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Book Review: The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker

Posted by on Aug 7, 2017 in Blog Posts, Book Reviews | 0 comments

The final book in any great series has a certain weight. Often literally.

When I unwrapped my review copy of The Unholy Consult (many thanks to Overlook Press), it was as substantial as I could wish. Yet a lot of that weight is appendices–including two short stories, maps, and a glossary more than 100 pages long.

The story itself is just 450 pages. At first glance, this seems too short given everything that’s gone before.

And it is. Alternatively, the “Second Apocalypse” series as a whole–including three volumes of The Prince of Nothing–is too long.

As usual, the book opens with a preliminary recap of the preceding books that gets your footing back beneath you, catching us up in a clear and concise manner that’s still strikingly eloquent. Indeed, I regret that there won’t be a next book where I can read the recap of The Great Consult. 

Don’t mistake me. I’m pleased this epic series has actually been completed, and without making its audience wait for decades. That in itself makes it feel like a refreshing exception in the genre. And if you’ve read the rest of the series so far, you’re going to read this one. If you haven’t picked up The Prince of Nothing or The Judging Eye, should you? If this is where it’s all headed?

For one thing, that depends on how much endings matter to you, compared to the journey there. And for all that I’m going to talk–evasively, if not entirely spoiler-free–about the ending, it’s certainly not the only part that matters to me.

Let’s say you pick the series up. I’d never try to dissuade you. You’ll want to set aside a long weekend to finish the last two books. You might also want snacks.  My menu for reading The Unholy Consult: on night one, as the Ordeal encountered the Scalded on the Field Appalling, salsa–chunky, red, and vegetarian. On night two, as the Horns were besieged, I popped popcorn, overestimating the capacity of my air-popper vs my bowl and producing an overflow of pallid skull-shaped chewsome pieces which, sure, I pretended were Sranc. I didn’t eat anything the last night because I was too caught up in finishing the book.

Oh yeah, the Sranc-eating. I kind of forgot to mention that plot point of The Great Ordeal, as it’s a major plot development that seems so matter-of-fact I just took it in stride when reflecting on the book. It really marks the turn where this series went from “horror” to “grimdark”–once you’re eating the monsters that kept you awake all night in the first books, something else is happening. As a corruption-from-within, it’s plenty creepy. But after Hannibal’s aesthetic, I feel spoiled for cannibalism horror. I liked the awful practicality with which The Great Ordeal approached it. When it tries to become the main source of dread for about 100 pages of Consult, it starts to feel cheaply gross, like a six-year-old dangling a gummy worm in front of you and refusing to swallow it or put it down until you act suitably distressed. I kind of wanted to push the kid away so I could see the hellbound aliens closer (is this also commentary about Kelmomas? Probably).

Still, there’s plenty further horror, and it gets wonderfully awful. Awful, awesome and sublime. It’s not cosmic horror in the tradition of Lovecraft (let’s take a moment to thank Yatwer there were no tentacles–that would be cheap, but a lesser author could easily have gone there. We do get flesh polyps, though. Agghhh). Instead, it’s above all a unique strain of metaphysical and philosophical horror, even religious horror, using a secondary world’s religions. One of the sources of my annoyance, actually, was that there wasn’t more time spent on the metaphysics. This may seem like a strange complaint, since they are in there, to the point that an existential bombshell lurks behind every page, and every line is imbued with philosophy, like the climax of The Thousandfold Thought but with more innocents(-ish) implied to be screaming in the background. Maybe my complaint is that the lurking truths aren’t more explicit. Yes, I realize that is the opposite of the book’s goal. Even so, I’d have read that appendix. In the glossary you do get a sneak peek at theological debates, spiced with occasional dry snark. To avoid spoilers,  though, these entries just barely touch on what actually happens in the books.  

The glossary, while I’m praising it, is also an essential resource given the level of worldbuilding and conlanging. Literally every location and the majority of people have multiple names in half a dozen languages, a handful of them archaic. The limited range of the book keeps you from getting too lost (when in doubt, it’s the horns of Golgotterath), and you’ll soon learn to identify the languages on your own, as each one has a distinct and delicious flavor.

