As I mentioned in my review of The Great Ordeal, it's been a long time coming. Honestly, it's been a very long time coming. More than six long years, to be exact. Like many fans, I wasn't happy to learn that the book which was meant to become The Unholy Consult would have to be split into two installments. My biggest fear was that The Great Ordeal would simply be part 1 of 2, and not a work of fiction that would stand well on its own. It's no secret that recent examples of fantasy novels split up unnecessarily (Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, and Robin Hobb's City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons come to mind) ended up being disappointments. My main concern was that turning what was originally meant to be one novel into two separate books would hurt them both in the long run.
Ultimately, The Great Ordeal was indeed just part 1 of 2. Considering how long Bakker fans had to wait to finally get their hands on that novel, it was a bit disappointing. The Great Ordeal definitely set up what would be an unforgettable finale in The Unholy Consult. But as part 1 of 2, it did not stand that well on its own. In my humble opinion, had it been released as planned, The Unholy Consult would have been to Bakker what A Storm of Swords was to George R. R. Martin. It would have been the author's crowning achievement, his best work to date.
Which brings us here. The Unholy Consult, the grand culmination of the Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor series, will be released in a few short weeks. In many ways, it's everything fans have always wanted.
It answers lots of questions that have been plaguing us for years. Some dating all the way back to The Darkness That Comes Before. It is also an end, but not the end. Indeed, it brings the Great Ordeal story arc to a close. Trouble is, The Unholy Consult ends with the mother of all cliffhangers and it leaves a panoply of things up in the air. As such, this final volume doesn't offer as much resolution as people expected, which some fans will find off-putting.
Although the author and the publishers never had problems with my reviews in the past, some Bakker fans were irked by what they considered to be spoilers, minor though they were. So if you are one of those people, please refrain from reading on. For everybody else, here are my thoughts on The Unholy Consult.
Here's the blurb:
In this shattering conclusion to The Aspect-Emperor books, praised for their “sweeping epic scale and detailed historical world building” (Grimdark Magazine), R. Scott Bakker delivers the series’ feverishly harrowing and long-awaited finish. The Men of the Great Ordeal have been abandoned by Aspect-Emperor Anasurimbor Kellhus, and the formerly epic crusade has devolved into cannibalism and chaos. When Exalt-General Proyas, with the Imperial-Prince Kayutas at his side, attempts to control the lost Men and continue their march to Golgotterath, it rapidly becomes clear that the lost Lord-and-Profit is not so easily shaken from the mission. When Sorweel, Believer-King of Sakarpus, and Serwa, daughter of the Aspect-Emperor, join the Great Ordeal they discover that the Shortest Path is not always the most obvious, or the safest. Souls, morals, and relationships are called into question when no one can be trusted, and the price for their sins is greater than they imagined.
As I said before, when it originally came out, The Judging Eye had all the hallmarks which made the first trilogy such a great reading experience, minus what many considered its shortcomings. Personally, I felt that it featured R. Scott Bakker writing at the top of his game. On the other hand, a lot of fans believed that the philosophical aspects and the inner musings were what essentially made the Prince of Nothing stand out from the rest of the speculative fiction pack, and were thus somewhat disappointed by the first volume in The Aspect-Emperor series. In terms of style and tone, The White-Luck Warrior was something in between the Prince of Nothing and The Judging Eye. Stylistically, The Great Ordeal was more akin to the second volume than the first installment. The first portion of The Unholy Consult is similar to its predecessor, as the book begins right where The Great Ordeal ended. To all ends and purposes, it focuses on the aftermath of the New Empire, Ishterebinth, the Great Ordeal, and Ishuäl storylines, before the strike on Golgotterath can begin. The second part of the book is more akin to Steven Erikson's epic convergences in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and it makes for an exciting and gripping finale.
Not surprisingly, the worldbuilding is top notch. Bakker's richly detailed narrative continues to create an imagery that virtually leaps off the page. The Middle Eastern setting of the western Three Seas remains a welcome change from the habitual generic medieval environments found in most fantasy sagas. As he did in The Judging Eye, The White-Luck Warrior, and The Great Ordeal, the author takes us to new unexplored locales. After his evocative depictions of the wastes of the Istyuli Plains, the primeval forest known as the Mop, and the ruined remains of Kûniüri, the Erengaw Plains, the Urokkas range, Dagliash, the mysteries of Ishuäl, and the Nonmen capital of Ishterebinth, this time around we journey across the Fields of Woe of Agongorea, the Occlusion, the Black Furnace Plain of Shigogli, the vast complex that is Golgotterath, and the Ark-of-the-Skies itself. The universe of Eärwa continues to resound with depth and Bakker's creations remains head and shoulder above all other SFF settings on the market today, second only to Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan universe.
