Friday, December 12, 2008

Review: The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing Trilogy took the standard epic fantasy template very seriously. While it utilizes many of the usual tools, it also presents a literary and philosophical depth largely absent from the genre. The Judging Eye (US, UK, Canada) is the first book in a follow-up trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, and Bakker shows maturity as an author and demonstrates why his name belongs among the best epic fantasy authors.

The Judging Eye takes place 20 years after the conclusion of the previous trilogy – Anasûrimbor Kellhus has risen to become the Aspect Emperor – a human god who has forcibly united the nations of the south into a New Empire. Much of the intervening time has been spent in preparation for a new war with the No-God and Consult in an effort to avoid a Second Apocalypse. The Judging Eye shows us the start of this great march to war, known as the Great Ordeal.

The Judging Eye is told through three primary story arcs that generally rely on just a few points of view. The Empress Esmenet is left behind to manage the Empire as her husband leads the nations to war. The old, exiled Wizard Achamian lives as a hermit and finally sets out on a perilous journey to discover the very origins of Kellhus and the mysterious Dûnyain sect. A young barbarian King and his realm is absorbed into Aspect Emperor’s New Empire and he is forced to march into the wilds of the north under a new banner.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus has elevated himself as the God of Gods – no longer human and the central figure of a new religion, and the only religion tolerated in his New Empire. Bakker plays with the points of view – in The Prince of Nothing Trilogy, we got frequent views from Kellhus that slowly decreased in number as Kellhus increased in power and influence. In The Judging Eye, we don’t get a point a view from Kellhus the god like we had from Kellhus the man. The previous trilogy was about the origin of this newly acclaimed god and in The Judging Eye we can only look up to see him without the privilege of seeing his thoughts. The god Kellhus seemingly only looks forward to inevitable conflict with a rival, the no-god. This contrasts with the hermit-wizard Achamian, whose point of view dominates one of the three main story arcs. Achamian is obsessed with the past and finding the true origins of Kellhus the man.

This interesting aspect of looking back as the world moves forward is furthered in the story arc dominated the Empress Esmenet’s point of view. Much of this reflection focuses on the regret of choices made. Esmenet has the distance and history to see into the life of Kellhus. While she’s still dazzled when in his presence, in his absence she sees the horror and fears of past, present and future. Esmenet reveals fear of her and Kellhus’s children – each strangely powerful like their father (if not as strong) and each is not entirely sane. This backward look reveals much of the potential future – and it’s as bleak as I’ve come to expect from Bakker.

In The Prince of Nothing Trilogy, Bakker’s writing was heavy on the internal dialogue and philosophical end of things, turning off a number of potential fans. In The Judging Eye, Bakker lightens up significantly on the internal focus previously utilized, showing the deeper philosophical aspects in a much more subtle manner. The result is a much more accessible book with a faster pace that should appeal to a wider range of fans. Bakker doesn’t sacrifice the depth of his previous writing – he just shows improvement as an author as he keeps the intellectual feel to the book while making his writing more fun to read. Bakker even attempts a gallows sort of humor at times – though he has some improving to do in that area and the book’s overall feel is still depressingly dark and serious.

The Judging Eye shows influence from other epic fantasy works rather than the almost historic feel of the crusades of The Prince of Nothing Trilogy. The depth of the worldbuilding feels much greater and easily rivals works like The Lord of the Rings with its feel of a deep and tragic history to the world. Bakker further honors Tolkien with an homage to Moria – and Bakker truly stands on the shoulders of the giants that came before with an enthralling journey into the depths where you can feel the terror of the haunting dark. This series of events showcases Bakker’s writing at its best – the internal and external conflicts build, collide, and repeat in a crescendo that I could not set aside.

The Judging Eye opens The Aspect Emperor Trilogy, and as an opening book it doesn’t stand alone. Only one of the three main arcs comes to any sort of conclusion, and even that conclusion is just the end of the beginning. While the promise of greatness to come is huge, I can’t help but be a bit unhappy that I’ll have to wait for it. The Judging Eye is more accessible than The Prince of Nothing Trilogy – I suppose that one could read it without having read the previous trilogy, but to fully appreciate this book I feel that knowledge of the previous trilogy is important.

As if The Prince of Nothing wasn’t proof enough, Bakker shows again in The Judging Eye what can be done with epic fantasy – and what Bakker does is nothing short of excellence. 9/10


Lsrry said...

Believe it or not, but I think that is one of the best reviews of yours I have read, as it strikes a good balance between covering what happened before with what is transpiring within the novel, all within a manageable word count. My thoughts are much the same as yours and I plan on beginning work on my review next week after exams, although I might not have it posted for some time afterward. But you pretty much cover a lot of the ground I wanted to address.

Needless to say, I liked the review ;)

Neth said...


ediFanoB said...

Excellent review! Even I didn't read THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy so far. You gave a enough "ammunition" to move these books to top of my to buy list. Unfortunately it is too late for Christmas. My Christmas present will be all eight available books of THE MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN by Steven Erikson.

So I have to wait until next year

Neth said...

well, Malazan is pretty good too.

You have some good reading ahead.

bloggeratf said...

Great review, even if we don't share the same feelings towards the series. Liked it so much I posted a linky!
Keep up the good work.

ito said...

If Kellhus turns out to be either insane, evil or both, I still hope he kicks everyone's ass in the end. :D
I am a bit tired of the "good" hero saving everyone. Kell is my favourite character because he doesn't get bogged down by sentiments or morals (just like the angel in Mark Twain's story The Mysterious Stranger doesn't either). He's not some "hero" who everyone can relate to. He kicks teeth and get's the job done. That's that. And he does it with style.

Akka is a whining little bitch no matter what he finds out about The Aspect Emperor and Inrilatas is pretty close to being awesome :)

I like your reviews. Can't wait to see your WLW one when you're done. I'm almost finished reading it :) Thanks!

Neth said...

Thanks Ito,

I too hope that Kellhus turns out to be more than strictly meets the eye.

As for WLW - I finsished it a few days ago and I'm still trying to find the time to write-up my review. Though I will admit that the word that comes to mind is disappointing.


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