Antiphon: Even better than its predecessors

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Ken Scholes Psalms of Isaak 3. AntiphonAntiphon by Ken Scholes

PLOT SUMMARY: The ancient past is not dead. The hand of the Wizard Kings still reaches out to challenge the Androfrancine Order, to control the magick and technology that they sought to understand and claim for their own.

Nebios, the boy who watched the destruction of the city of Windwir, now runs the vast deserts of the world, far from his beloved Marsh Queen. He is being hunted by strange women warriors, while his dreams are invaded by warnings from his dead father.

Jin Li Tam, queen of the Ninefold Forest, guards her son as best she can against both murderous threats, and the usurper queen and her evangelists. They bring a message: Jakob is the child of promise of their Gospel, and the Crimson Empress is on her way.

And in hidden places, the remnants of the Androfrancine order formulate their response to the song pouring out of a silver crescent that was found in the wastes…

CLASSIFICATION: Despite featuring robots and other science fiction elements, the PSALMS OF ISASK series is mostly character & plot-driven epic fantasy that in terms of tone, style, and prose strongly reminds me of Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET. The books also bring to mind Lian Hearn, Daniel Fox and Elizabeth Haydon, and are recommended to readers who like their fantasy fast-paced, mystical and emotional…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFORMAT/INFO: Antiphon is 384 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters, a Prelude and a Postlude. Narration is in the third-person via returning protagonists Rudolfo, Jin Li Tam, Petronus, Neb, Winters, and Jin’s father Vlad Li Tam with each viewpoint marked by the character’s name. New viewpoints include Charles, Arch-Engineer of the Androfrancine School of Mechanics and Technology. Antiphon is the third volume in the five-part Psalms of Isaak saga after Lamentation and Canticle. It is recommended that readers finish both Lamentation and Canticle before starting Antiphon. September 14, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Antiphon via Tor. Cover art this time is provided by Chris McGrath.

ANALYSIS: Antiphon is a novel I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, especially after the jaw-dropping events that transpired in Canticle and how much author Ken Scholes improved between Lamentation and Canticle. At the same time though, I worried about Antiphon suffering from middle book syndrome and being unable to continue the momentum from Canticle. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear. Antiphon is every bit as good as the superb Canticle, and then some…

First and foremost, the story is blossoming into something special. In both Lamentation and Canticle, Ken Scholes was merely establishing the groundwork for the series and its characters, even if the latter volume was much more action-packed, driven by engaging mysteries and shocking revelations. Antiphon though is where the myriad threads of the author’s tangled web start coming together, giving readers a clearer sense of the big picture in the PSALMS OF ISAAK. In particular, we start to learn how Rudolfo and Jin Li Tam’s “Child of Promise,” the Homeseeker, the Crimson Empress, the Matchvolk (previously known as the Marshers), the Moon Wizard’s Tower, the Li Tam family, the Book of Dreaming Kings, Frederico’s Canticle, dreaming mechoservitors, the Behemoth, and the Younger Gods (Y’zir, Whym) are all connected. We also start to learn how some of the major characters fit in the grand scheme of things as specific roles are defined, with Jin Li Tam’s appointed task my favorite revelation in the book.

There are many other surprising revelations involving Neb’s parentage, Brother Hebda, the Y’Zirite resurgence, Vlad Li Tam’s heritage, an ancient metal man from the days of the Younger Gods, and the Desolation of Windwir, but nothing as emotionally gut-wrenching as what happened in Canticle. What Antiphon may lack emotionally though is more than made up by how the book rewards its readers with answers and some of the best action scenes found in the series yet. Plus, even though Antiphon answers many questions, there still remains a sense of mystery throughout the novel. For instance, we have yet to see the Crimson Empress in person, while many new mysteries — Lasthome, Continuity Engine of the Older Gods, Shadrus’s children, Barrens of Espira, Library of Elder Days, Frederico’s Bargain, et cetera — are introduced in the book, waiting to be solved.

Writing-wise, Ken Scholes doesn’t display the same kind of progression between Canticle and Antiphon that he showed between Lamentation and Canticle, but he didn’t need to. In Canticle, the author demonstrated much greater command of his writing and better execution, bolstered by graceful prose. So with Antiphon, Ken Scholes just needed to show consistency, which he does. That said, the book does show off some minor improvements in the form of better-developed subplots and slightly deeper characterization. I did find a couple of the viewpoints (Rudolfo, Petronus) in Antiphon less engaging than they were in the previous volumes, but that’s more because of the characters themselves than through any fault of the author.

