The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker, published by The Overlook Press July 5 2016, is the third book of the author’s “Aspect-Emperor” series. It sets the stage for the conclusion of events he first began depicting in “The Prince of Nothing” trilogy – the world of The Three Seas verging of the precipice of the Second Apocalypse.
The first series depicted the rise of Anasurimbor Kellus to the position of Aspect Emperor and the first stages of his conquest of The Three Seas. We learned of the world’s history and the various players who would shape the course of events for the decades to come. Most importantly we came to understand the history of the name Anasurimbor, and how, according to the teachings of The Mandate School of sorcery (or schoolmen as they are known in this world) it was steeped in dread and wonder. For it had been foretold the name was a harbinger of the Second Apocalypse and the rise of the Mandate’s ancient enemy The Consult.
In the first two books of the “Aspect-Emperor” series, The Judging Eye and The White Luck Warrior we witnessed the beginnings of the Kellus’ war on The Consult in an attempt to prevent their domination of man. With an army composed of hundreds of thousands he sets out to conquer Golgotterath, the home of The Consult. To accomplish this they must travel beyond the known lands through territory controlled by Sranc – semi-human creations of The Consult who feed on human flesh.
In The Great Ordeal we not only find Kellus’ army dealing with the constant grind of fighting a running battle against the Sranc and a lack of supplies, we see how his enemies in the heart of his empire are trying to take advantage of his absence by attacking the capital of his empire. This book also continues the quest of his first teacher, Drusas Achamian – a former Mandate schoolman – to discredit the emperor by discovering his true origins. Accompanying Achamian is Kellus’ step-daughter, Mimara, who is equally determined to bring Kellus to heel for her own reasons.
Finally Bakker also takes into the heart of ancient history – the kingdom of the Nomen. They are the world’s original inhabitants who after thousands of years of life have slipped into a type of madness. In order to win their allegiance against The Consult Kellus sent them one of his daughters, one of his sons, and the king of one of the realms he conquered as hostages.
Bakker does a magnificent job of maintaining all four story lines. He transports us from the horrors of the battle field to the intrigues of the palace in capital city of Kellus’ empire with ease. He has the uncanny ability to set a scene with such minimal effort there is nothing jarring about these transitions. Whether we’re travelling through desolate wilderness with Achamian and Mimara or descending into the pits delved by the Nomen in their mountain home, we are instantly acclimatized to the location and what’s taking place.
Bakker’s use of language is equally as stunning as his storytelling ability. While he sometimes describes horrors that could push one to the limits of their sanity, he does so in a manner which gives them the power of myth. We feel like we’ve walked into one of the great sagas of our world’s history and are witnessing the deeds and thoughts of people almost beyond our ken.
However, he also has the knack of bringing us up close and personal with each of his characters. The result is we witness and experience events through the eyes of men and women who are every bit as real as we are. We share their innermost thoughts and feelings – including their hopes and fears – to such an extent we can almost believe what they describe is taking place.
He has created a world of magic, wonder, and horror; yet one that is also all too familiar. For it is dominated by religious wars, political and personal ambitions, and the cruelties, personal and otherwise, humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Even the rhetoric spoken by Kellus and other leaders contains eerie echoes of words we have heard, and continue to hear, in our own world.
This series explores human behaviour in ways few epic fantasies have dared in the past. Not only do we witness the depths of depravity which we are capable of stooping to, we hear the words and thoughts granting permission for these acts. While each of the lead characters do anguish over their decisions, they all, in the end, acquiesce to the notion of the ends justifying the means. At the end of the day we have a hard time distinguishing who, if anyone, is a hero.
In The Great Ordeal Bakker has continued to expand upon what he first started six books ago. In the process he’s brought to life characters who are both human and compelling, created a world that for all its differences bears a remarkable resemblance to our own, and a sprawling epic tale of the grandest type. Bakker’s work carries on the epic story telling tradition established with Homer and the tales of Rama from the Indian sub-continent. Amazingly he is not out of place in this illustrious company.