(Contains spoilers of previous books in the series – does anybody state this?)
R Scott Bakker’s series
The Great Ordeal (TGO) is the third book in the second series of R Scott Bakker’s apocalypse-based fantasy series, and he’s an author I’ve been reading for many years. If you’re new to his works, the word ‘grim’ comes to mind. None of these books are for the faint hearted, in particular TGO. The fantasy world is one of warring peoples, showing extreme cynicism and hostility towards one another, in general, and when peoples are united against a common foe it would be too light hearted to use the word ‘co-operation’.
The Great Ordeal
TGO is set in the second series, Aspect-Emperor, at a time when the great host are marching north to circumvent a second apocalypse foreseen by Kellhus Anasurimbor, the Aspect-Emperor. Kellhus decreed they had to eat their enemy for sustenance – the monstrous and lusty Sranc. The masses of enemy no longer look formidable, and the men conquer with eagerness, roasting them on fires, making jokes; and showing the usual disregard one can expect. Quite apart from the physical act of devouring, this brings out strange behaviours in the characters that aren’t really resolved. There are questions raised about Kellhus’ holiness, and how his generals can be happy with Kellhus’ doubt.
As with all of author R Scott Bakker’s books, there are a whole host of other things going on: a witch bent on killing the Anasurimbor family, a demon child, the immortal Nonmen switching allegiances, the truth behind the mind-reading Dunyain, and the advent of a Second Apocalypse. At their best you have an immensely rich world with intelligent characters surviving the most inhumane things, and at their worst you have factions, subplots, and confusion: meanings within meanings within meanings.
As with all of the books in both series, I was addicted. With abject horror, I had to know what would happen next. What would the truth be? Would this character die? My favourite character is the sorcerer Drusas Achamian. He has a balanced view on things, despite his weariness, and his awkwardness and frailty are oddly absurd in the cruel world. He’s every bit as human as the reader – I’d hope – swinging in extremes of emotion and taking vantage where he can. And let’s face it, we must feel sorry for him by now. He’s been beaten, witnessed horrors in the First Holy War, had his woman taken from him and impregnated by the super-human Kellhus, and then he’s betrayed again in the last book.
It’s Sorweel, again, my least favourite character, the king-without-a-backbone. Whereas in the last book I took objection to his uncertain loyalties and his indecisiveness, this time I felt he was completely absent of personality; he was a pair of eyes digesting past characters and structures and sometimes the irrelevance was a bit much. This time the author has done something else clever with him to get around the weak character. That being said, the description and atmosphere was amazing in these scenes.
I wasn’t too excited about the travails of the lesser characters in the great host and their feats of masculinity and daring. And I did feel the end of the book was a bit choppy. I didn’t know exactly what was happening and of its relevance; it went by quickly, though on the other hand, it was extremely exciting.
I would have liked to have rated TGO more highly being part of one of my favourite series. There were engrossing chapters and then ones noted above that I wasn’t as keen on where I felt disconnected from the story. Overall, I did enjoy the book thoroughly for its addictive quality, and I will be reading the next!