Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book review: "The Judging Eye" by R. Scott Bakker

It feels like it had been a long time since I had a book that I couldn't leave out of my hands, but "The Judging Eye", first book in a new trilogy by R. Scott Bakker that continues its "The Second Apocalypse" series, was such book. I admit that I lowered my expectations since reading "The Thousandfold Thought" several months ago - the book was weaker than its prequels, although the ending and detailed glossary/history saved it. But after reading TJE, I think I can say that it was the best one in the series so far.

Events in this book happen some 20 years after the events in TTT. After seizing the Holy War, marrying Esmenet and being sanctified as the new Prophet, Anasûrimbor Kellhus has become a first Aspect-Emperor in thousand years. Under his rule, he united the whole Three Seas - mostly by conquest, using his skills, sword and sorcery - the so-called Unification-Wars. Now, he is its absolute ruler, son of God, whose world is divine law. And now, he is finally putting in motion the plan his father has predicted with his Thousandfold Thought: the Great Ordeal, the final fight against No-God and Consult. His wife and Empress Esmenet, his half-brother and Holy Shriah Manethiat, and myriad of their advisers, ministers and helpers will stay to rule in his name, while he will lead the united might of Man against Sranc and finally Golgotterath. With him are his old allies and loyal subjects from the First Holy Wars, his two oldest surviving sons and daughter, and all rulers of Three Seas. But will he be able to lead such a host, counter the Consult and remain the absolute ruler at the same time?

Although Kellhus is presented as the most important characters, we see very little of him. We have three main plots and five important POVs. First there is a completely new character, Sorweel. As son and successor of Harweel, the King of Sakarpus, land north of Three Seas that had not accepted Aspect-Emperor as their Savior and Suler. Unfortunately for it, Sakarpus is now in the way of the Great Ordeal on their journey. Kellhus and his armies easily defeat Sakarpi warriors and shatter the walls that once resisted even the No-God. To preserve peace and use this city as base station for their journey, Kellhus uses his words seduces Sorweel, the King's son, and makes him his ally, at least in name. He also charges his son Moënghus and Kayûtas to befriend him and make him ally in earnest. Now Sorweel must choose between the love and memory of father he respected or the people who he admires, but who killed his father and people! Through his POV we follow the Great Ordeal. This part of the book is very similar to the prequels: army on marches, fanatical soldiers, tactics and strategy, and so on. We are briefly introduced to Kellhus older sons, who I presume will have much larger role in these events, especially Moënghus, considering the question of his father.

The next subplot is told from the POVs of Esmenet, a well familiar character, and Kelmomas, her and Kellhus youngest son, twin brother of Samarmas. In the absence of her Holy Husband, the role and responsibility of ruling the whole Three Seas has fallen to Esmenet, once an illiterate whore from Sumna. Not all were willing to accept the rule of Kellhus, and now the ancient cult of Yatwer, a Goddess of the earth and fertility, popular around slaves and lower castes, has put itself as their enemy. It looks like the Goddess herself resent Kellhus his power and will try to pull him down. Esmenets charges would be easier had she the support and love of her family, but it turned out that Kellhus seed is to strong, so that those sons and daughter that survived are not normal. They received some blessing from their father, being unnaturally intelligent and observant, but they are also incapable of love and trust. Fortunately for Esmenet, it looks like the youngest two, twin brothers Kelmomas and Samarmas are exception to this rule. But little does she suspect that Kelmomas is a snake in their family, ruled by evil voice in his head and his own ambition. How much damage for them will he be able to do before he is discovered? I can't exactly pinpoint why, but this part of the story reminded me much on later Dune books. We have heroes who we once known as regular people, that are now regarded as Gods, we have inimical religious cult and we have precognitive kids. This was the weakest part of the book for me, but only relatively to other two.

My best part of the book was the story revolving around Achamian. Once friend, believer and teacher of Kellhus, he now turned to the old and bitter man obsessed with founding the Kellhus' origins and hiding from the Empire that couldn't care less about him. He turned off from the world and dedicated on finding clues about Dûnyain, Kellhus "tribe". He found the unexpected ally in the dreams for Seswatha, founder of his former order, whose life is a subject of dreams of every Mandate Schoolman. It looks that dreams Achamian dreams are unique and reveal previously unknown details of Seswathas life - like the location of map with location of Dûnyain's hiding-place. Then he gets found my Mimara, Esmenet's daughter from her whoring days, who escaped from her mother and foster-family, and now wants Achamian to teach her the Gnosis, ancient magic of North. And then he finds out the Great Ordeal is already on the way and that all his trials could end in vain. So he is forced to once again embark on a journey to Sranc-infested land to the long-lost Libraries of Sauglish. But to travel there he will need help of people who are accustomed to this harsh environment - a band called Skin Eater, member of Scalpers, hunters on Sranc-scalps.

I liked this part best for two reasons. First is because we learn much about this setting via character of Cleric, first Nonman character in series. I was very surprised when he was first introduced because I didn't expect someone like him this series. And later, the more time we spend with him, the less we knew about him. I love such mysterious character and would be ready to buy the sequel just to learn who he is! The second reason is because this sub-story is some kind of homage to Tolkien, whether intentional or not, or more specifically to Moria. When Achamian, Mimara and Skin Eather were first forced to travel to underground and lost city of ancient Nonmen because of the snowed pass in mountains, I immediately felt disdain and expected a failure. Instead, Bakker pulled this marvelously and made this part a culmination of this book. If you liked the travel through Moria in "The Fellowship of the Ring", I guarantee you will like this part, too.

The book is not fast paced, and some reader could find it hard to read or annoying. It has a lot of long descriptions, internal monolog, and full pages pass by without anything happening. Looks like Bakker took after Erikson in his later books. I liked this, but I understand that many will not.

All in all, "The Judging Eye" was a very pleasant surprise where I expected a weaker book. With it, Bakker infused a new life in his series. All those who liked "The Darkness That Comes Before" should continue to here.

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