As far as the book’s title, Antiphon continues the musical theme that has been running through the series. In this case, ‘antiphon’ refers to a “response,” specifically a response to the light-bearer’s dream to save the light. It also refers to an actual object revealed in the novel…

Negatively, Antiphon suffers from the same issues I had with the first two books in the PSALMS OF ISAAK; namely, world-building that I wish was deeper, and unimaginative magic/technology. By this point, however, I’ve already accepted the series’ shortcomings, which are insignificant anyway compared to what the PSALMS OF ISAAK has to offer.

CONCLUSION: As the middle volume in a five-part series, I had my concerns about Antiphon, especially when measured against Canticle, one of my favorite novels from 2009. Against all odds though, Ken Scholes delivers a middle book in Antiphon that is actually better than its predecessors. Even more impressive, Antiphon is a novel that rewards its readers, at the same time setting the stage for even greater things to come…

~Robert Thompson


fantasy book reviews Ken Scholes Psalms of Isaak 3. AntiphonAntiphon is the third book in Ken Scholes’ The Psalms of Isaak series, following Lamentation and Canticle, both of which I rated strongly despite a few relatively minor flaws. Antiphon continues in the same quality vein and, as with the others, leaves the reader wanting more by the end (and there is more to come; two more to be precise).

We return to the same characters we’ve been spending most of our time with. Rudolfo, the gypsy king, is under siege both from without and within and the character who has always known the “right path” begins to start doubting his choices as his kingdom (The Ninefold Forest) starts to unravel around him. His wife, Jin Li Tam, seeks strange and unexpected safety in the Marsher’s land, under the zealously religious protection of Ria, who usurped the Marsher’s throne from Winter (who joins Jin in her homeland and has to decide whether she will accept or fight the usurpation). While there, they discover a surprising new character.

Off in the wastelands, Nebios is pursued by women “runners” (magicked into superior abilities) who consider him an “abomination,” while Petronus, suffering disorienting visions, races to Nebios’ succor. Isaak the metal man and his inventor, Charles, head off on a mission of their own, Charles slowly recognizing the increasingly human nature of his creation. And finally, Vlad Li Tam is chasing an apparition across the seas to an unknown destination.

This sounds like a lot of plot, but in actuality, Antiphon is less packed than the prior novel, Canticle. Instead, Scholes winnows events down to a few basic story-lines and as they develop individually, he begins to weave together lots of prior threads as well as show us some of their heretofore-cloaked-in-mystery origins. By the end of the book, we end up with enough answers to sate some of our curiosity but enough old or new mysteries to whet our appetite for more.

The plots are well balanced and each is compelling in it own fashion. Some contain a lot of straight action (though never solely action), while others focus less on action than on character development. We get chase scenes, fight scenes, and big surprises, along with quiet revelations, painful realizations, emotional connections and separations. And the end offers up some unexpected directions and explanations.

By now the characters are familiar to us and so feel pretty fully formed, and we do see several changes in some of them. That said, I’d say characterization this time is a bit uneven. Some of the stories, being more plot-focused, don’t give us a lot to deal with in terms of character (Vlad and Petronus, for example are pretty singly-focused) and others are either a bit abrupt or rely too much on telling (Rudolfo, for instance, and especially his drinking). But the characterization of Jin, Winter, Charles, and Isaak is strong as they develop well beyond where they were in the previous books. Jin, for example, is changed by motherhood, Charles by the emotional development of Isaak, and Winter by returning home and facing her responsibilities to her people.

Antiphon is similarly structured to the other books: quick little chapters in different points of view. I thought this actually did a disservice to the story early on, not giving the reader enough time to settle into the characters or each particular scene; it was too much quick-cutting for me. By the halfway point, however, it was less bothersome, though here and there throughout the rest I would have liked to have lingered a bit more in a few scenes, either for plot, or character, or emotional impact.

As highlighted in my earlier reviews, the world building still runs a bit thin for my liking. I can’t say I have a truly firm grasp of this world, visually or otherwise. By now, I’m guessing it’s just what it is. I continue to enjoy the mix of technology, magic, and religion, though I could, as before, do with a fuller sense of all three. But these are relatively small complaints; I like where we’ve been and I especially like where Scholes appears to be taking us. Well-recommended.

~Bill Capossere


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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5 comments

  1. This is a series that I haven’t really looked into yet, but it keeps popping-up in my periphreals.
    Rob T’s reviews, have me wanting to add it to my TBR list.

  2. Yeah, it’s on my list, too. I’ve got the first one purchased in audio and still haven’t had time to read it. So many books, so little time….

  3. I read the first one and thought it was okay. Interesting world-building but very cliched characters. I heard the second one was much better though, and now this one… I may have to revisit this series, but I’ll probably wait until all the books are out.

  4. Lamentation is definitely underwhelming, especially compared to other fantasy debuts I’ve read, but the author makes significant strides in the next two sequels. I would recommend reading the series, but think waiting for the rest of the books is a good idea :)

  5. Wow what an excellent site you have.

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