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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

“Lamentation” by Ken Scholes w/Bonus Guest Blog (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Ken Scholes Website
Order “Lamentation”
Read An Excerpt
Read An Interview via Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ken Scholes' short fiction has been appearing in various magazines and anthologies for the last eight years, including Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 6 and Weird Tales. His first short story collection, “Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Journeys” was recently published by Fairwood Press at the end of 2008. Ken also has a degree in history and was a winner of the Writers of the Future contest. “Lamentation” is the author’s first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: An ancient weapon has completely destroyed the city of Windwir. From many miles away, Rudolfo, Lord of the Nine Forest Houses, sees the horrifying column of smoke rising. He knows that war is coming to the Named Lands.

Nearer to the Devastation, a young apprentice is the only survivor of the city—he sat waiting for his father outside the walls, and was transformed as he watched everyone he knew die in an instant.

Soon all the Kingdoms of the Named Lands will be at each others’ throats, as alliances are challenged and hidden plots are uncovered…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 368 pages divided over 32 chapters, a Prelude and a Postlude, and includes a map of the Named Lands. Narration is in the third-person via four main characters—Rudolfo, Jin Li Tam, Petronus, Neb—and three secondary characters in Vlad Li Tam (Jin’s father), the Overseer Sethbert, and Pope Resolute the First. “Lamentation” is the opening volume in the five-part Psalms of Isaak series, but reads as a standalone novel with a definite beginning, middle and end, though there are several unresolved threads. “Canticle”, the second volume in the Psalms of Isaak, is tentatively scheduled for publication in October 2009.

February 17, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Lamentation” via
Tor Books. Cover art provided by Greg Manchess.

ANALYSIS: Ken Scholes’Lamentation” is one of the more hyped-up fantasy releases of early 2009, but does it live up to the advance buzz? Well it depends. If you’re hoping for another blockbuster debut in the vein of Scott Lynch’sThe Lies of Locke Lamora”, Patrick Rothfuss’The Name of the Wind” or David Anthony Durham’sAcacia”, then no. On the other hand, if you’re tired of doorstopper fantasies and want something a little bit different like a fast-moving, intrigue-driven plot that takes precedence over world-building, and a setting that mixes in a dash of science fiction, then “Lamentation” just might be for you.

Myself, I had a few issues with the book, but for the most part I really enjoyed reading “Lamentation”. Largely because the novel reminded me a great deal of Daniel Abraham’s excellent The Long Price Quartet, Lian Hearn’s fascinating Tales of the Otori, and Daniel Fox’s impressive “Dragon In Chains”, specifically in terms of tone, style, and prose. Stylistically, “Lamentation” is character and plot-driven, revolving around labyrinthine conspiracies and powerful human drama, whereas world-building and magic are kept low key. Prose meanwhile, is graceful and accessible which reflects the tone of the book which in turn is elegant, approachable and non-graphic.

Lamentation’s” pacing though, aided by multiple narratives that switch between characters at a pulse-pounding rate—an average of 3-4 pages—is much more exhilarating than the aforementioned series. On top of that, time moves by extremely quickly in the novel with days, weeks and sometimes months passing by from one section to the next, all of which brought to mind the pacing and storytelling of Greg Keyes.

Of the setting, “Lamentation” supposedly takes place on Earth millennia in the future, a more primitive time over two thousand years removed from the end of the Old World and the Age of Laughing Madness. Rising from that devastation were the Androfrancines who built the Great Library in the city of Windwir, a massive repository of knowledge, magicks and science that was recovered from the Old World over the past two thousand years. Knowledge that the Androfancines have been keeping hidden until they “felt the world was ready for it”, apart from the little scraps of information and innovation that they shared with those they favored. Basically, it’s kind of like Terry Brooks’ Shannara world where both magic and remnants of technology coexist. In this case, magic comes in the form of prophetic dreams and powders that enable invisibility and enhance strength, speed, etc., while technology includes mechanicals, firearms, and iron ships. World-building as I mentioned above, is low key with what little info-dumping present, introduced naturally into the flow of the story.

