9/10 – part 2 of the Aspect-Emperor series
“It’s the slog of slog, boys! Skinnies, ey!”
The White-Luck Warrior starts at a point in Bakker’s ongoing epic where all the stakes are raised high, and the events of the previous book – The Judging Eye – will either lead to survival or ruin. After The Judging Eye set everything up, we now enter the real tests. This is the moment when the series, the Aspect-Emperor series, will have to show what it has up its sleeve, and whether it can hold its own in comparison to other fantasy series out there.
There are two main threads. The company of Achamian, Mimara and the Skin Eaters has emerged from the deeps of Cil-Aujas and is severely diminished. Their journey evolves into quite a unique thing. Not only small in number, they are also mentally struck numb and weak. Their enterprise hangs on a thread. At this moment, the time is right for the mettle of Lord Kosoter to show itself, and for the erratic Nonman Cleric to reveal his mysteries. Mimara too has to figure out her role in all this, whether to become a witch and what the purpose of her Judging Eye will be.
It is interesting that only Achamian doesn’t have a clear path of development for his character. It is the people surrounding him who hold the real mysteries. And I find myself questioning the characterization of Achamian and of Mimara; especially her budding feelings for Achamian, which strike me as highly unrealistic. Fortunately, this is downplayed in the story. Since Achamian and Mimara are the main characters of this part of the story, this is a weak link. In any case, Bakker has manufactured a very interesting fellowship that hangs together by strange power relationships and mental spaces. Their adventures are very compelling with moments of creative brilliance.
The second main thread is the march of the Great Ordeal. Bakker delivers some stunning battle scenes here. Emperor Kellhus has taken possession of mankind, and all nations now march with him north towards far Golgotterath. At the start of this book, the supply lines start running thin, and the great army has now reached the distance that they have to cut contact with the empire and are forced to break up into four parts to forage the plains for food. They are on their own now, and vulnerable. This is also the moment when the long-dreaded confrontations with the Sranc hordes are upon them, and the armies have been anxious about this from the very start.
One great thing is that through these two plot lines, we discover more of the northern part of the world and the ancient eras at the same time. Revelations come for the readers and the characters both, simultaneously.
Then there is a handful of other storylines that add some extra layers. They involve the breakdown of the empire that Kellhus left behind. Where these Empire-chapters were a bit tedious in The Judging Eye, they turn more interesting here with the introduction of the memorable, uninhibited Inrilatas. In short, this part of the story also comes into its own. His wife Esmenet is left to deal with palace intrigue and her psychopathic offspring, and the Gods themselves seem to have turned against Kellhus. They apparently support the warlord Fanayal, and the Goddess Ur-Mother Yatwer has sent out a holy assassin, the white-luck warrior. Although the book goes by the same name, this warrior remains deeply mysterious, like Kellhus himself.
Bakker’s prose, though, is in continuous danger of being too heavy, too overwritten, and in previous books he occasionally crossed the line with strained expressions. Here, the prose still balances on the edge of collapsing into overreaching disorder, but he toned down some excess, leading to a rich prose. Also, the infusion of manufactured sayings and philosophical tidbits is confidently restrained, giving the text a more balanced feel.
In contrast to the Prince of Nothing trilogy, Kellhus is kept at a distance. We do not see anything from his point of view, and that’s for the better. He is a more mysterious character this way and the mystery suits the doubts that others have over his motives. If I have to mention something negative, it would be that the book is rather long. Perhaps some scenes or some personal ruminations could have been cut, but this is nitpicking. There is so much to marvel at: at the otherworldliness of the Nonmen, at the sheer scale of the battles, at the interlocking plots and philosophies.
The way the story unfolds is like the whirring of different-sized rotors in a machine, that all unspool their narrative strands at different speeds, and they all hook into each other. The plans of Kellhus are somehow connected to the fellowship of Achamian, and the cult of Yatwer is connected to the marching army. Add to this a ferociously intelligent writing and a heavy sense of drama and theatre.
I’ll put it straight. The White-Luck Warrior is about narrative pay-offs that tumble over one another, and the pay-offs of these three threads are so well done that the novel is catapulted into the top tier of best epic fantasy novels of the last decades. Bakker’s series is really something compelling and memorable. I can’t wait for the next part, The Great Ordeal.