The great city of Windwir, seat of the Papacy and heart of the Androfrancine Order, has fallen. And with it an age, a great store of knowledge, science and history, and a world’s way of life.
The reader bears witness to the fall of Windwir in the opening passage of Lamentation, and as the dust settles on that field of bone and rubble, we are introduced to the story’s main characters.
At the edge of the Ninefold Forest, in the Prairie Sea, Lord Rudolfo, King of the Ninefold Forest Houses and General of the Wandering Army, witnesses a great plume of smoke rising to the southwest. And in his heart he knows that Windwir is no more. And within minutes, he and his Gypsy scouts ride to Windwir’s aid.
Sethbert, Overseer of the Entrolusian City States also watches as the great cloud of black smoke rises into the sky above Windwir. And he grins in self satisfaction. From the very beginning the reader is allowed the knowledge that the madman Sethbert has orchestrated the destruction. It is the motive that is withheld.
With the lunatic leader, a consort of the finest breeding rides. Jin Li Tam, of the great ship building clan House Li Tam, accompanies Sethbert and his army, ever aware of the Overseer’s tenuous grasp on reality. She is a lady, trained in martial arts and statecraft, and adept in all things courtly, and she reports to her father, Vlad Li Tam, all of the movements and vital information that she can gather as a spy for House Li Tam.
Further south, in a small village at the mouth of Caldus Bay, Petronus the fisherman, mends a net and watches a kingfisher glide upon the wind. Suddenly, the bird is pushed aside by a surge of wind, and then he, too, sees it; the roiling cloud of smoke rising above the plain where Windwir had once been. And he wonders aloud to himself what the priests and followers of P’ Andro Whym have done to bring down the wrath of heaven.
And just outside the gates of the city, the orphan child of an Androfrancine monk waits for his father to return to the cart from retrieving an item that he should have remembered in the first place. But before his father can return with the forgotten items, Nebios watches as his beloved city and burgeoning relationship with his estranged father is reduced to ash and bones. He gazes, unbelieving, as everything he has ever known or loved disappears in a pillar of smoke and flame. He is left alone, the sole survivor, with only his guilt to keep him company.
When the dust settles on what can only be compared to a nuclear blast and an attempted genocide, Scholes wastes no time getting to the meat of the story. Weaving and counter weaving plots of intrigue with bits of world building, and a nice helping of rich character development, Scholes shows off his talent for telling stories in short bursts. This method of switching character perspectives every few pages or so might be something of an annoyance to a reader that likes to settle in with a particular character or story arc. And I must admit that, at the beginning, I was not pleased at all with the constant gear shifting. But as you would expect from a good book, regardless of its style, the story eventually grabbed me in its hooked beak and held me prisoner until the end.
I didn’t read Lamentation as fast as one might think someone who is properly engaged with a story might. And I’m not sure I can put my finger on the why fors and how comes. Perhaps at times the political scheming felt a bit tedious to me, but that isn’t to take away from the artfulness with which the author integrated the different storylines and character motivations.
Most of the time I was very pleasantly surprised to see how Scholes brought a particular plot thread back around to bear on another intersecting plot thread. Lamentation is practically a metaphorical Whymer maze (you’ll know what I mean when you read the book) in and of itself, and the skill with which he builds this maze is pretty amazing; especially considering that this is the author’s first novel. I wonder how much space his visual timeline took up on his wall?
Lamentation is not your typical fantasy story. If it had been, you’d find yourself reading another TV Time Warp post tonight, or sitting in your dark computer room wondering when the hell I’m going to finally post something of substance. (I suppose that’s a bit presumptuous of me to assume that anyone anywhere is waiting for me to post anything at all.) Scholes does a pretty good job of world building without spilling a bunch of ink to do it. A seed planted here and there, a clue alluded to here, and a name dropped there are all enough to give the reader just the right impression of what’s gone before, and how the world of Lamentation came to be what it is.
