Lamentation: A rich story, beautifully told

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Ken Scholes Psalms of Isaak: LamentationLamentation by Ken Scholes

Lamentation is a promising start to a new fantasy (or at least semi-fantasy) series, which is a bit ironic as its own start is a bit bumpy. The story begins with a bang — literally. We’re witness to the utter destruction of an entire city — screams, flames, toppling buildings, searing winds, etc. Many novels would end with the scene, but Ken Scholes chooses to make it the starting point of the plot, an original beginning which I liked a lot.

Unfortunately, Scholes seemed to like it a lot as well and so he gave us the same basic scene — the city’s destruction — from one viewpoint, then another, then another, then another. Not the details themselves, but the immediate aftermath. At first, I thought it a nice touch — a relatively innovative way to introduce more than a single main character. But the repetition grew a bit annoying. Even worse were the overly-quick-cuts from one character/setting to another. The too-fast movement might have worked had it involved fewer characters or if it had slowed immediately after we met all the major characters, but it went on far too long and skipped among too many characters. Once Scholes drops the frantic approach though, and allows us to settle in with the characters for more than a minute or two of reading, the book becomes far more compelling and far more enjoyable.

The destroyed city was the seat of the Androfrancine Order — keepers for the past two thousand years of the Great Library, where artifacts and knowledge of the Old World (which seemingly ended in cataclysm) have been collected and studied while the Order decides what knowledge can be released and which is too dangerous. It was one such piece of knowledge — an ancient spell known as the Seven Cacophonic Deaths — that destroyed the city of Windwir, though whether the brothers brought the destruction upon themselves or it was unleashed on them isn’t clear at the start. Hoarding and dispensing knowledge, the Order had been the dominating power in the Unnamed Lands and with both the Library and most of the Order gone, the fighting begins to fill the power vacuum, as well as to avenge the city’s destruction.

Among those dealing with the pieces:
Rudolfo, the Gypsy King and allied by “kin-clave” to Windmir; the Overseer Sethbert whose depth of involvement in Windmir’s destruction remains unclear for some time; Jin Li Tam, introduced as Sethbert’s consort but who quickly becomes much, much more; Jin’s father, a king and a puppetmaster (though how long and how many strings remains a mystery); a young orphan of Windmir who witnessed the city’s destruction; a mechanical man who not only survived the city’s destruction but may have caused it; the mysterious Marsh King; and two Popes vying to be seen as the “true” leader of the devastated Order.

The story switches perspectives among all of these as they play a version of the Great Game, seeking alliances, trying to strengthen their positions, all while trying (some of them at least) to find out how and why Windmir was destroyed. Save for the first frantic 50 pages or so, transitions between characters are handled quite smoothly. The more time we spend with them the more interesting most of them become, as what we thought we knew becomes less certain. Rudolfo, who probably gets the most text, is likeable and interesting enough, but relatively static until the near-end. Sethbert is pretty stock and minor. The others are more complex, more shaded, more slowly revealed, and thus more compelling, Jin and her father especially so.

As the story moves along, some questions raised at the start are answered while new ones arise, keeping the plot interesting. For a book about a land engulfed in war, battles themselves are given relatively short shrift. Anyone looking for huge, exciting battle scenes will be disappointed; as mentioned this is more about the Great Game of politics and manipulation than it is about thousands of people trying to cleave each other to pieces. Personally, I didn’t bemoan the lack of battle detail. I wouldn’t have minded more details, however, on the Old World — with its conflict between science (represented by the founder of the Order) and magic (represented by the witch king who devised the Seven Deaths spell as vengeance for the murder of his seven sons) — and on the New World politics prior to Windmir’s lost. Details do slip out as the book goes on, especially toward the end, and I’d expect more to come in book two; we seem to be clearly heading in that direction, so this is a relatively small complaint.

Ken Scholes has a natural, seemingly effortless style which makes the reading zip by. Dialogue is a bit stilted at the start, but, as with the pacing of the cuts, quickly improves. It’s a fast read, helped by the short scenes (sometimes too short), the lack of sprawling battles, a relatively cursory sense of setting (adequate though minimalist relative to most fantasy novels), and a compelling plot.

Lamentation is a mostly original mix: it has a post-apocalyptic feel of A Canticle for Leibowitz
or Hiero’s Journey, complete with the religious underpinning, woven in and around a more typical medieval fantasy. With characters and a plot that that deepen as the story progresses and an ending that closes down one storyline while opening up another, it’s a promising start to a series that feels a bit different from the same old same old. I found myself growing more engrossed as I read and when I finished felt disappointed I’d have to wait some time for book two. Recommended.

~Bill Capossere


fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIt’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.

~Terry Weyna

Publisher: An ancient weapon has completely destroyed the city of Windwir. From many miles away, Rudolfo, Lord of the Nine Forest Houses, sees the horrifying column of smoke rising. He knows that war is coming to the Named Lands. Nearer to the Devastation, a young apprentice is the only survivor of the city — he sat waiting for his father outside the walls, and was transformed as he watched everyone he knew die in an instant. Soon all the Kingdoms of the Named Lands will be at each others’ throats, as alliances are challenged and hidden plots are uncovered. This remarkable first novel from an award-winning short fiction writer will take readers away to a new world — an Earth so far in the distant future that our time is not even a memory; a world where magick is commonplace and great areas of the planet are impassable wastes. But human nature hasn’t changed through the ages: War and faith and love still move princes and nations.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve almost started this a couple times. Now I just might have to . Nice review. thanks

  2. Greg, you have the added benefit of being able to start the next book in the series as soon as you finish this one! Always a joy to me when reading a series. Glad you liked the review.

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