As does the English: the tone of the book comes from lines about “clots of Emwama” and “rain baffl[ing] the horizon.” Back in The White-Luck Warrior I pointed out some tendencies that could be reined in, but given the gonzoness of this volume there’s very little that’s excessive: one awkward “watched abhorred” when “watched appalled” would suit better, and a mystifying use of “tangerine” to refer to a bright orange color (trust me, everyone in that scene had scurvy. And so must you if your first thought is of the shade rather than the fruit). There’s also, as the stakes and emotions get ever higher, italicizing with the frequency of a comic books dialogue, and immune to criticsm for the same stylistic reason (mostly. I do know where to read emphasis at sometimes). The dialogue itself reads with perfect verisimilitude, even when it’s a bit mawkish, and there’s an interesting use of repetition for some words that I at first thought was meant to show a distressed stammer but now like to think is deliberate-deliberate as a form of emphasis in the Three Sea’s languages.

The book opens right: an Anasurimbor family showdown/slapdown that’s been as long-coming as it is satisfying. Esmenet is justifiably horrified not only that the child she thought was the most human of her brood is actually the creepiest, but also that her husband left her to hold together an Empire he knew would fall. Kellhus’s defense of his actions sums up what we’re in for: “The Empire has served its purpose. Only the Great Ordeal matters now.

Incidentally, I remember times when Kellhus actually felt present on the page as a character during the first trilogy. He was never the kind of guy you’d exactly miss, but his evolution from person(-ish) to plot event has been fascinating to watch. It also makes his few moments of human frailty in The Unholy Consult all the more gut-wrenching.

While I’m talking Anasurimbors and characterization, Moenghus gets vastly more sympathetic attention than he did in The Great Ordeal, where he was dropped in a Nonman torture chamber hidden from the Gods and the reader for most of the pagecount. Turns out that kind of thing has psychological consequences. As does the encounter with his birth dad, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, and the creature who’s arranged its face-fingers into the features of his birth mom Serwe. The skin-spies don’t play as large a role in this book as in the first trilogy, though–I guess when you have thousands of warriors marching on your spaceship fortress, you don’t exactly need to spy on them. I was disappointed not to see more of Cnaiür, though–he makes his appearances count.

Moenghus’s sister, Serwa, and Sorweel both have some great moments, as a couple and separately, as they return to the Ordeal. However, the problem with The Unholy Consult is that it packs together many more plot events than The Great Ordeal, so that while Sorwheel could take most of a book to travel down some Nonman elevators (not that the Ingressus wasn’t chiseled from solid awesome), just as his character arc beings to flourish in this book he gets passed over in favor of other developments that felt less new or refreshing. On the other hand, without spoiling too much, Serwa gets to fight a dragon. My actual nitpicks about the dragon (mostly “Why the heck is that even a frame of reference for you?”) are unnecessary. It was the biggest scene in this book to deliver more epic fantasy thrills than metaphysical dread.

Meanwhile, the answer to my question in the previous review–“Is there anybody here who isn’t damned, and/or that I should still care about?” is: kind of. One of the previously mentioned characters–okay, this is a spoiler–actually makes it to the heavens. Also, Mimara’s Judging Eye thinks Esmenet’s blessed. Everyone thinks that. They’re right. Esmi is wonderful. The sweetness of her reunion with Mimara and Achamian is all the stronger for being unhoped for. There’s also an unexpectedly moving moment as the Ordeal as a whole sings their favorite marching song, succeeding in getting me to feel for 50,000 cannibals. Really, I did.

This review is getting long, so let’s approach the climax and my issues with it–plus the good stuff. The Inchoroi onscreen, finally. Paging Ellen Ripley…but probably the third movie, what with all the religious overtones. They’re aliens, but they’re also damned to the hell of this specific planet? But also antithetical to it, as that’s the whole point of their No-God project. The metaphysics are perplexing here to say the least, and while I appreciate that nobody will slow the story down to infodump the details for us, I think the infodump would be interesting on its own. Then again, I think the Inchoroi would be interesting, but there’s a bit of a twist with the man-behind-the-alien that if anything leads us back to where previous books have already gone. Is this inevitability? Or unimaginative?

Speaking of inevitability, damnation gets so all-encompassing–even the aliens are damned; also, the book gets charmingly explicit about which characters got to Hell as they die–that it becomes claustrophobic despite its scope. It makes everything else look like a distraction. Kellhus might agree, but it’s unclear; did I forget his previous dealings with Hell, or did they happen offscreen? And as I keep asking, are gods who casually send mortals who commit terrible but finite crimes into a pit of infinite suffering worth keeping in touch with the world anyway? (A scene suggests the answer is “yes” if you’re committed to parenthood, but I’m sitting here thinking “Better to never have been born.” These are very juicy metaphysics.)

