The Great Ordeal
By Scott Bakker
“There is no such man as Anasurimbor Kellus... No such Prophet. Only an intricate web of deceptions and stratagems... bound by one inexorable and as you know, quite ruthless- principle”
Anasurimbor Kayutas page 340
Scott Bakker is the best writer I review that my readers also hate. Well, a good number of them anyway. The complaint is usually that his work is to dark and to grim. It's a fair point, as Mr. Bakker's work is exceedingly dark and on many levels. When I read his work, I imagine him as someone who has studied the ancient world, understands how it worked, and in a way committed himself to rubbing his readers face in the more unpleasant truths of the world of antiquity. I say that because while in the first trilogy cribbed deeply from the events of the 1st Crusade, the wars between Islam and Christianity, and the world that those events took place in; the people in are people of the ancient era. To be fair the men and women of the medieval era would have a lot more in common with the pagans of old Rome than they would 21st century Europeans and Americans (or Canadians, Australians, New Zealand and the other far flung outposts of the west). Many of these characters, magic aside, could fit themselves into a story about Caesar or Alexander with ease. Hell! Kellus could be Alexander with ease. He is after all a man who has conquered the entire known world and taken the greatest army in history off the very edges of the map. He is a man who has risen himself up to be worshiped as a god. He is the most powerful man in the world and he may be utterly mad.
Insanity drips from this story and plays a part in each story-line; from Sorweel, chosen of the goddess of birth and fertility to kill Kellus, who is sent as a hostage to the non-men of Ishterebinth. Ishterebinth is the last fortress of a doomed race (the non men as some of you might remember were a pre-human race that fought the bad guys before human civilization. The bad guys lost the war but won the peace by offering to make the non-men immortal. Which they did, they also killed every female member of the non-men race). For while the Non-Men are immortal, their minds are not able to cope with thousands of years of memories and loses. I invite you to imagine for a moment losing every woman you know and care for and having to spend centuries locked in an endless war with numberless enemies; knowing that even if you win, it won't matter for humanity. Now remember that the human mind has limits and you literally cannot process all the information you absorbed in those thousands of years. So when I tell you that the last fortress of a doomed immortal race has become a barely glorified insane asylum, understand that I'm not speaking in metaphor here. Ishterebinth has literally become a storehouse of madness. Of course--even mad--the average surviving Non-Man is closer to a superhuman murder machine then anyone moral or sane would really like and a lot of them can do magic. The cherry on top of this bad news sundae drenched in chocolate nightmare fuel is that this place has fallen to the control of a puppet king for the bad guys. The Unholy Consult. So Sorweel, in the company of the youngest Non-Man alive and possibly the last sane member of his species, Oinaral Lastborn, must walk through the bowels of this insane asylum and bring the news to the Lastborn's father Oirunas: Lord of the Watch and a giant among Non-Men; seriously he's about 15 feet tall or so and back in the day was known for going one on one with dragons. He's a member of the group that the Non-Men in all their serious understatement call “The Tall.” The Tall are crazy but more coherent than most of the Non-Men, the problem is they're also waaayyy more prone to violent, homicidal rages at the drop of a hat, scarf, or anything really. Basically Sorweel and Lastborn's plan is, let's take a walk through the parts of this crazy house most infused with the very essence of madness to go talk to a Giant killing machine that could flip out because we're standing wrong and kill us with his pinkie and tell him that his home as fallen under the control of his worse enemies and see what happens. It's a great plan and I'm excited to be very far away from any of the consequences of it!
Consequences and Insanity continue in the story-line of the ordeal itself. The army of a quarter million soldiers hundreds of miles away from any civilization has been feasting on Sranc. I'll explain Sranc simply: take orcs and scrape away every little bit of humanity. Any feelings of friendship, pity, love, or even the ability to comprehend these ideas. Leave behind only a ravening desire to kill, eat, rape and a very basic ability to use tools and you’ve got a Sranc. Sranc make the orcs of Tolkien look like guys from Doctors Without Borders, that's what we're dealing here. Kellus at the end of the last book declared that with the army being beyond any logistical chain at this point would start eating Sranc. I'm going to ask my editor here to back me up that I repeatedly said that nothing good would come of this.
Note From the Editor: Yes, yes he did say that. Repeatedly, at length. Also.. No no no no no! The Sranc are BAD. Not only are the soldiers going to have to contend with the utter madness of eating A) the same thing over and over again which is never good for morale and B) being really close to cannibalism, nothing turns someone into a beast more than devouring one’s enemies; they have to contend with whatever is inside the Sranc. The Sranc are so bad, and the beings who created them so fucked up (pardon my language, but Fucked Up) and twisted, that there is no way they did not plan for this sort of contingency and poison the flesh of the Sranc. I would. Bad Plan! Even if the army survives and wins, the only choice is to have gnostic sorcerers nuke it from orbit, so as to be sure.
