For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.
A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him? And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.
However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to his Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath.
At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.
Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.
The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.
As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination.
Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?
Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?
To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.
This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.
Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions.
This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.
(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)
(Originally posted April 2011)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.