If you know anything about R. Scott Bakker, it’s that his writing is not about to pander to his readers. After the success of his enthrallingly bleak series, “The Prince of Nothing,” we shifted twenty years into the future with The Judging Eye, as the opening of “The Aspect Emperor” series. Though it continued his history of quality literature, even for fans, it could come across a bit dense.
Yet if The Judging Eye stoked fears this upcoming author had stumbled, The White-Luck Warrior puts us right back into the mind of one of fantasy’s best and brightest. It’s a thick, philosophical, and highly intelligent read (and if “A Song of Ice and Fire” is dark, I’d say Bakker’s works are borderline nihilistic) that can make for an information overload at the outset, but an incredibly thoughtful and rewarding experience for those who stick with it.
For those who aren’t familiar, The White-Luck Warrior is a fantasy novel following numerous characters across the mythical “Three Seas.” Mimara, stepdaughter of the Aspect Emperor, teams with Achamian, the world’s only lone sorcerer, in a quest for vengeance and understanding. Sorweel, a captured prince (made king with the murder of his father) and hostage to the Aspect Emperor’s grand northern march, struggles with whether to believe in the Emperor’s quest to avoid apocalypse, or to kill him for the gods and his own sense of revenge. Esmenet, the Emperor’s wife, struggles to hold together a failing empire, while her son continues to manifest dark tendencies, and all the while the White-Luck Warrior trudges closer to an endgame none may predict. Through these, and dozens of well-thought-out side characters, the Three Seas comes together in all of its unsettling—and crudely satisfying—glory.
And that is where we begin: world-building. Bakker is a master of detail, and his world comes together in rich and engaging imagery. It breathes history, and while the previous novels gave us a Middle Eastern-style setting for a welcome change to most Europe-centric fantasy novels, this one takes us into the north, a primeval and wild place, made of ruins, dust, and trees. The narrative moves with force, and for all the history ground within its pages, it never slows in that regard. The depth with which Bakker writes leaves one wondering how many pages of notes he must have dedicated to this particular world.
For me, Bakker’s distinctly philosophic style makes for a unique bent in a genre stifled with stereotypes, but it can trip some people up, particularly in the pacing. That said, it does wonders for fleshing out the characters—as all have their particular codes, their views, their joys and fears, which allow Bakker to stretch his mind to its utmost. As well as many people’s moral codes.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—these aren’t series’ for the faint-hearted. Characters are complex, layered, and driven as men and women often are, but even the best have their dark moments, and with Bakker, they’re guaranteed to be dark indeed. There is a lot of evolution here in this book, and you may begin to see characters in new lights—and I daresay a few will certainly surprise. But villains and heroes certainly will still blur. Plus, here we get to see even more of that wacky Anasaurimbaur family—in all it’s crazed, homicidal glory.
Backtracking to the topic pacing now…I daresay that could be the book’s one issue. Certain portions of the book are quicker than others, and Achamian/Mimara’s sections in particular can suffer through a bit of a slog (haha, yes, I made a funny—readers will understand), largely due to the prevalence of thought over action. Until the end of course—and what an end! Hope you’re in the mind for cliffhangers, because you’re going to be handed a doozy of one—leaving readers with about as many questions as answers.
If anything, though, I do question the name of the book. Certainly The White-Luck Warrior is an influence to be felt behind the scenes…but while he does have an important moment, I don’t think he’s quite at the level yet to earn the titular. His parts are few, far-between, and decidedly fleeting. A touch off-putting I suppose, but minor as far as complaints go.
That said, I wouldn’t back down from labeling this one of the best books of the year, and certainly a fine way to be kicking off this decade. If you enjoy fantasy, I highly recommend it.