After reading a string of fantasy books that I found drabbed and uninteresting, I’d thought I had outgrown the genre, moving beyond epic quests and sword fights into a more post apocalyptic world full of zombies, deadly computers and epidemic viruses. Or maybe now I preferred the alternative worlds of the past full of the technical gizmos and mysteries of the steampunk genre. Either way, I thought my time within fully developed worlds with prophecies and hodgepodge groups working together to survive were behind me. Then I read the first book in Ken Scholes’ The Psalms of Isaak series and realized, no, I’d just been reading really bad fantasy books. Weeks of sludging through the adventures of one dimensional characters doing predictable things were wiped away pages into Lamentation, Scholes’ impressive and epic first novel.
Lamentation (Book 1 of The Psalms of Isaak series)
368 pages (hardback edition)
Published February 2009
Minor spoils follow
Within pages Scholes creates a full bodied universe with adversaries and heroes, though by the end you still might not know who is which. To set the scene, Scholes opens his debut novel with the event that will follow the characters around and set into motion the underlying shockwaves that carry forward the story for the next four hundred pages. Within the first 50 pages, Windwir is destroyed by some mystical force that destroys the entire city and the thousands of people within its borders. As the center of the Named Lands, Windwir acted as the seat of power for the Androfrancines, an order that collected knowledge from the “Old World” and maintained within the confines of the large library that made up most of the city. The Androfrancines act much like a religious order of our own world, except instead of peddling gods and religions, they seek to find and protect knowledge, leaking it out to the general public in slips and pieces as they think the general populace can handle it. In the destruction of Windwir, the world loses most of the knowledge of the old as well as the group that maintained peace within the world. As everyone attempts to figure out who could have caused such destruction, sides build towards inevitable war.
Even though the story bounced between view points with three or four characters telling the story through their eyes in each chapter, the novel flows effortlessly. Moving from one character to the next doesn’t jerk you out of the action or takes much adjustment because all of the characters are so well-developed. Even the characters that have awkward “fantasy” names that are not common in the real world have distinctive traits that soon turn them into individuals after being introduced. The story is centered around four distinctive voices with others leading detail as needed:
Rudolpfo – the gypsy king of the Nine Folds Forrest, an honorable man who prefers sticking to matters of his own territory, but seeks to honor his “kinclave” with the Androfrancine order
Jin Li Tam – a daughter of the house of Li Tam, a familial network that subtly attempts to affect change within the Named Lands, acts as a spy for her father
Neb – a teenage orphan of the Androfrancine order who was leaving Windwir with his father to enter the old world for research
Petronus – an old fisherman who is much more than he pretends to be with an emotional stake in the destruction of Windwir
Through their eyes, the story unfolds – war begins, mysteries unravel, loyalties change and somehow the mythology becomes more and more complicated as the entire world gets involved in the aftermath of the destruction of this one city.
Lamentation defeats the boundaries of genre classification. Yes, I compare it to epic fantasy, but at the same time there are mechoservitors – metal men used by the Androfrancine order for maintaining their library – and steam powered technology, magic seeping in through the cracks, and human drama reflected in the tribulations of a post-apocalyptic world as it falls apart. Though it begins in a slow steady pace that builds up a world almost as real as our own, Scholes has no hesitation in running at full speed, developing the world as the action powers the story along.
This is the first of a five novel series with the third book, Antiphon, coming out in September. There is no way any words of my own can justify how fantastic this book is. I highly recommend it and its sequel Canticle to anyone who enjoys getting lost in well constructed, beautifully written worlds full of action, mystery and intrigue. This isn’t Lost. Questions get answered as often as they get asked, though theorizing and putting pieces of the puzzle together along with the main characters is part of the fun.