BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the wake of the destruction of a major city, the world begins to reorganize itself.
PROS: Excellent plotting, empathetic characters.
CONS: Hits a few cliches.
BOTTOM LINE: The combination of likable characters and intriguing plot will leave you looking forward to the second volume.
Ken Scholes doesn’t keep us waiting at the beginning of this novel; the very first thing that happens is that a key city, Windwir, gets destroyed, with almost no survivors. The rest of the story depicts how the area around it, which may be either a fantasy world or a far post-apocalyptic future world, reconfigures itself in the wake of this tragic event. Scholes executes a very nice trick here, giving us a satisfying plot that wraps up within this single volume, while setting up more subtle threads that can be paid off over the rest of the series, rumored to be planned as five books. In this book the perpetrator of the crime is never in doubt: Overseer Sethbert repeatedly crows about his triumph. Seeing justice done and starting to pick up the pieces takes us to the end of this volume. However, true motivation remains murky throughout the novel, and that’s the question that will bring us back for more volumes.
We see the story through the eyes of our four viewpoint characters as their paths intersect and weave together. Jin Li Tam was the Overseer’s consort, but more importantly she is the highly trained espionage-type servant of her very powerful father. The house Li Tam was the main banker for the main church in this land; Windwir was that church’s Vatican. Jin decides to get away from Sethbert ASAP and makes alliance with Rudolfo, the charismatic and successful prince of the Nine Forest Houses. Her father approves the match, and they are quickly engaged. Rudolfo goes out with his Wandering Army to fight the forces of the Overseer.
Neb is an “orphan” boy who was being schooled in the monasteries of the church. The monks of that order technically couldn’t have children, so he was actually a bastard son. After the devastation however, he is truly an orphan. He learns of Sethbert’s responsibility for the destruction and sets out to kill him, but is stopped by Petros. Petros is now a humble fisherman, but may once have held some important position in the church. After he finds out what happened and adopts Neb to keep him from doing something stupid, he organizes people of the surrounding areas to go back to the razed city and bury the dead.
Along the way we meet Isaak, an android (called here always ‘metal men’), who may have been the instrument of the destruction. He feels tremendous guilt about what has happened, and is one of the most fascinating characters in the story. Rudolfo puts him to work organizing an attempt to salvage what can be remembered by the robots of the works that used to be in the magnificent library of Windwir. We also meet Jin’s father, Vlad, and his incredible wheels-within-wheels plots and intrigues, and the family members (well over fifty sons and daughters) that he deploys to further his goals. Another fascinating and enigmatic character, even to the end of the book.
In the wake of the devastation, there are numerous small wars and battles, a set of successors who want to lead the remnants of the more-than-decimated church, attempts at rebuilding and also a quest for justice and vengeance. It is the last two plots that dominate this volume, and they are both resolved. However, the book opens up wider questions very skillfully.
Now, there are some ways in which Lamentation goes to the cliche well a little too often. Jin Li Tam is probably the worst of these. Of your main characters you’ve got three guys and one totally hot chick who is skilled in espionage, combat and seduction. None of the characters get much in the way of physical description, but she is described as red-headed, with “a slim neck and slim ankles. Her high breasts pushed against her silk shirt, jiggling just ever so slightly as she moved with practiced grace and utter confidence. She was living art and he knew he must have her.” It’s a shame that the only character with a non-European name is described in such a way to make it clear that she looks European. By the by, that previous quote was from Rudolfo’s POV so it’s lucky that she’ll ally with him, that her father will push her to become engaged to him, and that she’ll actually fall in love with him on her own. Another cliched character is Neb. Again, count the characters: one charismatic and competent prince, the hot chick/assassin woman, an old and wise powerful ex-church official, and a poor orphan boy. I don’t think it will come as any surprise to anyone when the poor orphan boy turns out to be a figure of omen and prophecy.
There are also a few places where the text uses some conveniences to paper over things that might otherwise be uncomfortable. The most blatant is probably the fact that Jin conveniently falls in love with the object of her hastily arranged marriage. I’m betting most women in arranged marriages aren’t quite so instantly smitten. The biggest may be the destruction of the city. In real cases of devastating attacks, such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki which the destruction of Windwir is obviously meant to echo, one of the most awful parts is caring for the horrifically maimed and wounded survivors of the attack–burn victims, the newly blind, the newly limbless, etc. In that way, the city’s destruction is actually too ‘clean.’ There are no ‘survivors:’ you were either killed or you were fine. Of course, introducing that level of realism would probably take the text in a direction the author didn’t intend–I’m reminded of the fact that in my reading of Dan Simmon’s The Terror, the most horrific element was his completely accurate depiction of the real-life effects of scurvy.
However, this is only the first book of a series. It may be, and in fact it may be likely, that Scholes will challenge or undermine these cliches in later volumes. I was very pleased with the way that he sets up one fantasy cliche here–societies that only look to an ancient past for knowledge, never producing anything new–and neatly undermines it at the end, when the eventual leader of the church sets them to learn new things, not simply to mourn the past. And certainly the writing is good enough and the characters interesting enough that I’ll be looking forward to volume two.