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).