The Prince of Nothing trilogy established R. Scott Bakker as one of the young, pre-eminent voices in Fantasy fiction. What not many people knew when The Darkness that Comes Before hit bookshelves was just how large in scope Bakker’s vision would turn out to be. With the publication of The Judging Eye, Bakker begins The Aspect-Emperor, the second trilogy comprising the greater Second Apocalypse set of books and set 20 years following Anusûrimbor Kellhus’s ascension to and assumption of the title Aspect Emperor (the first person to hold this title in generations). While Kellhus assumed the title upon the conclusion of The Thousandfold Thought, his long-time mentor and friend, Drusas Achamaian (Akka) renounced Kellhus. 20 years later, Kellhus has become a God and is marching his Great Ordeal to Golgoterrath to prevent the Second Apocalypse and the return of Mog-Phareau, the No-God and supposed antithesis of life.
Though not a detriment to the overall quality of the book nor my enjoyment of the novel, a point of view is not provided for Anusûrimbor Kellhus. Rather, his presence is felt by every character, most explicitly through Drusas Achamaian (Akka) and Kellhus’s wife (Anusûrimbor) Esmenet. Complementing Akka and Esmenet’s point of view is a new character by the name of Sorweel, a young king whose land recently came under fealty to Kellhus. In each viewpoint Bakker shows a great deal about Kellhus – how is viewed as a father & husband; how he is viewed as an anathema; and how he is feared and looked upon in awe. Clearly, through his absence, Kellhus’s presence is even more powerful.
In the Akka storyline, he is soon accompanied by Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter from a prior tryst before she fell in with either Akka or Kellhus. After renouncing Kellhus at the very end of The Thousandfold Thought, Akka no longer has an association with his Mandate Schoolman. Much like a Ronin, Akka is now a Wizard, a practitioner of magic with no house associate. Once again; however, Akka plays a mentor role, though Bakker differentiates Mimara, the protégé this time around, very much from Kellhus. Furthermore Akka is in a different enough place mentally from when he mentored Kellhus that the dichotomy between Akka and Mimar works very freshly. It is along their journey that the most overt homage to Tolkien in Bakker’s fiction takes place, the descent into Cil-Aujas which very closely echoes the Fellowhsip’s descent into the Mines of Moria. Bakker’s journey to the depths is even more frightening. Akka finds himself in with a group of Skin Eaters, which provides even more of a moral dilemma for the Wizard. One thing that has been true of Scott Bakker’s writing throughout all of his novels is his generous and magnificent hand for invoking awe in his readers. While this quality is evident throughout The Judging Eye, these scenes involving the Cil-Aujas Nonmen ruins and the tribute to their great leader Cu’jara Cinmoi was particularly breathtaking.
Through Sorweel, we might get the most accurate reaction to a living God one can expect as he and the Great Ordeal march towards Golgoterrath. Compounding Sorweel’s fluctuating feelings about Kellhus is the recent death of his father. At times Sorweel shows hatred for Kellhus, other times fear, but through everything he is in awe of the God who was once a man. When Kellhus makes one of his few appearances in the story, Sorweel is astonished by the sight and presence of the Aspect Emperor.
In the capital city of Momemn, Esmenet is the person closest to the Aspect-Emperor, his wife and mother to (some of) his children. Yet, despite this, she still lives in fear of her husband and balances ruling the land with raising the children she and Kellhus have brought into the world. In their children, we see many of Kellhus’s qualities, though the cunning seems more sinister in the boy Kelmomas. In addition to her family and as an adjunct to her role as stand-in ruler for Kellhus, Esmenet must deal with the Skin Spies who sabotage the royal palace. Another storyline, thought not quite as major as the three mentioned above, as forces begin to gather against Kellhus. For many see him as a demon come to life and not working towards the prevention of the Second Apocalypse.
There are no absolutes in Bakker’s fictional world, or rather once something is thought of as an absolute, something or someone thrusts that absolute into the fire both illuminating and destroying what could be considered absolute. Take Sorweel again – his hatred for Kellhus is thrown asunder once Kellhus appears. The dichotomy of conflicting absolutes drives much of the fiction and can be seen in the mirrored journeys of Achamanian and the Skin Eaters and the march of the Great Ordeal. Both are striving towards what they see as the greater good, although part of what fuels Achamanian is his hatred of Kellhus. Whereas the Great Ordeal is marching in the name of good against an accepted evil, Akka’s march in the depths of darkness may eventually illuminate the true nature of Kellhus. The Great Ordeal is an army of knights and order, Akka’s march is basically a mish-mash of chaos and those on the fringes of society.
While The Judging Eye is “just the opening” of a trilogy, Bakker does bring the storyline to a satisfactory stopping point. As a relatively slim volume of just over 400 pages of story, the book is somewhat small compared to other Epic Fantasies. What Bakker’s done in those 400 pages is crafted the best novel of the year, and one that hints at greater things to come. As the characters who seemingly know Kellhus the most intimately come to question much about the God who was once a man, the reader can only do the same. Is he a savior of the world, preventer of the Second Apocalypse or is the destroyer and igniter of the Second Apocalypse. Bakker is not one to give absolute answers, but the novel gives many things to consider about unconditional perceptions.
The Judging Eye should satisfy Bakker’s growing legion of fans and the book should also help to lure more readers into his sway. It is a leaner, more precise novel than the three preceding novels, but no less thought-provoking and engaging. Once again, Bakker has reminded readers why he is in the upper echelon of 21st Century writers.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford