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Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker

Posted by on Jul 26, 2017 in Blog Posts, Book Reviews | 0 comments

The Great Ordeal–penultimate volume of the Aspect Emperor No-Longer-A-Trilogy, the conclusion of which, The Unholy Consultwas released yesterday–is not only a compelling novel but also very useful as a physical object. A nine-inch by six-inch by three-inch rectangle with the words THE GREAT ORDEAL across the front in an emphatic font is basically the world’s best portable Demotivator.

If this doesn’t put your problems in perspective, I feel very sorry for you.

I read this book at the tail end of 2016.  Which was not, by any possible standards, a great year. Everything I put my hand to that December felt like…well, an ordeal. So the cover of this book provided me with a very real sense of solidarity. The rest of my family got a kick out of it, too.

The book itself, though, proved helpful in getting me to forget all the real-life grimness by diving into some fantasy grimness instead. Grimdark by R. Scott Bakker has an amazing aesthetic: bizarre, horrific, beautiful, and on an unparalleled scale.

Speaking of scale: yes, the final story of the Aspect Emperor was divided in two, kind of like a YA movie series. My reading list is already over 300 titles long, so this could have been annoying. But I’m not disappointed. It’s certainly a long series, but the individual books are more in the 400-600 page range than 700+, and the wordcount doesn’t seem wasted.

That said, there is some feeling that the climax of The Great Ordeal could have happened at the midpoint of a longer novel. Most of the book is dedicated to moving people around. Yet getting to their ultimate positions is no slog. The story is vast and slow-moving, but on every page there are pyrotechnics of language, uncanny details, and a sweeping sense of history that carries it all forward. And I was glad to go along.

The first major movement is the march of the Great Ordeal towards Golgotterath and the (surely inevitable, if slow to approach) showdown with the Unholy Consult and the No-God. The other is my personal favorite: young Believer-King Sorweel and Kellhus’s sorceress daughter Serwa are sent on a diplomatic mission to the Nonman Mansion of Ishterebinth. It doesn’t go well, at least not by the usual diplomatic standards, but Sorweel undergoes a journey into the uttermost depths of the Mansion–the foundations of an inhuman city that has stood for millennia, and been slowly dying for most of that time. Yet even the tormented half-life lingering in its halls is better than the damnation that awaits the entire population once they do pass on. The abandoned Mansion that Achamian and his mercenaries explored in the first book was awesome enough, with its vastness, its alien archaeology, the hints of half-forgotten history, and the metaphysical horror of the topos. Ishterebinth is even better slash worse. Awesome and awful go together a lot in this series. But it’s undeniably stylish.

When you step back, so much of The Great Ordeal seems to be description. Descriptions of the Ordeal crawling across the northern plains, descriptions of battles, descriptions of the Mansion, descriptions of the Dunyain stronghold that  Achamian and Mimara finally reach, and descriptions of the Empire that Esmenet desperately tries to keep from crumbling. Descriptions of Kellhus looking messianic and noble and dreadful. Descriptions of Kelmomas being whiny and sadistic. Yet, as Henry James says (yes, I’m quoting Henry James in this review), there is rarely “a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative.” The imagery sweeps us along, never static, never boring. The prose is vivid beyond belief–sometimes I’d stop to reread a sentence, because Bakker is using words in ways I’ve never seen people use them before, and yet they make sense and build a picture that is…well, mostly coherent. This series has fantastically talented fan artists, and I’m grateful because without them I’d never believe what the Inchoroi, for instance, look like.

And Achamian’s been dreaming about this stuff for decades. He’s amazingly well-adjusted, considering.

His subplot with Mimara–they’ve finally found the Dunyain, or what little is left of them–seems slower than the Ishterebinth and Ordeal plotlines. The characters are mostly just catching up to what the readers already know. The  Anasurimbor family back in the Three Seas are circling around, marking time to an incredibly destructive conclusion–and an appearance by one of the previously mentioned characters, who avoids being a deus ex machina for two reasons. One, a deus ex machina is supposed to fix things. Two, speaking of a “deus” in the context of this worldbuilding should provoke nothing but the grimmest, weariest laughter.

Previous books in this series could be approached like horror novels. The first trilogy always read to me as epic fantasy that was just a bit more honest about the blood and oppression involved in a hierarchical empire going on crusade than many such stories are. At this point, the Aspect Emperor trilogy deserves the epithet “grimdark” (it’s even advertised as such, so I guess it’s a compliment in some circles. I haven’t used it as a compliment before, but I don’t mean it as an insult here either). It’s no longer horror because I’m not scared for most of the characters. There’s some I even wish would meet a horrible fate sooner rather than later (just about any male in the Anasurimbor family, though for different reasons in each case). Others I vaguely feel for, like the general of the Ordeal who just about lives out the plot of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow at Kellhus’s hands.

(By the way, consider this a plug for The Sparrow. It was another book that put 2016 in perspective, and it handles trauma and loss of faith as well as encounters with the utterly alien with compassion, humor, and eloquence–in a way that will probably spoil any repetition of the experience for you. Spoil like a grandma with a five-pound bag of hard candy in need of sharing. But the candy is bittersweet. This metaphor is running away from me.)

I also feel sorry, most of all, for the ordinary people in this world. Their lives suck as if they’re trapped in an eternal 2016. But actually, speaking of eternal torment, is there a single named character in this series who isn’t damned? I mean literally doomed, forsaken by the gods, and in most–but poignantly, not all–cases deserving of it? I can handle morally complex characters, especially when they’re interesting to follow. And these certainly are. I don’t need to root for people necessarily. But I’d like to be able to root for something, some outcome in this fictional universe that is less awful than the alternatives. As the series draws on, I’m less certain that outcome exists. And why should I care about the outcome of the Great Ordeal or any event, if everyone involved will sooner or later meet their inescapable damnation?

At least that’s an interesting ethical question, and one presented with a certain nihilistic, hideous beauty.

 

Overall, The Great Ordeal the kind of experience that almost demands souvenirs.

You think I’m joking, but ask someone who’s read chapter two of The Unholy Consult

 

Before picking up The Unholy Consultcatch up with The Great Ordeal at:

Amazon 

iBooks

Barnes and Noble

My review of The Unholy Consult will appear soon.

 

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