The White Luck Warrior  - R. Scott Bakker NB: There are spoilers galore in this review so be warned. Also be warned that I make no allowances for not having read the previous books so there are many allusions and references that will make no sense to the uninitiated.

R. Scott Baker continues to deliver on the promise shown in [b:The Judging Eye|11325990|The Judging Eye (Aspect Emperor 1)|Scott Scott Bakker||16254257] and its predecessor series, The Prince of Nothing. As with the first book, this one follows three paths:

Momemn: As the Great Ordeal marches north and Kellhus cuts off all communication between it and the Empire, fissures continue to develop and widen. Fanayal, the deposed Fanim Padirajah, appears out of the desert to conquer Iothiah and by the end of the book is besieging the capital itself. Esmenet's hold on power is tenuous not just because she is a woman in a patriarchal society straight out of the Old Testament but because she is a damned woman - a "whore." But it's her obsession with her children (especially after Kelmomas murders Samarmas) that scares Maithanet into staging a coup. Outside of the Palace, the Cults, in particular Yatwer's, are increasingly vocal in their opposition to the Anasurimbor dynasty. The Hundred Gods cannot "see" the No-God or recognize its threat so they can only regard Kellhus as an enemy.

Bakker's theology is one of the more unique aspects of the series. Unlike Erikson's or Cook's idea of ascendant mortals, or Tolkien's Christian-derived Valar, the gods of Earwa (or the demons, if you're Fanim) know nothing of human suffering or compassion and appear to move in the world without regard to their worshippers.

The Momemn sections were the weakest parts of the book for me if only because Esmenet, the chief POV (the other being the sociopath Kelmomas), is such a cryer* and willfully obtuse. She was much smarter and better than this in The Prince of Nothing. Motherhood appears to have made her stupid since it's her refusal to recognize that her children are 1/2 Dunyain(!) that undermines her position as Empress.

The Great Ordeal: Here we continue to follow Sorweel. At the moment, he is protected from the Anasurimbors' Dunyain sight by Yatwer and has been accepted as a Believer-King, a believer in Kellhus's divinity and an ally, not a hostage. Sorweel believes he is meant to assassinate the Aspect-Emperor but when he becomes part of a hostage exchange with the Nonmen of Ishterebinth (the last Mansion in Earwa), all his assumptions are overturned.

These sections dwell on Sorweel's increasing confusion as he becomes a valued member of the Ordeal, comes to understand that its goal is "good," but still feels he must avenge his father and come to terms with what he thinks Yatwer wants.

I think Sorweel plays a similar role to Cnaiur, the Scylvendi chief from The Prince of Nothing. A "regular" mortal who can stand apart from Kellhus's manipulation. He's not as strong or unique a character as Cnaiur was, however. The Scylvendi was an implacable force of nature (shades of Karsa Orlong from the Malazan Book of the Fallen). The Sakarpi king is a naive boy whose protection comes from a enigmatic god's "blessing."

The Slog of Slogs: My favorite sections are those told from Drusus Achamian's and Mimara's POVs - their trek (accompanied by the Skin Eaters) across the Sranc-infested north to Sauglish's Great Library. Here, Bakker gives freest rein to his philosophical ruminations. Not for every reader, for myself it made fascinating reading and it didn't slow the story down at all.

In this first read, the theme that dominates is the myriad relationships between belief and reality. Examples include: The Ordeal's belief in Kellhus vs. what he really is (and what his motivations are); the Skin Eaters' belief in Achamian's motives vs. what his real goal is; Achamian's belief in what moves Lord Kosoter vs. the truth; Esmenet's belief in the love of her son, Kelmomas vs. Kelmomas's Dunyain nature; the belief of Yatwer's worshippers vs. her motives; (broadly speaking) the difference between the World vs. the Outside; or the nature of sorcery (which imposes the sorceror's beliefs on the World's reality, and explains why its practitioners are damned). And more permutations could be listed.

The Dunyain have, perhaps, come closest to true perception but at the expense of emotions like love and compassion. But, then, Bakker's cosmos bears greater resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's uncaring, amoral universe than to Middle Earth. And - yet - souls are damned or saved and (judging from what Mimara sees with her "judging eye") saved by those very emotions that the Dunyain have eschewed and that the religions of Earwa barely recognize.

All three threads end in cliffhangers: In Momemn, Esmenet and Maithanet reconcile only to have Maithanet assassinated by the White-Luck Warrior, and the rebel armies of Fanayal appearing at the city's gates. The Ordeal ends with a bloodied but still intact host approaching Golgotterath, and Sorweel and the Anasurimbors Serwa and Moenghus journeying to Ishterebinth, which has become an ally of the Consult in the two thousand years since the First Apocalypse. The Slog ends with only Achamian and Mimara surviving to reach Ishual, only to find it a deserted ruin.

In all this I've hardly mentioned the titular "white-luck warrior" because he remains an enigma. Some parts of the Momemn sections are told from his POV. He exists both within and outside of the World and perceives everything that comes before and everything that comes after. In that sense, he's what the Dunyain aspire to be but his origins and motives remain unexplained (I see a set up for an exploration of free will vs. determinism in the final volume).

I have no idea where Bakker is going to end up with this series and so look forward to The Unholy Consult, which can't come out too soon for me.

Highly recommended.

* I'm surprised Esmi hasn't gone blind from all the tears she's shed (or collapsed from dehydration). I swear that every page mentions - at some point - tears or crying or incipient crying.