Boys and Girls pick up that phone, because I called it! The army is slowly but surely losing all discipline and self control as it falls increasingly under the spell of Sranc meat. To the point of not seeing the Sranc as enemies that have to be fought and killed but rather as feral cattle to be harvested. Frankly, this is the most terrifying thing in the book for me because the very existence of humanity as a species is riding on this army reaching the stronghold of the Unholy Consult and tearing it down before they can unleash the most terrible weapon in this world's history. Here's the thing readers: inside every army is a howling mob and the thing that keep that mob from escaping is training, control, and discipline. If discipline is lost, then any armed force becomes just an armed mob capable of inflicting terrible atrocities. I say this not because I am critical of militaries mind you, but because every armed force that has lost control of itself has found itself committing terrible acts. The ability to commit atrocities doesn't come from being a member of an armed force, it comes from being a human being. It is discipline, whether it be from self control or imposed from external forces, that prevents it. The effect of eating Sranc is tearing apart the ability of the troops to control themselves as well as the officers to keep them under control. This is displayed to terrifying effect in the climactic battle where we see men just go berserk and charge into a Sranc horde so they can begin eating the corpses! I find myself asking if Kellus is even going to have an army when he gets to his target or a ragged mob of howling savages barely able to conduct basic tactics and that question is horrifying given the stakes here.
Then we have Drusus Achamian (who is still not allowed nice things) having finally reached the stronghold of the Dunyain only to find it in ruins. It was torn down by the Unholy Consult who frankly seemed to have panicked at the idea that there's a group of men out there who can see through all their disguises. That said there are two survivors... an adult and a child, the adult is Kellus' oldest son, sired before he left for the wider world. The child is Kellus' grandson (seriously there is something about this bloodline that seems to make killing them impossible). We also learn why the Dunyain are a male dominated society and it's a monstrous reason. I won't spoil this for you but I will say I had to put the book down for a couple hours when I hit that spot. The survivor as the adult calls himself is a scarred, half mad wreck of a man who is the most human and sympathetic Dunyain character in the whole bloody series. The Survivor saved the child (who has no name), his son and fought a war in a deep underground maze for over a decade against Sranc and sorcerers and against his own insanity for the single overriding goal of keeping his son safe. This is despite that by the standards of Dunyain society, his son is defective (he has a deformed hand) and should have been put to death. He is a PTSD ridden, insane ruin of a human being but he becomes a glowing ember of light in the darkness of this book. Kellus has repeatedly said he loves Esmenet, the women he lured away from his teacher Drusus but honestly I have found myself quite often questioning that. Or wondering if Kellus means the same thing I would mean in such a situation. In all honesty I find myself wondering if Kellus or any Dunyain could feel emotion beyond base primal urges. Sure, Kellus says that he has taken harder paths because of his love for his wife but... those harder paths at times seem awfully profitable for him. The Survivor however proves that it is possible for a Dunyain to love and care about someone more then themselves and he does it in the manner that means the most. He proves it through his actions and in the most unarguable manner. We learn more than this in this story-line but I won't speak of that here, I'll just say Drusus' still has a great part to play in the fate of the world and I have no idea how that specific die is gonna land.
Our last story-line is honestly the one most uninteresting to me. Part of it is because it focuses on Kelmomas, the youngest surviving child of Kellus and Esmenet, who is crazy. It also focuses on Esmenet herself who doesn't really get to win victories in this. Every time she actually pulls something off it's quickly nullified or she gets saved by greater powers. This is really frustrating for me to read. If Kellus does love her so much, which I am willing more than before to grant, he really should have given her more training in controlling the Empire. The one that's falling apart without him. Putting to risk the very person he claims to want to protect more than anyone else. The focus on a mad child in a book already over-flowing with insanity and Esmenet's general inability to really shift the plot just kind of leaves me cold to the whole story-line. I know some people will disagree with me but... can we give Esmenet something to do besides be fought over by men? Even in the ancient world powerful women were able to do more than that. That said the theme of madness shows up here as well and takes on a divine tinge as we see the madness of a prophetess and a boy who thinks that he is being stalked by a god. Which at least gives a different spin on the theme.
As you might have guessed from this review the Bakker train still has no brakes. Mr. Bakker takes us to a world shaking on the knife edge of extinction or victory and keeps us there for the entire book. The mood is palpable and the themes are heavy and thoughtful. The book is relentless in showing us and exploring madness and what it can drive people to do. That said the pacing in this book is slower then I would like and there are parts especially in Sorweel's story-line that drift incredibly close to navel gazing. I'm honestly left kind of exhausted and worn out by this book, though it's well-written despite some parts dragging a bit on the pace. I also feel that Mr. Bakker should spend less time taking us through the internal mutterings of his characters and more time describing what they're seeing. When he does describe the scene and the characters it's powerful and well done but sometimes he prefers to linger on how the scene makes his characters feel and think and I find that frustrating. The book doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger but comes close. Despite all my complaints here, this is a book that leaves an impression and gives you something to talk about for hours. I had to argue with myself a bit here but in the end I found myself preferring Caine Black Knife. So I am giving The Great Ordeal by Scott Bakker a B+.
I'm gonna try something lighter for my next review... Let's say a graphic novel about death knights fighting a bunch of necromancers who summon monsters that fed on human flesh! That sounds downright relaxing right now. See you next week!
Note from the editor: In other words, Frigidmagi needs an adult, and some light-hearted necromancy. It took me years to finish the first trilogy by this author because… Oh. My. God. They are kind of like Galadriel; beautiful and terrible. Terrible in the sense that after reading one of them, I find that I need to be held. I need to read this next trilogy but… watching videos of an Ebola outbreak in Africa is full of less despair.
I don't need an adult! I'm fine! Everything is fine!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.