Friday, August 18, 2017

The Unholy Consult By R. Scott Bakker

The Unholy Consult
By R. Scott Bakker

For brotherhood was not the discovery of oneself in the breast of another, but of someone better”
The Unholy Consult page 265

The Unholy Consult is the latest book from R. Scott Bakker, who likely remains the best writer you're not reading. Published in July 2017, it finishes the second of two trilogies. Both were set in the world of Earwa: a world whose entire history from pre-human days to the very last page turns on one thing. Long ago, before men discovered fire or flint, a ship from an alien world slammed into this one, and they’re still around. The beings in this ship, that has been named the Ark. have but a single purpose. They desperately want to avoid damnation, for the existence of hell and their own eventual fall into it's flames is an objective fact that they cannot dispute. They believe that the only way to do so is to destroy the link between the living world and the afterlife, which is also called the Outside. To do that, they must kill. No, they must wreck a genocide beyond anything else, killing every sapient being until no more than 144,000 living thinking beings exist. To achieve this they warred with the natives of the world they found themselves on, creating monsters like the Scranc (orcs with all the humanity removed), Bashrogs (trolls drained any dignity or grace), and Wranc (dragons, only worse) to war against the Non-Men. They lost their war but their counter stroke left the Non-Men doomed and insane. When humanity appeared, they seduced a number of sorcerers, forming the Unholy Consult and began their war anew. But their greatest weapon ever was the No-God; a weapon that not only was able to direct their savage creations with inhuman imprecision but made giving birth to living sapient creatures impossible. The last time the Unholy Consult was able to deploy it, it led to the fall of human civilization and they were only stopped by a heroic effort by the greatest sorcerer of the age and the last living son of the greatest royal house of that civilization.
In the last trilogy Kellhus, a descendant of that royal house and the end product of a millenium-spanning breeding effort to create super rational humans, arrived in the civilized lands and proceeded to use his gifts to hijack a holy war and turn himself into the god emperor of humanity. He did so because he had been called by his father, the only man to leave the program. In his journey Kellhus discovered that the Unholy Consult was real, active, and rebuilding the No-God. Kellhus would betray Drusas Achamian, the man who taught him sorcery and the ways of the world, steal Achamian's wife Esmenet, lie, steal, and commit murder on a scale historical to create the greatest empire in the history of the world. He did all of this to build the greatest army in the history of mankind, to march it beyond the ends of the world to assault Golgotterath; the fortress that the Unholy Consult had build around the Ark to end this cycle of war and destruction; kill the Unholy Consult and destroy the No God. Meanwhile Drusas fled to study, dream, seek the truth about Kellhus, and gain revenge. In the last three books both men have marched toward Golgotterath. Kellhus with an army of 300,000 men,  Drusas Achamian with Mimara: his pregnant student, wife, and daughter of his ex (but I'll discuss her in a moment). Meanwhile a surprise contender, the most violent of men, Cnaiur urs Skiotha approaches leading a horde of his fellow barbarians for purposes that only he can fathom. The second series focused on bringing all the characters we've followed to Golgotterath for a final showdown that will decide the course of human history.

It's a hell of a showdown to witness, Kellhus' army has lost 2/3rds of its number but is still a massive assembly of men, magic, and metal to pit against alien cunning and machinery. Meanwhile there's Mimara who carries the judging eye, an ability to see your very soul and through that your final destination be it heaven or hell. Mimara is an interesting character in her own right, being that she is a child of Esmenet, born before she met Drusas and sold during a famine to prevent her starving to death. Like her mother she's had a hard life and is filled with rage over it. I have to note that, without making any explicit point of it, Esmenet and Mimara are very telling indictments of their cultures (and by association the cultures of our own past). They are extremely intelligent and gifted women, often more so than many of the men in their lives but because of their gender their gifts are utterly wasted. Even Kellhus, who is more willing to use gifted women than anyone else in the series tends to put them in the backseat. This is an example of Bakker's skill as a writer to be able to make a point without getting up on a soapbox, it's never explicitly acknowledged by the characters within the story but it's incredibly hard for the reader to miss.

