The White-Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker
Fifty pages in, I realized I had come to approach this as a horror story rather than epic fantasy, as if I was reading Stephen King or the Lovecraft Unbound anthology. I read horror in a much more defensive mode, trying not to get invested in any character's survival, and nodding my head whenever a particularly disturbing (I would say, dryly, "quite effective") scene occurred, making terror an aesthetic observation in hopes of keeping it from striking too deep. Also turning the lights up and drawing my blankets closer.
In the opening chapters, Bakker succeeds in making forests scary. Maybe if I'd seen the Blair Witch project or played that Slenderman game longer, this would not be news to me, but I grew up among friendly, sunlit trees. The same monumental gloom that pervades the Nonman fortress our intrepid heroes (or greed-driven antiheroes, either way) barely escaped in the last book lives on in the black forest of the Mop. Which is, by the way, overrun with Sranc. A Sranc is to a Nonman what Tolkein's Orcs were to the Elves, blasphemous parodies, except unfortunately for Bakker's characters the Nonmen are already twisted, creepy, and dangerous. The Sranc are even worse--bestial, violent, equal-opportunity rapists, and worst of all omnipresent in stunning profusion.
As if that weren't bad enough, it appears that the vision of Mimara's Judging Eye is in fact reliable. This disappoints me a little for reasons described in my review of the previous book, but also adds layers upon layers of metaphysical horror, as pretty much every character we know appears damned. Bakker's running a risk here of the reader giving up in sheer despair-induced apathy, but for now everything seems confused enough that there's still hope for some sort of emotionally satisfying conclusion for somebody, I suppose. But really there are a handful of characters who, if the series ends with them being dragged to hell, will have me perfectly satisfied if the No-God succeeds in shutting off this world from what has to be the vilest Heaven ever. Perhaps that's going to be the twist ending. If so, you heard it here first.
Speaking of which, I also placed a bet early in the book that Sorwheel was the White-Luck Warrior. This would provide purpose to his ambling subplot, and after all he is clearly subject to some interest from the goddess Yatwer. But was I right? If I was, I couldn't tell you, because of spoilers. Given the White-Luck Warrior appears to exist and move in time quite differently from ordinary people, his identity may be unprovable until the last pages anyway.
The White-Luck Warrior, whoever he is, is sent by the Gods against Anasurimbor Kellhus. Kellhus himself is after the Consult, servants of the No-God--so he is in fact doing something that would be helpful to the Gods, but the Gods themselves can't see this because they're blind to the machinations of the No-God. Thus the Gods have turned against Kellhus because he sees more than they can. Is this a metaphor for Kellhus and the Dunyain vs humankind in general? Quite probably.
Kellhus aside for the moment, if there was one Anasurimbor the White-Luck warrior were to succeed in killing, Kelmomas is very, very high on the list. He's a grating combination of whining five year old (Bakker depicts the whining so well I wonder if he has some of that in his life?) and sociopath about to stab you in the eyeball. I still can't figure out what the kid wants, since his beloved "Mommeeee" Esmenet is a mere mortal besides him, but he's not seeking world domination yet so in the scale of things, he just seems petty and bratty. Yes, it says something about this series that the "petty brat" commits murder via stabbing-in-the-eyeballs. I enjoyed the scene where big brother Inrilatas completely unnerved him, not because I like the grotesquely unhinged Inrilatas so much as I hate Kelmomas. But during a particularly tense scene, Esmenent and her companions spent all their time worrying about innocent little Kelli (to be fair, Esmenet is in fact a mere mortal compared to him and has no idea how bad he is) and completely forgot his much more interesting elder sister, Thelliopia. Thelli reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood in a darker universe, with a penchant for designing her own clothes (with Luna-esque love for creative and glittery things, and if I'm gravely misremembering Miss Lovegood, my apologies) and also seeing to the truth at the root of all things, because she's an Anasurimbor. She also may be located on the autistic spectrum, although with the Anasurimbor influence it's hard to tell, and the characters wouldn't have the language to identify that anyway. At the least she's much less grating and far more interesting than Kelmomas, plus happens to be one of the few female characters without a history of prostitution. Don't get me wrong, sex workers deserve stories, too. But when I start noticing and perhaps planning a drinking game around how every woman in a story is depicted, that may be a call for change.
Yes, we get some additional prostitute characters, in a way that actually makes sense given the narrative and allows some reflective pathos on Esmenet's part. In justice, we also have the Swayal Sisterhood, who are really really awesome--the sorcery in general in this story has some amazing visuals. Also, Bakker does a solid job illustrating the mostly-male Great Ordeal covering up the threatening realization that women can be powerful enough to work sorcery by hiding it under facade of horniness and dirty jokes. Because when a woman is powerful enough to threaten you, you pretend she's only a prostitute, and presumably this makes you feel better. The Great Ordeal finds itself so enmired in awfulness and Sranc that I can even pity them despite how much this worldbuilding enjoys its casual misogyny.
Our moral compass Achaimian may turn out not to be a moral compass at all--his willingly leading most of the Skin Eater mercenaries to their deaths in pursuit of his Dunyain conspiracy theory perhaps should have tipped me off--but he and Mimara especially start going off the rails while in a Nonman-induced drug haze. There's also the lovely snarl of whether Achaimian, in being against Kellhus, is unconsciously serving the interests of Kellhus' enemies the Consult and the No-God. Mimara even wonders if her Judging Eye is revealing his damnation because he's a sorcerer, or because he's helping bring about the Second Apocalypse. This is a motive/effect snarl I haven't seen in any other novel (leave your suggestions in the comments if you have) and it will keep me with this series even if the grimdark sometimes gets grating.
Although while we're talking about motives, and Mimara, and depictions of women, the scene where Mimara tries to refuse the drug out of her mother's instinct (because having a fetus growing in your automatically awakens maternal instinct, nevermind if your relationship with your own mother is strained because she sold you as a child into abuse so horrible and dehumanizing that you learned not to consider it abusive before you hit puberty)...I did a double-take strong enough to launch the book across the room. Really now?
It's perhaps a bit petty of me to harp on these casual slip-ups, but I guess reading almost 600 pages of such relenting grimdark (drawn on by delectable motive snarls and powerful imagery, my own drug of choice) will make you that much less charitable. It also became harder to deny that sometimes Bakker's gambles with prose get out of hand. I'm pretty certain in one instance things are described as at their "nadir" when they're actually at zenith (although his word choice in general is a masterpiece of the unexpected, so maybe I shouldn't assume). And then he writes of two characters releasing "black-haired grunting" and "high blonde cries," which if it was coming from a friend of mine would be a signal to gently stage an intervention. Perhaps with the help of the Eye of Argon.
The story ends with plenty of juicy cliffhangers, and I realize I have faith that this trilogy will be wrapped up in a more satisfying way than the first. If it takes a trilogy of trilogies to tell the tale of the Second Apocalypse, though, I'll be there the whole way, because reading these books is an experience like no other. Grunts with hair color aside, the epic scale and genuine creepiness become an addictive thrill. I'm always saddened to read the last few pages, while usually I love to gobble books as quickly as possible. Whether I'll be tagging the final book "apocalypses that weren't" hangs in the air. I could almost see Bakker writing an ending where the Consult wins--he's that brutal--and frankly I almost want to see it, because it would be just that awesome on an unparalleled scale. Also, the Gods are dicks and most of my favorite characters are damned anyway, so what do we have to lose?
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