Characters are somewhat stereotypical. There’s the dashing hero Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses and General of the Wandering Army; Neb, a fifteen year-old orphan who witnessed the Desolation of Windwir and starts having prophetic dreams; the smart and beautiful Jin Li Tam who has been trained in the arts of covertcy; Petronus, an old fisherman that is much more than he appears to be; and the evil Sethbert, Overseer of the Entrolusian City-States and Destroyer of Windwir. Despite possessing clichéd personas though, most of the characters are thoughtfully portrayed and it’s hard not to start caring for them as the novel progresses, especially my personal favorite, Petronus. Of the secondary characters, I really liked Mechoservitor Number ThreeIsaak—a mechanical that possesses human qualities like the ability to cry and feel guilt; and Vlad Li Tam who uses his 37 sons and 53 daughters to spin a vast and intricate web of information-gathering, and is arguably the most important character in the book…

Story-wise, “Lamentation” starts out with the destruction of Windwir via a weapon that possesses-atomic bomb-like devastation, and segues from there into a war between the Ninefold Forest Houses and the Entrolusian City-States; a group of people attempting to bury Windwir’s dead; religious politics including a succession dispute between two Androfancine Popes; Isaak leading the rebuilding of the Androfrancine’s Great Library; a subplot involving the Marsh King, his people and their prophesied savior; intricate scheming that offers some interesting twists and turns; and a decision based on the First Precept of the Gospel of P’Andro Whym that will rock the world: “Change is the path life takes.”

As far as the issues I had with the book, I didn’t understand why the Androfrancines with all of their knowledge would introduce mechanicals and iron ships into the world, but not something more practical like improved health care, transportation, or a better form of communication which relied mainly on birds and written notes. Next, while I can appreciate Ken’s leaner mode of world-building, there were a few moments when he would repeat information that we already knew about rather than introducing new tidbits, which was a bit annoying. Then there was the book’s magic system which was disappointing because it was uninteresting, had no depth, and little detail was given on how it worked. Finally, there were a couple of moments when I thought the story moved a little too fast. For instance, there’s this scene where Neb has a prophetic dream which includes the Marsh King involving his people in the war, a perfect opportunity for some foreshadowing, but in the very next narrative switch, the Marsh King appears! Overall though, none of these issues are problematic enough to prevent me from recommending the novel...

CONCLUSION: In my opinion, Ken Scholes’Lamentation” is a little over-hyped because it doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre. That said, the book is well-written, features a strong cast of characters and an engrossing plot, and is both highly readable and fun to read. In short, “Lamentation” is easily on par with Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, and Daniel Fox’sDragon In Chains”, and is an entertaining first impression of the Psalms of Isaak, a series that I will be definitely following to its end…

GUEST BLOGLive from the Learning Curve: Navigating the Transition from Short Fiction to Novels by Ken Scholes:

Howdy, folks. Ken Scholes here. I want to thank Robert for inviting me to guest blog here at He and I kicked around some topics and I thought we might talk a bit about that wacky transition from short fiction to novels.

For those of you who aren't familiar with me or my writing, I'm the author of over 75 short stories, with about 30 of them published or pending publication so far. I wrote my first short story (as an adult) in 1997 when I was twenty-nine years old. My first short story sale was in 1999 to
Talebones Magazine. And in 2004, I won third prize in the Writers of the Future contest—an excellent launch pad for many new writers. I feel quite at home in the short story world—it's like a pair of comfortable jeans.

In 2006, on a dare, I wrote my first novel, Lamentation, based on my short story “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise”. And in 2007, I started the second book—Canticle. Late in 2007,
Tor made an offer on the Psalms of Isaak and my world and writing changed significantly. I wrapped up Canticle in 2008 and launched into volume three, Antiphon. So I've finished two novels and have five novels pending publication at the time of this writing. And I do not feel quite at home here at all. But that's okay—these jeans are still being broken-in.

For those of you curious about that transition, read on...

I came to novels with fear and trembling. Why? Size and time.

My average short story is about 5,000 words long; the average length of my novels are about 135,000 words. Which means I could hammer out a short story, from beginning to end, in an afternoon or a weekend. I could carry the story in my head all the way through the process, which makes the writing go faster. And usually, afterwards, I could take a break.

