With the upcoming and long-awaited publication of The Great Ordeal getting near, it is time to reread the first and second books of the Aspect-Emperor series before embarking on the third one soon. It has been so long since the previous instalment that I’ve forgotten lots of it.
The Judging Eye is the opening novel of the Aspect-Emperor quadrilogy, which is in turn a direct continuation of the Prince of Nothing trilogy. So, The Judging Eye is a book about new starts, new characters and relationships and new locations, but without having read the Prince of Nothing trilogy it is impossible to understand what is happening.
The virtues of the Prince of Nothing books are also present in the Judging Eye: the philosophical angle of the text, the lyrical descriptions, the grittiness and the weight of history. I think Bakker is a master of names in particular. The names of his characters, countries, geographies and institutions sound vaguely inspired by Roman Latin names and Biblical names. There is a general feeling that Bakker’s world-building has a consistency of cultures and languages. It feels like ancient societies impressed their cultures and customs on the world, and competed and mixed with each other. While other authors make it feel forced, everything in these books has a tasteful gravitas to it that I am completely buying. Not since Tolkien has this feeling been so strong.
So, The Judging Eye is sort of coasting on the general success of Bakker’s earlier world-building and the fascinating story of Emperor Kellhus taking possession of mankind as a false prophet. Is he a psychopath deep down who nevertheless is going to save and redeem mankind for his own obscure goals? These tantalizing questions remain. But how does The Judging Eye measure up to the other books? It is one of the weaker or perhaps the weakest book of the entire arc of Bakker’s story, I think, but in comparison with other fantasy series out there, it is still shining brightly.
The Judging Eye introduces us to Kellhus’s twisted children. Bakker seems to have a goal of taking everything that is “supposed” to be beautiful or good, such as love, religion and childhood, and reducing these to the elements of pure power play, rendering them reprehensible. We are introduced to the 7-year old Kelmomas, the son of Kellhus. Prince Kelmomas loves his mommy Esmenet, but he plays at being a child to manipulate his mother and gain power over people. A child with a cunning intellect, playing chess with the emotions of those around him, it feels like a monstrosity, and that was Bakker’s intent. Intent or not, the chapters about Esmenet and Kelmomas are quite uncomfortable to read, and frankly of less interest, also because Esmenet is reduced to a shell of a person, full of doubt.
Then there is the start of Kellhus’s great march to attack Golgotterath and rid the world of the Consult. It is distressing but at the same time stirring how he has united the entire world and is seen as a god, with entire armies singing hymns while marching, hymns written by Kellhus himself. Is it ok if mankind is saved from evil, if they are being led by a false prophet who plays them as children? You would want to believe in him. Stirring stuff, but not as involving so far as the previous Holy War. Why is this? The new character Sorweel is too passive perhaps. And then there is Drusas Achamian, the eternally depressing mage who struggles with feelings of love, but is betrayed by his own lust and vengeance. His sour outlook starts to get tedious by now.
The novels are intellectual candy, but sometimes I start to doubt Bakker’s choice and development of characters. Too many of them act out of self-pity and insecurity: Drusas, Esmenet, Sorweel. They are mostly reacting to circumstances instead of pursuing goals with a certain self-possession.
The greatest problem for me is that the action of the book is disappointingly similar to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, in particular the descent into the Mines of Moria. There’s nothing like a little descent into the abyss while being chased by orcs (sranc) to move the plot forward. Of course, they struggle with opening the door, they come to the heart of the mountain, seem to lose a key character of the group, emerge into daylight and the forests beyond. Also, the journey to Sauglish reminded me of the journey to the Lonely Mountain. Inspired perhaps by Tolkien and I hope as a tribute. But I rather want The Second Apocalypse series to be itself.
On the positive side, some fascinating new characters are introduced. Mimara is a good addition as a female strider and witch in training. It is nice to see more of Maithanet. The mysteries that are Lord Kosoter and Incariol draw you into the book, and the White-Luck Warrior is likewise a tantalizing enigma.
Bakker seems to quest constantly to understand on a deeper level what moves people, and how people can be moved. His story seems to suggest that once you know this, everything that is nice and good is being subverted to power play. It makes his fantasy stand out as complex in philosophy and psychology and layered with meanings. It also makes his stories disturbing and intellectual. If you love that, you’ll find some real treasure here. For me, this is still the best fantasy series in decades.
Followed by The White-Luck Warrior.