Against this massive army are monsters uncounted. Ur-Scranc, Scranc with human like intelligence and drive, live within Golgotterath and with them there are even worse monsters behind fortifications that have held off armies since before prehistory. Magic weapons, black magic and darker technology lurk in the Ark itself as the Unholy Consult will resort to any weapon, strategy, or argument to win the day and bring about the practical extinction of humanity. Almost half the book is given over to the battle itself and it is written with skill and flair. Mr. Bakker shows us the fight on a small scale and a large scale, showing us tales of heroism and cowardice, victory and defeat, hope and despair. Cunning plots are undone by simple courage, bravery leads young heroes to ruin, ancient wickedness is undone by youthful self sacrifice. Mr. Bakker gives this battle, one he has been building up to for over three books now, the kind of weight and tension that a fateful clash for the fate of an entire world should have. Even this battle isn't the most important thing happening in the book however, as two other events that will likely prove more important occur at the same time. First is Mimara giving birth to her child which I suspect will end up being the more important event in the long run. The more immediately important event to the story is Kellhus going alone into the inner chambers of the Ark itself and the secrets he learns and reveals. As well as who he confronts and how that confrontation ends. Because it's in this book that that we finally learn the actual truth of who and what Kellhus has become. Mr. Bakker has been playing with us on this since the last book of the first series and ladies and gentlemen... You're gonna have to read this one to believe it. What I am going to say is that, Mr. Bakker uses the conflicts he has built up in the last six books as well as the mysteries he has teased and delivers not just resolution but sneaks in a commentary on where we may be going as a society and what that may mean for us as a species and as individuals.

Which leads me to a topic I've been avoiding in these reviews of Mr. Bakker's work for a while now. A number of my readers have asked me why I even bother with Mr. Bakker's work. It's dark and moody; full of depravity, despair and is at times disgusting. Mr. Bakker has built a world on a brutal metaphysical structure that is much like our own world but skewed, with all the mercy, hope, and decency removed. It's populated by deeply flawed men and women who often constantly make the worse decisions possible and leave you wanting to reach into the book and shake them. All of this is true and it is maddeningly rendered with a skill and driving passion that you rarely see. This makes Mr. Bakker's world of Earwa shockingly real. There's a weight to this world that is often missing from fictional works. The history of Earwa may lie upon it's present like a nightmare to paraphrase the quote, but it clearly lies on the present providing context and consequences. Like the worlds of Middle Earth or Arrakis there is clearly something that happened before the story began. By twisting our own histories and faiths, Mr. Bakker creates a living breathing world for his characters to live in. One that disturbs us so much because we suspend our disbelief for these stories to a much greater degree than we can for stories that take place on worlds that are less defined. If we find Earwa, a shocking, savage place devoid of grace it is because it is a reflection of our own history. That's not the only reason however, for all the realism and factual weight of the darkness that fills his stories, it would be just a pornographic literary sadism if not the fact that Mr. Bakker fills it with complex characters that one can sympathize with and cheer for.

Drusas Achamian for example is a deeply flawed man, full of grudges, wounded pride, and anger; but despite all of that he is a good man. A man who at his core wants to help and teach his fellows, to make the world better for those who will come after. Mr. Bakker seems at times to have Achamian in this story only to torment and belittle him but it is Achamian's stubborn refusal to surrender that carries him through. Add to this Esmenet, a woman who had her fate written for her by her society and was condemned for it. Esmenet was born into the role of a whore and her whole life as been a struggle to be allowed to decide her own role in things; to gain even a bare drop of agency and freedom in a society that tells her that she has no choice in the matter and that she is also a terrible person for doing what she is told. In the quest for some measure of freedom and security she has made awful decision after awful decision and paid a heavy cost for it but she still tries and in doing so finds grace. There are legions of other characters here I could name who in turn bring light and a little spark of hope in a dark world; such as Proyas' doomed struggle or even Kellhus' daughter Serwa's willingness to give everything to protect the world. The darkness of Mr. Bakker's world comes from the laws and histories that compel it, but the light comes from those people who can raise above themselves if even for a moment and if their light shines against a powerful darkness, then it shines all the brighter for it.

