Review: Canticle by Ken Scholes

Canticle by Ken Scholes
Canticle by Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes
Tor, 2009

Canticle by Ken Scholes follows up the author’s debut novel Lamentation.  Canticle opens up six months after the desolation of the city of Windwir with the various characters we were introduced to in the previous novel having moved forward into their new roles in the suddenly changed world.   Like Lamentation before it Canticle splits the narrative into several pieces each following one of the main characters in the story while most of these perspectives follow the overarching thread of a single cohesive plot several branch into different directions that help give both characters and the world they inhabit greater depth.

Canticle improves upon my impressions from Lamentation.  I was left with the feeling after the first novel that not much had happened and that Lamentation worked better as a part of a greater whole rather than a story in its own right.  Canticle, while very much a direct continuation of the first novel, manages to stand on its own far better then its predecessor.  The plot unfolds with razor like precision and for all the new bits of information that Scholes doles out over the course of the narrative he never strays from events that are integral what is unfolding now in favor of looking towards what is to come.  However,  there is a sense of inevitability to the story that manages to be both engaging and at times a bit frustrating.  Much like in Lamentation, where we learn that much of Rudolfo’s life has be orchestrated by the crazy manipulative Tam family, we learn that yet more decades (or longer) manipulation are behind many of the events in Canticle.  Despite the characters becoming aware of this manipulation it is seemingly too late to do anything about it by the time the novel ends and the consistent success of manipulation by still mysterious party’s casts a bit of a darker pall over much of the novel.

Like Lamentation before it Canticle excels in its handling of characters.  Canticle has several standouts in this regard particularly Neb, Winters, and Vlad Li Tam.  Vlad was a bit of surprise since he was something of a villainous, or at least morally ambiguous, character who we saw little of in the first novel.   But Scholes manages to do a masterful job of painting a potentially abrasive character in such a away as to turn him completely around into someone sympathetic to the point of heart breaking.  Winters, previously a slightly more enigmatic figure, is given a touch of humanity here and Schole’s does well to remind us that prophecies aside she is still a young woman who has spent most of her life sheltered from realities of casual human relationships.  Like Vlad she becomes something of a tragic figure as she is stripped of her power by the trials she faces and begins to rebuild herself into something new and, one hopes, better.  Neb is a more familiar hero trope the “Chosen One,” or homeseeker as Scholes dubs the time-honored fantasy cliche in his world.   This could be tiresome but the world that Neb is exposed to is fascinating enough in its right that his role in an ambiguous prophecy takes backseat to the mystery of the wastelands he sets out explore.   The sense of horror and wonder there kept me wanting to read more of Neb’s travels.  Rudolfo and his wife Jin take interesting paths that don’t quite measure up to the three characters mentioned above; though Jin does manage to sneak in one moment of awesome that had me grinning.

In terms of world-building and characterization Scholes is absolutely top-notch.  He infuses the Named Lands with a sense of history by scattering the landscape with detritus of its past both recent and ancient.  He fleshes out that same sense of history by tying one of the main plot threads to the short story “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” and the nature of Canticle’s orchestrated plot lends a sense of urgency to the preceding; rarely have the bad guys of any novel been so well organized.  While certainly passable, like Jin Li Tam’s moment of awesome mentioned above, most of the action scenes of the novel are understated affairs that Scholes’ never lingers on.  There are at least two big action set pieces in Canticle towards the beginning and the end of the novel but neither are as tense or gripping as the big dramatic scenes that Scholes sets up: Winters trudge up the mountain to declare herself, the Council of Kinclave, Winters final actions towards the novel’s end, and any number of countless small moments all stand out in my minds eye over any big sweeping action.

If you haven’t given Ken Scholes a shot yet I highly recommend doing so.  Canticle is a definite improvement over the already excellent Lamentation and as Scholes handle on long form fiction improves I find myself increasingly excited  to see where the Psalms of Isaak are going to go next.   Thankfully I won’t have long to wait since Book 3 of the Psalms of Isaak, Antiphon, is due out this coming September.

2 thoughts on “Review: Canticle by Ken Scholes

  1. I’ve read quite a few reviews that say that Canticle and Lamentation are great. I have Lamentation on my bookshelf. I need to get to it. Reviews like this get me excited to read the series.

  2. Pingback: July Summary « King of the Nerds!!!

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