R. Scott Bakker's first volume in The Aspect-Emperor trilogy was beyond the shadow of a doubt one of the most eagerly awaited titles of 2009 for me. Many thanks to Scott for letting me be the first reviewer to get a crack at it by sending me the file containing the last copy-edit of the manuscript! Generally, I refuse to read books on my computer screen because it makes my eyes bleed. Yet for The Judging Eye, I was happy to oblige!
Bakker set the bar rather high with the Prince of Nothing series, and, like many fans, I was wondering if he could live up to the lofty expectations created by the ending of The Thousandfold Thought. Well, I'm pleased to report that The Judging Eye is everything Prince of Nothing was, and then some!
The action takes place about two decades following the events of The Thousandfold Thought. After years of planning and preparations, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, now Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas and the God of Gods, has gathered the greatest host ever assembled. The Great Ordeal is marching toward Golgotterath to destroy the Consult and prevent the return of the No-God. Esmenet, the Empress, must rule this vast empire during her husband's absence. But with the mighty Aspect-Emperor gone, hostile factions opposing the throne and heresy arise. The Cult of Yatwer becomes a thorn in her side, and tension escalates when rumors regarding the legendary White-Luck Warrior begin to circulate. The Demon hiding in the guise of the Aspect-Emperor, or so they claim, will be driven to his doom. And when murder is committed within the palace grounds, Esmenet realizes that the Consult's skin-spies are not the only enemies she must worry about.
Drusas Achamian, the only Wizard of the Three Seas, is forced to bring his self-imposed exile to an end when an unanticipated visitor seeks him out. Compelled by Seswatha's Dreams of the First Apocalypse, Achamian is bent on discovering the secrets of the Dûnyain, convinced that therein lies the key to uncovering the truth about Kellhus's past. The only knowledge revealed by the Dreams thus far is the name Ishuäl. Hiring the services of a band of Sranc Scalpers known as the Skin Eaters to guide and protect him through their long trek through the wilds, Achamian wishes to travel to the ruins of Sauglish, where ancient knowledge pertaining to Ishuäl might be found in the Sohonc Coffers.
The worldbuilding is once again head and shoulders above what is currently the norm in today's fantasy market. The evocative narrative is rich in details, and the Middle Eastern setting continues to be a joy to discover. The universe of Eärwa resounds with depth, though at times it feels like we have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. The back story unveiled by Seswatha's Dreams continues to be a favorite of mine. I found the many revelations pertaining to the Nonmen to be absolutely fascinating, and the intrigues of the Cult of Yatwer promise to be key plotlines in the rest of the series.
In terms of pace, there is a marked improvement in The Judging Eye. Although I enjoyed the Prince of Nothing to no small degree, there is no denying that the action dragged quite a bit in certain portions of all three volumes. This from the last interview I did with Bakker:
Another error I think I made in The Prince of Nothing as a whole is that I think I focused too much on interior action – I spent too much time knocking around in my characters’ heads. This is one thing that I tried to rectify in The Judging Eye: there’s still plenty of internal action, but I like to think I’ve done a better job balancing it with external action.
The characters' inner musings had a tendency to sometimes slow the rhythm to a crawl in the first trilogy. Kudos to Bakker for understanding the problem and rectifying it. As a result, The Judging Eye is paced adroitly, with the just the appropriate balance between action and ponderings.
Speaking of characterization, the author returns with perennial favorites that will please his fans. And yet, he introduces us to a cast of interesting new characters. Kellhus and Esmenet's children are a very intriguing bunch, to say the least. Especially young Kelmomas, who is one of the POV characters. Achamian's traveling companions are another engaging group, chief among them the enigmatic one known as Cleric. Other than Achamian and Kelmomas, the POVs include Esmenet, Psatma Nannaferi, Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer, Sorweel, son of the dead king of Sakarpus who marches with the Great Ordeal, as well as another one whom I cannot mention because it would be a major spoiler. . .
Bakker told me that the Prince of Nothing series was always meant to be the "story behind the story." Hence, he wanted to make sure that The Aspect-Emperor would work for the fans, but also for those who found the literary aspects of the first trilogy (emphasis on particularity and interiority) too much, as well as for newbies. I can vouch for the fact that The Judging Eye is Bakker's most accessible novel to date, and an excellent starting point for new readers. True, newbies would be missing a whole lot from the previous series, but they could always return to the Prince of Nothing is they like Bakker's style. Indeed, The Judging Eye is much more accessible, easier to read, and much better paced than The Darkness That Comes Before.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Judging Eye. My only complaint would have to be that it reads too much like the first volume of a trilogy. As such, it introduces the storylines and the protagonists, but it offers little in the way of resolution. Although Bakker sets the stage for what should be incredible sequels, I found The Judging Eye to be less self-contained than its predecessors.
However, other than that, The Judging Eye is everything Bakker fans could hope for. Revelations from the time of the First Apocalypse, twists and unexpected surprises, action, political and religious intrigue, character growth (I love the woman Esmenet has become and her dual role as empress/mother), and enough Sranc and monsters to satisfy anyone!
To put it simply, The Judging Eye is the Prince of Nothing version 2.0. It has all the hallmarks that made the first trilogy such a great reading experience, minus what many considered its shortcomings. It's R. Scott Bakker writing at the top of his game.
It's too early to tell, what with authors such as George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss, Ian McDonald, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and a bunch of others releasing a new novel next year, yet The Judging Eye will indubitably be an early candidate for the 2009 fantasy book of the year.
Hard to put down.
Roll on The White-Luck Warrior!
The final verdict: 9/10