The largest Sranc clans the Horselords battled rarely numbered more than several hundred. Sometimes a particularly cruel and cunning Sranc chieftain would enslave his neighbours and open warfare would range across the Pale. And the legends were littered with stories of Sranc rising in nations and overcoming the Outermost Holds. Sakarpus itself had been besieged five times since the days of the Ruiner.
But this... slaughter.
Only some greater power could have accomplished this.
Meat sweated in open sunlight. Flies steamed about the scrub and grasses. Cartilage gleamed where not chapped with gore. The stink was raw unto gagging.
"The war is real," he said with dull wonder. "The Aspect-Emperor...His war is real."
"Perhaps..." Zsoronga said after listening to Obotegwa's translation. "But are his reasons?" (p. 112)
The White-Luck Warrior, R. Scott Bakker's fifth Earwä fantasy novel and the middle volume of his The Aspect-Emperor trilogy, perhaps can best be described as a continuation of what has come before and the harbinger of things to come. This middle volume, both in the middle series and likely for the overarching series as well (plans are for the Earwä novels to be at least eight volumes, but nine would not be surprising), develops further the themes explored in earlier books and it deepens the struggle while simultaneously expanding the scope of matters established in the Prince of Nothing trilogy and its immediate prequel, The Judging Eye. This results in a volume, that while not "self-contained," that masterfully develops its themes, with new iterations on prior themes that serve to connect almost seamlessly the events of before and the portents of things to come.
As in The Judging Eye, there are three main scenes of action: The Great Ordeal, led by the Aspect-Emperor and whose main narrative PoV is that of the young Sarkapian king, Sorweel; the "slog" guided by the Wizard Achamian and his lost lover's daughter Mimara; and Momemn, where the Aspect-Emperor's wife fights to maintain control of the empire while her husband is away. When The Judging Eye concluded, there were machinations that had only begun to crank up. Whether it be the Hundred Gods of Earwä, led by the Earth-Mother Yatwer, stirring up divine forces against the New Empire and Kellhus' new religious formula, or it be the hidden mysteries contained within the Nonman companion in the slog, Cleric, the previous volume left much to be explored in The White-Luck Warrior, including the eponymous character who presumably will be stalking Anasûrimbors. On the whole, this volume fulfills the promise of its predecessor, as not only are most of these mysteries revealed, but the implications of the actions in the previous four volumes are proved to be much more than what one might anticipate.
Bakker's prose typically has been tight, measured bursts of information told in a limited third-person point of view. Here in The White-Luck Warrior, he exploits the possibilities contained within this narrative approach in an even more efficient fashion than before. Take for instance the scene quoted above dealing with two reluctant members of Kellhus' Believer-Kings cadre, Sorweel and the Zeum heir, Zsoronga. Bakker finds a good balance here (and in most of the important scenes in this volume) between narrating the events and the characters' interpretations of them. Here we see the carnage of an earlier battle between the Ordeal and the Sranc forces opposing their march to the Consult center of Golgotterath in the far northwest of Earwä. The toll was appalling and Bakker does not skimp on the details. What is interesting is the emphasis on "real." What is "real," the events or the motivations that cause the events? This question lies at the crux of Bakker's novels and here in The White-Luck Warrior he explores possibilities throughout several scenes, some subtly and others as direct as the one quoted above.
The plot here is very tight. The three main centers of action receive about five chapters each for their development, or roughly 190 pages per scene of conflict. In this space, Bakker develops conflicts (Sorweel's self-conflicts regarding Kellhus overlaying the external conflict of the Ordeal's march through Sranc lands; Achamian and Mimara's questions on sorcerous damnation in the context of their march with the Skin Eaters and the enigmatic Cleric as they strive to reach the fabled Coffers of the Library of Sauglish in the north; Esmenet's rising paranoia regarding her tenuous hold of the New Empire while her Anasûrimbor children and brother-in-law seem to be concealing much, while the White-Luck Warrior emerges) begun in The Judging Eye before exploding them in the final chapters for each narrative arc. Nothing feels rushed nor underdeveloped; the tension rises gradually but steadily until the pressure points give away, leading to three cliffhangers to be explored in the third volume, tentatively called The Unholy Consult.
Bakker manages to avoid what I feared might be a flaw in one of the subplots, that of enemy forces. The Sranc forces, although presented in earlier volumes to be a sort of stand-in for the ubiquitous Orcs, prove to be a cunning, crafty foe. Too often enemy masses are presented as being a false horror, with only the overwhelming numbers of them being their real threat to the heroes. This is not the case here, as the Sranc are shown to be vicious and yet intelligent creatures, whose strategies serve to sap the Ordeal. It is a testimony to how well-thought out Bakker's narrative is that there was a palpable sense throughout this volume that the shit was going to hit the ceiling. There is a rising horror in the Ordeal subplot that is mirrored to an extent in the Achamian one, only with a different sort of psychological suspense arising, one that is more internal than the external threat represented by the Sranc.
Outside of a few moments where it felt Bakker was repeating his themes too broadly and too explicitly (more a case of individual preference than an actual narrative flaw), The White-Luck Warrior contains a unity of theme and action that is rarely seen in epic/heroic fantasies. The action unfolds nicely, while the import of these actions and the motivations behind them are revealed gradually and fully. The characterizations are superb and the stage has been set for a massive conflagration in the final volume of this middle series. What happens before certainly does cause what comes after and The Unholy Consult (or whatever name this volume ultimately receives) will almost certainly reveal more for those left hungering for more once the final cliffhanger is reached. Early favorite for one of the best 2011 speculative fiction releases.