Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker

Mao Zedong, Jan Sobieski, George W. Bush—there are innumerable people throughout history who were good at attaining positions of power, and yet seemingly helpless afterwards to maintain that power through good decisions that benefited the society they ruled.  I daresay the same is true for a lot of epic fantasy.  Many authors do a good job building their world and characters, as well as installing dynamics that make the reader want to continue reading.  But the closer they get to the ‘grand climax’, the lower the quality of the overarching story becomes, leading to final volumes that sputter and fizzle rather than explode.  This has not been a problem for R. Scott Bakker.  The Prince of Nothing trilogy started strong and ended with a Bang.  Now, with the publishing of the fourth and final book in The Aspect-Emperor series, The Unholy Consult (2017), Bakker proves no fluke.  The novel and series end with a BANG - a fireworks display that is everything avid readers have been hoping it would be.

Normally I give a brief plot introduction in reviews, but for The Unholy Consult it seems unnecessary.  For those who have read The Great Ordeal, that is the introduction (and if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t be reading this review).  If it's been a while, Bakker includes a few pages at the beginning of The Unholy Consult, as he has done with all the series’ books thus far, summarizing events in Earwa. 

With all of the stage setting and build up out of the way, The Unholy Consult is no-holds-barred from page one.  Where the previous Aspect-Emperor novels split the narrative into chapters based on characters per setting, The Unholy Consul streamlines them all into a smooth flow.  The tactic accelerates pace and urgency to a level one would expect for the climactic novel in an epic fantasy series.  The Unholy Consult makes for a book difficult to put down.  Kellhus’ Great Ordeal and the Unholy Consult’s demon hordes clash in a fashion that is all the reader has been lead to expect would be, and is likely more given the handful of surprises sprung.  Who are the Unholy Consult, really?  What of Sorweel’s reversed, then reversed again plans for assassination?  Can the Judging Eye be turned upon Kellhus?  Does the Aspect-Emperor possess the skills to take down the unending hordes of sranc and bashrag?  And ultimately, can the Great Ordeal achieve its goals in the face of Golgoterath and save humanity? 

If there is anything about The Unholy Consult I struggle with, it is the ending.  (No plot spoilers ahead.)  To say it is abrupt is to put it mildly.  I was reading an e-version, and according to the page count there was still a good chunk of the novel to go, when suddenly, in the wake of yet another massive, game-changing reveal, the story ended.  (The remaining chunk turned out to be a glossary and two short stories in the Earwa universe.) For those at least vaguely familiar with story's deep lore, the implications of the ending are enough to intimate what happens next; Bakker has done his job.  At the same time, it’s not as organic as the ending of The Prince of Nothing series.  Had Bakker included an epilogue that delved ever so slightly into the aftermath, the ending may have been more satisfying in terms of the formula for fiction we’ve all grown accustomed to.  That being said, the way The Unholy Consult concludes feels strongly analogous to the event which closes it—its impact stronger precisely because it lacks an epilogue.  Bookend is material somehow both necessary and unnecessary.  As I said, I struggle with the ending… 

Regardless my pondering, the ending is powerful—a million times more powerful than that of The Thousandfold Thought.   (Again, no plot spoilers ahead.)  If Bakker intended to construct his series like a mountain range, then The Prince of Nothing is an epic, snow-capped peak.  The Aspect-Emperor penetrates the stratosphere.  Bakker has indicated that he would possibly like to write a follow-up duology to close the overall Earwa series, but I have to believe The Aspect-Emperor will remain the highest peak given that the scale cannot get any larger without betraying the mythos that has built the story.  It seems more likely that said duology would feel more like a denouement - perhaps the epilogue The Unholy Consult lacks, bringing the nine-book narrative back to a point in some larger cycle of things.  It can't escalate any further without jumping the shark.  There seems nowhere higher or more massive to go!

And something needs to be said of tying off the threads of theme.  Most epic fantasy relies on the tried and true ideas of virtue and honor, good and evil, etc..  Bakker has gone beyond these to include a handful of ideas more relevant to contemporary issues and understanding of humanity.  Like fellow Canadian author Peter Watts, Bakker has looked into the dark side—the egoism and hubris—that each one of us possesses, no matter how benevolent our actions may be.  He has explored the deep-rooted fears that may ultimately be more motivating than kingdoms and gold, princesses and power.  We have seen what seems the greatest personal confidence be, in fact, blindness to truth. And he has exposed social and individual undercurrents, from the atavistic to the seemingly rational, that influence and even guide our daily lives, for better and worse.  No, no hobbits with curly-haired feet arguing about pipe tobacco, here, The Unholy Consult is dark, so dark.  Deconstructing so much western philosophy, it possible even writes of the idea of meaning.  So dark.    

And finally, with the publishing of The Unholy Consult, I think it can at last be said that Bakker has written the epic fantasy series of the post-Tolkien era.  With George R.R. Martin dawdling over other projects and releasing one novel every five years, expanding his story with spurious door-stopper tomes just for profit, not to mention spoiling his series with a cheaper product (aka Game of Thrones the tv series), Bakker has proven that steady focus, a concrete game plan, not pandering to the masses, and strong thematic layering are, in fact, the keys to a quality series.  Can’t wait to re-read the whole Aspect-Emperor series’ books back to back now that The Unholy Consult is out.  We can only wish Bakker has luck finding a publisher for the final Earwa duology—if not only to put to rest my vacillation on the ending of The Unholy Consult


  1. I had the same problem. I read on Kindle and thought I had a couple of days reading left ahead to finish. I only had 4 pages.

    1. I guess 'problem' is a strong word, but surprising, for sure... :)

  2. Goddamit! I've read and loved the original Prince of Nothing series and was waiting for the the end of this second series to read the whole thing back-to-back, but the reviews have been so beguiling, that it's hard for me to resist the spoilers after such tantalizing writings. I want to read your next post, the one about the future of the series after The Unholy Consult, but I'd be crushed by the spoilers. Please, help me!

    1. The final book in the Aspect-Emperor series is now published, so the solution is simple: buy the book(s) and read them. :) It will be several years before the next series sees the light of day.