Domination. Over lives and nations. Over history and ignorance. Over existence itself, down through the leaves of reality's countless skins. No mortal had possessed such might. His was a power and potency that not even the Gods, who must ration themselves across all times, could hope to counter, short of scooping themselves hollow and forever dwelling as phantoms...
No soul had no owned Circumstance. He, and he alone, was the Place, the point of maximal convergence. Nations hung from his whim. Reality grovelled before his song. The Outside itself railed against him.
And yet for all of it darkness still encircled him, the obscurity of before, the blackness of after.
For those who worshipped him as a god, he remaine a mortal man, possessing but one intellect and two hands – great, perhaps, in proportion to his innumerable slaves, but scarcely a mote on the surface of something inconceivable. He was no more a prophet than an architect or any other who wrenches his conception into labourious reality. All the futures he had raised had been the issue of his toil...
He suffered visions, certainly, but he had long ceased to trust them. (pp. 120-121)
Despite its many flaws in form, there is something about modern epic fantasies that attracts me to read them still on occasion. Perhaps it is the partial erasure of modernity, with its rejection of intentionalist world-views, and the resulting construction of a structured reality that is potentially pregnant with meaning in a fashion that just cannot exist today. Struggles that are made concrete, externalized and presented frequently in anthropomorphic forms, yes, there is the possibility that something profound that could be said about life itself without reducing our own concerns to those of worker bees. But too often, these promises of profundity dissipate into trite truisms that ring hollow, with various reiterations of pre-modern (usually) Western societies collapsing under the weight of perceived gaps in understanding humanity and its propensity to war against itself.
I have been reading R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse novels for a little over twelve years now. His mixture of philosophical concepts of mind and reality (or rather, the artificiality of such) within the trappings of a constructed society in which there is a true, "objective" reality where religious texts possess a literal meaning captured my attention when I first read The Darkness That Comes Before back in 2004. Over the intervening years, I have struggled at times to process what Bakker is exploring, as there are several uncomfortable elements within his fiction that can be off-putting when the reader compares them to modern debates on issues such as gender, race, and general parity between individuals. His writing is very dense, full of concepts that do not necessarily reflect those of the author himself, but instead of the mindsets that went into the construction of religious/social milieus during the pre-modern era. It certainly takes some patience and a willingness to trust Bakker to forge on beyond the rapes, the coercions, the general "darkness" of the series to see just where he is going with his arguments and with his characters.
His sixth novel in the overall series (and third in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series), The Great Ordeal, is a revelatory one in many senses. We come to understand the import behind certain choices made earlier in the series, such as the effects of consuming the enemy Sranc upon the titular Great Ordeal as it moves toward its dread goal or the fate of the Emperor Kellhus's natal Ishuäl. The reader also learns more of the Non-men and the dreadful effects of their artificial immortality. Isolated into plot developments, these events alone would provide some fodder for fans of the series to digest until the last volume in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series, The Unholy Consult, appears in the next year. However, there are certain metaphysical points of contention raised within The Great Ordeal that provide a greater depth to these events.
One of Bakker's concerns throughout this novel, spread as it is among scenes within the Great Ordeal, Ishuäl, the Non-men mansion of Ishterebinth, and the imperial capital of Momemn, is to illustrate how various characters try to grasp the concept of the Absolute. The quote above, which occurs before a pivotal (and perhaps problematic) scene involving Kellhus, deals with the confluence of reality and lives into a concrete Place where the Absolute dwells. In this passage, we see some of Kellhus's mentality laid bare for us, with conceits and self-deception ever lurking on the edges of his frank self-portrayal. This (perhaps deserved?) arrogance, mixed with an ever-growing sense of "love" that threatens to "corrupt" the Thousandfold Thought that has conditioned his path to power, serves as a partial explanation to the events that immediately follow. By itself, it's a deep look into one of the more mysterious characters in the series, but when viewed in conjunction with scenes that transpire late in the Ishterebinth and Ishuäl chapters, it morphs into something less lofty and more fallible in terms of how Kellhus's conception of the Place/Absolute may be something beyond his ken.
For readers who have been disturbed in the past by Eärwa's treatment of women (particularly the numerous rapes within the previous novels), Bakker tries to make explicit, through the vision of "Whale Mothers" that Mimara has, that depiction does not equal endorsement. There are several hints that this "objective" reduction of women to beings lesser than men is due to arbitrariness on the part of those collective beings whose intentions have driven reality in this setting. Yet despite this, there are still moments where it seems that the female characters in three of the key scenes (Ishterebinth, Ishuäl, Momemn) fall too readily into subordinate roles even when taking into consideration the unfolding situations about them.
The prose was another challenging element. While I understand Bakker's desire to create a narrative that would reflect (and at times, reveal internal contradictions) ancient historical and religious texts, there were times where the writing was perhaps too opaque in its descriptions of event and its import. This was especially true in those scenes where characters were considering Love in context of the world about them. It is one thing to express the importance (and possible deceptions) of Love, but another to weave it in seamlessly with the greater narrative. Too frequently, I felt as though I were temporarily "tossed out" of reading the text through perceiving the maladroit integration of certain concepts within the narrative. Yet there were times, especially with the "Boatman" scene, where Bakker's prose creates a heightened sense of horror that goes beyond the visceral into something less definable yet no less terrifying when considered at length. On the whole, the prose did serve to create a more "alien" mindscape, especially in the Ishterebinth scenes, than what might have occurred if Bakker's prose had been more direct.
For the most part, I was fascinated (I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed," considering the unsettling nature of many of the plot revelations) by many of the scenes present within the novel, yet ultimately I felt as though it ended weakly. Many of the scenes end on the cusp of something important happening or in the midst of key developments, lacking in any sort of firm developments to help make sense of them. There were few, if any, "natural" end places for these character/plot arcs and by the time the last page was turned, I was acutely aware that The Great Ordeal was but the first part of a larger narrative arc. This put a damper on my overall engagement with the novel, as it felt like I was having to abandon it at an earlier place than perhaps it should have concluded. Now I have to wait for The Unholy Consult's arrival to be able to judge better if what I had just read was as good as I found it to be for the majority of its pages. The Great Ordeal ultimately is a good, yet flawed, volume in the Second Apocalypse series.