The Judging Eye by Scott Bakker
This book was a recommendation to me by a very good friend. I had read the preceding series, the Prince of Nothing books on his recommendation and found them to be frankly... Disturbing masterworks. Bakker started with the idea of the 1st Crusade set in a world that is somewhat like our own but at the same time completely and utterly different. The events of that trilogy I will leave be other then to tell you that before reading this review you owe to yourself to pick up at least The Darkness that Comes Before and give it a read. If you like that book you'll like the rest.
Let me talk about Scott Bakker, who may be one of the best writers in fantasy today. I certainly believe him to be one of the more under appreciate writers which is saying something because fantasy and science fiction teem and seethe with under appreciated writers. Born and educated in Canada, he has degrees (a bachelors and Masters) in literature and theory and criticism from the University of Western Ontario. He also entered but never finished a PhD program for philosophy in Vanderbilt University. I was unable to find the reason he left, but I do wonder if a story I heard that several of his professors liked to harass him for writing children books was part of it. There is no proof of that, but it does point to rather infantile view some people have of fantasy and science fiction. If someone tells you that fantasy books are just for children or to live out teenage power fantasies, do me a favor and hand them Prince of Nothing and take a video of their faces as they read. Then send it to me because I will treasure it.
His education shows in his works, these books are dense and at times deep works who are at times preoccupied with ideas of the self, fate and humanity. They are balanced out and kept from becoming pretentious by the inclusion of harsh, unforgiving violence and a stark embracing of various hard truths of life especially for the underclass in a world that lacks the empathy and sympathy of the 21st century. In a world where famine still stalks even the wealthiest of men, such empathy is a luxury not even emperors can afford after all. At the risk of making a political statement I will state this, make no mistakes the empathy that the first world displays in it's constant quest to create a more fair and just world for all of it's citizen is a luxury. One afforded to us by the infrastructure and actions of our forefathers, who if nothing else built a world where famine and plague are unknown to their children in the 1st world. I do not say that is a bad thing, or that because it is a luxury that we shouldn't continue in that quest. Only that we should recognize that it is our wealth and security that affords us the ability to do so. But back to the review.
Little back story on this world, long ago when the best of men wore skins and worked in flint and the rest couldn't do that much, an alien ship crashed on our world. It was full of monsters. The book has a different name for them, but bluntly they're monsters in every sense of the word. These were creatures who had damned themselves and had objective proof that hell was a real place that you could end up in. They had one goal, stay out of hell at all cost. Their plan? To slam shut the gates of hell and heaven alike by killing enough of the sapient creatures of the world that there simply wouldn't be enough souls to keep the gates open. That's plan A guys, which frankly tells me they earned their damnation the old fashion way. They would opposed by the non-men, a long lived prehuman race that had already achieved a level of civilization sufficient enough to opposed them. They warred for eons until the monsters came up a simple plan. They would trick the non-men into destroying themselves and inherent the world. They came to the non-men offering peace and tricked them into asking for a gift. A gift of immortality. A gift that would later come to be called the plague of wombs, suffice to say that at the end, the non-men were a species of immortals without sisters, daughters, mothers or wives. Every female member of the species died. The non-men didn't take this lying down. They hunted down and killed everyone of the monsters expect for two who fled back to their ship and went into stasis.
The non-men then went insane as a species due to their brains being built to retain the memories of a mortal existence not being wired to deal with immortality. The only memories they could retain were usually the most traumatic and awful ones. The non-men civilization already on it's last legs would be pulled down by men. Who built their own civilization, with the mightiest being in the north where they had the most contact with the non-men. Some men developed sorcery, an ability to reshape the universe with your will, in exchange for damning yourself. A group of wicked sorcerers found the alien ship and woke up the monsters. They learned they didn't have to be damned... All they would have to kill 99.99% of sapient live and enslave the rest. They accepted and created the Consult. They then crafted the most terrifying weapon, Mog-Pharau, the No-God. It's very existence prevents the birth of new life, it is so awful and terrifying that every living person knows where it is instinctively. It dominates and controls the creatures of torment and war that the monsters bred. For the Tolkien fans, this is Morgoth unlessened by his corruption with the gloves off. It was slain by the no-men and men working together but only after the majority of mankind had been slain and the greatest civilizations of the time, the shining north was ground into powder. 2000 years later the Prince of Nothing takes place. 20 years after that the Judging Eye takes place.