Novels are different critters. Even at a top speed of 2k per day, it would take me over two months of working every day to wrap a novel. And the size and complexity of a novel doesn't let you carry it around in your head. Now, sometimes I'm able to write organically and just let the story evolve and emerge on its own but most of the time, I need more of a Master Plan. With Lamentation, it was hastily scribbled one or two sentence notes laid down in the manuscript as I wrote like mad. With Canticle, I wrote a 4k outline that I never ended up referring to. Seems that by reducing the core of the novel down to the size of a short story made it easier for me to carry it in my head.

The trick with novels seems to be writing every day, no matter what. I don't always achieve this, alas, but it is the goal nonetheless. And when I'm able to pull it off, things go much smoother. Momentum builds. The words show up faster and the story pulls me in.

Of course, I'm a terrible multi-tasker so re-tooling the Story Factory for novels also meant modifying my work habits a good deal.

When I was writing short stories, I could work a story through the week, take a break to rest up, and then do the other Stuff that comes with being a writer. Because writing involves more than just laying down the words. There's the marketing department—finding the right places to send the stories and then keeping track of them as they go out and come back in. And there's research and development—reading, staying up on what's happening in the field. And promotional opportunities like interviews, guest blogs and maintaining my own blog. Mix that in with some convention appearances and it makes for a pretty solid part time job. Still, it was easy enough to move between production one week and the other tasks the next week.

It doesn't work that way with novels. Taking time for a three or four day convention means a work-stoppage—especially if you're a person who loses energy when interacting with people. And waiting three to four months to respond to interviews and other promotional opportunities is not practical. So I had to learn some new tricks. I'm actually still learning them. Finding ways to squeeze the other business activities around a continuous production cycle is tricky especially if you're a boy who likes to finish his peas before he starts in on his potatoes.

And here's the rub: With me at least, my transition into novels resulted in a much higher workload for a guy who's already got a full-time day job. The interview requests and email and short story requests and other promotional opportunities increased exponentially, especially in these last few months before Lamentation comes out. So while I'm learning how to multi-task, I'm learning it with a much fuller plate. Of course, I've dropped the short story marketing now that editors are asking me for stories but that time immediately filled up with other opportunities. On the other hand, I have a lot of help, now, too. I have an agent to help me with sales and negotiation. I have a publicist through
Tor who helps me promote the books. I have an editor and copyeditor to keep the story strong and clear. Still, there's a lot of work to be done.

So balancing it all becomes key. Because if the books don't happen, the peripherals of the job are a bit moot. Add to the balancing things like how to manage losing a loved one in the midst of writing a novel or juggling relationships and friendships against increased responsibilities or dealing with day job stresses while trying to stay on task with production and it all gets even a bit more soupy.

The transition from short stories to novels has been challenging for me. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.

It feels good to stretch out the legs in the wide open spaces of a book and try new ways of telling a bigger story. It is terribly satisfying and gratifying to hear from people that they had fun in your world. And the paychecks are bigger.

Still, when the dust settles a bit from my debut and the rest of the Psalms of Isaak are laid to paper, I'm hoping to modify the Story Factory a bit more so that I'm keeping a steady flow of short fiction out there alongside my novels. I miss it a good deal.

By then, this new pair of jeans should feel pretty comfortable.


Ben said...

Thanks to both of you! I'm really looking forward to "Lamentation" and have already ordered a copy. Now, if that release date would just hurry up and arrive :)

Neth said...

Interesting - I think it's safe to say that my opinion of Lamentation is much more positive than yours.

Robert said...

Thanks Plinydogg :) It's not too much longer until the book is officially released! Hopefully you'll enjoy it :D

Ken, looking forward to your thoughts :) And if you think my reaction was less positive than yours, you should see what Liviu had to say about the book ;)

Liviu said...

Well, I put my reaction in sffworld, so we had an exchange of thoughts on the book.

Though I want to emphasize that I did not find Lamentation bad, it just did not work for me, but the ending was interesting enough that I will check out the next volume.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

I'm reading this now, and so far I have zero complaints. I'm really enjoying it, and have already recommended it to a few people.


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