As much as I have adored R. Scott Bakker’s style throughout this slog of slogs: The Great Ordeal does not feel like the payoff worth the weight of years behind it. The book seethes with intellect, with possibility and dense worldbuilding, but in the end, I’m sad to say, it suffers from a sense of too much set up and not enough time on the actual journey—which, in one half of a grand finale, is far from what one would desire.
Don’t get me wrong: there are parts of this book which sing with the classic Bakker of the “Prince of Nothing” saga—5-stars in writing, in action, in incising philosophic madness. There are others, though, that suffer from a sense of being simply too abstract, plummeting deeper and deeper into the layers of the mind, as Inception fans would put it, without giving us anything to set our feet on. What’s more, as deep as it can get, the book seems to suffer from a spring-stop pacing, where a great deal happens in very little spans, but the majority of the book feels like it lacks momentum.
Even reading the books as religiously as I have, there were points I had to stop and reread, just to get a grasp of what, exactly, was happening. It’s not entirely impenetrable, but it is overbearingly close to it. The story itself remains intact—the direction and meat behind it remains immensely enjoyable. Yet the narrative, at this point, seems to have lost something of its finality to the depths of Bakker’s formidable mind; I fear it lacks some of language’s base attempts to relate it to us and give us space to find our footing.
Which is to say, it stumbles in its flow.
Bakker continues to have his own unmatched style. The layers he has achieved in worldbuilding cannot be matched, nor can the complexity of his characters—but so much of this book is steeped in characters’ contemplation and reflection on things coming or things gone before, and not enough time spent actually achieving anything.
Detail is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It makes a story breathe. It carries us within. The Great Ordeal, however, is description heaped upon description, on a story that has already drawn us so many layers in deep—it simply didn’t need the build up at this point. I can only hope that it has set us up for a killer (genuine) finale, and I believe Bakker has that within him—I just hope it comes back around to the monumental tale that put the complex “adult” in “adult fantasy”.
(Follow along with my reading above, or head into this short story all on your own below…)
Voices echoed in the hills—a low, pleating wail which offered itself to the heavens. It was not pleasant, but their maker was no god of music. The tone deaf were prominent amongst their priesthood, and as was often the case, deaf in tone did not make the volume any lesser fair.
Ancient rites guided them through the flames. There were no sounds before them, only ripples after. The flames, stacked out in exact order days before, obscured their faces from those beyond, but also unnerved the honored guest at their center. It snorted and bleated, twisted against its ropes—a primal premonition, but too young to do anything about it. A white calf for creation—something which might be reborn from the ashes.
At the center of their forest rite, a broad man stepped up to the calf and, illuminated in the dance of shadows, split its skull with a machete. It sauntered this way, then that, and finally heaved to its knees, and further still, until it lay in a pool of its own lifeblood.
In the north, it would have been a sheep. To the west, where the earth cracked and sundered and heaved high into the wisps of sky, goats. And to the south: also cows. Except plural. Because some people simply felt more was better.
As one, all of these people would reach out their hands and raise their voices to beseech the light beyond their own putrescent sparks, and as one, they were not foolish enough to wait for the silence which would greet them.
Rites were simply that: rites, done for their own sake. History was soothing, repetition more so.
The priests of the forest believed this, right up until the moment the sky yowled and quaked as with a waking man, and in the blinded flailing of its fists, a lightning bolt took them clean off their feet. And their feet from their legs. And their legs from their bodies.
Their god told Himself it was high time. These people had no idea how noisy such prayers could be, and He had been putting up with them for centuries. It wasn’t that they had earned His enmity. They were beneath or beyond that. However one chose to look at it.
Lamentations. One might have called it irony, that in their despair, the mass of disaffected devotees prayed still harder to the god that wrought that lamentation upon them. Belief was a hard thing to shake. People hid in it. Wrapped themselves in it like a warm blanket, and it need never do a single thing for them, so long as it gave them something to whisper to in the dark of night. Charity was not in weighing their fate, it was in smashing apart the desperation to which they clung.
The sky darkened and clouds thickened to oil, and their heartbeats drummed with the furor of men who had suddenly lost sight of the world. Wind swarmed about them, and where it swirled, it tore their world to pieces—dust and mortar, bits of bits on the wind, a maelstrom of devastation which ground them all to nothing. To silence.
The time had come to end it.
It was not their fault. They were only human and He was only…an embodiment. Thoughts gave Him form, and mixed in with thought was emotion and He could not help that wrath was an emotion. No less than He could resist the entity which had fanned that wrath.
She thought Him weak.
She thought Him nothing.
