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

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