Every now and then, I encounter a book that haunts me, but I just don’t have the time to read. Lamentation is such a book. The very moment I encountered a review for it, I ran to the store and bought it. An epic series filled with political intrigue, religion, action, and manipulation—that must be good! Added to that is the premise of a great and powerful city destroyed by an ancient artifact long thought to be nothing but a myth. It felt like a modern version of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but from an author who manages to publish a big volume every year.
However, I was reading other books at the time, thus the book merely sat on my bookshelf for over a year. Then came the day I finally picked it up for Ranting Dragon’s book club… And was intensely disappointed. Lamentation is a decent work of epic fantasy, written by an author who clearly has a way with words, but both the story and characters are lacking.
This is evident from the very start of the novel, when the city of Windwir—a technological and cultural capital of the world—is destroyed. This is an event of epic magnitude, of similar proportions to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. While that event propelled the world into the Cold War, Lamentation‘s event—as seen through the eyes of the five viewpoint characters Rudolfo, Neb, Jin Li, Sethbert, and Petronas—lacks in emotional impact. The characters hardly seem to care at all, continuing with their lives of manipulation and intrigue almost immediately.
The alternating viewpoints of the main characters—nearly every chapter contains each character’s point of view, varying in length from a single paragraph to several pages—made it easy for me to get absorbed into the story of Lamentation. However, the characters soon reveal themselves as shallow, flat, and stereotyped, with a consistent flawlessness to their respective personalities. The good guys are too good, and the bad guy is both too evil—he doesn’t seem to have any higher motivation for his acts—and too stupid to play a genuinely meaningful role in the story, increasing the lack of impact Lamentation had on me.
Prelude to the Psalms
Where Scholes truly lost my interest, however, was when he decided to insert prophesies and meaningful dreams into the narrative. These elements appear completely out of the blue, and their contribution to the story is one of convenience, clearly added by the author to create direction for his story.
These prophesies, along with the absence of a believable antagonist, reveal both the biggest strength and biggest flaw of Lamentation because, like so many authors of epic series’, Scholes has fallen into a familiar trap. Lamentation is the first book in The Psalms of Isaak, a series that was intended from the start to have five books. Because of this, there is little incentive for the opening novel to tell its own contained story. Instead, Lamentation reads more like a prelude to the rest of the series. Gradually, Scholes uses a smaller plot to establish a much bigger plot—a plot that never comes to fruition in this book. Instead of being the author of a great epic in Lamentation, Scholes becomes a chess player, moving all his pieces into their necessary positions for the rest of the series. He certainly does this with graceful skill, feeding his readers subtle—and not-so-subtle—foreshadowing and creating a world where every character, good or bad, is seemingly manipulated by a greater force at work. In this lies significant potential for future books in The Psalms of Isaak—of which the next two volumes, Canticle and Antiphon, have already been released. Unfortunately, this potential doesn’t do Lamentation any good. The stakes are too low, the story too meaningless.
No crusades in this one
After all my criticism, it must be said that there was one element I truly enjoyed in Lamentation: its world’s philosophy is truly a marvel. Fundamentally, this is a religious story, but this world’s religion differs from our world’s—and especially religion in our history in its peacefulness. Instead of wanting to bring the light to unbelievers, the religious folks of The Named Lands, Scholes’ world, want to guard it. This way of thinking seems almost alien to that of humans on earth, yet it made sense. At some deep level, this philosophy connected with me. That, if nothing else, proves that Ken Scholes is a genuinely talented writer!
Why should you read this book?
Lamentation is only for the most patient fans of epic fantasy. Ultimately, the question might not be whether or not Lamentation itself is worth picking up, but whether the continuation of The Psalms of Isaak warrants the investment of hours reading what seems a mere prelude to the series at large. This question, I cannot answer. I may well give Canticle a try, but if I do, it will probably take me another year, if not longer, to get to it.