Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: LAMENTATION by Ken Scholes

I've been reading a lot of great reviews of Lamentation by Ken Scholes, and they are well-deserved. Mr. Scholes has written an excellent steampunk fantasy, and has made a great start to new series. The series is called The Psalms of Isaak, and it will run five books which are called, Canticle, Antiphon, Requiem, and Hymn. The titles all come from various forms of liturgical music. I'm glad that the final volume is not Requiem--that would just be way too sad. I love all of these titles except Hymn. I just don't think it works as a title for me.

The series title is nowhere on the book that I can find--only online. This is a gripe I often have with books these days. Why hide the fact that it is a series? Are they trying to trick the reader into thinking it's a standalone book?

Anyway, that's hardly the fault of the author.

The novel starts out with the destruction of the city of Windwir, which is the home of the powerful Androfrancine Order and the center of knowledge in the world. To my mind, it appeared that an airplane dropped a nuke on the city, but further reading made me uncertain as to exactly what it was. If it was a nuclear bomb, it was one that produced no fallout. To all appearances, a youth named Neb is the only one who witnesses this destruction at close quarters, and the sight of it so traumatized him that he is left unable to speak.

The novel centers around Neb and several other point-of-view characters. We have Petronus, an old fisherman, Rudolfo the Gypsy King, Jin Li Tam, the daughter of Vlad Li Tam, who runs a powerful banking house, Sethbert, the Overseer of the Entrolusian City States, Resolute, the new Pope of the Androfrancines, and the Marsh King. The novel is about the aftermath of the destruction if Windwir, and solving the mystery of not who engineered its destruction, but why.

And then we have the mechoservitors, or steam-powered robots. They are extremely sophisticated. One of them, which Rudolfo names Isaak, appears to be sentient. Since the series is called The Psalms of Isaak, we know that Isaak must be a pivotal character, and we find out rather early on that yes, he is. I like Isaak's personality--think of a depressed robot who can cry, and who must obey his instructions absolutely, but is capable of taking his own sweet time in doing so. Oh, and when he does start to do something, he cannot be stopped by mere human strength.

The land is thrown into chaos because the old pope-king was killed in the destruction. Resolute declares himself the new pope, but his succession is questionable. Plus, another pope turns up.

All throughout the novel are hints that this is the remains of an advanced civilization that destroyed itself. There are large swaths of land that are uninhabitable due to magics done long ago in ancient times. They are known as the Churning Wastes. People can apparently go in there and dig around for artifacts without any lingering ill effects. Perhaps they have protective gear, I don't know--the novel has not taken us there yet. A time long past--The Age of Laughing Madness--was also brought about by these ancient magics. And the moon was apparently terraformed--it is green and blue, and structures can be seen there. I am wild with curiosity about this moon.

What fantasy novel would be complete without a young boy who falls in love? Neb is an Androfrancine and thus is pledged to chastity. However, his own father was an Androfrancine as well, suggesting that the chastity vow is often overlooked. He is fifteen at the start of the novel and he falls for a young lady who turns out to be much more powerful that you would expect.

This novel is very different and I don't want to summarize it because it would give too much away. It is packed full of intrigue and twisty plots and motivations. The characters are a mix of good and evil. For example, we have the Gypsy King, Rudolfo, who is heroic and likable. However, he apologetically maintains his family tradition of using torturers called the Physicians of Penitent Torture. Sethbert is repugnant, but he thinks he saved the world. Petronus is admirable, but he ran away from his responsibilities.

At the start of the novel, the point-of-view characters changed a bit too rapidly for me to form an attachment to some of them. I liked Neb right away, but it took me a while to warm up to the others, especially Jin Li Tam. This was no longer the case by a quarter way into the book, but I do wish the author could have spent a bit more time with each character at first.

Another problem I had was with the actions of a certain puppet-master, who apparently can prepare for certain events decades before they might happen. In fact, it is suggested that his family has a long tradition of preparing for future events, going back centuries. I'm wondering if there might be any supernatural abilities involved in these long-laid plans, because they would be too far-fetched otherwise. However, there is no hint of this so far.

Magic was interesting in that apparently anyone could use it, if they troubled themselves to learn. The characters commonly use birds to carry messages. One merely has to whisper the recipient's name to the bird and unless the bird is intercepted, it usually delivered its message unerringly. There is also the phenomenon of the magicked scout, which is a scout who can go invisible and silent all at once, while at the same time gaining heightened senses. The only thing I didn't like about the magic system was the spelling of "magick." I've seen magic spelled that way too often now, and whenever I see it, I wonder why magic can't just be magic.

The most interesting magic was the spell called Xhum Y'Zir's Seven Cacophonic Deaths. This is the spell that was used to bring about the destruction of Windwir. The novel strongly suggests that this spell has a steampunk origin. Steampunk is woven all throughout this novel. I would come to the conclusion that all the magic in the novel has a steampunk origin, were it not for the magicked scouts and the messenger birds.

There are some excellent teasers at the very end that really made me sit up and think, "No! Don't end it now! Give me more!" However, not only did the author leave me wanting to learn more, but he ended the first volume very satisfactorily. I am very much looking forward to the next volume which, according to Mr. Scholes website, comes out in October.


You can find more information about this novel through the Debut Showcase, which follows this post.


SciFiGuy said...

Loved your review Tia and I have added this to my wishlist. There is something about steampunk stories that make them so very different from everything else.

Tia Nevitt said...

I think steampunk is my new favorite subgenre. It's just so cool. I have this old computer game called "Arcanum" that was based on steampunk and it is one of those games that never got the success that it deserved.

TK42ONE said...

Thank you. Now I have a much better idea of what I'm getting into when/if I read this. Nowhere have I read anything about this having any sort of steampunk flavor to it. Instead everyone focused on how he was a break-out star and this was such a great fantasy novel.

Now I know there's a little something different in it. I've never read steampunk before, but I've never avoided it. Just haven't had the opportunity put in front of me.

So thanks. Now I know and knowing is half the battle!

Zoe said...

I'm hearing so much about steampunk lately...the new in thing? sounds good!

Tia Nevitt said...

I like it because it's quirky and old fashioned, and because of that, it's so much more ME than cyberpunk (even if I make my living by programming computers).

LoopdiLou said...

I may have to check this one out. I enjoyed Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters. However, even though I might blog about Modern Steampunky items, I haven't actually read much in the genre. Might have to fix that problem!

ediFanoB said...

Well done Tia!
I love steampunk. The book is on my list.
And there are a lot of good steampunk books available.

I also played enjoyed ARCANUM in the past.