“This is a journey without return.”
“She sneered and laughed. “So is every life.”

This is a weird book.
And I absolutely hate writing “reviews.”
I’d love to start reading the following book without saying a thing, but I also feel this commitment to write what I think… so here we are.
(there will be spoilers)

Before I begin here I went to retrieve that old, placeholder cover that was never actually used, and read a couple of reviews that I also must have read at the time they came out, skipping the plot details to avoid spoiler (or pretend to forget). The suspicion I had while reading the book, and maybe that I remembered from back then, was confirmed:

Another error I think I made in The Prince of Nothing as a whole is that I think I focused too much on interior action – I spent too much time knocking around in my characters’ heads. This is one thing that I tried to rectify in The Judging Eye: there’s still plenty of internal action, but I like to think I’ve done a better job balancing it with external action.

Bakker told me that the Prince of Nothing series was always meant to be the “story behind the story.” Hence, he wanted to make sure that The Aspect-Emperor would work for the fans, but also for those who found the literary aspects of the first trilogy (emphasis on particularity and interiority) too much, as well as for newbies.

But here I’m writing what I think, what I was thinking while reading, and I’m not going to make these other aspects intrude now.

This book is essentially a long prologue. I also think it’s really well written, more so than the preceding trilogy. I don’t mean as a quantification, since those preceding three books were exceptional. But the necessities of that story made the pages somewhat uneven, cumbersome for having to carry so much, and Bakker had some quirky writing habits (death came swirling down) that always had a motivation behind them, but also could push a reader either way. This new beginning feels as if Bakker reorganized and decided to write it on his own terms. As if he’s more in control of the story, rather than serving it. More a narrator than a possessed mouthpiece.

And yet the book suffers for it, in a way. The mad desperate rush, or the slow march toward Shimeh, one and the same, had a specific quality. Despite there are aspects of that story that are mirrored here, it almost feels like a fairy tale. Despite the horror, the dread made real, it seems to completely lack an edge. In this regard, the book reads so much more like a well written, but quite traditional fantasy book. And yet it’s very much “Bakker”, every single line. But also so very different.

The idea you could start reading from this book sounds to me simply ABSURD. It makes no sense. There is so much to this story that it would be simply ridiculous to decide to start from a different point. But as I was reading it, I had this feeling of reading an extended prologue. It’s a 400 pages book, the length of the last one in the previous trilogy. The more I moved through it, the more I realized that the prologue wouldn’t end, and the book wouldn’t begin. And as I was reading through the final, extended section, it simply dawned on me a weird idea: this wasn’t written as a prologue to the following volumes… This is a prologue to the first trilogy.

It doesn’t make ANY sense, and yet it does. Without reading the summaries of the story so far, that in this case have been moved to the back of the book, it seems as everything is set up to refer to that story, but without quite spoiling it, without making it known and plain. The first page, a letter to Kellhus, is enough to set the stage, but from a guarded point of view. That story already blended into legend, and built a distance. The original trilogy played on its two different levels, the ancient times of the First Apocalypse, with the brief direct glimpses through Mandate dreams, and then the present times. With Achamian realizing that things were in motion once again, that legends once again become real, become present. Twenty or so years pass, the world is largely transformed, and so are the characters. There is less of an impending doom, even if the impending doom is obviously closer. There is a sense of relative security and stability. This book becomes, at the same time, the future but also the past. Because that past, blending to legend, becomes something to rediscover and reinterpret. And for all these reflections, it seems all building momentum to lead there. There’s emphasis, a sought knowledge expressed from characters that are new, like Mimara and Sorweel, who understand that their circumstances are the result of what came before. Their stories and movements in the book are introductions to the past. They build an offset of wonder, they build an anticipation for things ahead, that are instead behind.

And it’s all… gone.

This is the apparent contradiction: that the book is so well written, to the point of pure spectacle. Of a writer, much like David Foster Wallace, who seems to say “hey mom, I’m driving this bike with no hands!” Effortless spectacle. And yet, the mission, the mad rush forward, the desperate need that fueled the previous trilogy and made it TRUE, is completely gone. Gone in the sense that it is tucked away. Locked out.

The book begins and sets some premises. They are even quite intriguing, like the false memories about Seswatha. But all it does is simply confirm previous hypothesis. To the point it really makes logical sense only in the perspective of leading toward the previous trilogy. Achamian’s whole journey here, toward an explicit excuse: the library of Sauglish. And to do what there? Figure out the place where Kellhus is coming from, Ishual. Because Achamian believes Kellhus is no god, but just a man who is manipulating everyone around him, for his own ends rather than what he claims. He is a false god, and Achamian’s mission is proving it. First and foremost to himself.

