It's been a long time coming. Truth to tell, it's been a VERY long time coming. More than five long years, to be exact. So you can imagine my pleasure when I finally received my advance reading copy of R. Scott Bakker's The Great Ordeal. Up until that point, given the fact that Orbit had yet to commit to the July pub date, I still harbored doubts as to whether or not this book would be published this summer. But now that I had an ARC, physical evidence that the book actually existed, things were looking up!
Like many Bakker fans, I wasn't happy to learn that the novel which was meant to be The Unholy Consult would have to be split into two installments. My biggest concern was that The Great Ordeal would simply be part 1 of 2, and not a work of fiction that would stand well on its own. I was secretly hoping that some of the delays were due to the fact that some chapters had been reshuffled and rewritten in order to create a better balance between the two volumes. After all, recent examples of fantasy novels split up unnecessarily (Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, and Robin Hobb's City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons come to mind) ended up being disappointments. Hence, my fear was that turning what was meant to be one novel into two separate books would hurt them both in the long run.
Sadly, I have to report that The Great Ordeal is indeed just part 1 of 2. Considering how long Bakker fans have had to wait to finally get our hands on this one, I can't help but feel disappointed by that fact. Don't get me wrong. The Great Ordeal definitely sets up what should be an unforgettable finale in The Unholy Consult. But as part 1 of 2, it doesn't stand well on its own. In my humble opinion, had it been released as planned The Unholy Consult would have been to Bakker what A Storm of Swords was to George R. R. Martin. It would have been the author's crowning achievement, his best work to date. A mindfuck of a book. Now imagine A Storm of Swords split into two volumes and having to wait at least a year to read the rest of the tale. Would part one have been that exceptional? Not by a long shot. . .
Moreover, if the cleavage had not forced the author to reshuffle and rewrite extensive portions of the original manuscript, then why did it take this long for The Great Ordeal to finally see the light? What became The Great Ordeal is essentially a rewrite that Bakker turned in at the end of 2013 to make the work more organic as a stand-alone. So why were we forced to wait till the summer of 2016 to see the book hit the shelves? Well, it appears that both Overlook and Orbit then needed to agree to renegotiate Bakker's contract to split The Unholy Consult into two volumes. And, contractually speaking, the entire process wasn't easy.
But the good news is that The Great Ordeal is now set to be published! And although there is no tentative release date for The Unholy Consult, this first installment is more than enough to whet everyone's appetite and have even hardcore Bakker fans foaming at the mouth at the thought of reading the sequel!
Here's the blurb:
The much-anticipated third installment of R. Scott Bakker’s acclaimed series, The Aspect-Emperor. Praised by fans and critics worldwide, R. Scott Bakker has become one of the most celebrated voices in fantasy literature. With The Great Ordeal, Bakker presents the long-anticipated third volume of The Aspect-Emperor, a series that stands with the finest in the genre for its grandiose scope, rich detail, and thrilling story. As Fanim war-drums beat just outside the city, the Empress Anasurimbor Esmenet searches frantically throughout the palace for her missing son Kelmomas. Meanwhile and many miles away, Esmenet’s husband’s Great Ordeal continues its epic march further north. But in light of dwindling supplies, the Aspect-Emperor’s decision to allow his men to consume the flesh of fallen Sranc could have consequences even He couldn’t have foreseen. And, deep in Ishuäl, the wizard Achamian grapples with his fear that his unspeakably long journey might be ending in emptiness, no closer to the truth than when he set out. The Aspect-Emperor series follows Bakker’s Prince of Nothing saga, returning to the same world twenty years later. The Great Ordeal follows The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior, and delivers the first half of the conclusion to this epic story. Returning to Bakker’s richly imagined universe of myth, violence, and sorcery, The Aspect-Emperor continues to set the bar for the fantasy genre, reaching new heights of intricacy and meaning.
When it came out, The Judging Eye had all the hallmarks which made the first trilogy such a great reading experience, minus what many considered its shortcomings. Personally, I felt that it featured R. Scott Bakker writing at the top of his game. However, many fans opined that the philosophical aspects and the inner musings were what essentially made the Prince of Nothing stand out from the rest of the SFF pack, and were thus a bit disappointed by the first volume in The Aspect-Emperor series. In terms of style and tone, The White-Luck Warrior was somewhat in between the Prince of Nothing and The Judging Eye. Stylistically, The Great Ordeal is more akin to the second volume than the first installment. This works well for the most part, though it does affect the rhythm of the narrative in certain portions of the novel.
