Lamentation by Ken Scholes


Is this fantasy or science fiction? A bit of both, I’d say. Long before the events in Lamentation began, there was a mysterious apocalypse which destroyed nearly all of the technology, leaving the remaining surviving scraps in the hands of a religious syndicate reminiscent of the medieval Christian Church, headed by one all powerful Pope. There are steam driven mechanicals, akin to robots with exchangeable memory storage devices, but transport is by horseback, and although no one is surprised by the science, herbal medicine and magic predominate over more scientific technique.

As the book begins, one of these mechanicals invokes an ancient and therefore mysterious weapon by reciting a Magickal Spell given him by his master, thus destroying Windwyr, the predominant city of the Named Lands in the process. This mechanical proves to be the one survivor of the city’s destruction, and the humans converge on him, and on what remains of the city, in order to extract what they can about the city’s destruction, and salvage what they can of the remaining power structure in the human community at large. What remains of the religious institution controlling Windwyr (and therefore what remains of the pre-apocalypse scientific knowledge) battles with the secular kingdoms surrounding the city to determine who will dominate the society now.

On the plus side, Lamentation is a story driven novel rather than the message driven type I’ve seen in too many recent science fiction novels. Obviously, the total destruction brought down on Windwyr, and with it much of the political structure of the society is undesirable, but Scholes avoids hammering home what might have been an obvious message for other authors “War is evil.” Instead, he concentrates on the political intrigue resulting from the removal of a society’s structure.

This was a first novel and as such, Scholes rises admirably to the standard SF challenge of simultaneously world-building in conjunction with plotting and characterization. One of my chief complaints about many of these science fiction/fantasy novels set in another milieu than Earth is that the author spends too much time describing the world and how it differs from what we know here and now, at the expense of what is, after all, the central point of novels generally: a plausible plot and believable characters. Very few authors can get away with The Brick of a Novel; Scholes wisely kept his to the long end of normal novel length, about 400 pages in the edition I read. Scholes chose to shift perspectives from character to character multiple times in a chapter; the speed of these changes might serve to confuse some readers, but it does allow for gaining insight into different characters’ perspective and motivations. The sonorous portentous names, both of people and places, may grate on some readers, but at least that sets atmosphere of an alien culture better than naming your characters Sam and George and your places after ordinary terrestrial cities.

If you like George R.R. Martin’s works, you might like these as well. There’s much the same air of epic high fantasy, with convoluted relationships between warring factions, none of which resemble anything currently extant on Earth. Another possibility is Guy Gavriel Kay; all three authors can come up with plausible dialogue and enough world building to create a plausible backdrop to what is, after all, an alien (to us) environment, but without overwhelming us with needless and extraneous detail. For older science fiction, I’d strongly suggest Dune, for the political intrigue, and A Canticle for Liebowitz, for the description of a religion-based post-apocalypse planetary society. However, if you prefer novels with a balance of genders among the characters…avoid this: it falls into the pattern I’ve seen in too many Epic High Fantasies of a plot populated largely by men out battling one another directly on the field.

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