R. Scott Bakker brings another magisterial epic with the Judging Eye, continuing where the Prince of Nothing trilogy left off. Nearly two decades have passed since Anasûrimbor Kellhus became Aspect-Emperor of the New Empire. Following the successes of the First Holy War, Kellhus instigated the Unification Wars, forging the New Empire from the disparate nations surrounding the Three Seas. With a unified empire, Kellhus embarks on an ambitious quest, the Great Ordeal, heading north, beyond the realm of Man. This barren land is populated by the Sranc and is vulnerable to the ancient forces of the Consult and Mog-Pharau (the No-God).
We follow three main narrative threads. The first follows the disgraced Wizard Drusus Achamian, exiled from the Imperial Court following his public denunciation of the Aspect-Emperor and his bride, the former lover of Achamian, Esmenet. Achamian recruits a group of Scalpoi in his mad quest to discover the secrets hidden in the far north, in the Coffers of Inshuäl. The austere taciturn veteran of the First Holy War, Lord Kosoter, leads the Scalpoi. Lord Kosoter leads a multiethnic gang of Scalpoi who call themselves the Skin Eaters.
Unbeknownst to Achamian, he is followed by Mimara, the daughter of Esmenet during her days as a prostitute. Achamian finds out she is one of the Few – an epithet for those with magical powers – and possibly his daughter. She follows Achamian and the Skin Eaters, where she eventually finds acceptance within the group.
The Scalpoi are part of a greater cultural movement built around the economics of scalp-collecting. They collect scalps taken from Sranc in exchange for Imperial currency. Bakker’s creation of this brutal mercenary subculture read like a demented combination of the Gold Rush and killing Native Americans (or buffalo). Since both Sranc and Scalpoi wear body parts as trophies, the separation between good and evil, man and beast, becomes obscured. Within this subculture, there is the concept of the Slog. The Slog is the philosophy accepted by the Scalpoi when they go out on hunting expeditions. There’s no crying on the Slog and the dead lay where they fall. Such is life on the fringes of Kellhus’s New Empire.
By contrast, the second narrative strand follows the intrigue and machinations of the Imperial Court, presided over by the former prostitute Esmenet. Violence is still present, whether in the public executions of Consult skin-spies or with the Judges of the Ministrate, the Empire’s secret police. Esmenet, uncomfortable with her new role, does her best to preserve her family, her sanity, and the Empire. Her biggest challenge, apart from her brilliant, deranged children, is containing the threat posed by the Cult of Yatwer, a religious group beloved by the slave and menial castes. If negotiations cannot be met, then the city of Momemn sits upon a powder keg.
Esmenet’s children run the gamut and will hopefully be expanded upon in later volumes. Besides Mimara, she has children with Kellhus. They include Katûyas, her eldest son, Thelopia, her eldest daughter, Serwa, Inrilatas, and her twin sons Kelmomas and Samarmas. Katûyas and his older brother Moënghus (son of Kellhus and his first wife, Serwë) serve with their father in the Great Ordeal. Thelopia frightens her mother because she displays no emotions. Inrilatas remains imprisoned on the Andiamine Heights, his intellect too much for the Court, where he goes insane. Esmenet reserves her love for Kelmomas and his twin Samarmas. Unlike Kelmomas, Samarmas is an idiot, making Kelmomas jealous.
The final narrative thread follows the Great Ordeal. While the Aspect-Emperor remains a large part of this story, attention is focused on the young king Sorweel. With his father dead and his kingdom shattered by the Men of the Tusk, he struggles with the conflict between the treason of subjugation and staying true to his roots. Only being in his teens makes it all the worse. On the campaign, Sorweel discovers the Yatwer cult of his slave Porsparian. He is also tutored by Thanteus Eskeles. During the Council of Potentates, Sorweel finds himself infatuated with Serwa, daughter of Kellhus and Esmenet, Grandmistress of the Swayal Sisterhood. The witches in the Sisterhood, along with the concept of slavery, conflict with Sorweel’s Sakarpan upbringing. Even in the presence of the Aspect-Emperor, he remains conflicted.
R. Scott Bakker has raised the bar very high with this novel, continuing the epic saga of the Three Seas. He writes with nuance and power, comfortable with both horrific combat and the labyrinthine halls of power. Bakker’s novels take place in a world heavily influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike many writers in the epic fantasy genre, Bakker has found ways out of Tolkien’s omnipresent shadow. The first is with the character of Kellhus, a twist on the Chosen One fantasy trope. Kellhus is like an inscrutable combination of Gandalf and Daniel Ocean. Trained by the Dûnyain, a sect that abandoned history and animal appetite, he is an expert manipulator, or in the parlance of our time, a con artist. He knows the motivations and desires of everyone he meets. As a protagonist, he is very difficult to sympathize with, since he knows a person’s every move and how to successfully manipulate that to his advantage.
Like a tea flower, the world of the Three Seas slowly opens to the reader. We learn more about the past and the origins of the Sranc and Nonmen. With the Great Ordeal in play, the city of Momemn shredding under religious turmoil, and the Skin Eaters heading into the wilds of the far north, readers of the new Aspect-Emperor series will eagerly await more.