I have come to expect no less, and the worldbuilding is once again top notch. Bakker's richly detailed narrative creates an imagery that virtually leaps off the page. The Middle Eastern setting of the western Three Seas remains a welcome change from the usual generic medieval environments found in most fantasy sagas. As he did in both The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior, the author takes us to new unexplored locales. After his evocative depictions of the wastes of the Istyuli Plains, the primeval forest known as the Mop, and the ruined remains of Kûniüri, this time around Bakker takes us through Aörsi, as the Great Ordeal marches across the Erengaw Plains and the Urokkas range, on their way to Dagliash. Add to that the mysteries of Ishuäl and the Nonmen capital of Ishterebinth, and all of these revelations continue to make the universe of Eärwa resound with depth. Indeed, Bakker's creations remains head and shoulder above all other SFF settings on the market today, second only to Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan universe. In addition, kudos to the author for including a much-needed 27-page "What has gone before" section to help refresh our memories before tackling this one.
As I mentioned above and as was the case in The White-Luck Warrior, the pace is an issue in certain portions of the book. The Great Ordeal features four distinct story arcs: the New Empire, the Great Ordeal, Ishterebinth, and Ishuäl and its aftermath. Interestingly enough, the New Empire plotline, the one focusing on the events occurring in Momemn and the western Three Seas, which was much better paced than the others in the second volume, is the one that truly drags for the better part of this novel. As far as the other three storylines are concerned, their rhythm is fluid enough. Bakker's books have never been called fast-paced affairs, but like The Thousandfold Thought this one is a page-turner. One can feel the end approaching, with the culmination of a vast tapestry to threads coming together over the course of two captivating series.
The New Empire arc once again features the POVs of Esmenet, Kelmomas, the White-Luck Warrior, and Malowebi. With the Fanim army at the gates of Momemn, one would have thought that this plotline would show the most progress. But it was not to be. The Great Ordeal begins where The White-Luck Warrior ended, right after Maithanet's murder, and it shows a lot of promise early on. I know a lot of fans are looking forward to discovering what will take place with Meppa, the last remaining Cishaurim, and the enigmatic White-Luck Warrior, now that he has gained the Empress' trust. Truth be told, this storyline pretty much goes nowhere until its last chapter. Then all hells break loose and Bakker closes the show of that particular arc with a bang. Problem is, with this being the first part of a larger tale, this means that it ends in a huge cliffhanger. As a rule, I don't like cliffhangers. Even less when we are talking about a "Is Jon Snow dead?" sort of cliffhanger.
The Great Ordeal mostly features the POV of Nersei Proyas, but we also get the perspective of Exalt-General Saubon. Some portions of the narrative, especially those dealing with the march and the battles, as well as those extrapolating on the consequences of eating Sranc, are written through the eye of a neutral narrator. This will undoubtedly come as a pleasant surprise to many, but Kellhus, the Aspect-Emperor, is also a POV character. Albeit briefly, but we take what we can get! The relationship between Kellhus and Proyas will take an unexpected turn, one that can have important repercussions down the line. This is the only arc that offers anything that resembles resolution. There is indeed an ending of sorts, one that marks a new beginning for the vast army marching toward Golgotterath. And for those who, like me, were hoping to see more of the Consult, I'm sad to report that we will have to wait for The Unholy Consult. . .
The Ishterebinth storyline, though slow-moving, is by far the most fascinating. It features the POV of Varalt Sorweel for the most part, but we also get the perspective of Serwa, Grandmistress of the Swayal Sisterhood, from time to time. All the revelations pertaining to the Nonmen were engrossing, even if they raise more questions than they provide answers. This arc opens the door to a lot of things to come, but unfortunately it also ends in a cliffhanger.
The Ishuäl storyline features the POVs of Achamian, Mimara, and another character which must remain anonymous for now. Although it is the shortest as far as the page count is concerned, it is the one that offers the most "fuck me" moments. Especially the one near the end, which hits you like an uppercut and will blow your mind! As was the case in the second volume, Mimara's point of view allows readers to learn more about how the Judging Eye works. This strange magical gift will have great and unexpected repercussions throughout the book. Even if it was all too brief, in my opinion, based on how it begins and how it ends, this was the best arc of The Great Ordeal.
I'm aware that R. Scott Bakker did his very best to make the book more organic as a stand-alone so that it could stand well on its own merit. Unfortunately, The Great Ordeal will never be more than the first part of what should have been one amazing novel. With arbitrary endings that offer little or no resolution to its main story arcs and with many important characters presumed dead, the cliffhangers are more than a little frustrating. The more so because Overlook and Orbit have yet to offer any tentative release date for The Unholy Consult, which means that it's unclear whether or not they are planning to release the second part of this tale in the near future. Having said that, I'll be lining up to read this last installment, which will trump whatever else I'll be reading as soon as the ARC shows up in my mailbox.
Though the cliffhanger endings can be off-putting, everything hints at an astonishing and world-shaking finale to come. Time will tell, but I believe that The Unholy Consult as it was meant to be published would have been R. Scott Bakker's most impressive work to date. And even if on its own The Great Ordeal cannot hope to live up to the hype, it is nevertheless a compelling read that sets the stage for everything Bakker fans have been hoping for for so many years! The author has strategically positioned all his game pieces on the board and everything is now in place for a memorable final installment!
Onward to Golgotterath. Death will come swirling down, I guarantee it!