Lastly, I have to admit I admire Mr. Bakker for having the courage to carry through his ideas to their full implications. The presence of gods and demons is not a new one in fantasy but often made trivial. Demons are made into a type of orc, just another creature for our heroes to defeat and the facts that their existence implies left to rot. Hell itself in fantasy is reduced to another level for the main character to overcome and rendered almost banal. Mr. Bakker throws a hand and reminds us that the existence of hell and demons means the existence of Damnation, which is horror beyond all others. Our society, often divided between those arrogantly assured of their salvation and immunity to the flames and those who honestly believe that those flames don't exist, has in large measure forgotten that horror even exists. Mr. Bakker brings us a small reminder that something as immense as eternity should not be taken casually. If Hell is an objective, provable fact in your universe, then it is a horrifying, gut churning, bowel loosening one and should be treated as such. While I may feel he twists the knife a bit too much... It's a rare writer even willing to take up the knife in the first place.

The Unholy Consult is R. Scott Bakker at the top of his game. It clears the table, answers many of the questions that had been oh so carefully posed for a full six books and sets everything up for a whole new story. It provides us with the full scale of experience we would expect in an epic fantasy where the stakes are nothing less but the fate of humanity and possibly every other living thing that shares the world with it. I was in turns horrified, disgusted, amused, impressed, shocked, and more throughout the book. Additionally I appreciated the inclusion of the Encyclopedic Glossary at the end of the book, providing something of a pocket guide to the history of the world. While not every book or series should try to be like the 2nd Apocalypse, in fact I would argue most shouldn't, the series and the book in this review provide a benchmark of what well considered and written fantasy can be with drive and effort. I am giving The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker an A.

Join me next week as we hit Monstress Vol II. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, August 11, 2017

Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn
By Mamare Touno

Here we are with yet another Log Horizon review, in case you somehow missed the last couple books or reviews let me sum up the series. Log Horizon is the story of a group of Japanese players of a MMO game that found themselves trapped in the game when a new expansion was released. They found themselves in the bodies of their characters with full access to their character’s abilities, only now when they fight the many monsters in the game, it was real and painful. As real fights tend to be. They have no idea how this happened or why. While there are subplots that focus on the many, many characters that have become part of this world, the main plot focuses on a young man named Shiroe who takes it on himself to organize a government and a society in the city he woke up in. He has to do this because frankly everyone else lost their damn minds. Thankfully once Shiroe got moving we swiftly found out that the other characters not only have minds but are capable of using them. So the story avoids the trap that Sword Art Online fell into of only the main character being allowed to do things (that's right, I said it and I'm not sorry!). Log Horizon actually started out as an online novel that was being posted by the writer Mamare Touno and it exploded as part of the current light novel obsession running across Japan.

Having said all of that, Shiroe is “sir not in this book” except for one chapter, instead this book focuses on a group of the ladies of Log Horizon. In this case the book is mostly told from the viewpoint of Akatsuki. Akatsuki is a young lady who, like Shiroe and the others, was pulled into the world of the game and woke up in the body of her male character. She was what old-timey folks like me called a cross gamer (apologies if this is the wrong term but I haven't heard it called anything else) where you play a character of a different gender than your own. From what I understand a number of ladies do this to avoid harassment. While there's nothing wrong with playing a character with a different gender, I do find it sad that people have to resort to this to just play Secret World (look you have your MMOs, I have mine) without some jackass texting them to send nude pics. I'm just gonna say…  Don't do that. It's just kinda sad, not to mention just flat out rude.

