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Roger E. Eichorn's Blog: Fantasy, Philosophy, and whatever else I feel like writing about
Scheduled for release in the United States on July 12, R. Scott Bakker’s The Great Ordeal is the third installment in The Aspect-Emperor series, which is a continuation, set nineteen years later, of Bakker’s earlier Prince of Nothing trilogy. Bakker, as well as his fans, refer to the story as a whole as The Second Apocalypse, though the title is (as of now) unofficial.
The Prince of Nothing
- Book 1: The Darkness That Comes Before
- Book 2: The Warrior-Prophet
- Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought
- Book 1: The Judging Eye
- Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior
- Book 3: The Great Ordeal
It is important to bear in mind that the two series are indeed a single monumental narrative. Readers would be nearly as ill-advised to begin with the first book of The Aspect-Emperor as to begin with The Great Ordeal. Too much has already happened—a fact underscored, perhaps to excess, in the laborious “previously on…” section that opens the book. This recap, entitled “What has come before,” clocks in at over 11,000 words. It is, to put it mildly, exhaustive—as well as potentially exhausting. Still, even readers coming directly to The Great Ordeal from its lead-in, The White-Luck Warrior, are likely to benefit from the recap’s distillation of the many-faceted story, though perhaps not enough to justify its length.
Each of Bakker’s fantasy novels (after the first one) begins with a similarly extensive recap, but the practice is especially needful now, given that five years have passed since the appearance of The White-Luck Warrior. (Compare that to the two-year gap between The White-Luck Warrior and the previous volume, The Judging Eye, or the three-year gap between that book and the final volume of The Prince of Nothing trilogy. Remarkably, however, even given the five-year wait for The Great Ordeal, Bakker has managed to produce his entire series so far in the time it took George R.R. Martin to follow up with Tyrion Lannister after the events of A Storm of Swords! ) From what I understand, the delay was due partly to artistic considerations (that is, Bakker’s determination to get the story right) and partly to complications with his publishers.
Thankfully, none of that matters now, since The Great Ordeal has at last arrived.
Half a Book?
It is not, however, the book as Bakker initially envisioned it. As with The Prince of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor series was conceived of as a trilogy. As happens so often with epic fantasies, “the story grew in the telling.” Ultimately, Bakker decided to split the final volume of the erstwhile trilogy in two. The Great Ordeal will be followed next summer by The Unholy Consult. The books were written as one, but clocking in at around 170k words, The Great Ordeal is more than hefty enough to stand on its own and fits comfortably within the word-count range of the other volumes composing The Second Apocalypse. (Bakker’s fantasy novels range from 140k words to a bit over 200k, further proof that the depth and richness of a fantasy world cannot be measured by the number of words lavished upon its description. )
More important than length, however, is narrative cohesion, what we might call the ‘standalone quotient’: the extent to which a single volume of a multi-volume work proves satisfying on its own. When a work written as a single novel is split in two, it is natural to fear that the first part will prove a letdown. Films such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Parts 1 and 2) provide excellent examples. George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows also suffers from being, in its own way, only half of what had been envisioned as a single novel.
I am pleased to report, then, that The Great Ordeal stands on its own at least as well as do any of the other novels in The Second Apocalypse—which is to say, very well. There is no sense that the book cuts off arbitrarily. Does it leave readers wanting more? Does it end on a series of cliffhangers? Yes and yes. But the same can be said of The White-Luck Warrior—indeed, even more so, perhaps. The sense of having arrived somewhere pervades the final chapters of The Great Ordeal in a way that is rivalled in Bakker’s series only by the ending of The Thousandfold Thought. (In this I find myself disagreeing with Pat from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. ) Does The Great Ordeal function as a set-up for The Unholy Consult? Yes, of course—but no more, arguably, than The White-Luck Warrior functions as a set-up for The Great Ordeal.
