It’s been some time since I read any epic fantasy; I stopped because it was all starting to sound the same to me. Lately, though, I’ve been on a quest for the quirky, the original, the off-beat. I’m tired of clichés and predictability, comfortable as they sometimes are to read.
Fortunately for me, Ken Scholes seems to be of the same mind. Lamentation, the first book of THE PSALMS OF ISAAK, while partaking of the spirit of traditional epic fantasy, gives the old tropes a new spin. Perhaps it is because his book partakes as much of science fiction as of fantasy (his book could as easily be a far future version of our own Earth as it could be a totally invented world); perhaps it is simply because he has a terrific imagination and a writing style to match. In any event, Lamentation was a pleasure to read.
The book begins with the destruction of Windwir: “The city screams and then sighs seven times, and after the seventh sigh, sunlight returns briefly to the scorched land.” A nuclear explosion? Something else? It is not possible to tell in this world where science seems to be indistinguishable from magic, and deliberately so, apparently the province of a religious order that seems much like a far future Catholic Church (as much as it seems like a far past Catholic Church, the Church of the Dark Ages when it preserved knowledge from total destruction). The destruction of the city leads to war between different kingdoms, each of which blames the other for the city’s annihilation. We know from the beginning who is truly responsible, but we do not know the motive except that the destroyer seems to be mad.
Scholes tells his story from the viewpoints of four characters, skipping from one to the other throughout the book. The device works well, for it gives us information we need to know what’s going on, while preserving secrets from characters who cannot know certain facts.
Rudolfo is the classic hero of the tale, a gypsy king who leads the Ninefold Forest Houses. But Scholes is not content to make him tall, handsome, brave and true. Instead, Rudolfo keeps Physicians of Penitent Torture on hand to “treat” miscreants with salted knives, and he watches them work while he dines sumptuously. At the same time, he treats women with dignity and grace; works to preserve the world’s knowledge when Windwir’s great library is destroyed; and is enormously skilled as a warrior and a dignitary. In addition, there are forces operating to make him what he is of which he knows nothing, making his life a tragedy and making him, to some extent, a puppet: but to what extent?
Our heroine is Jin Li Tam, a woman of great resourcefulness, but who is as close to a cliché as any character is this novel comes (and that is dangerously close, I regret to say). Despite her Asian name, she has characteristically Western features, and those of a fashion model at that, including every adolescent male’s dream of red hair and big breasts. And, of course, she is exceptionally skilled in bed, and of course she falls in love with the hero almost at first sight. At least Scholes has also chosen to make her cunning and, at least to some extent, ruthless.
Neb is a survivor of the destruction of Windwir, an acolyte of the religious order that ran the city. He is in his mid-teens, the son of a member of the order (and therefore technically fatherless; the members are supposed to be celibate, apparently, but that vow also appears to be dishonored with some regularity, so boys like Neb are not unusual). He becomes attached to Petronus, lately a fisherman from a village not far from Windwir. Petronus is drawn to Windwir when he sees to tower of smoke rising from the city’s destruction; we gradually learn why, as he assembles and manages a work crew that buries the dead of the city.
The plot involves the war between Rudolfo and his allies and Sethbert and his allies for control of what remains of Windwir and the Church. As mentioned above, we know from the outset that Sethbert has caused the destruction of Windwir. But Sethbert is able to manipulate the powers that be in such a way as to create doubt about who was truly responsible, and the result is war. Who joins with whom is surprising to many, including the allegiance of the mysterious Marsh King. The role of the financier to the Church, Vlad Li Tam (Jin Li’s father and Petronus’s boyhood friend), is also crucial to the outcome of the war.
This is not, however, so much a book about battles as about politics and political manipulation. That is why I found it so fascinating. The strategy, the history, the skills of the players, the personalities – everything is detailed carefully and colorfully, and the book is full — of surprises. While some aspects of the ending of the book are never really in doubt (as with most fantasies), others came as a shock, and suggest that there is much, much more to be told in the four volumes of this saga that are yet to come.
And there is so much that I have not told you about Lamentation: I haven’t mentioned Isaak or his fellow mechoservitors; I’ve barely touched on the Androfrancine Order; and there is way more to the Marsh King than I’ve suggested here. This is a rich story indeed, beautifully told.