Of course, the beauty of this style of writing is that the reader gets to use his or her imagination to flesh out this world and its history. This takes a bit of trust and quite a leap of faith in the audience from Scholes, in my opinion. It’s almost an unspoken agreement between reader and writer: he’s drawn the first few lines, and it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. And I suppose it is the mystery of all of this, and this unspoken bond of trust between author and reader, that kept me reading, even if it was slowly, to get to the end.
There are some themes and concepts that seemed to be present within the plot of this book, and perhaps within the larger story arc of The Psalms of Isaak, that I find particularly fascinating. Like I said, Scholes has left it mostly up to us to interpret the bones after he’s cast them, so the following few paragraphs are only my ramblings and interpretations of those castings. Perhaps you will agree. Perhaps you will not. But some of the fun in being allowed to decide how we feel about elements in a story (any kind of story) is the debate and discussion that follows between intelligent and socially inclined people after the telling.
For my money, the superficially fantasy oriented world of Lamentation is actually a very distant post-apocalyptic version of our own. More of a post-dystopia, if you will. In this version of our future, a lucky few (the Younger Gods) have fled a devastated earth to terraform the moon, leaving the unfortunate masses behind to pick at the scraps of meat left on the bones of a dying world. And in time, somehow, the surviving people of earth have come out the Churning Wastes and into The Named Lands, an area of the earth that was somehow spared from the worst of the destruction. Why would one part of the earth be exempt from devastation? Inevitably in these kinds of stories, the cataclysm is at the hand of man in some way or another. Whether through an abuse of technology or war, it isn’t a far leap of faith to believe that an unpopulated area of earth might be spared from the destruction that would come with a nuclear war, or some sort of environmental or technological disaster. In my interpretation of Ken Schole’s story, The Named Lands are just that. A protected valley, or previously unsettled or uninhabited forest or area of earth that was able to rejuvenate more quickly and allow habitation once again.
In any case, it is alluded that a much older civilization than the one we are presented with (perhaps centuries removed from our own) once existed beyond the borders of The Named Lands. The Androfrancines are a pseudo religious order whose precepts are based on scientific and technological data mined from the archaeological remains left behind in the Churning Wastes by the previous society. They are the keepers of the light, and their order is very nearly a perfect clone of modern day Catholicism (without the Jesus part).
The Androfrancines aren’t painted with a very sympathetic brush; that much is clear. They are vaguely accused of hoarding and suppressing the dissemination of knowledge to a public that is perceived by the Androfrancines to be inferior and incapable of handling that knowledge. It is further alluded that Sethbert has brought down Windwir in an attempt to end the tyranny of the order over the rest of the world. In effect, he sees himself as a hero.
And who are we to disagree with him?
And that’s what I find so intriguing about Lamentation, and to a larger extent, the mind of Ken scholes. It’s not the blacks and the whites that make the story of Lamentation so interesting. It’s the grays. And the questions that come out of these grays. Is the character Petronus largely based on Scholes himself? Does the author struggle with a simultaneous love/hate feeling towards modern dogmatic religions? Does Scholes (and Petronus) approve of Sethbert’s attempted genocide against the Androfrancines? Does the author view Sethbert as a misunderstood, politically maligned anti-hero, whose contribution to the greater good will only be seen with time as perspective. I’m reminded of a quote from Donnie Darko:
“They say right when they flood the house and they tear it to shreds that... destruction is a form of creation, so the fact that they burn the money is ironic. They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”
I wonder if Sholes is using Lamentation as an allegory to compare our society to great societies of the past that have either fallen by their own hand due to their own eccentricities, or at the hands of men who are viewed as terrorists until time and historical perspective have relabeled them heroes and patriots?
Perhaps I am way off base here, and the story will go in a much more orthodox direction. For now, though, I feel that Scholes has done an outstanding job of setting up the world of Lamentation. To the reader, this first volume is like viewing a fine painting from far away. With every step the painting becomes clearer and more beautiful. One can only hope that the next few volumes (5 to be exact) live up to the promise of this outstanding debut novel.
I highly recommend it.