Anyway, Akatsuki was a cross gamer and it was thanks to Shiroe sharing a potion with her that she was able to transform back to her own gender and build. In return, she swore to repay Shiroe through unswerving service (editor’s note: Oh Japan…). Over the course of the last five books, that service has grown into a real emotional attachment which is foiled by her inability to communicate her feelings to Shiroe like an adult. She's also a very small, slender young woman, which leads to most people treating her like a child. Mr. Touno does well here by not fetishizing Akatsuki but by examining the drawbacks and the impacts it has on a person when they are simply never really taken all that seriously. Akatsuki is feeling that especially now as she realizes her weaknesses as a person and an assassin. Despite being a player of MMO's Akatsuki has avoided membership in guilds and large groups. This meant she's never been on raids or fought high level boss battles. Which in turn means she is suffering a severe lack of high level equipment. If you've played games like this you know that equipment is a major source of firepower, so despite being high ranked on paper Akatsuki is at a pretty harsh combat disadvantage against players that have tackled a lot of raids.

Akatsuki is not the only one struggling with growth in this story. Princess Raynesia, granddaughter of one of the leading families of the People of Earth (the natives of this world who in the game were NPCs and Quest givers) has been posted to Akiba, the city of Adventures, as an ambassador. Her leading worry is preventing a break between the Adventures (which is what the natives called the gamers) and the People of Earth. This is despite having next to no diplomatic training and difficulty understanding even the basics of Adventurer culture. For some perspective: even people from a society as restrained as modern day Japan look like a bunch of free flying maniacs with no regard for rank or class to someone from a full blown feudal structure. Add in that Princess Raynesia really just wants a quiet easy life where she can nap everyday, and you have a young lady really struggling.  You might be asking why she was posted here?  Simple, she was able to whip up an army of adventurers to fight off a monster invasion in the last books and has the best track record when it comes to dealing with adventurers.  At least among the nobility.   Shiroe and the others saw problems coming though and asked a number of young ladies from the adventurer population to drop by regularly for tea, hoping to build up connections and friendship through repeated contact. The Princess is gonna need those connections because there is something that threatens to make the city of Akiba explode.

There's a murderer running loose in town. He's faster and stronger than even the top leveled adventurers, he appears and disappears at will, he strikes at night, and no one can stop him. Now granted, death isn't really a big problem for the adventurers, if they die they wake up the next day in a temple in a nearby city but... Violence is supposed to be impossible inside the city walls. Peace is enforced by super powerful guards clad in magic armor that enhances them beyond the ability of even adventurers. Meaning anyone who initiates violence within Akiba is almost instantly imprisoned.  So who is this man, what does he want, why is he attacking every adventurer he can find alone and what happens if the truth comes out? Raynesia and Akatsuki will have to learn to grown past their limitations. They and the girls of the tea party will have to work together and fast to find the murderer, solve the mystery behind his rampage and end the situation before it becomes a scandal that could undermine the government of Akiba and the peace between Adventurers and the People of the Earth.

This is actually an interesting look into characters who usually play more of a supporting role in the story, giving them time in the spotlight. Not only do we learn more about them but we get to see them grow and improve in response to a problem. I enjoy character development like that honestly. The book stays within the the bounds of the city with one exception but tells an interesting story-within-the-story and gives us something new. The plot is fairly well self contained, although if you haven't read the other books, you're not going to know who any of these people are and why this is important, so I am deducting points for that. That said, the plot is pretty straight-forward; it's well done mind you but I felt that it actually avoided a number of twists or turns that would have made things more interesting. Still Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn by Mamare Touno gets a B-. I really liked it.

Next week. The greatest army in history approaches the gates of the greatest den of sin and terror in the world. Are we going to see the salvation of the world or the fall of a new dark age which may very well mean the extinction of mankind? Join me next week, for the Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker.

Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper By David Bennett

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper
By David Bennett

At this time Mask of the Ripper (released in October 2015) remains the last published work in the Gideon Smith series. I reviewed Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, the prior book in the series, waaayyy back in February (there will be a link at the bottom) so let me recap. The world of Gideon Smith is a steampunk wonderland where the American Revolution failed and the British Empire kept its hold on most of the east coast of North America. It's a world of Airships, islands full of Dinosaurs, Vampires, Clockwork Cyborgs and even weirder stuff. Into this world strides the Gideon Smith of our title; a handsome, strong son of a fishermen with straightforward courage and morality out to help as many people as possible. Because of this and his deeds in prior books, he's been awarded the title of Hero of the Empire but Smith doesn't work alone. There's his shockingly loyal if rotund chronicler Aloysius Bent, his mechanical lady love Maria, and Rowena Belle of the Airways among his surviving companions. The last two books have been journeys for Gideon Smith learning what being a Hero requires of him and what that means for his life. This book isn't about Gideon though, this book is about Maria, Bent, and Rowena. Although Mr. Bennett spares some time in the book to screw with Gideon's head of course.

I don't think I've spent a lot of time talking about Maria in these reviews. Part of that was because her story was heavily bound up in spoilers. Maria is a mechanical woman, built out of pipes, clockwork, and wrapped in the finest kid leather as skin. Her mind is a human one, it belonged to a woman murdered by agents of the British Crown for the crime of being in a relationship with a prince of the Empire. The whole crazy mess is given life and powered by a strange artifact found in the Atlantic on a sunken Viking longboat, it's origins are lost in pre-Egyptian times. Maria has been through a lot of changes in the last two books as exposure to other artifacts of the same origin have made her more... Alive. She no longer needs to be wound up and grows increasingly less dependent on the machinery that makes up her body. Maria has made her peace with her origins but she now has to make peace with who and what she deciding who and what she is. For one thing, Maria has to decide just how much she is going to let herself be bound by the conventions and mores of a society that in large part will never accept her as a person. I mean we are talking about British society 100 years ago here. This is the society that was struggling with the idea that women might be people in the same sense as men are. I suppose I shouldn't sneer to much at that, as there are plenty of people today, in the 21st century, who seem to have trouble accepting this idea. This is made more difficult when she finds out that her missing creator modeled her looks on a flesh and blood girl. A girl who disappeared upon being hypnotized into believing she's a whore. Maria is gonna have to deal with all this as well as work out what her relationship is with Gideon and what her ties are to the monster haunting the streets of London.

Because while she, Gideon, and the crew were running about the world? Jack the Ripper was hunting through the streets of Whitechapel killing women and cutting open their heads as if he was looking for something inside those heads. That of course begs the question of why the Ripper would be looking for anything inside of the head of a girl from Whitechapel and who, if anyone, he could be working for (or with) while conducting this grisly search? The Ripper showed up in the first book, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, as the story that Mr. Bent had been chasing and now that all the business is out of the way Aloysius Bent is determined to hunt down the Ripper once and for all and put an end to the murder spree. Especially now that the street-walking girls of Whitechapel have declared a general strike until Jack the Ripper is found and arrested. To do this Bent will have to join forces with the police, specifically Inspector G. Lestrade. It's here that I run into something I really do dislike about the book. Inspector Lestrade is a Sherlock Holmes character, as a good number of my readers may already know. As you may guess Dr. Watson and Sherlock himself make an appearance in the novel; with Sherlock being a mental patient and Dr. Watson being the doctor tasked with his care. Dr. Watson lets him attempt to solve crimes as a method of treating his insanity. I'm gonna be blunt, that's pretty disrespectful and was unnecessary for the story. It really feels like something Mr. Bennett just threw in to darken the tone of the world. Considering that the book is dealing with hunting a serial killer that the authorities outside of the local cops barely care about? I think the tone is already pretty dark. I mean, in the last book Mr. Bennett took us to a Texas being run by an insane cyborg slaver warlord. I like the idea of adding shades of gray to the standard pulp setup and confronting pulp style heroes with morally complex situations but for there to be shades of gray, you need to mix in some light with your darkness, lest you end up with just a morass of muddy darkness. Nor is Sherlock the only character dragged through the mud as an aging Zo... El Chupacabra returns and is used poorly. That said I do like the work done with the good inspector Lestrade as this version of the character has considerable depth to him and his own unconventional relationship which gives him a point of commonality with the main cast. Still if the ghosts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Johnston McCulley show up demanding satisfaction for this insult... I'm gonna have to say Mr. Bennett brought it on himself.