But while this is true for that limited point of view, it’s not true for the reader, to a comical level. You simply need to take the very first book, open it to the map at the end. There it is: Ishual. The map that Achamian still hasn’t reached, has always been there. Everything Achamian seeks to understand about Kellhus, we already know in quite good detail. We’ve even seen authoritative flashbacks of his training. But of course, “we”, the readers of what came before. Not the Judging Eye readers, with a wonder for legendary times. With desire for revelation. To know more, to prove more.

We are already there, waiting for Achamian to catch up. For this prologue to end, and the real story to start.

Since The Thousandfold Thought we’ve known that the boundary between the world and the otherworld, the world and hell, is being eroded. It is reaffirmed at the beginning of The Judging Eye. The end of the book simply reinforces it. Shows it. The book is a prologue because it starts and ends the same. We are none the wiser, because the first trilogy has delivered all these answers.

Whereas all the other “mysteries” still waiting for an answer, and that are still seeded here, like what is Kellhus TRUE purpose, what does it mean to seal the world from the outside. Or the very big deal: why Achamian believes Kellhus a fraud, when we’re getting more and more proofs that things are quite weird (the haloes of his hands, in previous books, that Moenghus also couldn’t explain, or Mimara otherworldly powers here, or all about Yatwer… all being intrusions into the world order)? None of these get explained, or even advanced. Because of course there’s no answer in the first trilogy about them. And The Judging Eye is its prologue.

Once again, all I’m writing is about what isn’t there, rather than what it is there. I wrote some comments on goodreads while I was reading through the book. The second chapter with the introduction to Achamian and Mimara is a masterpiece. But the prose and characterization maintain a superb quality that soars above the preceding books. I still have no idea why Mimara is written in present tense, while everyone else is done through a typical past tense. It makes Mimara feel like a timetraveler that got slightly dislodged from the fabric of reality. She’s more immediate, she’s the same as what happens to Achamian when he visits the past through his dreams. He feels there, even if he’s not quite there. As a meta-narrative device it would work well. Sorweel and Mimara are receptacles for new readers. They demand immersion and identification (despite a couple of plot points about Mimara will throw any reader as further away as possible, I guess Bakker can’t abstain from making fun of any form of positive feedback). Yet Sorwell doesn’t share that literary trick that affects Mimara…

I won’t say much about the description of PURE EVIL that is the kid, Kelmomas. These are all the things that Bakker does superbly well, and it feels pointless to comment because they are plainly there, on the page. But The Judging Eye is all about the characters and how they are written. It’s all about a display of mastery.

The twenty year gap is tricky to deliver. It the same thing that not only was tricky for GRRM, but that lead to the complete SHIPWRECK of that series. If anything, this book clearly proves who’s the better writer, if there was still any doubt (and all the more sad, since Bakker hasn’t continued writing). But who cares about pointless comparisons. The point is that most of what is great here is due to everything being so perfectly nailed. All the sons and daughters of Kellhus/Esmenet/Serwe, they are all incredible characters. Different from each other, yet leaping from the page and from the mass of everyone else. Some appear very briefly, and still make so much an impact as to forget everything about the story. They become story themselves. They are so deeply intriuguing, deeply characterized in their quirky behaviors. They have all the otherworldly charm that Kellhus has actually lost, becoming simply inhuman in an unrelatable way. Kelmomas is just a pure representation of pure evil egoism, but in the end he’s just a kid blown large: the disconnect that is plainly stated at the beginning of the prologue: “When a man posseses the innocence of a child, we call him fool. When a child possesses the cunning of a man, we call him an abomination.” But how not be charmed by neurotic Theliopa, or even Kayutas and Moenghus. Or the folly of Inrilatas, what has he seen? He has found revelation without leaving his room.

All of this, the context of the world after a twenty year gap, the superb characterization, the quality of the prose, they all make this book a masterpiece. And yet it is a masterpiece of a prologue… to the first trilogy.

Where has the bone and marrow of the story gone?

The implications that move everything, that drove those preceding books. They are locked away. It’s not even missing in the sense of a lack, it’s simply not there.

