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Review of The Judging Eye by R Scott Bakker

The Judging Eye

The traveller glanced up to where the gorge walls pinched the sky into a wandering slot.

This quote is from the prologue of The Judging Eye (the first book in The Aspect-Emperor, the sequel trilogy to The Prince of Nothing (consisting of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought)). I think it demonstrates very well the strength of Bakker’s writing – particularly when it comes to visual imagery. The words Bakker uses – and creates – are certainly his unique selling point. The intensity of his language reminds me a great (or)deal of Stephen Donaldson.

Which isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Sometimes he verges into purple over-writing; there were also a few distressing moments when characters in The Judging Eye used the anachronism ‘okay’. But I forgive him (whilst hoping he doesn’t continue the practice in future volumes).

Another aspect(-emperor) of the way Bakker writes is how he uses names to give his world-building an authoritative and unique feel. And a major part of this is his use of circumflex accents and diaereses; they also lend his names a very Tolkienesque character. Examples include Eärwa, Kûniüri and Dûnyain.

As to the story, it starts twenty years after the conclusion of the previous book, during which time Anasûrimbor Kellhus, having made himself the new aspect-emperor, has conquered or Finlandised pretty much the whole known world, while his erstwhile friend and tutor, Drusas Achamian has become a recluse (complete with rickety old tower) searching his retro-prophetic dreams for clues to how he might achieve the Kellhus’s downfall. Both of them set off on a journey into the frigid north: Kellhus at the heart of the Great Ordeal – a gigantic army intent on preventing the Second Apocalypse – and Drusas with a band of Scalpoi (men who collect the scalps of sranc (think of skinny orcs) for the bounty) looking for Ishuäl, Kellhus’s home.

This book isn’t as long as its predecessors, and it feels like a more focused narrative, less epic in scope. Achamian remains the hero, and as an old man now, is even less suited to that role. The other main viewpoint characters are the Empress, Achamian’s former lover, Esmenet; Esmenet and Kellhus’s young child, Kelmomas, a boy who has inherited his father’s preternatural perceptiveness; Sorweel, a prince who is orphaned (and made king) by the Great Ordeal’s attack on his home; Psatma Nannaferi, Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer; and Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter from long before she met Kellhus, who wants to become a magic-user and seeks Achamian’s tuition.

Absent from the page for most of the time is the central, fascinating figure of Anasûrimbor Kellhus – his ability to read the minutiae of expression and voice, and to control his own, have led almost everyone he’s met to render themselves unto him heart and soul. To have focused on this godlike character in the second trilogy would probably have resulted in tedium, so I’m not complaining.

Despite the relative focus of the story, there was something less than totally satisfying about The Judging Eye. There was a bit too much mystery in it – exactly what power does the Cult of Yatwer have? What exactly is the Judging Eye and what’s its significance? What is monstrous little Kelmomas up to (if anything)? Why are Mimara’s sections written in present tense? – and little was given away at the end. It had the feel of a prologue for the remaining two books in this trilogy (and, indeed, the trilogy that will come after).

I enjoyed it, though, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume, The White-Luck Warrior.

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