Book Review: The Great Ordeal

Book Review: The Great Ordeal


For those of you who aren't rabid Bakker fans like myself, it's been five years since the previous book was released - an almost Martin-esque wait between novels. From what I gather, it had little to do with Bakker himself, as the manuscript has been written for some time. The decision was eventually made to split the third book of this second of three trilogies into two, and thus The Great Ordeal finally made it to print.

Was it worth the wait?

I would say yes, personally, but I can see where others might say no.

The Great Ordeal picks up with its major characters after the events of The White-Luck Warrior. The Great Ordeal presses toward Golgotterath, but they are now forced to eat Sranc and it's changing them. Sorweel, Serwe and Moenghus arrive in Ishterebinth, last Mansion of the Nonmen, to find it rotted from the core and falling ever-deeper into damnation in search of redemption. Back in the Three Seas, Esmenet deals with the fallout of Maithanet's death and Fanim attacks, all while her insane son Kelmomas continues to plot. And Achamian and Mimara arrive in Ishual to find it a ruin, but with a surprise still lurking in its depths.

Bakker's writing style is heavy and loaded with symbolism, philosophy and history, so I can understand why others might find this book dragging heavily in places. It has far less in the way of action than his previous novels do. Nonetheless, I tore through it in just a few days, because I was starved for the world. Nobody does worldbuilding these days quite like Bakker; I'd say he almost approaches Tolkien's level. 

And boy is there ever plenty to go around. This book is the first time we really get to see the Nonmen in detail. Cleric was in both The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior, but he existed primarily as a mystery and spur to continue onward. Here we get a more nuanced understanding of the Nonmen, their history, their psyches and why so many of them are becoming Erratics. More, we learn the truth - that they are not allies against Golgotterath anymore. 

I've thought for a while that Bakker would never be able to write a passage that surpassed the Cil-Aujas sequence from The Judging Eye, but he comes pretty damn close with Ishterebinth. Everything, from Serwe's singing to the Amiolas that attaches itself to Sorweel's soul to the descent into the lower levels of the Mansion, was just spot on for me. It was mysterious, fascinating and grandiose, while also heartbreakingly tragic. 

The quality of the rest of the book fluctuates a bit more for me. At this point, I am about as confused as Sorweel whether Kellhus means to save the men of the Three Seas or ally with Golgotterath. We've known he's mad since the end of the previous trilogy, and that madness deepens here in the scenes with Proyas, which were just...bizarre. 

But...this storyline does gift us with a really excellent battle scene. I do love the way Bakker narrates his battles, giving us several different viewpoints to appreciate the action. The sorcerers are of particular interest to me, as the magic system Bakker has devised is clever and described with great eloquence and beauty. (And as a musician, I love that the sorcerers sing). What makes this battle unique, however, is the bomb - the Tekne.

It's one of the best nuances of Bakker's world, that the villains are actually some sort of aliens whose ship crash-landed in the north. They have technology, unlike the rest of the world, and thus a bit of an edge. We finally finally get to see it in action here, and I love the juxtaposition of technology vs. magic. So few authors that attempt it get it right, but Bakker does.

Bakker also knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of what Sranc meat does to the Ordeal. Over the course of the book, the soldiers become more rash, more brutal, more animalistic - just like the Sranc they eat. Worse, several of them know it, but seem powerless to stop it. It has a big impact on their decisions, while also being horrifying to the reader and characters alike.

Farther south, I was devastated that Bakker killed off Maithanet in the previous novel, and so my interest in Esmenet's plotline was minimal. It's very frustrating to watch Kelmomas manipulate her and then watch her make horrible decisions on top of that. I kept waiting for Momemn to collapse only to be marginally disappointed.

And I'm utterly at a loss as to where the Achamian/Mimara storyline is going. While I did very much appreciate the return of a character from the previous trilogy toward the end of their story, I don't really understand why so much time is lavished on The Survivor. Whereas Achamian and Mimara were the most interesting plotline in the previous two books, their story dwindles in interest for the duration of this book. 

All in all, I thought this one was solid - not Bakker's best perhaps, but still very enjoyable. I look forward to The Unholy Consult hitting shelves soon.

Grade: 4/5

Memorable Quote:

The Dolour itself is invisible...all you ever see are cracks of fear and incomprehension where before all was seamless...thoughtless...certain. Soon you dwell in perpetual outrage, but are too fearful to voice it, because even though you know everything is the same, you no longer trust those you have loved to agree, so spiteful they have become! Their concern becomes condescension. Their wariness becomes conspiracy.
”And so the Weal becomes the Dolour, so the Intact become the Erratic. Think on it, mortal King, the way melancholy is prone to make you cruel, impatient of weakness. Your soul slowly disassembles, fragments into disconnected traumas, losses, pains. A cowardly word. A lover’s betrayal. An infant’s last, laboured breath. And for the heroes among us, the heartbreak commensurate with their breathtaking glory...
— The Great Ordeal, pg. 249
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