Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Review: The White-Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker

The Great Ordeal is the name of a vast army under the command of the Aspect-Emperor and purported God of Gods, Anasûrimbor Kellhus. They march north to confront the forces of the No-God and forestall a coming apocalypse. The Great Ordeal is a collection of ancient enemies and allies with a greater number than any army in thousands of years. However the land they travel through is barren, lacking water and food. They are surrounded by enemies, the half-man, half-animal Sranc that have numbers far greater than they. They are constantly attacked – they are hungry, tired and thirsty. They are doomed and dying. It is The Great Ordeal.

Unfortunately, my reading of The White-Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker (The Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) also felt like The Great Ordeal*. It was an effort to read from page one. I was starved for interest, I thirsted for understanding, and I was constantly harried by philosophical rantings through to the end. Frankly, even though I’ve raved about Bakker in the past and still consider myself a fan, I’m surprised that I finished this book.

The White-Luck Warrior is the second book of The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy and functions pretty much like you’d expect a middle book to. It takes the threads of the first book further, a lot of ground is covered (physically and philosophically), there is some cool action and a few pretty big reveals but nothing is really resolved and the book is left hanging on the cusp of something new. The Judging Eye (The Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) was a book that figuratively and metaphorically looked backward in time – The White-Luck Warrior is most often too wrapped up in the present to worry on the past or future. Presumably the third book, tentatively titled The Unholy Consult, will look to the future.

In The Judging Eye Bakker set out to write a much more accessible book than those in The Prince of Nothing Trilogy – a book that could be enjoyed on a more surficial level without sacrificing the deeper, intellectual and philosophical journey. I felt that The Judging Eye was a huge success in this approach. So I was surprised and dismayed that Bakker chose to not write The White-Luck Warrior in the same style – there is almost nothing accessible about it. The style is dense, the language is very technical and philosophical and there is an over-reliance on referencing the history and long-dead peoples of the world (and their long, unpronounceable names). Generally this makes for a hard, slow slog of a read that can only be stomached in short doses and fails to create any connection between the reader and the book.

The lack of accessibility is made worse by the overwhelming negativity of the book. Sure, this is the second book of trilogy – there should be despair and a general lack of hope. But Bakker takes this several orders of magnitude further. I cannot and will not pretend to understand much of the philosophical underpinnings of Bakker’s writing, but I will say that it doesn’t present humanity in a positive light. In combination with a harsh, caste society under the thrall of Kellhus, it becomes downright unbearable. Even the few attempts at dark humor Bakker attempted in The Judging Eye are lacking, leaving nothing hopeful to grasp. I understand this is largely the point, but again, it makes for hard, uninspired reading.

If you take the time to read an interview with Bakker or (god help you) read his blog, then you’ll get an impression of Bakker being rather unsympathetic towards readers who do not take the time and mental effort to read into the philosophical underpinnings of his books. After all, that is the point of them. He is also well aware that the choices he makes in his writing style will largely be inaccessible. Considering these, I must admit that I don’t have the time or inclination to read as deeply into this book as necessary (and quite possibly not the intellectual acumen).

 My family life and work life keep me so insanely busy that I only have short chunks to read in. And I’m usually both mentally and physically exhausted when it’s time to read. For me reading is a break – an escape. Yes, I read as a form of escapism. I’m not after pure pulp fiction, I generally like a good bit of meat with my fiction (as evidenced in my opinions of other books, including Bakker’s earlier work). But The White-Luck Warrior simply did not work for me, due both to Bakker’s choices in writing and my own situation. We didn’t fit. That’s a shame. I still believe that Bakker is one of the most important writers in the SFF field today, but with The White-Luck Warrior he has become even more of a niche that only the few will be able to enjoy.

*OK, perhaps my intro is harsh sounding and just a bit too clever and campy, but in the two months it took me to read this book I often referred to it in my head as The Great Ordeal and the slog of slogs (my typical time to read a book is 1-2 weeks, so 2 months was excruciating).


Jason said...

I tried to start into the series, and failed utterly. It was just too thick to get into. I did manage to get through Neuropath, and frankly it messed with me so much that I'm not sure I'll go back to Bakker.

Justin said...