This much seems right to me about Pat’s contention that The Great Ordeal reads like “part 1 of 2”: I suspect that, when it is finally complete, The Aspect-Emperor will divide fairly neatly between the first two and the final two books, meaning that I can imagine it as a duology of doorstoppers rather than as a quartet of shorter books. The hinge, appropriately enough, is the “Interlude” that ends The White-Luck Warrior, in which the quest for Ishuäl undertaken by Achamian and Mimara finally reaches its goal. It was this quest that formed the narrative spine of The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior. Now, with The Great Ordeal, the center shifts elsewhere.
In retrospect, the first two installments can to a large extent be seen as given over to setting up the ‘benjuka plate’ (a reference to the fascinating, enigmatic game that is Bakker’s answer to Martin’s game of cyvasse). It is only now, with the third installment of the series, that the game begins to be played in earnest. And as in benjuka, whose defining characteristic is the fact that moves within the game have the power to alter the rules that govern the game itself (the ‘Inside’ determining the ‘Outside,’ as it were), a number of ‘rules’ established in earlier volumes are overthrown as the events of the novel play out. This transformation occurs at both the personal level, as characters are forced to come to grips with deeply unsettling revelations, and at the global level. As one of the characters says to another at a pivotal moment: “Everything I have taught you is a lie.” Some revelations expand upon what we already know; others, however, force us to abandon what we merely thought we knew.
Only now is the tragic, harrowing truth of the world of The Second Apocalypse beginning to come into focus.
The Return of Kellhus
The shift between the first two installments of The Aspect-Emperor and the final two is signaled by the abrupt return, in Chapter 1, of the viewpoint of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the Aspect-Emperor (and erstwhile Prince of Nothing) himself. His relative absence, and the utter absence of his viewpoint, in The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior left hanging a number of pressing questions. Kellhus is Dûnyain: a being outwardly human, but inwardly alien, due both to training and to a heritage rooted in two-thousand years of genetic engineering (reminiscent of the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit in the Dune series). When we first met him in The Darkness That Comes Before, Kellhus was a being of ruthless scientific intellect, utterly committed to the central principle of the Logos, namely, that what comes before determines what comes after, always and everywhere, i.e., that the world is, as we might say, mechanistic from top to bottom. How, then, does such a being come to grips with the fact of a fully enchanted world, a fact that he apparently embraces by the end of The Thousandfold Thought? As Kellhus says to his father at the climax of The Prince of Nothing: “I am more” than a Dûnyain.
But what does that mean?
The first Dûnyain, refugees of the Apocalypse, had shunned their own history as well as any contact with the outside world two-thousand years before: they “chisseled the sorcerous runes from the walls and burned the Grand Vizier’s books.” By Kellhus’s time, the Dûnyain knew nothing of sorcery or the gods. “The Dûnyain,” Kellhus’s father tells him in The Thousandfold Thought, “think the world closed, that the mundane is all there is, and in this they are most certainly wrong.” Their most conspicuous oversight is the existence of sorcery. But in itself, sorcery does not contradict the causal principle of the Logos: in itself, it is just another cause that comes before—though it does, admittedly, intimate troubling possibilities at odds with the Dûnyain’s mechanistic conception of the world.
“There’s more, Father,” Kellhus insists. “You’re Cishaurim [i.e., a sorcerer]. You must know this.” But his father responds, “I have searched, for nearly the length of your entire life, and I have found nothing that contradicts the Principle.”
It is not sorcery, but prophecy that would directly overthrow the Logos: the possibility that what comes after determines what comes before. If prophecy is real, or even just possible, then what are the conditions of its possibility?
In The White-Luck Warrior, we are introduced to a being, born of the goddess Yatwer, who possesses the ‘white-luck,’ the ‘unerring grace’ according to which he is always exactly where he needs to be in order to accomplish exactly what the goddess intends for him to accomplish. We are shown the White-Luck Warrior’s viewpoint, one that hangs somehow outside of time. The causal structure of the world as understood by the Dûnyain simply has no place in the White-Luck Warrior’s experience, for he (presumably) experiences his existence in a way akin to how that existence is viewed by the gods, who dwell in the Outside, the utter Beyond.
