The Judging Eye: A slow start to a terrific series

The Judging Eye by R. Scott BakkerThe Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker is one of my guilty pleasures. His THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy is a tense, superbly paced yet detailed series that settles firmly on both sides of the traditional/contemporary epic fantasy fence — Dune meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Bakker imbues his world with a mood of brooding darkness that shows great focus. THE PRINCE OF NOTHING builds steadily to a rousing climax that many fantasy series seem to promise but so few deliver. Yes, it retreads the familiar themes of power, control, ego, honor, etc., but Bakker’s rich imagination, tight control of prose (how often can you say that of epic fantasy?), and narrative structure make for a series that vies with the very best of epic fantasy ever published.

Opening the next chapter in the story of Kellhus, Esmenet, and Achamian, in 2009 Bakker started a second sub-series in the same universe: THE ASPECT-EMPEROR. The Judging Eye is the first book in this sub-series, picking up events in the Three Seas roughly twenty years after the close of The Thousandfold Thought. Kellhus has used his powers of intellect and sorcery to create the largest empire the world has ever known. Having gathered all the martial strength of the lands behind him, he marches with the Great Ordeal north to crush the No-God before it can unleash the second apocalypse on humanity. His wife, Esmenet, has bore eight children, some of which are abominations, yet she maintains clear power of the throne as her husband’s grand army make their way north. And Achamian, exiled at the end of the first series, lives a life of solitude, contemplating what his dreams of Seswatha mean each morning. A surprise visit from his past, however, sets his sights northward as well.

Aspect-EmperorBakker introduces some new major characters as well. Foremost is Achamian’s long-lost daughter Mimara, who wants to learn the wizard’s ways. Achamian is reluctant to teach her, knowing the evils of sorcery, and sends the young woman on her way. Tenaciously, however, she finds a way back in. Sorweel is prince of one of the last independent kingdoms not under the Aspect-Emperor’s thumb. Trampled by Kellhus as he marches north, Sorweel is press-ganged into the Great Ordeal. His role in larger events, however, has yet to surface. Along with Esmenet’s children, the last major players introduced are the cult of Yatwer and its pagan witch leader, Nannaferi. Likewise just introduced to the gameboard, only time will tell how this faction affects Three Seas affairs as the series continues.

The first book in the PRINCE OF NOTHING series, The Darkness That Comes Before, made a strong impression on me for its ability to do a lot with little. Bakker patiently built the background of his world while effectively pressing the character’s stories in the moment — all without depending on a major event at the end to segue. The Judging Eye has a different M.O. It places most of its emphasis on Achamian’s storyline, with the other three major storylines serving more as scene setters and character introductions, escalating but not arcing like Achamian’s. Readers looking for smash-fire-bang may be disappointed by this. The height of Achamian’s story, however, may be enough. One of the best action sequences I’ve read, it plumbs the meaty depths of what epic fantasy can be, all the while moving from one surprise into another. On balance, The Judging Eye is a slow start to what promises to be another terrific series, a clash with the impossibly powerful No-God awaiting at the end.

As spread out but more focused than George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and less pretentious but as brooding as Steve Erikson’s MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN, R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy series rank among the best currently on the market. And The Judging Eye is one of the reasons why. Readers who enjoyed the first series will have no problems enjoying the beginning of the second. If anything, Bakker has tightened his prose, is more deeply ensconced in his vision, and is laying stronger groundwork for what lies ahead. The incest scene I’m still scratching my head about, as well as quotes on gender that seem to exist solely to rile the P.C. crowd, but all else is as good as epic fantasy gets.

Published in 2009. Now he returns to The Prince of Nothing universe with the long-awaited The Judging Eye, the first book in an all-new series. Set twenty years after the end of The Thousandfold Thought, Bakker reintroduces us to a world that is at once familiar but also very different than the one readers thought they knew. Delving even further into his richly imagined universe of myth, violence, and sorcery, and fully remolding the fantasy genre to broaden the scope of intricacy and meaning, R. Scott Bakker has once again written a fantasy novel that defies all expectations and rewards the reader with an experience unlike any to be had in the canon of today’s literature.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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