I loved the Prince of Nothing stuff, but have been putting these off until they're done (as you are with Martin). Theyre just too dense to remember between releases.

Brett said...

I liked much of the book, but I sympathize with your troubles in finishing the book. The worst aspect of the entire book was Bakker's constant need to harp on the philosophy, including the ever-present variations on "Men are ever dominated by their passions and their self-justifications for their desires, etc, etc." It is probably the single biggest reason why the series is so difficult to get into.

On the other hand, I loved the ending in spite of its negativity, and I liked how many outstanding questions about the back-story were answered. Some of the parts are incredibly vivid, like Mimara's vision of what damnation will mean for one of the Scalpers.

ito said...

I managed to do a reread of the first trilogy and continued with The Judging Eye then dove straight into this one. Even though it was harder to read than TJE I did enjoy it a lot. Since I also read for escapism I did not try very hard to worry about the philosophical part although I did enjoy pondering some of the ideas that I couldn't manage to avoid :) The action was very good for me and it has whetted my appetite for the next book.

I'd like to see Cnaiur in the last book :) Am I the only one who thinks that Akka + Chorae = A meeting long overdue?

Neth said...

@Jason @Justin @ito

I think this series is one where reading the books back-to-back is important - including those from the first trilogy. There is just too much going on to pick the book after a several year wait and truly enjoy it. Of course, I don't have the time for that sort of re-read, but maybe next time.


I did like the end to and was amused by another homage to Tolkien. Bakker seems to enjoy them. But I didn't feel it was enough to make up for the rest of my struggles. And I'm not really surprised that the part of the book I enjoyed most is the part where Bakker largely abandons the dense prose and philosophical musings.

Eric said...

No sobbers on the slog!

Neth said...


:) - one of the few humerous moments of the book.

Welcome readers from Bakker's blog. Yes, god help me, I read it too. I think it's no surprise that most of his blog readers won't agree with this review, but personal insults...really? I know this is the internet, but come'on.

And for the others - Scott's reaction to my review:

James said...

I really enjoyed The Prince of Nothing, but The Judging Eye turned me off of the series. I hated it for the same reasons you liked it and had no plans to read on. Thanks to your review, I'll likely give the series one last chance.

Awet M said...

What makes Bakker different from other fantasy writers is that his prose is even more concise and profound than his dialogue. Most fantasy writers try to paint the picture of the ongoing areas and that numbs u after a while. When Bakker has to, he doesn't waste ink and he keeps it fresh with lively wording. But when the characters reflect it's almost like he is writing an abstract, a summary of a position on a subject according to that character's view. And if you're familiar with the subject you'll know who he's talking about, with, for, or against.  

It takes about 100 pages to get used to Bakker's prose, cause if you've read fantasy you'll have expectations of certain tropes. But none of them are in his work so you'll feel adrift till the cadence and the substance of his ideas start to cohere into a pattern, then you can enjoy reading the Prince of Nothing series.

Right now I'm slogging through White Luck Warrior so I can't add anything specific here but I did enjoy the first three books more than the Judging Eye since I felt that detracted from Bakker's natural strengths as a writer. Take away the dense philosophical prose you remove half of the sense & subtext.

Awet M said...

I just finished TWLW and was thoroughly pleased with it.

Bakker seems to have pulled off a happy medium here, in which he allowed philosophical digressions and expositions to slow down the plot in the first trilogy, Prince of Nothing, and bent too far back in shaving off the substance in the first book of the second trilogy, the Judging Eye.

Too bad Kellhus remained almost entirely off-page, as if he's too much of a specter that haunts the drama to be a realized character. At times he's the perfect incarnation of what Nietzsche once described the übermensch: a Caesar with the soul of Christ.

For some reason I feel reluctant to read Martin's 5th book, Dance with Dragons even though his series boasts a superior roster.

Fantasist said...

I am simply baffled by people complaining about the philosophical parts in Bakker's books. Cause I've never found anything nearly mind boggling about them. Some people call the Prince of Nothing pretentious, I find that baffling too.
In contrast, however, I have found his blog to be completely hopeless. I don't think he writes for an audience on that thing.
Not because you can't get what he's saying but rather due to the randomness, its more like his personal journal than a blog for readers.


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