As was the case with The Judging Eye two years ago, I would like to thank R. Scott Bakker for giving me the opportunity to be the first reviewer to get a crack at The White-Luck Warrior. Usually, I refuse to read books on my computer screen because it makes my eyes bleed. But for the second installment in The Aspect-Emperor trilogy, I was happy to oblige!
Here's the blurb:
As Anasūrimbor Kellhus and his Great Ordeal march ever farther into the perilous wastes of the Ancient North, Esmenet finds herself at war with not only the Gods, but her own family as well. Achamian, meanwhile, leads his own ragtag expedition to the legendary ruins of Sauglish, and to a truth he can scarce survive, let alone comprehend. Into this tumult walks the White-Luck Warrior, assassin and messiah both, executing a mission as old as the World's making ...
The White-Luck Warrior is a story filled with heart-stopping action, devious treachery, grand passion and meticulous detail. It is both a classic quest tale and a high fantasy war story.
Given that The Judging Eye had all the hallmarks which made the first trilogy such a great reading experience, minus what many considered its shortcomings, I felt that it featured a Bakker writing at the top of his game. Still, many opined that the philosophical aspects and the inner musings were what essentially made the Prince of Nothing stand out from the rest of the SFF pack, and were thus a bit disappointed by the first volume in The Aspect-Emperor. So where does The White-Luck Warrior fit in in terms of style and tone? I would say that it is somewhat in between the Prince of Nothing and The Judging Eye. The absence of interior action, as Bakker put it, made for a much better paced novel in The Judging Eye. Hence, the return of that particular facet does affect the rhythm of The White-Luck Warrior, especially in the portions of the book dealing with Achamian and Mimara's POVs. Overall, I would say that that, in format and pace, this novel reads much like The Warrior-Prophet did.
The worldbuilding is once again top notch. Bakker's narrative is richly detailed, creating an imagery that leaps off the page. The Middle Eastern setting of the western Three Seas remains a welcome change from the habitual medieval environments found in most fantasy sagas. But the author takes us to various unexplored locales in The White-Luck Warrior, which makes this one even more interesting. The evocative depiction of the wastes of the Istyuli Plains, the primeval forest known as the Mop, the ruined remains of Kūniüri, where the first Ordeal set out against Golgotterath, continue to make the universe of Eärwa resound with depth. Add to that the fact that the narrative and certain events shine some light on the kingdom of Zeüm and its traditions, as well as that of the Nonmen kingdom of Injor-Niyas and its mysterious capital of Ishterebinth, and you have proof that Bakker's creation is head and shoulder above most SFF settings on the market today.
As I mentioned above, the pace is an issue in certain portions of the tale. The White-Luck Warrior features three principal story arcs: the Great Ordeal, the expedition to Sauglish, and the New Empire. I found the New Empire story arc, which focuses on the events occurring in Momemn and the western Three Seas, to be much better paced than the other two. The rhythm is crip throughout the chapters dedicated to those storylines. The other two arcs are fundamentally travelogues meant to get the protagonists in position for what is shaping up to be one grand finale. Nowhere does The White-Luck Warrior suffers more from the middle book syndrome than in these two story arcs. Though I must admit that it doesn't take anything away from every plotline associated with the Great Ordeal. The narrative may drag a bit in certain parts of the story, but all in all, even if the pace is indeed slower, everything that has to do with the Great Ordeal was pretty much awesome. It is the Sauglish story lines which truly drags for the better part of the book. After taking center stage in The Judging Eye, the aftermath of Cil-Aujas doesn't quite capture the imagination the way Achamian, Mimara, and the Skin Eaters' arc did in the first volume. Regardless of that setback, true to form, Bakker closes the show of that particular arc with a bang. Still, taken as a whole, the Sauglish expedition suffers from a decidedly sluggish rhythm compared to the other two main story arcs.
The philosophical aspects and the inner musings may slow down the pace of the novel, yet it does improve the characterization by fleshing out the various protagonists more. The New Empire arc features the POVs of Esmenet, Kelmomas, the White-Luck Warrior, and a new character: Malowebi, Emissary of High Holy Zeüm. The departure of the Aspect-Emperor has left the empire vulnerable, and Zeüm is considering supporting Fanayal, the Bandit Padirajah, in his quest to destroy Kellhus.
One thing about House Anasūrimbor: it's one crazy family. If you thought the Osbournes were dysfunctional, wait till you get a load of the Anasūrimbors! One good thing about The White-Luck Warrior is the fact that all the living children are part of the narrative. Hence, although only Kelmomas is a POV character, you do get to know Moėnghus, Kayūtas, mad Inrilatas, Serwa, Grandmistress of the Swayal Sisterhood, and Thelipoa. An unexpected turn of events means that we'll also get to see some of them even more in the final volume, which should be interesting.
The Great Ordeal features the POVs of Nersei Proyas and Varalt Sorweel. Some portions of the narrative, especially those dealing with the march and the battles are written through the eye of a neutral narrator. Sadly, Proyas' point of view appears to be present only to be a lens through which we try to figure out Kellhus. Once more, the Aspect-Emperor is not a POV character. Essentially, most of what has to do with the Great Ordeal is seen through the eyes of Sorweel. I have to admit that I wasn't too fond of the kid in The Judging Eye, but he did evolve into a major power player in this second volume. It was evident that Bakker had a lot in store for him (why else make Sorweel a POV character?), and we now see that he will have a major role to play in the outcome of the Great Ordeal. His many discussions with Zsoronga ut Nganka'kull also help him grow as a protagonist and it gives the Successor-Prince of Zeüm more depth.
The Sauglish expedition features the POVs of Achamian, Mimara, and another character which must remain anonymous for now. Mimara's point of view allows the reader to learn more about her past and how the Judging Eye works. Unfortunately, Achamian isn't as fascinating in the early stages of The White-Luck Warrior as he habitually is. After the incredible escape from Cil-Aujas, perhaps I was expecting too much out of his narrative. But their harrowing ordeal took a lot out of all of them, and the crossing of the Mop and the rest of the journey to Sauglish will take the entire party to the brink of death. Fear not, however, for in the end, Achamian's awesomeness returns to close the show with style. Seswatha's Dream also changes during the course of their journey, baffling Achamian with strange visions he cannot puzzle out.
Even if at times the rhythm can be a factor, I thoroughly enjoyed The White-Luck Warrior. My only complaint would have to be that I expected the Consult to play a much bigger role in this second installment. Their nefarious influence can be felt behind the scenes, true, but I was expecting them to play a more direct role in the events chronicled in this book. Another matter would have to be the White-Luck Warrior himself. The original title was supposed to be The Shortest Path. The title change made me believe that the White-Luck Warrior would be an important player in this one, while you only see him sporadically for brief periods of time. So I feel that changing the title created expectations that some readers might find off-putting.
Other than that, I think that The White-Luck Warrior is everything Bakker fans could hope for. Revelations about the Consult and the Dread Ark, the Nonmen, Kellhus' plans, Incariol's identity, the White-Luck Warrior, tantalizing hints about the Black Heavens, Fanayal's schemes, etc, will keep you begging for more! Regardless of the fact that the finale and its aftermath raise as many questions as it provides answers.
The coming year could well be one of the best in speculative fiction history. With authors such as George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and a bunch of others all releasing a new novel next year, trying to guess which title will top the list is impossible. But one thing's for sure: R. Scott Bakker's The White-Luck Warrior will be one of the fantasy books to read in 2011!
Bring on The Unholy Consult!