- Genre: Epic fantasy / grimdark
- Series: Aspect-Emperor series, part 3
- Pages: 512
- My rating: 9/10
The long awaited third book of the Aspect-Emperor series is finally here. The previous instalment, The White-Luck Warrior, ended on a bunch of cliffhangers: everyone arrived at places, be it Ishual, Ishterebinth, Momemn or the high north. In part three, we move even farther away from the normal human world, and the series becomes even more heady and cryptic.
For an epic fantasy, a lot of the story revolves around (apparent) madness. We follow the machinations of the transhuman, passionless Dunyain, the mad inhuman Nonmen, the genocidal alien Consult, a bunch of insane half-blind Gods and one obsessed wizard. Bakker necessarily spends a lot of text on merely explaining the mental spaces and experiences of his characters.
All relationships in which Dunyain are involved, are travesties. They make people love them, or worship them, but underneath there is only manipulation. And since nearly every character in this series has to deal either with a Dunyain directly or is trapped by their machinations, nearly every relationship between two or more people in this series is twisted. As the Aspect-Emperor series progresses, I get the sense that this is the heart of the tale, the exploration of ideas such as love and worship, and how these feelings can be created and manipulated. What do they really mean?
It is Bakker’s thesis, if I understand correctly, that it is impossible to know what lies behind the fountain of your own thoughts (hence the title of the first book: The Darkness That Comes Before). And if you can manipulate what lies before, you can make people feel and believe anything you’d like. This makes the Dunyain false gods, or it raises the question whether all gods are false if they possess the power to make you love.
But look at what happens in this series. Kellhus shackles the human world in worship, takes possession of it as a prophet, and then uses humanity for his own ends. You could say that our human propensity to love and worship things is our greatest weakness in this situation. It makes us no more than slaves. And I do think that the feeling of loving someone or something is a more intense emotion than receiving love. People always look for things or people to love. But is it not also the source of our strength and perhaps grace? Bakker’s relationships in this series give different answers to these questions.
But these relationships are all twisted, and if you don’t like this grim darkness, it may put you off.
Empress Esmenet loves her little psychopathic child Kelmomas, even though he uses her and manipulates that love. And perhaps Esmenet’s need for this love was foreseen by Kellhus, who saw in it a source of strength. And then we have Sorweel, in love with the Dunyain woman Serwa, who doesn’t understand why he loves her and doesn’t need him to love her. This is another variation of the conflict, where love and hate are enmeshed in Sorweel. And the general Proyas worships Kellhus, but Kellhus keeps breaking his heart, keeps undermining that belief on purpose. What is this purpose, and what does Kellhus need Proyas to become for him?
And then we have the mad Nonmen, who search for people to love, and then to destroy them, for only those intense emotions of loss still become part of their memory. As always, Bakker’s portrayal of the Nonmen is fascinating and wonderfully unsettling. Their stronghold Ishterebinth echoes HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. A fitting title for their chapters in any case.
The rest of the story, the epic march and grand battles, is embellishment. In the same way that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was about Frodo and his connection with Gollum (Gollum represented a possible future Frodo if he gave in to the temptation of the Ring), and the grand story surrounding it was a vehicle for putting Frodo in this situation where he would choose temptation or stay good. The Aspect Emperor series has these same deeper layers. It’s more than a simple epic fantasy story about elves and orcs. It tries to Investigate and to Make Points.
But what embellishments! The entire four-book series covers a single march, of the greatest army ever assembled. And even that army is merely a vehicle to transport Kellhus and the hundreds of sorcerers. Ever since they left, they battle a sea of Sranc, millions of them, a horde miles deep. Talk about anticipation for the final confrontation. Some of the plot twists in the second half of the book felt a bit dubious to me, but may make more sense when the final book is released.
I’m on the fence about Bakker’s writing style. He can be sharp; he can throw out strong observations and can get right down to the moods and mental spaces that his characters occupy. This makes for some nice quotes, and some truly unique characters and situations. At the same time, his prose is overwrought and not exactly beautiful, like it tries too hard to squeeze hints and meanings into the lines. At times, I just lost what he was trying to say. At crucial junctures of the story, he was too vague, too cryptic for me to fully understand what he was trying to say. This really hurt the impact of the story. At other times, his prose suggests that every little musing has some great significance for the story. Or he repeats a single line multiple times while the meaning behind it stays opaque.
Some chapters, especially those concerning Esmenet and Kelmomas, seem elongated. Bakker had to chop his book into two parts, and perhaps he needed to add some extra material to this part to provide breaks between the heavy chapters of Ishual and Ishterebinth, or just to beef up the page count. But some of the Esmenet material could have been scrapped. In any case, parts of it didn’t seem essential to the story.
The breadth and depth of ideas in this series are still unequalled in modern fantasy. You could write a book about these books. So far, this is one of the heaviest, weirdest, most mind-blowing series of not just this decade but of the fantasy genre in its totality.