Unfortunately Bent is unable to focus his full abilities on catching the Ripper when Rowena is arrested and put on trial for murder. It's here we get to see the full extent of Bent's loyalty and willingness to put himself out for his friends. He throws himself into proving her innocent, by getting her a lawyer and working to find any evidence or any witness to keep the jury from uttering the words Not Guilty. Which is going to be difficult as the evidence against him is high and the Judge is known for his love of the death sentence. This is all the more difficult in that he has to do it alone, Maria is distracted with grappling with her identity and her place in the world and Gideon Smith? Gideon Smith has gone missing and disappeared into the depths of London without a trace. This leaves Bent fighting with every ounce of cunning, low charm and dogged determine he can wring out of himself. We also get a small look into Bent's past and find it choked by regrets. Mr. Bent comes off as oddly self aware and at times vulnerable in this book with his characteristic braggadocio gone. Considering that I've not talked a lot about Bent in these reviews because there wasn't much to say, Mr. Bennett has done well to humanize this character and lets us see that he doesn't hang around Gideon Smith for material gain. Although he has gained a much more comfortable life, it's not about that for him. He's here because at the latter half of his life, after trying so hard and screwing up so often, he finally has a chance to do something good and right and he's gonna throw everything he has into that. I like that and it's strange to have Aloysius Bent, the crude, near-hedonist cynic emerge as the moral compass of the book; but here it works.

The Ripper isn't the only villain of the piece however, there is also Markus Mesmer. Mesmer has a talent for hypnosis and has been causing minor havoc in London while hiding behind an act as a theater entertainer all while leading his own gang. Of course the gang isn't the only protection Mesmer has, he also has a battery of lawyers and isn't afraid to use them. Mesmer mostly plays a minor role in the story but our heroes do have to figure out what he's up to. Why is he in London, who is he working for, what if any is his connection to Jack the Ripper? Why is he so interested in the missing girl who looked just like Maria? For that matter, why is there is a girl who could pass for Maria's twin? All these questions pull the group apart as without Gideon Smith there, they find themselves operating mostly alone and unafraid. That said our title hero isn't neglected in this story, just kinda shuffled into the back seat for a bit as he disappears into London robbed of even his memory of who he is. Without even memory of his name or any money in his pockets, Gideon is wandering London in the middle of winter. He has to figure out just how far he'll go to keep alive and he finds himself pulled into a plot against the Empire. He has to figure out just what he stands for and who he's fighting for.

The action remains fast paced and well written and the dialogue is snappy and fun to read but to be honest I found myself more frustrated with this book then the last two in the series. The story raises a lot of questions and doubts for our characters but fails to provide answers to many of them and leaves our characters shaken and not entirely at peace with what they accomplished. There's good character work done with Maria and Bent but the story accompanies that by tearing down Gideon and Rowena which leaves us without any real catharsis. Which means Mr. Bennett has managed to tell a complete story but leaving us with the feeling of an incomplete story, which I'm almost sure he meant to do. It's an impressive feat of writing if that's so but I can't say I'm favor of it. Still this isn't a terrible book and it's interesting. Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper by David Bennett gets a C from me for that (Editor Query: Higher without the character assassination?{Yeah, it would be}). I find that I enjoyed the last two books in the series a lot more.

Join us next week as we continue Log Horizon, keep reading.