Book Review: The Judge of Ages
I had sitting before me, freshly unwrapped from the Amazon box, John C. Wright’s The Judge of Ages, and Jim Butcher’s Skin Game. I cracked open Judge first. Fellow fans of the SFF genre, that alone should speak to the quality of Wright’s past works, and the anticipated quality of this one. It did not disappoint.
Having said that, there are two flaws in the work that I would like to get out of the way now, so that the rest of this review can be glowing praise and fanboyish burbling. Now, the first is not a flaw in the work standing alone, but rather, as it stands in relation to the previous book, The Hermetic Millennia. In that book, we were introduced to a fantastic new cast of characters from across the millennia of history: Sir Guy, Mickey the Witch, Soorm the Hormagaunt, Oenoe the Nymph, the Chimerae, and more. They are back in Judge, and we finally get to see them cut loose with their powers in the absolutely slam-bang, pulse-pounding sci-fi melee that occupies the first half or so of the book (I kid you not, and the writing is so masterful it never feels dragged out). Yet, because the second half of the book chiefly concerns our mad genius hero Menelaus and his archnemesis Del Azarchel procrastinating a duel to the death with posthuman shop talk, Judge lacks a lot of the verbal interaction between the other characters that made The Hermetic Millennia such a delight to read. It’s there, for sure, as the characters all play a large role in the plot, but, well, let me put it this way: Wright could write a book consisting of nothing but his characters sitting around shooting the breeze, and I would buy it. It could be like an awesome, sci-fi version of Waiting for Godot or Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead. What dialogue there was was great (I loved Sir Guy’s and Mickey’s blossoming odd-couple-battle-brothers friendship), but I was hungry for more, especially since most of the interactions in Millennia where between Menelaus and one or other of the characters, rather than between the characters themselves. Thankfully, the dialogue between Menelaus and Del Azarchel, totally absent from Millennia, is fantastic, and it was great to see friends-turned-archenemies almost reconciling as they discussed the back-and-forths of their millennia spanning duel (or is it a chessgame? They disagree) for the fate of mankind (and how many books can you write sentences like that about?).
Now, I consider the lack of non-Menelaus-Azarchel dialogue in comparison to Millennia to be a minor matter. The second problem I had with Judge cut deeper. Minor spoiler warning. Near the end of the book comes a scene of farewells to fond companions as moving as the departure from the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings, or rather, it should have been. The scene is too short. If I am reading aright, and we are truly seeing some of these characters for the last time, I needed more time to say goodbye to them. Menelaus needed more time to say goodbye to them. The scene as it stands is finely written, it almost made me cry*, I wanted it to make me cry, but alas, it ended too shortly, and with it, my catharsis.
*to date, the only fiction to make me cry have been the end of The Lord of the Rings (especially the end of the timeline in the appendix), the end of Les Miserables (the film musical version), and the end of Girls Und Panzer (don’t judge me).
“In a moment, he was inside, blind as Samson, and equally as strong. His coif connected with mated jacks lining the helm interior; his implants could give hima fuzzy radar picture of the surroundings. A warning voice in his ear told him that discharges of chemical or energy weapons, sidearms, or rockets were unauthorized inside the chamber during Event Condition Red, and so with a grim smile Sir Guy drew the oversized claymore that hung from his war belt, flourished it in both hands, elbows high, turned on his external amplifiers, and cried out: “DEUS LO VOLT!”
And he waded out into the fray.
“Joet, you’re a man after my own heart!…On another topic, let me explain what these archaic words in the long-dead language called English mean: engaging-in-copulation, guano-of-bats, not-sane. Now, each separately means nothing, but, taken together as a phrase, the stalwart men of Texas in elder times used this expression (abbreviated FBC) to refer to anyone like yourself, who was (well, if I can be frank one more time) simply Fu—”
Lady Ivinia interrupted, “Do not be frank, Sterling! It erodes discipline.”
Now, onto the glowing praise. If there are two things Wright writes well, they are long action sequences, and humorous, intelligent dialogue. The Judge of Ages plays both of those strengths to the hilt. The first half of the book is a long action sequence, peppered with humorous, intelligent dialogue. The second half of the books is humorous, intelligent dialogue, peppered with action sequences. The action is fast, relentless, and a bit more graphic than in previous books; Wright appears to be taking a leaf out of Larry Correia’s book. Wright does an excellent job of switching between viewpoints during the melee to give readers the whole picture of the battle, and to keep the action going. The dialogue has room to spare for both mind-bending sci-fi speculations, any of which could be the basis of tale in it’s own right; and hilarious Texan irreverence and gallows humour. Wright’s flair for surprising but logical plot twists is also in full force here, and I lost count of how many times Montrose was outmaneuvered by or out-outmaneuvered his foes. Space opera this intelligently written is a wonderful thing. Surprisingly, I believe this is also the only John C. Wright book I’ve read that doesn’t end in a massive cliffhanger.
It was in reading Judges that I realized Wright’s newer Hard SF series had surpassed his older one, The Golden Age. The Golden Age‘s hero, Phaethon, is just as intelligent and cunning as Menelaus Montrose, but Menelaus is just so much more interesting as a protagonist, from his steel-trap mind to his gunfighting skills to his dark sense of humour to his burning love for his spacefaring wife, Princess Rania. Part lawyer, part duelist, part mad supergenius, part rough-spoken Texan, part savior of the earth, part avenging angel, Menelaus Montrose has got to be one of the most unique and memorable characters to enter the sci-fi scene.
At last, the plot, along with some fanboyish burbling:
For the past 8000 or so years Menelaus Montrose has been waking up from cryo-sleep to thwart the plans of the mutineer crew of the spaceship Hermetic, led by Ximen “Blackie” Del Azarchel, who want to engineer the human race into perfect slaves for the slowly but inexorably approaching armada of the Hyades Domination in a bid for survival in servitude. Menelaus aims to fight back against the technologically superior alien force, and has been assembling an army of volunteers from the different eras of history beneath the earth in a cryogenic “tomb system”. Between the tomb system’s over-the-top defense systems and Menelaus’ habit of showing up whenever a societal collapse is about to occur, usually to kill the mutineer responsible for engineering that particular society, he has garnered a reputation and mythology as the dread “Judge of Ages”. When last we left him, he had been awakened from cryo-sleep by tomb robbers searching for the Judge of Ages, but they did not recognize him, and–OH MY GOSH GUYS MENELAUS AND ALL HIS BUDDIES HAVE BEEN TAKEN PRISONER and his tomb defenses have been deactivated and there’s a GIANT ALIEN SPACE CLAW coming to capture them all, but first they find someone else claiming to be the Judge of Ages, and then there’s this epic fight in the tombs between basically everybody from the last book and some new characters introduced right before the battle, and people keep getting stunned and un-stunned and zapped by sciffy weapons, and then the TOMB GUNS REACTIVATE and start blasting people, and then, finally, when that battle’s over BLACKIE DEL AZARCHEL shows up in person from his MOON BASE, and wants to DUEL MONTROSE man-to-man, but first there are some even more awesome explosions from sci-fi superweapons, and then [SPOILERS REDACTED SPOILERS REDACTED SPOILERS REDACTED].
The Judge of Ages is an excellent addition to the Count to a Trillion/Count to the Eschaton sequence; and I count the days (hopefully not a trillion) to the next installment.
Available at Amazon. Published by Tor.