Despite some trepidation with the thought I keep coming back to the idea that R. Scott Bakker’s ‘Prince of Nothing’ and ‘Aspect Emperor’ series are, if not the true inheritors of Tolkien’s legacy, at least the most innovative step forward in the realm of epic fantasy that is consciously derived from the genre-changing (or creating) impact of JRRT. Most other fantasies that are obviously influenced by the Professor are at best re-treading the same, or similar, ground in fairly limited ways or, at worst, are nothing more than poorly written pastiches or bad copies with the serial numbers filed off. Bakker, on the other hand, doesn’t just reproduce Tolkien’s tropes as they ended up being presented in his Middle Earth books, instead he does what most other fantasy writers seem unable to do: examine the fundamentals that lie behind these tropes and reinterpret them in his own unique and (very) different ways. Thus we have the ‘Nonmen’, something analogous to Tolkien’s Elves, though re-imagined in a way that really points out their alien nature when compared to humanity. The Sranc and the No-God may have obvious similarities to Goblins/Orcs and the Dark Lord trope, but they are presented in such a visceral and, to me at least, different way that they really do bring something new to the party. Part of me is certain that Tolkien would be horrified at the idea of Bakker as his ‘true heir’ given the obvious darkness, one should probably even say cynicism or pessimism, of the secondary world that Bakker has created, but that is neither here nor there really. This tone is not even necessarily the point of greatest departure between them, since contrary to what many pundits assume there is actually a fair bit of darkness, even pessimism in Tolkien (especially if you have read The Silmarillion which I think for various reasons Bakker took as his primary model rather than the more famous The Lord of the Rings. The fact remains, though, that Tolkien’s works are coloured by his fundamentally Christian viewpoint that is tinged with the hope inherent in his belief in the eucatastrophic chance of salvation and this alone gives them a *very* different flavour from Bakker’s more ‘post-modern’ and secular perspective. I think it might also be the rape-aliens…but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.
First off, while this may indeed be the first volume in the ‘Aspect Emperor’ series it is definitely not the place to start with Bakker since this series is actually the sequel to his ‘Prince of Nothing’ books which ultimately set up the main conflict that is to be the driving force of the new trilogy. Both series are set in the world of Eärwa and this new volume picks up twenty years after the close of the former following the lives of the same characters, so if you have not yet read the first set of books then most of the impact of the characters and plot will be diminished, if not utterly lost on you, so check them out first. Secondly, keep in mind that this is a dark book (one whose fantasy has moments that, for me at least, blend into the realms of horror). While it is certainly true that the bad guys are utterly despicable and even grotesque in their evil (see mention to rape-aliens above), even the ‘good guys’ (really there aren’t any) are so shaded into grey that one wonders whether or not they aren’t actually black. In many ways this ‘realism’ and darkness put Bakker in the same group as writers such as Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson who are considered proponents of a ‘new’ sub-genre in epic fantasy which owes as much to the pulp Sword and Sorcery stories of the 20’s and 30’s as it does to traditional epic fantasy and dwells more on moral relativism and a ‘gritty’ portrayal of violence that sometimes seems to be part of a consciously ‘anti-Tolkien’ movement. It’s interesting to see, though, the way in which Bakker seems to meld a ‘high fantasy derived from Tolkien’ approach with this ‘dark fantasy based on realism and violence’ in a way that shows they need not be purely antithetical.
The nub of the tale Bakker tells in The Judging Eye revolves around three main plotlines: the exiled wizard Drusas Achamian and his quest to uncover the truth behind the uncanny powers of former friend and pupil and now hated enemy and Aspect-Emperor Anasûrimbor Kellhus; the struggles of Varalt Sorweel titular King of Sakarpus and hostage of Kellhus as he follows in the train of said emperor’s incalculable army that is embarking upon ‘the Great Ordeal’ in an effort to traverse Eärwa and destroy the Consult (aka rape-aliens) and halt their attempts to invoke the Second Apocalypse by resurrecting the ‘No-God’ Mog-Pharau; and finally the trials of Empress Esmenet, Kellhus’ wife and Achamian’s former lover, as she attempts to maintain the reigns of power of her husband’s vast empire as the cracks are beginning to show. Each strand is connected to the others and it will be interesting to see how things come together in the end. For now, though, each of the main protagonists has their own journey to undertake and set of trials to overcome and by the end of the novel things still remain very much uncertain for all and sundry.
A few things that struck me upon reading: Kellhus’ kids are whacked-out scary (no surprise given the seemingly inhuman nature of their father) and I can totally see how comparisons to Dune and the model of the Kwisatz Haderach can be made; really cool to see more about the mysterious culture of the nearly extinct Nonmen and especially the taciturn Nonman scalper Cleric (heck the entire crew of the dirty, violent, and all-around scum-bag Skin Eaters and their imperious Captain Kosoter were pretty intriguing); the Consult was pretty quiet in this one…only a few skin-spies to be seen, but it was made up for by a veritable horde of Sranc and some other not-before-seen baddies; still it will be interesting to see how they plan to combat not only Kellhus and his Great Ordeal, but Achamian as both make their way to the blasted North. Bakker also manages to have an extended sequence that is a direct homage to an event in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings without in any way seeming derivative or unnecessary to the story that he wants to tell. Let’s just say that Frodo and company had it easy when they traversed the Mines of Moria…’nuff said.
These books do tend to make me uncomfortable, primarily because of the effective way in which Bakker portrays evil. I don’t think I have ever read any other fantasy where even the orc-analogue foot soldiers seemed so terrifying (and they do here, the Sranc are utterly bestial creatures of pure hatred, unending hunger, and violence), let alone the leaders of the forces of darkness whose evil runs the spectrum of world conquering hubris to the most petty evils and banal vices. No one’s motives are pure, even when their ends seem good, and the complexity of the characters is compelling. Add to that the fact that Bakker is a damn fine writer of prose and I think I’ll keep coming back to these books, even if they make me feel a little queasy sometimes. Recommended for those who enjoy epic fantasy and have read the previous series.