Kellhus has conquered most of the known world and united it into a single empire for one reason. To assemble and supply the largest army in history that he will lead into uncharted wilderness to find the crashed ship of the Consult and kill them all before they can recreate the No-God and doom us all. To give you an idea, imagine someone at the time of the 1st Crusade united the Christian and Muslim world and assembled an army bigger then even the ones the Romans and the Persians could field and marched that army into western Siberia. Oh and western Siberia is full of man eating tool using monsters.
The revolves around four characters.
Drusus Achamian, the sorcerer who taught the current God-Emperor Kellhus of man sorcery and more... And lost his wife to him. Drusus has spent the last 20 years holed up in a tower, abandoning his school and civilization to peer into the dreams that he and the other Mandate Sorcerers suffer every night reliving the first war against the No-God. He has gone deeper and further then any Mandate schoolmen before him, beginning to see not the fall of the north every night but bits and pieces of the life of the founder of his school. This leads him on a quest to discover the origins of Kellhus by hiring the most vicious band of adventurers he can find. Men who make their living by selling Sranc (more on them later) scalps. They will venture beyond the northern limit of the world men into the ruins left behind by the No-God to find the Dunyain, the sect of rationalist monks that bred and raised Kellhus. I'm incredibly sympathetic to Drusus and frustrated with him just like I was in the Prince of Nothing. He's intelligent, brave and at times cunning but is weak against temptation and has problems controlling himself. I nicknamed the last series Drusus Achamian is not allowed nice things and it seems to be holding true here. That said... Damn it Achamian if your will were equal to your intelligence, you would be the one ruling the world.
Esmenet, former whore and lover of Drusus Achmian. Esmenet is a living indictment against her society. Born as a lowly street whore, she was trod upon, ignored and reviled for being a whore. A role that society forced her into. It is one thing to disapprove of prostitution or even prostitutes, it is another entirely to force people to be something and then despise them for it but it is a historically accurate attitude sadly. She wasn't taught to read until nearly 30 and afterwards she became one of the most read and educated women in society. Kellhus seduced her in cold blood because he believed that children from a mother of her intelligence and his inherited abilities (he's the product of a 2000 year eugenics program) would be useful. They are, but I'm honestly sure that they're all insane. She is now the Empress of humanity but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Kellhus has taken his armies to the north on a desperate crusade to save the world and while he is gone revolution and worse simmers. Surrounded by people she isn't sure she can trust and heartsick, she has to try and keep Kellhus' empire with little support form him. Esmenet reminds me of people I've known, smart but damaged by events that occurred in their early lives, they keep making horrible decisions and trying to fix those by making worse ones. It's not really her fault, but there are times when you want to scream “Damn it Woman! Stop it!”
Psatma Nannaferi, Mother Supreme of the secret cult of the goddess Yatwer, the only divine being who seems to give 3 fucks about the lower classes. Psatma has been blessed by the goddess to destroy Kellhus empire and kill him. Which honestly doesn't sound like a terrible idea... If not for the fact that Kellhus is the only guy who can lead the army that is the only chance of stopping the end of the world. There's terrible timing and then there's this. I mean seriously Yatwer, it's gonna be hard to be a goddess of slaves when they're all dead or reduced to meat puppets. You're a fucking goddess wait 5 years and let Kellhus finish his damn job. Bluntly guys, this part of the book has me wondering just whose side are the gods of this world on. I'm told they cannot perceive the No-God, but surely they realize Kellhus marched an army into the wilderness for a fucking reason.
