The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker
The Great Ordeal, the penultimate novel in R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect-Emperor series, is finally upon us. His fans have been waiting a long time for this one, and it’s a testament to the quality of Bakker’s work and the loyalty of his readership that the wait hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm.
Outside his fan base, Bakker’s novels themselves have had an uneven reception, despite The Prince of Nothing trilogy being what I consider one of the best fantasy series written. However, with grimdark going from strength to strength, one can only hope that Bakker’s novels will get more of the recognition they deserve.
What Has Come Before
Bakker’s fantasy world of the Three Seas is explored in two connected novel series. The first series, The Prince of Nothing trilogy, introduced us to many of the main players: Drusus Achamian, the Gnosis wizard cursed to relive the first apocalypse in his nightmares; Kellus, adherent of the Logos and member of a monastic sect of mentalists who have perfected the art of the probability trance; and Esmenet, the whore who eventually became the Empress of the Three Seas.
Anyone looking to get started with Bakker is advised to begin with The Darkness that Comes Before (2004), the first novel in the The Prince of Nothing trilogy which sets up Kellhus’s ascent to become the Aspect-Emperor and establishes many of the rivalries of The Great Ordeal, including that of Achamian and Kellhus. The coming Second Apocalypse is deliciously foreshadowed in the first trilogy, although if you expect the conflict with the Inchoroi to play a larger role, you may finish it a touch letdown.
Fortunately, the second series, beginning with The Judging Eye (2009), puts its best foot forward in that direction. And now, with The Great Ordeal, we’re finally getting the payoff with the final confrontation between the Inchoroi and Kellhus that we’ve been holding our breaths for.
The Great Ordeal
It’s everything you expect from a Bakker book: gut-shredding violence, big moral dilemmas, grey and grey and grey, sweeping epic scale, detailed historical world-building, and a sense of horror that eclipses anything else in epic fantasy. Boy oh boy, does The Great Ordeal deliver. If you’ve devoured all of Bakker’s other fantasy novels, then you will not regret lightening your purse with this tome.
It should be stated, however, that Bakker’s craftsmanship steers more toward literary than pulp, and The Great Ordeal requires patient, intelligent reading. Many scenes begin with a philosophical dictum. While it’s a bit more highbrow than your usual grimdark fare, it doesn’t detract from the speed of the narrative, even if the philosophical discourse occasionally becomes a bit obscure. His novels touch on freewill (the Dunyain probability trance and their ability to foresee the future), notions of the conscious self, and even the morals of eugenics as practiced by the Dunyain and their self-selecting evolution. Indeed, the last is examined more closely in The Great Ordeal when Achiamian finally reaches the Dunyain stronghold of Ishual. But more on that later.
The Great Ordeal is itself the first half of a duology. The long-awaited final volume in the Aspect-Emperor series came in at such a hefty size that his publisher has split it into two volumes. Therefore, don’t expect a final resolution. For that, you’ll still have to wait until the next book, but The Great Ordeal certainly paves the way in magnificent style.
The Great Ordeal primarily follows Esmenet, Kelmomas, Kellhus (by way of the viewpoint of Believer-King Proyas), Achamian and Mimara, Sorweel and Malowebi. Certainly a few other viewpoints are picked up and discarded for short periods, but the aforementioned are the prime movers.
Esmenet and Kelomomas
The book begins from Esmenet’s viewpoint as Fanayal, the Padirajah of the heathen Kianene Empire, attacks Momenmn. Esmenet is also grappling with the power vacuum created both by Kellhus’s absence and the murder of Maithanet, her main political rival. Her own children offer her no bulwark against treachery either, since anyone familiar with the earlier books knows that her young son Kelomamas is a murderous psychopath given to fratricide. Blind in her love, Esmenet sees nothing of the manipulations of her children and how they control her using the preternatural abilities inherited from their father. Kelmomas in particular runs wild in the crawlspaces and secret passageways of the palace.
Kelmomas becomes infatuated with the White-Luck Warrior, the man who murdered Maithanet. Even as Kelmomas plots the murder of his sister Theliopa, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the one individual who he cannot fathom with his Dunyain abilities. He gradually realises that perhaps the man is something other than human, that some otherworldly power, divine or otherwise, is operating through this individual and, by proxy, has infiltrated the palace’s inner sanctums. This creates both mystery and suspense, and there is no small satisfaction had from watching the diabolical Kelmomas confronting a problem that confounds him.
Meanwhile, Fanayal has entered into a pact with Yatwer, the Goddess of earth and fertility, in the hope this will aid him in breaching Momemn’s walls. We see inside Fanayal’s camp through the eyes of Malowebi, a Schoolman answering to High Holy Zeum and attached to the invasion force as their diplomat.
Of the three characters situated in Momemn, I think Kelmomas and Malowebi’s scenes outshine Esmenet’s. Perhaps they are easier to identify with because their judgement is clearer. Kelmomas is involved in active pursuit of a mystery and Malowebi offers an objective viewpoint in Fanayal’s troubled encampment. Esmenet isn’t as easy to identify with, perhaps because we know Kelmomas is pulling the wool over her eyes and that she is oblivious to the dire affairs in her own house, such as the White-Luck Warrior’s bizarre behaviour. Her scenes are nonetheless compelling, even if some of the enjoyment springs from the dramatic irony of knowing how wrong she is about Kelmomas.
Kellhus and Proyas
Parallel to the above characters’ storylines, Kellhus leads the Great Ordeal into the north to strike at the No-God and the Inchoroi. His army, unified from various factions across the Three Seas, is waging a running war against a seething horde of bestial Sranc, degenerate creatures that rut with the dead and are aroused by slaughter. As the men of the Ordeal push mercilessly north, their food stores begin to dwindle until the only meat to hand are the carcasses of the massacred Sranc…
In The Great Ordeal, Kellhus is an even more inscrutable character than in some of the previous novels. His intentions and motivations are completely obscured, and the viewpoint character in these scenes is primarily Proyas, a Believer-King who is losing his faith in the Great Ordeal and the Aspect-Emperor himself.
Kellhus is one scary man. He now possesses monstrous mental and magical power. Combined with the cold, tactical mindset of his Dunyain training, he is an enigma who might just be the death of them all. Conversely, he is also the only hope the Three Seas has against the horrific No-God, Mog Pharau.
Bakker has elevated Kellhus to divine status. He is a character who truly cannot be understood by the mortals who worship him. Much of Proyas’s angst stems from his crisis of faith and in his inability to truly understand the man who is leading them all to either salvation or damnation. Goaded continually by Saubon, his fellow Believer-King, Proyas knows that he must maintain his faith in order to lead his men. And lead his men he must, because to reach Golgotterath, the Great Ordeal will have to first crush the Sranc horde at the Urrokkas Mountains.
Proyas’s sections are as much about the day-to-day struggle of men at war as they are about his internal strife. Through him, we witness the privations, the death, and the creeping taint of savagery that infects the Ordeal’s ranks as they carry out their relentless campaign. Every day, they battle the limitless legions of Sranc, meeting savagery with savagery, the moral line between them and their enemy diminishing with each blood-drenched yard they push toward Golgotterath.
Sorweel, a hostage in everything but name, is journeying with Kellhus’s children, Serwa and Moenghus, to the Nonman mansion of Ishterebinth. Unbeknownst to his erstwhile jailors, he is an agent of the goddess Yatwer, who is seeking Kellhus’s destruction.
When they arrive, the three travellers find a decaying subterranean labyrinth ravaged by the Nonman plague called the Dolour, whose main symptoms manifest as a form of paranoia and dementia. Ishterebinth is a fallen place, steeped in ageless horror. A vast pit plumbs it to the core, and at the bottom dwell those Nonmen who have fallen so far into the Dolour as to be unfit to reside in the upper reaches. Only a few of those unaffected by the Dolour – the Intact – remain to oversee the mansion.
The king of Ishterebinth, Nil’giccas, is himself hardly a model for strength of spirit. He is a most unsettling individual, given to ladling an oily liquid over his golden armour for some arcane medicinal or spiritual purpose. Sorweel, unfortunately, is at his mercy. He finds himself left to the whims of Ishterebinth’s corrupt officialdom, unsure of whom to trust, unable to tell friend from foe. In the political spheres of Ishterebinth, hidden power plays are in motion and some in the higher castes are seeking to wield Sorweel for their own advantage. Worse, if what he fears is true, then the dread Inchoroi, the occupants of the infamous Ark itself, have already managed to gain a foothold in Ishterebinth.
This city stands so close to where the Ark fell that its innards are cleaved and ruptured by the catastrophic impact. The Inchoroi themselves, the occupants of the dread Ark, are a distant memory to Men but, in the labyrinthine recesses of Ishterebinth and amongst the Intact Nonmen who have kept their sanity over the long centuries, the horrors of the First Apocalypse are still in living memory. Although Men have been complacent about the return of the Inchoroi, Sorweel is beginning to suspect that a faction of the Nonmen have instead been complicit. And if a faction have entered into an unholy pact with the ‘Vile’, as he calls the Consult and Inchoroi, then he is in very great danger indeed.
Achamian and Mimara
Achamian and Mimara, who is Esmenet’s daughter, finally reach Ishual, the home of the Dunyain. This is Kellhus’s birthplace and Achamian hopes to discover the truth about Kellhus and his origins. What he finds instead is death and ruin, for the Sranc and their allies have put the whole place to the torch. In the ruins, Achamian and Mimara discover a yawning hole lined with the bones of Sranc. The Dunyain, it appears, have beat a fighting retreat deep into the maze of tunnels under Ishual, extracting a ruinous toll on the invaders while retreating ever deeper into the maze.
Achamian and Mimara descend into the musty slaughterhouse, the last stand of the Dunyain, searching for survivors and for the truth about Kellhus. And deep beneath Ishual, they will indeed learn some of those harsh truths they seek.
The Final Judgement
While comparisons with The Lord of the Rings are invariably made whenever a fantasy work begets this sort of grand scale, Bakker’s work defies such comparisons because it is so different as to stand outside the yardsticks Tolkien’s work created. What sets these books apart is not just the world-building but also the intensity. In my opinion, there isn’t a single scene in The Great Ordeal that is flat. Every scene is fraught with tension or angst.
This novel is not processed pap that tries to appease everyone. Hell, there’s enough of that stuff floating around already. This is hard-as-nails storytelling that carves its own trail through the wilds and defies conventions.
If you’re a fan, you’ll still be a fan when you finish The Great Ordeal. But if you didn’t like The Darkness that Comes Before, well, sad to say you’re not going to like this either.
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