Scott Bakker has indisputable writing chops. He is always swinging for the fences and he managed, in my humble opinion, to hit The Second Apocalypse Series out of the park. That’s the first series, if you’re keeping score. You have to love his quasi-poetic, quasi-philosophical style, but if you do, it’s fantasy gold. Next, the Aspect Emperor series starts off with two absolutely stellar books. Such brutal, visceral slogs. You can’t see it but I’m chef's kissing my fingers: magnifique! So what -THE FUCK- went wrong?
Before I talk about what didn’t work, I should in fairness mention that this is still an ok book, and it has some memorable scenes and cool stuff that epic fantasy readers will moon over. There was about a hundred page chunk when the battle for Golgotterath was joined that I was pumping my fist and mouthing “hell yeah” at all the sweet battle magic and brutal, stylized action sequences. But that swath of awesome sauce is sandwiched between a snooze of a beginning and a disappointing ending.
Let’s talk about how the novel starts…150ish pages of bemoaning the perversity of the Meat. It’s an Ad Nauseam repetition of how eating a Sranc makes you into a grade A perv. We get it. Holy shit we get it. The pace of this, and to be fair much of the book, is glacial. It’s almost as if Bakker had 200 pages of actual story and decided he needed to pad it with 300 pages of redundant prose to ensure it was of an epic length. Even for someone who appreciates Bakker’s verbose style, the overwrought prose killed me, had my eyes glazing over, skimming. Usually if I get to the skimming stage, I’m done with a book, but I was invested. When everything is expressed as mythic, everything accorded paragraphs and pages of grandiose verbiage, it all feels the same. It’s all churned to mud. I was bored.
Setting aside the mind-numbingly repetitive intro, the real problem with this book is the total lack of agency in any of the characters. Achamian and Mimara are the two main characters in this series and they are virtually non-existent in this book. They do little to nothing that actually affects the outcome of events throughout the story and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve read a seven book prologue. Not a satisfying conclusion. Throughout the series, there is a real dearth of relatable characters. Basically it’s Mimara, Achamian, Proyas, and Sorweel. They are whittled out of this story, leaving some very cool action and world building that has a lot less heart than a good story needs.
In their stead you have POV scenes from a decapitated head, which is an interesting rhetorical device to narrate Kellhus’ scenes, but which ultimately falls flat as the Decapitant is a caricature (Curse Likaro!) that again has no agency in the plot. Serwa has some cool battle scenes with a Wracu, but again, she doesn’t feel like a well-rounded character, none of the Dunyain do, so ultimately the stakes of emotional investment are low.
Bakker does do a wonderful job of describing Golgotterath and the truly epic battle scenes that take place during the siege. This is when his prose style shines. He deftly paints the dread landscape, peppering in the rich history of the site, and the storied combatants, for a truly grand feel. For my money he has also created one of the coolest fantastical settings in print. Bar none. And that alone gives merit to this series that will satisfy many readers.
Without getting into detail that will spoil the ending. Boo. Does that give it away? One of the main characters dies off screen. What the hell? What? The? Hell? Seven books in and someone so central to this story dies and then gets a recap scene later. No! Absolutely not. On top of that there is some confusing stuff with the Four Horned Brother, Ajokli, that felt pretty unsupported and took me by surprise. And not in a good way. I’m only angry because the highs in this series are so high. If this was some mediocre trilogy I would shrug and move one, but I got my hopes up, damnit. Apparently, there is a duology forthcoming to finish this tale, and I’ll probably read it. The last two books in this series felt bloated and more than a little muddled, but in total, this is a good story, spanning thousands of pages that I have lovingly devoured. Though I found this installment quite disappointing, I’m prepared to risk having my heart broken again.