calling The Second Apocalypse is beyond complex, and a lot has happened in the 20 years since the close of the Prince of Nothing trilogy, I still felt able to dive right back into this world. I hadn't realized how much I remembered of this meticulously crafted setting--even though "Sweet Sejenus!" has been my go-to cussword for years. Bakker doesn't waste the reader's time with a long introduction. Instead, we're brought up to speed with key developments in a 2-page letter and then off to the races. Although I should note there is some back-of-the-book matter, some of which should should have been brought to the front, like the Map of the Three Seas I didn't know was there and would have really helped my geographic understanding. Better yet, there is an excellent synopsis of the first series (that doesn't spoil for The Judging Eye itself). This helped me refresh my understanding and also gave added background.


This is still a slower, and in some ways more introspective trilogy than the first--the chapters with the captive prince Sorweel came dangerously near navel gazing. All the same, they offered a view of Aspect-Emperor Kellhus that provided a contrast to the other chapters--to Sorweel, captured as part of the emperor's holy Crusade called the Great Ordeal, Kellhus is an enemy but also near-divine, while the Wizard Achamian knows Kellhus is mortal but trained to be super-humanly intelligent and manipulative. Achamian's goal is to discover the source of that training, so he has a more standard quest fantasy plotline. This is not to say it is dull or even that it's anything like quest fantasies done before. People have objected to the climactic scenes as being a Mines of Moria ripoff, but the Mines of Moria were never so terrifying as the Nonman city ominously vast and all but lost in deep time, where every detail of its craftsmanship reveals an inhuman culture and the suffering of previous generations has caused the very fabric of reality to decay into a Hellmouth (Bakker's word is topos, but I refreshed my Greek and learned that translates to something like "trope." Bakker's characters do not speak Greek, but the relation to TV Tropes almost--if not quite--ruined the scariness for me).

The last plotline follows Kellhus's wife (and Achaimian's ex) Esmenet and the children she's had with the Aspect-Emperor. I would not suggest pregnant women, nor for that matter anyone planning to become pregnant nor anyone who is nursing nor anyone who has feelings on children in general, read these chapters. Since I have no current plans vis-a-vis fertility, I devoured them. Kellhus's kids are possibly even more terrifying than the topos, because they're horror in a human shape--well, the living ones are in a human shape--well, if anything was going to make me doubt Kellhus's human origins it's the children he's conceived that were drowned at birth because they came out wrong. But the fact is, all the kids have come out a bit wrong, and we get to follow evil little Kelmomas as he causes havoc and destruction because...I'm not actually clear on his motivations. The synopsis in the following book, The White-Luck Warrior, tells me he's trying to draw closer to his mother. Poor Esmenet.

Esme is one of the more sympathetic characters, along with Achaimian (and to a lesser extent Sorweel, but it's hard to get a good grip on someone in the depths of an identity crisis), and they're what keeps this story  from devolving into a grimdark bloodfest. The style is grim, but thoughtful. There's a fair bit of flashy prose, some of it purple, but this is done deliberately to achieve an effect a bit like reading epic poetry. I wouldn't suggest anyone set out to mimic Bakker's style--it's a don't try this at home, kids kind of feat--but it was pleasant to read for a change of pace. The magic and supernatural forces in this story are less subtle than in the original trilogy--the sorcerers wield some nice pyrotechnics, divine or posing-as-divine forces begin manifesting in opposition to Kellhus, and the manifestations of the topos are vivid--but continue to raise more questions than they answers.

The Judging Eye of the title, a wild talent of Achaimian and Esmenet's traumatized daughter Mimara, seems to suggest an ultimate hierarchy of good and evil--one at odds with Kellhus' teachings, at that. But I'm personally not convinced morality in this universe isn't relative. My first tip-off was that Mimara's Judging Eye views "good men" as "brighter" and "good women"--now, maybe Bakker has the balls (no pun intended) to weave misogyny into his fiction's very foundations, but I prefer to imagine something more interesting is going on. Perhaps Mimara's vision has been affected by her upbringing, or manipulated by one of the higher powers beginning to make an appearance in the trilogy. Achamian has a moment of feminist realization when he hands off power to Mimara, who's convinced him to offer her some training in sorcery, near the climax-- although the Judging Eye also thinks he's damned as a magician. And on the other side, we have the cult of Yatwer, dark yonic power at its delectably creepiest. This is almost enough for me to stop being disappointed, now that it's been pointed out to me, that Bakker has several parallels with Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah and that means the (also pretty yonic) Bene Gessert have been replaced with the rather male Dunyain. This is a series that would already benefit from having a few more female characters who aren't prostitutes or ex-prostitutes. Again, though, the cult of the goddess Yatwer and her White-Luck warrior promises to develop into something ghastly but fascinating--much like everything else in this series.

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