Structurally, The Unholy Consult is quite different from its predecessors. With a good third of the book from the beginning focusing on the aftermath of The Great Ordeal, it does take a while for the story to get going. I fully understand that Bakker needed to close the show and tie up the loose ends associated with the New Empire, Ishterebinth, and Ishuäl arcs. Before everything could converge on Golgotterath, this needed to be done. Having said that, I feel that way too many pages were "wasted" on the Great Ordeal following the scalding at Dagliash. True, Bakker needed to paint a very grim picture as the surviving Ordealmen deal with the psychological repercussions of having consumed Sranc and how it messed with their minds. But I do feel that the author spent too much time dealing with these issues. With Golgotterath in sight, at times it felt as though it was taking forever for the attack to finally begin. For that reason, the pace for the first third of the novel is extremely slow. Unnecessarily slow, to be honest. Of course, when the proverbial shit finally hits the fan, there are fireworks in every chapter and The Unholy Consult becomes well nigh impossible to put down! God knows I'm not always a fan of long-drawn (more than 150 pages) battles, but the battle for Golgotterath was probably better than any of Erikson's great convergences! If you thought that the finale that ended The Thousandfold Thought was exciting, buckle up because this one is even more awesome! Especially the displays of offensive sorcery, which can be pretty amazing. As a matter of course, such a strike on Golgotterath will not be without casualties. The bodycount among major characters is quite high, which came as a bit of a surprise. Somewhere, George R. R. Martin is nodding his head in approval.
The New Empire arc once again features the POVs of Esmenet and Kelmomas. This storyline pretty much went nowhere until its last chapter in The Great Ordeal. Then all hells broke loose and Bakker closed the show of that particular plotline with a bang. It did end with a huge cliffhanger and I thought that it would make for a bigger chunk of The Unholy Consult. But no, as resolution comes rather quickly and then the action moves away from the Western Three Seas and never go back. This arc also features a new point of view, one that must remain a secret for now. This POV also appears in the Great Ordeal arc and offers insight that wouldn't otherwise be available. Unanticipated, to be sure, but at times quite fascinating.
The Ishterebinth storyline once more features the POVs of Varalt Sorweel and Serwa, Grandmistress of the Swayal Sisterhood. But we also get the perspective of Moënghus, which was quite interesting. All three flee Ishterebinth altered in some ways, but none are more scarred than Moënghus. Having him as a point of view protagonist changed the dynamics of that arc, and his personal storyline leads to unexpected and even shocking paths. Serwa also comes into her own in this one, especially in the latter part of The Unholy Consult.
The Ishuäl storyline features the POVs of both Achamian and Mimara. High on Qirri, they are desperately trying to escape from the Scylvendi and make their way to join the Great Ordeal so that Mimara can look upon the Aspect-Emperor with the Judging Eye.
The Great Ordeal mostly features the POV of Nersei Proyas, at least for about half of the book. The relationship between Kellhus and Proyas took an startling turn in The Great Ordeal, one that will have dramatic repercussions down the line. As the interminable march draws to an end and as the battle of Golgotterath gets underway, a panoply of points of view comprise most chapters and the conflict unfolds through the eyes of various Ordealmen.
Given the structure of The Aspect-Emperor series, it should come as no surprise that these four story arcs come together in the shadow of Golgotterath. Exactly how it comes to pass, I will let you read and find out. But amidst all that brutality, depredations, despair, the blood and the gore, R. Scott Bakker offers some extremely poignant moments that really contrast with all the savagery. A pregnant Mimara being reunited with an Esmenet that has lost so much makes for a number of emotional scenes. The same goes for Achamian and Proyas' long-awaited reunion. Although not heartbreaking per se, the encounter between Achamian and Kellhus was also quite special.
Unfortunately, I'm disappointed to report that, tough we were promised otherwise, we don't get much as far as the perspective of the Consult is concerned. We do get a bit, and we do find out later on why there is so little in terms of their point of view, yet I would have liked more. Much more. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Mind you, we do find out a lot about them and what's been going on for the last few centuries. There are quite a lot of revelations that will make long-time fans squee in delight, such as exactly what is the No-God. But do not expect a Perry Mason scene in which everything is explained. Indeed, though Bakker provides a lot of answers throughout The Unholy Consult, many questions remain unanswered and the book raises its own fair share of new ones. Fair warning to those crackpot fanatics who have been discussing the metaphysical principles underpinning the Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor series for more than a decade, you are bound to be disappointed. Some of this stuff is addressed either in the narrative or the glossary at the end of the novel, but most of it isn't.
I claimed that The Unholy Consult was everything that Bakker fans have been hoping for and I stand by that. As the culmination of the vast tapestry of storylines that form the Second Apocalypse, the novel is a great and fitting finale that closes the show with a massive exclamation point! And yet, though it is an ending, sadly it is not the ending. The Great Ordeal story arc is indeed over, with satisfying resolution. The last sentence of the book is quite clear on the matter. But as mentioned above, so much is left up in the air that this mother of all cliffhangers might cause riots among Bakker fans. And since the author is not yet under contract for the next series, the one that cannot be named, well that may not sit well with some readers.
The book also contain an expanded encyclopaedic glossary that should not be read before The Unholy Consult, for it could spoil certain plot elements. It also contains two short fiction pieces available on Bakker's blog, "The False Sun" and "Four Revelations". The first short story is about the early days of the Holy Consult, while the second one deals with a Nonman Erratic. All in all, they represent a nice bonus for fans of both series.
Ultimately, even though the major cliffhanger ending might displease some readers, The Unholy Consult caps off The Aspect-Emperor series with style and aplomb. The strike on Golgotterath was every bit as rousing and captivating as we could have hoped for. And though there is no book deal in sight, whatever comes next will have Bakker fans foaming at the mouth, for it will be impossible for readers not to pick it up to discover what happens next. The slog of slogs has come to an end with a thrilling finale. Expectations were incredibly high, yet R. Scott Bakker managed to live up to them and then some!