Book Review: The White-Luck Warrior

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.

Game of Thrones Season 1 Review

Thrones, Dragons and a whole lot of scowling.

(In case you’d like the audio version: Game of Thrones Review)

If you weren’t hiding under a rock for the past year, chances are you’ve caught the hype revolving around HBO and its touted adaptation of popular fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” – by George R.R. Martin.

Well, the season’s done now, and I think I can safely say any viewer’s anxiously awaiting Spring 2012. This first season certainly took us on an action-packed romp through Westeros, delivering us fast-paced storytelling, sound acting, and the usual quality of HBO writing. Sure there were only ten episodes, but the sheer breadth of what they covered would leave any sane man gasping for more.

Through this season we’ve scrambled through the twists and turns of revenge, medieval politics, and war, and all through the eyes of fascinatingly layered characters. It’s not your fantasy of Elves and Dwarves, no sir—this is your high class modern fantasy, by which I mean dark, brooding, and bloody. It’s all humans, save the looming threat of some undead nasties, and that honestly helps to endear it. The characters don’t rely on fantastical gimmicks or endless hordes of CGI to make us love them. They are raw humanity in its purest (and often ugliest) form.

Yet to be honest, going in, this was one of those shows I wasn’t sure if I would love or hate. I’m a fan of the books. I’ve read them all (and am waiting rather anxiously for the fifth book to FINALLY come out). I’ve seen a lot of books turned into terrible visual pieces—so I had my reservations. But while 10 episodes left a lot the finer details rushed, the show executed itself well over all.

For starters, the production values were top of the line, as we’ve come to expect from HBO programming. The men behind the cameras knew what they were doing, and the cinematography is spot-on. The locales of Westeros were distinct, as were the people in them, and the breadth and culture of a world breathed rather effortlessly through the screen.

As I’ve already mentioned, the characters themselves were beautifully rendered. Sean Bean, of course, was at the top of his game as Eddard Stark, patriarch of the Stark family, and Peter Dinklage shone as everyone’s favorite sassy “ Imp” Tyrion Lannister. But one would expect the big names to do well—it was the smaller names that really set the bar. The Starks—Maisie Williams as Arya, Sophie Turner as Sansa, Michelle Fairley as Catelyn—all delivered spot-on performances in that regard. I think I can safely say it was Emilia Clarke’s breakaway performance and traceable growth as the indomitable Daenerys Targaryen that really takes the cake (and made silver hair look damn fine too). Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) also was startlingly delivered, here, particularly because they got one hell of a creepy kid to play him, with an act that was no less than menacing.

The series, like the books it shadows, didn’t pull any punches, either. Much as you might gasp for Ned not to go through that door…the finale makes it very clear he’s not coming back from his wrong guess. Blood and sex were the order of the day (including one rather overt lesbian scene that I can only attribute to producers screaming “Look at me, I’m edgy!”), and the cameras didn’t shy away from the nasty.

The book fans have been waiting for…

But speaking as a fan of the books, there were some adaptations I didn’t quite agree with, and I’ll freely admit they color my perceptions a touch. First of all—Cersei as a sort of sympathetic character? Where the bloody did that come from? If you know anything about the books, you know the rather sinister queen is about the farthest one could get from “sympathetic”—power-hungry, arrogant, and utterly self-consumed. Yet the show often toned down the evil in her, playing up a mystery lost child, one-time love for her husband, and a hearty dose of respect for her rival that seems…off. To each their own interpretations, I suppose, but she’s certainly not the Cersei I know.

And where the hell was Rickon? The youngest Stark child never had a big to-do in the books, but he certainly had more than a couple cameo shots. Given, you can’t give equal screen to everybody, but one would be hard-pressed to recall the child until the final episode.

While most of the crucial scenes literary fans would be looking for were there—and delightfully pursued, if I might say so—there were a lot of other scenes you might have expected that simply weren’t. Flashbacks, for example. In the books of course, we get to spend time in the characters’ heads, so pursuing a few leaps in time is a little easier…but even so, I would have liked to have seen some of the history up close on the screen. The battle at the tower of joy, for example. The whole sub-plot of Ned’s sister. Even touches of the battle on the trident that…you know, guaranteed Robert’s kingship and all.

Some of the added scenes, while useful, were also less than thrilling, coming off as little more than fluff pieces. It’s perplexing just how many characters chose to give us self-insight through whores, for example. No, seriously.

But hey, the series also developed a few arts of its own, which we can all take a lesson from in the future. Like the art of censoring via dragons. Personally, I think it’s an art form that doesn’t get enough attention. I blame the media.

In conclusion: it’s not the book, but I don’t think it really set out to be. What Game of Thrones does, it does very well, with high production values, solid acting, and a wealth of characterization, culture, and dialogue. While fans of the books will find flaws to harp on (as I did), and the series can feel a bit rushed at points, overall it delivered the quality we would hope for, and delivered a healthy shot in the arm for the visual fantasy genre—because let’s face it, fantasy’s popular as literature, but we’re sorely lacking on the TV scene.

Putting it to the stars, I’d give the first season a 4 out of 5 in the end. Hopefully the second season will maintain the momentum.

Lord knows the blood pool’s going to deepen.

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