When it was announced in late 2015 that the third and final book in R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect Emperor series was going to be published in 2016 but split in two pieces The Great Ordeal and The Unholy Consult, the latter of which would be released in 2017, I thought to myself: “At last, it’s finally going to be published.”, and then: “I’ve waited five years since TheWhite-Luck Warrior, what’s another year to have both novels at one time? After all, weren’t they conceived as one book…” But one gentle nudge later from the people at the Second Apocalypse forum, and I went scurrying to get a copy. The temptation to know is just too much…
If you’re reading this review, there’s a 99% chance you’ve read all of Bakker’s Second Apocalypse books to date and are wondering if The Great Ordeal is worth it. Short answer: definitive yes. Long answer: the end of The White-Luck Warrior saw the death of Maithenet—lynch pin to Kellhus’ control back in Momemm. It also saw the death of the non-men king Nilgiccas—after the appearance of a dragon (a dragon!). The march long, but the Great Ordeal finally clashed with sranc hordes. Sorweel exited the Ordeal with two of Kellhus’ children, only to witness an act of incest, the madness of the Anasurimbors becoming all the more apparent. This is all an indirect way of saying The White-Luck Warrior took the overall Second Apocalypse storyline to unprecedented heights; The Great Ordeal takes it higher.
Seeming impossibly so, Bakker continues to escalate the stakes, and proportionately, the suspense in The Great Ordeal. The backstory and history of Earwa are peeled further back as major information about the characters and their histories is revealed. Achamian and his daughter Mimara roam ever closer to the secrets of Kellhus. Waiting at the end of Sorweel’s jumps through time and space is a place he never knew existed, the secrets inside horrifically enlightening. With the death of Maithenet, Esmenet regains control of the Andiamine Heights, but Yatwer and her Fainim followers smell blood in the water. And the Great Ordeal itself continues its maddening push toward Golgoterrath, each step more and more atavistic.
Yes, The Great Ordeal leaves the reader still on the path to satisfaction. Not a cliffhanger per se, the ending is rather a colossal moment in the Second Apocalypse’s history—a suitable break point in a story that has seen a lot happen, but promises still more to come. The Great Ordeal is likewise the heaviest of the Second Apocalypse novels to date, not in terms of page count, rather content. The prose dense, Bakker’s style takes on ever more philosophical/prosaic weight. Sorweel’s scenes in the underworld, and likewise many of Acha’s, are freighted with abstract substance like none of the other novels to date. And Kellhus’ demons are worked into an ever darker frenzy as his madness, and his status as savior/enemy of mankind, takes on greater ambiguity. While I agree with Larry Nolen there are times the muse comes on a little too heavy, it’s also to be understood The Great Ordeal is the beginning of the end of Bakker’s final statement on the agenda of the Aspect Emperor series. If he doesn’t get it in now, he never will.
In the end, The Great Ordeal feels, as could be expected, part of a larger whole. But so too did The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior. Testament to the consistency of the worldbuilding and forethought, just when you think there is nothing more to reveal about Earwa, Bakker pulls back another layer. And the stakes! Only impossibly higher. If things go as The Great Ordeal promises, The Unholy Consult will virtually explode off the page.