Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: old review from BSC: Lamentation

by Ken Scholes

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Tor
Cover Design: Gregorgy Manchess
Release Date: Feburary 17, 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0765321275

The tale of Lamentation begins with the total destruction of the city of Windwir.  Windwir is the religious capital of the Androfrancine Order and home to the greatest Library and scholarly school in the known world.  Then in a blink of an eye, it is utterly destroyed.  The obliteration is noted in the distance by many including Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses. Another is Sethbert, Overseer of the Entrolusian City-States.  With him, is his consort Lady Jin Li Tam of House Tam and pawn of her father’s intelligence network.  Still another is a deceptively simple fisherman and former priest by the name of Petronus.  And then there is Neb, a young initiate in the Order who witnesses the city’s complete annihilation and is the sole survivor of the cataclysm. 

Rudolfo and Sethbert are the first to converge on the ruins of the city and it soon becomes clear that Sethbert’s mad ambitions are behind the destruction.  They come to blows and war is declared in the Named Lands.  Jin Li Tam and her father quickly side with Rudolfo against Sethbert.  Petronus feels it is his duty to inter the dead but he soon realizes his true duty is take command over the remnants of the Order when a new Pope comes to power siding with Sethbert.  Neb, scarred by horror, tries to bury his need for vengeance in his work with Petronus.  Alliances are made and broken, Popes are made and religious schisms created, new players are revealed to shift the balance, all is in upheaval in the aftermath and the world is changed forever. 

One of the first things you’ll notice about this book is the high amount of politicking and intrigue.  Surprisingly, there is very little military action or battles as is typical of fantasy. Most of the novel is given over to plots and counterplots, wheels within wheels within wheels.  There are many layers to the scheming from those who merely react or act as best they can, those who have immediate plans, and those with far wider goals.  Such a level of politics in a novel is pretty rare and the closest example would probably be George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  By the end of the books, the plotting that is revealed is staggering and quite frankly some of it stretches credibility.  At the least it made my head hurt.

Part of the reason the political credibility seems to be stretched too thin stems from the world building.  Simply put, the world feels too small to be host to the story.  The former city of Windwir was the religious and intellectual heart of the Named Lands and had a population of 200,000 yet it seems major locations are only days or weeks away from each other.  Granted, I wasn’t expecting a travelogue (which would have ruined the story anyhow), yet the amount of politicking seems to feel a little out of place.  There is little mention of areas and cultures outside the Named Lands.  Hopefully more will be revealed in future books. 

On the other hand, other aspects of the world building such as trade, food, and history are better handled.  There are no major info dumps in this book, for which many readers will likely be thankful.  Bits and pieces of the background are only revealed as needed.  One of the most important parts of the history is that the current civilization is a less advanced derivative of an earlier one.  The Androfrancine Order actually began as a group of scientists that came into conflict with a family of sorcerers.  The head of the family was enraged beyond reason and created a spell that caused massive destruction and essentially threw society back into the medieval age. 

The magic practiced by the peoples in current age was kind of disappointing as it only consists of powders to enhance speed, voice, or invisibility.  It seems that the true magic was that from earlier times.  Because of the science aspect, Lamentation is not a typical fantasy novel and has elements of science fiction technology and concepts.  Some examples of this are steam-driven ships and gunpowder firearms.  The most important example however, is the existence of “metal men”, which are basically robots reproduced from the previous age.  The Order’s mission is to find retrieve knowledge and power from what went before.  They hoarded the knowledge for their own benefit and that was the basis of their downfall. 

The dangers of pure knowledge is one the themes of the novel.  Another main theme is that change is inevitable and that looking back on the past is done as the expense of the present and the future.  All the main characters in the story – Rudolfo, Petronus, Neb, and Jin Li Tam – take their own journeys to this viewpoint.  While the character development is a little simplistic and is not presented as an actual debate on the subject matter, it does flow naturally from the plot of the story. 

Lamentation is a solid first novel in a planned five book series known as the Psalms of Isaak by Ken Scholes.  The second book, Canticle, will be released in October 2009, with the final three to be published between 2010 and 2011.  While the book has its flaws, it is impressive for a first novel and I’m looking forward to reading future books in this series.

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