Beware, there are some spoilers for key plot points/character revelations below.
So, volume two of the “Aspect Emperor” series has come to a close and so far R. Scott Bakker still proves that he has the chops to pull off a multi-volume epic fantasy that not only uses the standard tropes in new and interesting ways, but that gives his characters depth, darkness, and complexity and does so with prose that is always enjoyable and sometimes downright exhilarating to read. I don’t think that I really *like* any of his characters (though Achamian, and to a lesser extent Mimara and even Sorweel, come close), but I find them all thoroughly intriguing, even when they are frustrating or repellent…or perhaps it’s because they are. Kellhus is still a fascinating cypher: a saviour who is chillingly amoral and manipulative, but whose ultimate aims and decisions on how best to reach them seem maddeningly right. Achamian, the ostensible hero of the tale, comes across at best as a petty cuckold hazarding ridiculous risks (for himself and others) for the sake of ill-feelings and wounded pride, and at worst as a monomaniacal menace who is little more than a tool that could lead to the utter destruction of all mankind. Kosoter and his pack of Sranc scalpers (esp. the mysterious Nonman mage Cleric) are always an intriguing bunch and watching their inner dissolution on the trail to the Library of Sauglish as they become pared down to a nub, leaving only their most essential (and repellent) characteristics is fascinating. I have to admit that I found the struggle for power at the heart of Kellhus’ empire in Momemn a little less captivating (probably because I find Esmenet a less interesting character than some of the others), but the glimpses we get into the dysfunctional and super-powered Dûnyain family (from “Uncle Holy” Maithanet right on down to dear little psycho Kelmomas) is always a fun train wreck to watch. And Sorweel, Serwa and Moënghus? Let’s just say I’m intrigued to see where and how the heck they end up.
While much of the story is devoted to either having two of the main plot threads cover huge distances of geography (Kellhus & the Great Ordeal and Achamian & the Skin Eaters) or another main thread devoted to plunging into the labyrinthine intrigues of the slowly dissolving imperial court (with Esmenet, Maithanet, and Kelmomas taking centre stage) and thus at times it can seem that not a lot happens in a relatively large span of pages, there are some really exciting, edge-of-your-seat type moments on display. Whether it’s the kick-ass fight that Cleric and Achamian have with Wutteät, the seemingly undead Father of Dragons in the bowels of the Library of Sauglish, or the psycho machinations of ‘little’ Kelmomas in the hidden mazes of the Imperial Palace, or the endless sea of hording Sranc inundating a portion of the Great Ordeal in the midst of the ruins of mankind’s first great empire, or even the somewhat confusing but thoroughly intriguing mystery of the White-Luck Warrior and his seemingly time-warped journey through the Three Seas, there’s more than enough to maintain a reader’s interest. The Cleric and Achamian thread was especially intriguing to me as the entire scenario seemed like some untold tale taken from _The Silmarillion_ and twisted in incomprehensible and often lurid ways. It was as-if Gil-Galad went insane, lost his memory, and went adventuring with an even darker version of Túrin and his outlaw buddies and they just happened to stumble upon Ancalagon the Black or even Glaurung and had a magical slugfest in the heart of the ruins of Nargothrond.
Ultimately Bakker seems to strike a nice balance between moving the story forward and taking time to flesh out his characters and events. One could argue that some of the storylines don’t move forward (certainly geographically and sometimes plot-wise) as far, or as quickly, as one might wish, but ultimately I never felt bored with Bakker’s pace, or thought that he was sacrificing the story in the name of broadening his horizons or navel-gazing (I’m looking at you GRRM). Despite this nice balance, however, I still have a creeping fear that leads me to ask the question: Can Bakker wrap up this story in only one more volume given the relative leisure with which he has unfolded it to this point? As noted above I don’t in any way view his unhurried pace as a bad thing and I appreciated the way in which it allowed events to seemingly unfold organically and characters (even peripheral ones) to grow in interesting and realistic ways. It’s just that in looking back and seeing that approx. 2/3 of the apparent page count allocated for the story has been expended and then looking forward to see what he still needs to cover I really hope he isn’t forced to rush to the finish in order to reach the climax of the story in only one more volume. After all he is already working with a large cast, many with significant ties to the previous series who are still only beginning to be fully sketched out at this point. How will they develop? Should they have even been introduced? It's certainly nowhere near as bad as GRRM spinning out of control and adding viewpoint characters, locations, and subplots to an absurd degree, but is at least mildly analogous and makes me squirm a bit. Bakker’s also working with some pretty significant (and indeed numerous) plotlines that need to not only resolve, but also dovetail with each other to some extent, none of which seem to have their ultimate goal in sight yet. That being said, at the end of the day I have faith that he has the chops to pull it off...don’t let me down R. Scott Bakker!