Consider further that, sometime during the nineteen years that separate The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor, Kellhus, using the Anagogic sorcery (the Diamos) that brought a demon into the world from the Outside at the end of The Thousandfold Thought, actually visited the Outside. There, he killed two demons, whose desiccated (though still masticating) heads he wears on his belt.  It stands to reason, then, that perhaps Kellhus has some understanding of the world as experienced by the White-Luck Warrior, even if he does not (cannot) experience the world that way himself.
Just as the Dûnyains’ experience of themselves and the world is truer than that of the ‘worldborn’—that is, people like you and me—perhaps the White-Luck Warrior’s experience is truer than that of the Dûnyain.
When one of his generals asks him, upon his return with the heads, what he found in the Outside, Kellhus responds: “There are two species of revelation, my old friend. Those that seize, and those that are seized. The first are the province of the priest, the latter belong to the sorcerer.” Perhaps this refers, at least in part, to the revelation of the truth of the world as experienced by the White-Luck Warrior: it cannot seize us, in the sense of overtaking our experience, but it can be seized—by a sorcerer.
The Prince of Nothing and the first two volumes of The Aspect-Emperor leave us with the question of what Kellhus has become, what it is to be more than (not less than, not different from) a Dûnyain. With the return of Kellhus’s viewpoint in The Great Ordeal, we at last begin to get some answers.
The Devil In the Details
The greatest strength of Bakker’s series has always been the world-building.
It is a cliché to compare contemporary epic-fantasy authors to Tolkien, but the fact remains that the depth and richness of Tolkien’s made-up world is, in many respects, unparalleled, and likely to remain so. He is, then, a useful yardstick, even putting aside his vast influence on the genre. But we must try to be clear on just what Tolkien’s accomplishment consists in. For most fantasy authors, the ultimate goal in world-building is not to create a fantasy world for its own sake, but to create a compelling and immersive setting for whatever story they want to tell. For Tolkien (as is well-known), it was the other way around. The Lord of the Rings was written against the backdrop of a lifetime’s worth of world-building. Authors writing in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings generally try to reverse-engineer the effects Tolkien achieves by virtue of the decades he spent developing Middle-earth and, before that, Beleriand and, before that… all the way back to the shaping of Arda and still earlier, to Eru’s creation of the Ainur, “the offspring of his thought” (The Silmarillion, 15).
Doing so is incredibly difficult, however. One technique to plug the ‘depth’ gap involves drawing on readers’ familiarity with Tolkien: to the extent that a subsequent author’s world resembles Middle-earth, she can hope to capture some reflected resonances. Another technique involves jury-rigging the surface of the text in hopes of generating the illusion of a depth and richness comparable to what one finds in Tolkien. This tends to lead to a proliferation of proper names, historico-mythological allusions, etc. But all too often the shallowness of the world shows through regardless. In some way that is at least prereflectively mysterious (I don’t claim to understand it despite years of reflection on it), the great depths of the ocean can sometimes be seen on its surface; no shallows can capture the effect.
The most common way that a fantasy world’s shallowness makes itself felt is when its pieces lack a sense of cohesion, a sense of hanging together organically. There is an arbitrary, or ad hoc, feel to worlds such as one finds in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Despite clocking in at nearly 4.5 million words, the world of The Wheel of Time cannot compete in depth and richness with that of The Lord of the Rings, a story that is nine times shorter! It is worth pondering how this is possible, just how Tolkien did it (that is, how he achieved his effects when we consider Lord of the Rings on its own).
Part of the answer, I think, has to do with creating a sense of unity in multiplicity, the sense (again) that the various details of the world hang together organically. One way to achieve this is a posteriori, as it were—that is, one can develop the details of the world with an eye toward ‘discovering’ its unity. Another way is, as it were, a priori: to approach the development of the world with an already-formed vision of how the world functions at the most fundamental, metaphysical levels. (These techniques are not mutually exclusive, of course.)
I want to suggest that Bakker’s monumental achievement in The Second Apocalypse results from the large-scale unity of detail afforded by his vision of the metaphysical structure of his world, combined with a set of commitments (to, for instance, a limited materialism ) that help to determine the consequences of events that unfold in that world. Beginning the process of world-building a priori, not a posteriori—that is, before the details emerge, not after—allowed Bakker to erect a solid framework within which the great, many-colored histories of Eärwa play out.
