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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

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

Official Ken Scholes Website
Order “CanticleHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Lamentation

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. “Canticle” is the second book of the Psalms of Isaak.

PLOT SUMMARY: It is several months after the events of “Lamentation”. At the Keeper’s Gate, which guards the Named Lands from the Churning Wastes, a strange mechanical figure appears, with a message for Petronus, the Hidden Pope.

Petronus though has retired back to his old fishing village after having dissolved the Androfrancine Order and is now trying to decipher the Rufello cipher that are the events surrounding the Desolation of Windwir.

Vlad Li Tam, who has fled into the Scattered Isles with his entire family—all save Jin Li Tam—is also trying to solve this Whymer Maze and seeks the source of the threat that frightened the Androfrancines so much that they were willing to bring back Xhum Y’Zir’s Seven Cacophonic Deaths that ultimately destroyed Windwir.

Meanwhile, many noble allies have come to the Ninefold Forest for a feast in honor of General Rudolfo’s firstborn child. Jin Li Tam, his wife and mother of his heir, lies in childbed.

On this Firstborn Feast night, several acts of unmitigated violence are sprung, setting into motion events that will change the Named Lands forever...

CLASSIFICATION: Despite featuring robots and other science fiction elements, the Psalms of Isaak are mostly character & plot-driven epic fantasies that in terms of tone, style, and prose strongly reminded me of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet. The books have also brought 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: Page count is 384 pages divided over twenty-six chapters, a Prelude and a Postlude. Also includes a map of the Named Lands. Narration is in the third-person via returning protagonists Rudolfo, Jin Li Tam, Petronus, Neb and Jin’s father Vlad Li Tam with each viewpoint marked by the character’s name. New viewpoints include Winters the Marsh Queen, General Lysias who previously served under the Overseer Sethbert, and Rae Li Tam, another of Vlad’s many daughters. “Canticle” is the second volume in the five-part Psalms of Isaak saga, and like its predecessor, is somewhat self-contained with a beginning, middle and end, although it also serves as a bridge novel to overarching events. The third volume, “Antiphon”, will see publication sometime in 2010.

October 13, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Canticle” via Tor. Cover art is once again provided by Greg Manchess.

ANALYSIS: Ken Scholes’ debut novel, “Lamentation”, really impressed me although I felt the book suffered from a number of problems. Some of those same issues like minimalist world-building (a glossary or refresher of certain topics would have helped immensely, i.e. House Y’Zir), an unimaginative magic system (powders, dreams, prophecies) and underdeveloped subplots (Vlad Li Tam’s betrayer) are still present in “Canticle”, the second volume in the Psalms of Isaak, but as a whole the new book is a much stronger effort...

The reasons why “Canticle” is stronger than its predecessor are simple and twofold. The first is that Ken Scholes is just a much better writer the second time around. In “Lamentation”, it felt like the author was trying to figure out how to write a long form novel as he went, while also juggling characters, plot and world-building. As a result, “Lamentation” was a bumpy reading experience. Reading “Canticle” on the other hand, was like cruising in a Mercedes Benz or a Lexus. The flow of the novel was much smoother and more engaging, Ken’s command of the story and its many branching subplots was executed with greater effect, and the prose was once again elegant bordering on poetic. In short, the progess made in Ken’s writing between the two novels is simply amazing and a large factor in why I enjoyed “Canticle” so much more than the author’s debut.

The other reason is that there’s just so much more happening in the sequel. Basically, “Canticle” is a bridge novel that picks up several months after “Lamentation” which served as the foundation of the series. With much of the setup already established in the debut, Ken was able to jump right into the action at the beginning of “Canticle” and kept the pedal floored all the way through the Postlude: Rudolfo and Jin Li Tam’s baby who is born sick and dying. A betrayer among House Li Tam. Assassins using the forbidden—and what was thought—forgotten blood magick which is five times as potent as earth magick. Winteria bat Mardic (Winters) announcing herself as the Queen of the Marsh. Petronus and Vlad Li Tam facing their reckonings. Civil wars and political machinations among the Entrolusian City-States, Pylos and Turam. A journey into the Churning Wastes in search of Sanctorum Lux, or what is believed to be a complete copy of the Great Library that was destroyed in the Desolation of Windwir. The Great Mother, Child of Promise and Home. A Y’Zirite resurgence... These and many other subplots make up the story of “Canticle” which is jampacked from start to finish with one amazing mystery or revelation after the other. Seriously, nearly every single character section—which on average is only 3-4 pages long—unveils some new intrigue or shock, and after a while I began to doubt whether the author could keep it up for the whole book, but he does, saving the best surprises for the end.