Varalt Sorweel, son of the king of Sakarpus, the last city before the endless wilderness. Kellhus conquers it so he can use it as a supply base. His father dead, Varalt is made king of a conquered nation and brought into the army as a hostage. He is forced to try to come to terms with the conquest of his people and Kellhus. Most of his part of the book is really just foreshadowing and built up, although there is a hell of a pay off in this book that I'm not going to spoil.
All four of these characters to lesser and greater extents are revolving around Kellhus. Kellhus shows up in this book, but we don't spend anytime behind his eyes. Which heightens the mystery and makes him less human. Which is a good idea given his role in the plot. Knowing who he is lying to and who he is telling the truth to would remove almost every element of mystery in the book. I am in some circles considered a pragmatic man and I am willing to forgive a lot when the goal is preventing the extinction of all human life on the planet but Kellhus is a character who takes me to the very edge of what I am willing to forgive. Partly because I often find myself doubting that all this was necessary. Kellhus is the kind of guy who makes you wonder just what means saving the world really excuses?
That would I think be a bad idea. Another character in the book worth mentioning is Esmenet's daughter Mimara, who Esmenet gave birth to during her time as a whore and ended up selling Mimara into slavery during a famine. Mimara ended up a whore before agents of Kellhus rescued her. She is still bitter about this, additionally, she has the gift of sorcery. She tracks down Drusus and ends up accompanying him on his quest. She's an interesting character, understandably full of sharp edges and angry but not inhumanly so.
My favorite part of the book is Drusus with the Skin Eaters, the adventurer company Drusus hired to take him to ruins beyond the edge of the human world. They end up venturing into an old no man mansion under ground called the black hall. I am told that at first it was meant to be a call back to his days playing Dungeons and Dragons but has he realized there was no way to avoid a comparison to the Mines of Moria he decided to embrace it. I enjoyed the quest through the black halls, which exposed us to terror and wonder and the sheer weight of history on Bakker's world. It's a heavy weight that the inhabitants are at times barely aware of. The Skin Eaters themselves are an interesting group, although I have mixed feelings about them. Many of their rules for being out in the field (or the slog as they call it) make perfect sense. They are in the wild beyond hope or help up against monsters that would make the Reavers of Firefly say “Whoa, hey slow down, no need to be that cruel.” A certain amount of ruthlessness is called for if you want to survive the experience. That said some of their actions are brutality for brutality's sake. These are very flawed men, but honestly only flawed men would choose to live such a life wouldn't they? Bakker doesn't shy away from following the logical outcome of such a conclusion.
That sentence could be used to sum up all of Bakker's writing. Bakker is one of the better writers I've seen. Better then Larry Correia. Better then Katherine Addison. Better then George RR Martin. He refuses to shy away from any of the implications of his world or work, which can make his books somewhat disturbing. The Sranc are a perfect example of this, created by the alien monsters as biologic war machines, their sex drives are linked to murder and torment. They are Tolkien's Orcs with every ounce of humanity and dignity mercilessly scoured away and replaced only with the savage desire to torture, rape and murder and feed on the still warm and cringing remains. Where has Tolkien was unable to create a race beyond salvation because of his personal beliefs Bakker carried it out to the finish. Because Bakker's train has no damn breaks. For me the most vivid example of that lies on page 285, when a sorcerer tells Varalt that before Kellhus he was damned to hell but his faith in Kellhus has saved him. Or more exactly “But now I am saved.” If you have the vaguest idea of what Christianity is about you should understand why I howled. Both in anger at Kellhus for daring such blasphemy and in appreciation of Bakker's willingness to take his story that far. Which was the logical end point of Kellhus deciding a religion was the best way to get the army and empire he needed. I was exhausted and wrung out after finishing the Prince of Nothing series and I found myself a bit tired after reading this book. Still it remains one of the better books I've read in the last 2 years.
The Judging Eye gets an A. A well done book by a great writer. The only real compliant I have is some fool of an editor stuck the prologue “What Has Come Before” section in the very back of the book! Stop that! Short sections that give background needed to understand the story go in front! Where the reader can see them and understand before being confused as hell.