Moreover, the metaphysics of Bakker’s world also grounds the series’ central themes, all of which turn on issues of agency, the place of the ‘human’ (broadly construed, in this case) in a world that is at once structured by a network of causes—a fact exploited by the Dûnyain—and somehow responsive to, or shaped by, otherworldly supernatural forces—a fact exploited by, for example, Psatma Nannaferi, Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer. These themes play out, naturally enough, through the characters, all of whom wrestle in their various ways with themselves, with what the onslaught of circumstance has made of them. The question is: What does it all mean? The central thematic tension of The Second Apocalypse is, as Bakker put it in a recent interview, “the problem of ourselves,” of how we fit into the world, of who we are, of what our lives mean, if they mean anything at all.
These reflections shed a light on why I say that the greatest strength of Bakker’s series is the world-building: for I see virtually everything that happens in the books, from the world-historical to the most intimately personal, as expressions of the vision encoded in the very metaphysics of Eärwa itself.
Narratively, the great trick that Bakker has accomplished with his world-building is to gradually reveal not just details (new locations, new characters, new insights into existing locations or existing characters), but fundamental facts about the world itself. In Heideggerian terms, Bakker’s narrative offers not just ontic (worldly, ‘thingly’) revelations, but also ontological revelations, that is, revelations about the very structure of reality itself, of that which frames the ontic (i.e., the worldly details). I could put the point this way: as the series progresses, the world expands not just horizontally, but vertically as well.
Though it is set up in earlier books, particularly those of The Aspect-Emperor series, The Great Ordeal treats us to a radical ‘vertical expansion’ of an already deep and rich world.
The Great Ordeal is possibly the best entry in the series so far. It expands the world, both horizontally and vertically. It begins to provide answers to the riddle that is Kellhus. It also throws a light back upon the previous two books, lifting them considerably in my estimation. On top of it all, The Great Ordeal showcases what may very well be the largest-scale, most devastating battle scene ever depicted in the genre.
In sum, Bakker’s latest is both harrowing and thrilling, often simultaneously. The final chapters are among the most propulsive he’s ever written; they’ll leave you breathless. They certainly left me gasping.
I have never—to adapt a line spoken by one of the characters—seen a world so damned… and I, for one, can’t look away, nor do I want to.
Onward to Golgotterath!
For the record
I am friends with Scott Bakker. My name has appeared in the acknowledgments for some of the books in The Second Apocalypse, and Scott even dedicated The White-Luck Warrior to me. But my appreciation of Scott’s work came before our friendship. Also—you have no reason to believe me, but…—I am virtually incapable of hollow flattery, no matter how self-serving it might be to dish it up. (Just ask my dissertation committee!)
I admit, however, that this review is biased—but the same is true of any and all reviews. The only way to judge the accuracy or impartiality of what I’ve written here is to go buy the books and read them for yourself. I very much hope you do so.
 Bakker’s first novel appeared in 2003. A Storm of Swords came out in 2000, thirteen years before A Dance With Dragons. (Yes, yes, Martin did manage to put out A Feast for Crows in the interim, but my point stands.)
 Compare Bakker’s numbers to, say, A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, each of which clocks in at well over 400k words. The Prince of Nothing trilogy, by contrast, is only around 520k words all together, putting it in the same ballpark, in terms of length, as The Lord of the Rings (though Tolkien’s epic is even shorter).
 I do not disagree with Pat’s claim that the book might have been better—at least in the sense of more impressive, more satisfying on its own, etc.—had it included The Unholy Consult. But that is just to say that The Aspect-Emperor series as a whole is bound to prove more satisfying than one of its middle volumes. The Great Ordeal is not, as Pat puts it, “part 1 of 2”; rather, it is (and I should think this quite obvious) part 3 of 4.
 See The White-Luck Warrior, 362–3.
 Consider, for example, the Nonmen. They are immortal, but still material. As such, their brains have finite memory-storage capacity. Thus, they cannot remember the distant past in the unproblematic way that, say, Elrond recalls the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.