For me personally, I enjoyed learning more about the unknown forces threatening the Named Lands and the various references to the book’s title:

And it shall come to pass at the end of days that a wind of blood shall rise for cleansing and cold iron blades shall rise for pruning. Thus shall the sins of P’Andro Whym be visited upon his children. Thus shall the Throne of the Crimson Empress be established.”

But the events of recent weeks had shown him that life was a nonmetrical song at times, one that went where it needed to for the melody without respect for the rhythm of history and tradition. Truly a canticle that one danced to as best one could.”

You would think that with so much happening plot-wise, the constantly switching viewpoints, and the short amount of time dedicated to each section that the characterization would suffer in “Canticle”, but that’s not the case. Instead, Ken’s characters are one of the book’s greatest strengths and goes back to the author’s improvement between novels. In other words, Ken has learned to maximize the time spent with each character, constructing characters that are not only well developed and interesting, but also resonate with the reader on a higher level emotionally compared to “Lamentation”, especially if you’re a parent, in love, or plagued by guilt. Of the already established viewpoints, I was most moved by Vlad Li Tam’s plight and the dilemmas faced by Rudolfo and Jin Li Tam in regards to their newborn child, while I found Winters’ narrative the most compelling of the new perspectives. In truth though, every single point-of-view in the book is compelling in its own way even if Rae Li Tam’s seemed a bit pointless...

Negatively, apart from the issues I mentioned above, I was annoyed by the number of times that Jin Li Tam was described as “formidable”. Of course, this is more of a personal complaint than an actual problem with the book :)

CONCLUSION: After finishing “Lamentation” I felt the book was a good, but flawed debut written by an author with a lot of promise. A novel on the same level as other second/third-tier debuts by the likes of Daniel Abraham, Brandon Sanderson, Robert V.S. Redick, etc. After finishing “Canticle” however, I feel that Ken Scholes has already made the leap from good to great, and I’m super-excited by the potential that the rest of the Psalms of Isaak has to offer. In short, if you thought “Lamentation” was impressive, then just wait until you get a hold of “Canticle”...


James said...

I never had an issue with the world building or magic system in the first novel, largely because I find them to be minor parts of a novel and relatively unimportant. A lack of characterization proved to be a problem for me. Despite that I really did enjoy LAMENTATION and have been looking forward to CANTICLE. I am happy to see that the characterization has improved between novels and that it is a strong follow up.

Calibandar said...

Hey Robert,

If I wasn't already excited about this and buying it on publication then I would be now. Scholes is one of the most interesting new "epic Fantasy" authors to emerge. I agree on the quality of characters, setting and creating imagery, as I also agree that I'm not keen on the use of magic.

For further reading you might also want to check out Brom's The Child Thief by the way, a recent release from EOS which is an interesting and much darker and adult take on Peter Pan.

Robert said...

James, world building and magic systems aren't as important to me as great writing, characters I care about and great storytelling, but I have come to expect a certain level of substance and quality in those departments, especially after reading the likes of Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson who I consider prime examples of authors who excel at world building and creative magic systems. I'm not saying that Ken needs to be like them, but I think a little more depth and a little more imagination could elevate his books even more. Everything else though--great writing, great storytelling and now strong charactization--is currently in place...

Calibander, I admit that I was underwhelmed by Ken's debut, but because of how much I enjoyed the sequel, the rest of the series is now one of most anticipated reads in the years to come :) I actually just got a copy of The Child Thief a week or so ago, and look forward to reading it. Other books I've recently received and am excited about include "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms", "The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart", "The New Dead", "Jade Man's Skin", "The Conqueror's Shadow" and "Veracity"...

Jeff C said...

Well, for me, Lamentation has been my favorite book of 2009. Think I should go ahead and start reading my arc of Canticle now.

Robert said...

If you liked "Lamentation" that much Jeff, then "Canticle" should blow you away :)

sathish said...

I recently read Lamentation - I know it is pretty late. But, It was a great ride.

A story teller has the right to hide some of the facts of his story - so that they can give the killer punch when the reader least expects it. But, it infuriates me if the story teller does not leave enough clues along for the reader to decipher atleast part of the story along the way. That's how I felt after reading Lamentation. It is lovely read - but, darn, there are too many secrets that author keeps to himself!


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