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 instilling 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. 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. Ending with a BANG, it’s a veritable fireworks display that is everything avid readers have been hoping it would be.
Normally I give a brief plot introduction in my 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). Besides, 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 the setup for the grand finale 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 covering the various viewpoints, The Unholy Consul streamlines them all into a smooth flow that accelerates pace and urgency to a level one would expect for the climactic novel in an epic fantasy series. Unlike The Great Ordeal, The Unholy Consult is a book I truly had trouble putting 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? What of Sorweel’s 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?
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 Earwa’s history, the implications of the ending are more than enough to tell the story of 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. Where the conclusion of The Thousandfold Thought left matters at a natural pause in the overarching narrative, I can’t say the same about The Unholy Consult. The Prince of Nothing feels self-contained, whereas The Aspect-Emperor remains open to some degree. Had Bakker included an epilogue that delved ever so slightly into the aftermath, the ending may have been more satisfying in terms of the standard fiction formula 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. Follow up material somehow both necessary and unnecessary, as I said, I struggle with the ending…
Regardless my pondering, the ending is powerful—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 while The Aspect-Emperor just plain penetrates the stratosphere. Bakker has indicated that he would 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, bringing the nine-book narrative back to a point in some larger cycle of things, rather than a continued escalation into… into what? 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 relying 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, to some degree, no matter how heroic our actions may be. He has explored the deep-rooted fears that may ultimately be more motivating than kingdoms and gold, princesses and crowns. 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.
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…