Review: Lamentation by Ken Scholes

Lamentation by Ken ScholesLamentation
Ken Scholes
Tor, 2009

Scholes, known mostly for his short fiction, makes his first run at epic fantasy with Lamentation the first in a 5 book series.  The city of Windwir, home of the Andofrancine order and its stores of ancient technology and knowledge, has been destroyed.  The allies of Windwir ride to its aid where the discovery of a sole survivor, a mechanical automaton, slowly unravels a tangled web of secrets and betrayal.  Lamentation is an impressive debut with a fascinating world steeped in history and colored by a unique, and very slight, steampunk vibe.  Impressive as it is Lamentation does have some flaws that, in my opinion, lessen the impact of novel’s events.

The narrative style employed by Scholes seems to play to his background in short fiction.  Each chapter is divided by several short point-of-view sections for different characters.  It is an interesting approach that lends the novel, despite its rather sedate approach to action, a quick pace.  While we don’t see any real knockdown drag-out fights (we get occaisonal quick spurts of violence) Scholes’ deft manipulation of each point-of-view make the political machinations and twisting history of his characters as enthralling as any high-octane action scene.  Conversely the relatively short sections from each of various points-of-view means I never really felt I got a handle on each of the characters.  My guess is that this is intentional on Scholes’ part.  The point of origin for the novel’s plot is the desolation of Windwir, we don’t really get to see who the characters were before that but we do witness how that event plays out in their lives and while the city’s destruction does reveal hidden truths about the past the novel stays focused on what is to come rather than what came before.

I admire Scholes’ work in providing little to no major bits of expository text.  That is something to proud of, especially in the first novel of a new series.  Don’t get me wrong, there are the occaisonal moments where characters will expound upon a historic detail but given the novel’s focus on knowledge, and the power it wields, that expounditure feels organic rather than contrived.  However, by-and-large we get world-building details over the course of the text as we need them.  I was fascinated and slightly disturbed by Rudolfo’s, General of the Wandering Army, use of torturers as a means of repentence (they carve mazes on their victims) and was pleased by similar reaction to a major religious figure in the story.  We learn through that same character, almost as an aside, that there are darker aspects to the Andofrancine faith that have been mostly left by the wayside.  It is elements like these brief little detail that end a surprising amount of depth to the world of Lamentation.

Lamentation’s major problem is that it is the first novel in a series and, as such, answers to questions raised over the course of the novel are not necessarily provided; nor are those at are exactly clear-cut.  The sequel, Canticle (October 2009) will hopefully shed some light on developments that occur towards the end of Lamentation.  Futhermore, Lamentation, feels more like part of a greater whole than a distinct piece of fiction in and of itself.  As a result I’m left with the feeling that nothing much happened over the course of the novel and with too much left unresolved towards the end to let me feel satisfied.  Oddly if, while I was reading the novel, you were to tell me that was how I’d feel when it was over I’d probably have looked at you like you had two heads.  I was utterly engrossed from start to finish a fact that leaves my mixed feelings now quite a surprise.

Intellectually I know that for a fact that a lot did happen over the course of the novel.  The desolation of Windwir in the novel’s prelude has a lasting impact on the world and the changes it forces on the various characters are both intimate in one sense and broad in others.  In truth it is the characters themselves that are the real draw here.  Scholes has crafted a number unique and fascinating individuals.  Isaac, the metal man found in the ruins of Windwir, is the real draw of course.  His mechanical approximations of human emotional responses, grief and anger being the two big ones, actually resonate more for me than the responses from our more…fleshy characters.  Isaac doesn’t really get enough screen time for me, but it makes what we do see him all the more enjoyable and engroosing to read.  Jin Li Tam, who we initially are introduced to as a consort, cynical and very clinical in her approach to relationships and people who, like Isaac, finds her own humanity in the ruins of Windwir.  Rudolfo, well I won’t comment too much on him as doing so might reveal some important plot details but he serves as the touchstone for many of the novel’s other characters.  Last I’ll mention Neb.  Neb, the only human witness to Windwir’s destruction, was a character I initially found bland and uninteresting but who over the course of the novel, becomes more and more interesting.  Lamentation is an as much a portrait of its characters as it is an epic fantasy and though the scope of the changes wrought over the course of the novel is global in scope their interpretation through the eyes of distinct individuals lets us seem them from extremely intimate and personal perspectives.

Mixed feelings or not I found Lamentation an enthralling read full of vibrant characters population a unqiure world with a fascinating history.  It is a story I plan on following to its conclusion as my appreciation for the prose and the quality of the worldbuilding outweights my misgivings over the execution over the novel’s plot.  I have a tendency to try and place all fantasy into some ill-defined contextual matrix, but I’m going to curb that here.  I think almost every fan of fantasy will find something to like here and trying to compare Lamentation with “classic” fantasies or more recent takes on the genre will obscure the point; I’ll try and extend a similar curtousy to other fantasy novels in future reviews.  Highly recommended for all fantasy fans.

Addendum:  Apparently that short story that spawned Lamentation, “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise,” had an illustration with it.  It is pretty impressive.  Check it out here.

 

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