Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Lamentation by Ken Scholes

Lamentation is a marvelous book that strikes a careful balance between the imaginative inventions of a distant future and the emotional depth of its main characters.

The events of the story are triggered by the awful destruction of the legendary city Windwir, which held the collected knowledge of lost ages under the auspices of the Androfrancine Order. The city was annihilated by the use of long-lost and forbidden magic, magic that was no doubt recovered as a result of the Androfrancine's own holy quest for knowledge in the ruins of the world long destroyed.

Precisely how Windwir was destroyed is revealed in short order. Why it was destroyed is a question that takes much longer to answer. And the impact of its destruction upon the lives of the main characters and the course of nations is the story whose first portion the book tells.

Scholes takes an interesting approach with his narrative. Each chapter presents us with several short sections a few pages in length, each offering the point of view of a different character. Most of these characters have their stories followed throughout the narrative. I found that this allowed Scholes to follow a number of storylines as they wove in and out of each other, intersecting and separating at different points.

Normally that sort of storytelling approach can leave me somewhat lost in the overall narrative or frustrated when the author jumps away from an interesting storyline into one I don't care about. Scholes avoids this by keeping each of the sections very succinct yet informative.

As a result, once you leave one character's storyline and touch upon the stories of three others, say, you haven't forgotten what you left behind when you return to that original character.

Moreover, I found that I liked all of the primary point of view characters that Scholes introduces.
These characters include: Petronus, the Hidden Pope; Rudolfo, the Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses; Jin Li Tam, daughter of the mighty Tam banking family and an adept spy; and Nebios, the last (human survivor) of the destruction of Windwir. Another character, the mechanical man Isaak, does not get his own point of view sections in the book but really comes to life through his interactions with the main characters. Like Guy Gavriel Kay's work, this book is filled with clever people struggling to understand and outwit each other. There are also some moments of romance and love that are genuinely touching.

The setting is also interesting, a mixture of mostly well-understood magic (more akin to alchemy than traditional spellcasting), recovered technological artifacts, and high-Renaissance technology. Scholes pulls a clever trick here, in my view. The first few chapters bombard the reader with unusual images: birds carrying messages via carefully knotted cords dangling from their legs, mechanical men, soldiers treated with magical powders that make them both invisible and superhumanly fast, and so forth. But then these unsual creations are explained and expanded upon gradually over the course of the novel, while only a few new bits are introduced, so that by the end they have become facts of the world with which the reader is comfortable.

Compared to something like John C. Wright's work, which hurls out Big Ideas every couple pages at a breakneck pace, Scholes's work here is calmer. Instead of adding on new supernatural or supertech concepts, he expands upon the societies and major players in his future world.

There are clearly a lot more Big Ideas and Wondrous Things lurking around in the setting, waiting to be uncovered. But like an archeologist digging through a delicate past, Scholes shows patience and restraint in revealing their details over time.

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