It would be impossible to discuss anything that happens in the third book of R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect Emperor series without massive spoilage so I’m only going to hint at what’s happened since the end of The White-Luck Warrior and offer a few thoughts on the series [NB: I’m going to assume readers of this review have read the latter book and will not avoid mentioning events from it].
The last book ended on several cliff hangers: In Momemn, Maithanet had been assassinated and Esmenet had seized total control only to have the Fanim arrive to besiege the city; Kelmomas lurked in the crevices of the Andiamine Heights, a poisonous little half-Dûnyain toad. In the Ordeal, Sorweel and Kellhus’ children Serwa and Moënghus traveled to Ishterebinth, the last Nonman Mansion, to be hostages in an alliance. And Achamian and Mimara finally reached Ishuäl, the Dûnyain retreat, only to find it in ruins. Book three picks up on all of these threads and adds that of Nersei Proyas, Achamian’s erstwhile student and Kellhus’ second-in-command:
Momemn: Kelmomas continues to manipulate Esmenet as only an eight-year-old child can, though with the abilities of a Dûnyain, and becomes fascinated with and terrified of the White-Luck Warrior – Maithanet’s assassin – who now lives at the palace. The New Empire teeters on the brink of dissolution.
The Ordeal: Kellhus reveals to Proyas the real motivations behind the Ordeal and provokes a crisis of belief in the Believer-King. The army as a whole continues to be tempered in the fires of battling Sranc and Bashrag, and this thread ends with a catastrophic battle at Dagliash.
Ishterebinth: The hostages immediately find that things are not as they seem in the last Mansion (though there are hints that Kellhus and his children were aware that something was not quite right about the proposed alliance), and Sorweel is key to awakening an ancient Nonman power.
Ishuäl and environs: Mimara and Achamian fall in with the last two survivors of Ishuäl, a son and grandson of Kellhus, and continue their journey to Golgotterath. Their thread ends in the wilderness south of Agongorea, where they fall in with an old acquaintance of Achamian’s thought long dead.
As I said, to expand further would almost immediately get into spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, then you have to read The Great Ordeal and hope Bakker gets the final book out soon because he’s ratcheted up the stakes and I honestly don’t know how he’s going to end things. Though I and others have commented on the parallels between this story and Tolkien (especially the journey through Cil-Aujas), Eärwa is not Middle-earth, the Hundred Gods are not the Valar, Achamian is not Gandalf, and Kellhus is most certainly not Aragorn. While you can’t possibly root for the Consult to win, its opponent – the Great Ordeal – is as damned as they are; fanatics who would find a comfortable home in any real-life fundamentalist extremist movement whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem (or Buddhist or Hindu, for that matter). Bakker’s universe is extraordinarily bleak from humanity’s point of view - Their lives, they understood, mattered only in their sum. And since this is the grim truth of all human life, the insight possessed the character of revelation (p. 268) – and yet some souls are saved and there are hints that life is not as crushingly hopeless as it appears when stripped of the comforting delusions humans create.
I can’t help but recommend this book and this series. It’s not for everyone, however. Bakker succeeds (IMO) in combining epic fantasy with serious philosophy but the philosophy is pretty deep and I can see where many will be put off by it. If you’re looking for something with a little more intellectual heft than Games of Thrones or nearly all other fantasies, then this is the one for you.
[A complaint about the editing: Whoever proofed the galleys for this edition should be fired. There are an unconscionable number of typos and grammar errors that even a novice copy editor should have caught. Overlook Press is living up to its name, unfortunately.]