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Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Antiphon” by Ken Scholes (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Ken Scholes Website
Order “AntiphonHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “Lamentation” & “Canticle

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ken Scholes' short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 6, Weird Tales and his first collection, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Journeys (Fairwood Press). Ken also has a degree in history and was a winner of the Writers of the Future contest. Antiphon is the third volume of the Psalms of Isaak.

PLOT SUMMARY: The ancient past is not dead. The hand of the Wizard Kings still reaches out to challenge the Androfrancine Order, to control the magick and technology that they sought to understand and claim for their own.

Nebios, the boy who watched the destruction of the city of Windwir, now runs the vast deserts of the world, far from his beloved Marsh Queen. He is being hunted by strange women warriors, while his dreams are invaded by warnings from his dead father.

Jin Li Tam, queen of the Ninefold Forest, guards her son as best she can against both murderous threats, and the usurper queen and her evangelists. They bring a message: Jakob is the child of promise of their Gospel, and the Crimson Empress is on her way.

And in hidden places, the remnants of the Androfrancine order formulate their response to the song pouring out of a silver crescent that was found in the wastes...

CLASSIFICATION: Despite featuring robots and other science fiction elements, the Psalms of Isaak is mostly character & plot-driven epic fantasy that in terms of tone, style, and prose strongly reminded me of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet. The books also bring to mind Lian Hearn, Daniel Fox and Elizabeth Haydon, and are recommended to readers who like their fantasy fast-paced, mystical and emotional...

FORMAT/INFO: Antiphon is 384 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters, a Prelude and a Postlude. Narration is in the third-person via returning protagonists Rudolfo, Jin Li Tam, Petronus, Neb, Winters, and Jin’s father Vlad Li Tam with each viewpoint marked by the character’s name. New viewpoints include Charles, Arch-Engineer of the Androfrancine School of Mechanics and Technology. Antiphon is the third volume in the five-part Psalms of Isaak saga after Lamentation and Canticle. It is strongly recommended that readers finish both Lamentation and Canticle before starting Antiphon. September 14, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Antiphon via Tor. Cover art this time is provided by Chris McGrath.

ANALYSIS: Antiphon is a novel I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, especially after the jaw-dropping events that transpired in Canticle and how much author Ken Scholes improved between Lamentation and Canticle. At the same time though, I worried about Antiphon suffering from middle book syndrome and being unable to continue the momentum from Canticle. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear. Antiphon is every bit as good as the superb Canticle, and then some...

First and foremost, the story is blossoming into something special. In both Lamentation and Canticle, Ken Scholes was merely establishing the groundwork for the series and its characters, even if the latter volume was much more action-packed, driven by engaging mysteries and shocking revelations. Antiphon though is where the myriad threads of the author’s tangled web starts coming together, giving readers a clearer sense of the big picture in the Psalms of Isaak. In particular, we start to learn how Rudolfo and Jin Li Tam’s “Child of Promise”, the Homeseeker, the Crimson Empress, the Matchvolk (previously known as the Marshers), the Moon Wizard’s Tower, the Li Tam family, the Book of Dreaming Kings, Frederico’s Canticle, dreaming mechoservitors, the Behemoth, and the Younger Gods (Y’zir, Whym) are all connected. We also start to learn how some of the major characters fit in the grand scheme of things as specific roles are defined, with Jin Li Tam’s appointed task my favorite revelation in the book.

There are many other surprising revelations involving Neb’s parentage, Brother Hebda, the Y’Zirite resurgence, Vlad Li Tam’s heritage, an ancient metal man from the days of the Younger Gods, and the Desolation of Windwir, but nothing as emotionally gut-wrenching as what happened in Canticle. What Antiphon may lack emotionally though is more than made up by how the book rewards its readers with answers and some of the best action scenes found in the series yet. Plus, even though Antiphon answers many questions, there still remains a sense of mystery throughout the novel. For instance, we have yet to see the Crimson Empress in person, while many new mysteries—Lasthome, Continuity Engine of the Older Gods, Shadrus’s children, Barrens of Espira, Library of Elder Days, Frederico’s Bargain, et cetera—are introduced in the book, waiting to be solved.

Writing-wise, Ken Scholes doesn’t display the same kind of progression between Canticle and Antiphon that he showed between Lamentation and Canticle, but he didn’t need to. In Canticle, the author demonstrated much greater command of his writing and better execution, bolstered by graceful prose. So with Antiphon, Ken Scholes just needed to maintain consistency, which he does. That said, the book does show off some minor improvements in the form of better developed subplots and slightly deeper characterization. I did find a couple of the viewpoints (Rudolfo, Petronus) in Antiphon less engaging than they were in the previous volumes, but that’s more because of the characters themselves than through any fault of the author.

As far as the book’s title, Antiphon continues the musical theme that has been running through the series. In this case, ‘antiphon’ refers to a “response”, specifically a response to the light-bearer’s dream to save the light. It also refers to an actual object revealed in the novel...

Negatively, Antiphon suffers from the same issues I had with the first two books in the Psalms of Isaak. Namely, world-building that I wish was deeper, and unimaginative magic/technology. By this point however, I’ve already accepted the series’s shortcomings, which are insignificant anyway compared to what the Psalms of Isaak has to offer.

CONCLUSION: As the middle volume in a five-part series, I had my concerns about Antiphon, especially when measured against Canticle, one of my favorite novels from 2009. Against all odds though, Ken Scholes delivers a middle book in Antiphon that is actually better than its predecessors. Even more impressive, Antiphon is a novel that rewards its readers, at the same time setting the stage for even greater things to come...


Richard R. said...

I'm delighted to read this review, it's just what I was hoping for. My copy is on the way.

Robert said...

Thanks Richard! I hope the book lives up to your expectations :)

Sarah said...

I have the first book of this series sitting on my bookshelf just waiting for me to pick it up. I really need to get on it....

Robert said...

I highly recommend the series Sarah, but since only two more books remain to be published, I think you might want to wait until the series is complete before starting on it...

Anonymous said...

I just finished this and I have to say I just am losing interest in the series for some reason.
The first book was great but it just seems like ever since the 2nd book the plot is all over the place now and seems like the author is making up the story as he goes along.
At this point I don't really care about any of the characters except for Winters. I will probably read the upcoming volumes but just to finish the story.

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