Another reviewer described this book, not inaccurately, as”The Passion of Anasurimbor Kellhus” and I’m raring to see The Harrowing of Hell.

The thing is, maybe we will. Because the ending of The Unholy Consult is not particularly conclusive. Insofar as it is conclusive, it’s depressing as hell (ha). Yet I’m not even sure which parts I should be most depressed about.

I don’t object to tragic endings by any means, but I have a special impatience with rushed ones that leave too many interesting ideas on the table in favor of something that feels predictable even as it happens (I watched Penny Dreadful’s third season, okay? And I lived through 2016. I didn’t need this book to do this to me). After seven massive tomes, I hope for more than a shaggy dog story.

With the caveat that I’m reporting this secondhand, apparently in his Reddit AMA (which parts of the fandom called “The Unholy Consultation”–and I thought The Great Ordeal was a source of wordplay) Bakker has 1. explained more of the metaphysics, which other fans seem to find as fascinating as I do and 2. suggested he’s going to write more in this series. So possibly a third trilogy. A meta-trilogy. Of course I’m going to read, because I don’t want to leave the Three Seas like this, but I’ll do so with some irritation at coming back after reading what’s been advertised as a “shattering conclusion.” I’ll have to take back my satisfaction at reading an epic fantasy series that successfully concluded. Maybe I’ll be reading or waiting on the next Second Apocalypse novel when the actual Apocalypse happens (after 2016, you never know).

But I’ll do it. After all, where else am I going to read something where pivotal scenes are narrated from the POV of a severed head? I especially liked the line where the unfortunate fellow describes himself as compelled “to watch, to witness as a reader might, unable to touch, unable to save.”

Yeah. Same.

 

You can find The Unholy Consult at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

iBooks

Kobo

Alibris

 

PS. As if this review hasn’t gone on long enough, I have a reading list of what might tide us over until the third Second Apocalypse trilogy happens (or distract us from our angst if it doesn’t).

I mentioned Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow in my Great Ordeal review as a striking, sympathetic science fictional treatment of the loss of faith and survival of trauma. It deserves a full review of its own sometime but I may be too emotional to do it justice. That said, it’s gripping, full of both action and philosophy, at times grim and others uproariously funny. The likability of the characters makes everything more painful, but there’s grounds for earned optimism, too, especially in the sequel.

That makes it the inverse of my other rec for a “First Contact Goes Wrong” story (whcih, from the Inchoroi’s POV, is exactly what the Second Apocalypse is): Mary Gentle’s Orthe duology. The first book, The Golden Witchbreed, is an incredibly smart and not too dated science fiction survival adventure. The sequel, Ancient Light, is a devastating story about weapons of mass destruction and struggling to avert the end of the world. At times, it’s downright cruel, but never in a cheap way. At two books, it’s also way shorter than the Second Apocalypse series, and it offers some hints of explanation and worldbuilding without either infodumping or baffling readers. This makes the tragedy feel more cathartic than frustrating–though plenty of readers have been frustrated by it.

Speaking of fantasy aliens, Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave is the only other sword and sorcery-style novel I can remember that involves a spaceship. It’s more Star Trek than whatever the hell the Inchoroi are, although the “aliens” the POV character belongs to (who live on the planet the spaceship visits, actually) are absolutely disturbing in their own way.

Continuing with the science-fiction-through-a-dark-fantasy-lens trend, C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine cycle has plenty of gray morality and unexplained, horrifying technology. The reader’s entire understanding of what is going on is pretty much based on a 3-page in-character technical document that forms the prologue of the first book. This will make you feel brilliant any time you’re on top of things.  The POV character doesn’t have much of a clue what’s going on ever, but he’s a brave and loyal guy who sticks with Morgaine through it all. The series is complex and bittersweet, but rarely grim or depressing. That said, the last book, Exile’s Gate, has a conversation between Morgaine and the book’s antagonist that I’m sure is packed full of significant background and metaphysics that eluded me almost as much as the climatic consultation of The Unholy Consult did. So if you enjoy that kind of puzzle, here’s another book that firmly believes Readers Are Geniuses.

Personally, I’m going to go pick up Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detailwhich I’ve been told is the sort of science fictional Harrowing of Hell I’m now searching for.

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