Well. Then He would teach Her destruction. There was no flare quite so grand as that, even if the aftermath was quite…mundane.
Or so He thought, until His hurricanes met a wall. Rock surged against Him, His own wind rolled apart, and as all turned in on itself, the waves frosted and burst into nothing. Then She was there, and where all the rest of the world went limp before His fury, She strode forward, completely exposed but undistressed, a boiling wall of fury hotter than the heart of a star. She stood at the center of this new storm, effortless and fair-haired, a simple woman for all else She revealed, no trace of the desire which had borne this madness at the first.
He let out his hands and the storms subsided. He breathed deep of their world and drew the squalls of His wrath away. Yet Her own storms—at the heart of which, He now saw, lay the two halves of a city they had always favored—continued to enwrap Her, as though She did not trust this lull was real. Such distrust was an insult, every bit as palpable as Her rebuke. The very earth boiled with His distaste. She was squat. Broad of hip and muscled as He, and even through the form She held, He could not mistake Her perfection.
“Do my gestures not amuse you, Beauty?” He said.
“Your gestures do nothing more than name you Destroyer. First comes silence, then devastation. These are not the actions of a beast, nor a god, not even one of men—men your actions spawned, I might add, though you’ve not wit enough to care. What would I say of your ‘gestures’? I say they name you a child, oh God, for you have one’s grasp of morals.”
“We make morality!”
He boomed, for He was Creation, and it was He who made all that was and all that could be. It was not childishness, nor cruelty—none of this would even exist without Him to spur it.
Laughter resounded from Her, as though She perceived no threat at all. Then She said, chilly, “You believe, as a child, that you are above everything, and are petulant in your belief that satisfaction comes from the rest of us going along precisely with your way of seeing.”
Beneath His feet, the boundaries of His creations trembled.
“Cease your rambling! Death is the curse of their race. Of all things. Time unmakes all that is made, for so have I wrought it; what is living dies, and knowing this, are they not fools to summon the arbiter of this devastation? What are they to you? They are things, mere things; an accident risen from genuine creation. Let them be done.”
“And ask yourself, without them, what are you?” She challenged, a winter’s lake lodged within her unforgiving eyes. “An accident. A beautiful accident, then. They think, and they weep, and they love, and they believe…in you. You could make them a great creation indeed, but instead you bring them silence, and death, when you think doing so will bring me to you.”
In that moment, He reeled as if struck. There was fury in Her so utterly below the ice, a fuming, chemical chill which told of silences He could only vaguely remember, in a space beyond existence. From the deepest, darkest nothings of existence, created to birth and puzzle such divinities as they.
Drawing from that void, He said quietly, “You came, did you not?”
A laugh answered Him, at once greater than all the words He had put before it.
“I am not your equal, God-of-Men. I am older, I am wiser, and I will be long beyond when the silence consumes your empty gestures entire. I remember the darkness, where some only parcel it a passing thought. Choice. Do you know how beautiful a thing that is? It exists in them, here. Yet now you would take that from them, because you were scorned. Oh, I have come, oh God-of-Men. You have found me, but you shall wish you had not. You were supposed to find me, yet you cannot even find beauty in your own creation. Now, by what is dark and what is light, I tell you true, you shall wish that you had never pined for me. I swear it.”
Oh, She was tall, tall as the tallest tree He had ever wrought, and crimson as the star gods of the eastern sea, and cold for all that, as cold as the vacuous nothing which enwrapped all things, made and unmade. In His sudden terror, He raised His storms anew, but She battered them away and broke through to star shine, and in the brilliance of that light She struck Him down.
“I am a traveler, oh God-of-Men, and I have seen so many worlds, dead, never to be remembered—their gods toil and toil, and for all that they do, they cannot make life. They go mad for the silence. So many have I seen…and you, you do not even see the bounty before your eyes. You are unworthy.”
Lightning seared Him. Oceans swirled and pulled against His legs, and the continents shattered with the impacts of His body. Everywhere, rocks burst into sky and railed against flesh, as volcanoes seared in His veins. An old god, He was, but drained, so drained, from all that He had put into this world and forgotten. To this traveler, older still, displaced, His was a childish power, extinguished with a look.
He clambered against the bonds which devoured Him, cried out to any that would hear Him. But gods have no gods, only the darkness, which reached up to take Him from the world He had made, never to burn or thunder or sing again.
Only then did She smile. And the world began anew.
(Frankly, our world has too much hate. Let this be an echoing, reverberating TO HELL WITH YOU to anyone who spends their life in hatred of others, who builds themselves up through destruction. This world was meant for us to grow together, not to tear each other down.)