The only aspect that I’m doubtful about is the whole cult of Yatwer side-plot. From Psatma Nannaferi, to where it intersects with Sorweel and then the literal Judging Eye of Mimara. It feels like an intrusion in the story that doesn’t quite fit. It hinges on those parts of the metaphysics that still don’t make a lot of sense. They are intrusion from the outside, but for that reason they clash with the “science” of Kellhus. They are obviously deliberate elements of the story, but still fail to win me over. And all this within the minimal page count they occupy here.

I have no idea what The White-Luck Warrior will be. Will it be a sequel to this prologue? A sequel to the original trilogy? Something else entirely? I still have the feeling that Bakker is moving away from the original story, rather than toward it. I suppose some of this is the result of a sort of “rebound” effect. A reaction to the reaction. Bakker isn’t so much writing his story, as he was doing up to this point, but reacting to the moment that story was delivered and made public. But we’re dealing with “art” here, and it means that feedback doesn’t necessarily have a positive effect. Bakker was seeking approval, this book seems to read like a statement that says (and proves): I deserve it.

For all its exceptional execution, it doesn’t grasp what is there behind the curtain. And it doesn’t match what the preceding trilogy is. This book is mostly spectacle.

(How to write a negative review that is just a list of praises, I guess. But that’s how I feel, and how I felt reading this book.)

Further notes:
there are a number of aspects I intended to elaborate on, but I don’t feel like wrestling with what I already wrote to fit everything in. So I’ll only mention that the whole ordeal in those last 100 pages, obvious reference to Minas Tirith, despite all the dread and incredible execution, still felt a somewhat comforting place. We know Mimara can’t die there, we know Achamian can’t die. We know the captain and probably even Cleric are unlikely to die like that. Despite only an handful come out alive, Bakker knows too and makes fun of: “Of those the Bitten had called the Herd, all three survivors were Galeoth – Conger, Wonard, and Hameron – men Achamian had not known until the arduous climb up the Screw.” … A way of saying “redshirts.” Again, despite the so well described and evoked dread, we see only in small scale what we’ve already seen in the large: the nonman king speaks through unconscious Achamian and Pokwas, but it’s nothing compared to world-encompassing sranc choruses, in presence of the No-God. Despite all those scenes felt remote, merely implied dreams, and here they are close and immediate instead. But it’s still nothing new. It all lacks an edge. And no, this has nothing to do with Bakker unwilling to kill more important characters here, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Nothing really happened. Achamian is looking for a map we readers already have, Mimara got a magical trinket, some redshirts were culled, nonmen are melancholic living or unliving ghosts. Nothing really happened here, it was a prologue.

Another thing I want to mention is “Sorweel’s shield.” There’s some Yatwerian magic that makes him somewhat immune, despite this matter isn’t quite clearly set, to Kellhus’ sight. But we know Kellhus’ sight isn’t magic, but just his ability to read the movement of muscle and skin. As I mentioned above, it’s science rather than magic. And Sorweel does indeed betray himself in very obvious ways. Yet he’s not seen.

Page 225: “We walk the Shortest Path, the labyrinth of the Thousandfold Thought.” I’m still somewhat annoyed how these two became one thing, when most of the 2nd book was built on its mystery of being two things. I still have no idea what Bakker (or Moenghus) was doing.

Page 314: “Nonmen can’t see paintings.” What?

Page 283: “Our God… the God, is broken into innumerable places.” Kabbalistic turn again, Adam Kadmon. Every time Bakker gives in to this type of metaphysics, he seems to channel Kabbalah.

One of the two reviews I’ve read said this:
most notably the biggest weakness in the series remains: that whilst it is imaginative, powerfully-written and at times intense, it is also a somewhat remote and cold work, easy to admire, hard to love.

It doesn’t sound quite right to me, but I started wondering if actually true or not. I can somewhat relate to it. But what’s then the difference between characters and books I do love, rather than admire? The answer, for me, is that it’s more about the perceived meaning of love than an actual distinction, that this series of books also mocked in a number of occasions…

(as I mentioned at the beginning, I hate writing reviews. I’d read a whole lot more if I didn’t force myself writing down my thoughts. The main reason why this book took longer to read than the previous three is because I decided to write about them (since book 1 and 2 were re-reads). That means I start postponing reading the book, so that I could postpone the moment I needed to write about it… And also started reading all sort of other books. I’m that type of stupid that makes his own cage.)

One Comment

  1. For a thing that u hate, you sure do a great job with thia review!

    The first one was onw of the most insightful posts about bakker i have read! Cant wait for the next ones!


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