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Lamentation: The Psalms of Isaak    by Ken Scholes order for
by Ken Scholes
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ken Scholes' Lamentation is the first book (of an anticipated five) in his Psalms of Isaak series and it's a big winner (the accolade by genre master Orson Scott Card on the front cover is the reader's first hint but it's quickly confirmed). I haven't been so impressed by a fantasy debut since I read Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind (though Scholes' storytelling style reminds me more of another favorite author, Guy Gavriel Kay).

It all begins with a bang, literally, when the city of Windwir, site of the great library of the Androfrancine order at the edge of the Named Lands, goes up in smoke as young Androfrancine orphan Neb looks on in horror, grief and guilt (his scholar father, Brother Hebda, had returned to their home there to retrieve letters that Neb had left behind). Readers should also take note of the golden 'bird made of metal' observing from above and reporting - but to whom?

Gypsy King Rudolfo is traveling between his Ninefold Forest Houses with his scouts when they spy black smoke billowing up in the distance. He calls for his Wandering Army to ride with him to Windwir's aid, assuming it was destroyed by something the Androfrancines brought back from excavations in the Churning Wastes. Old Petronus the Fisherman mends nets in his small village, living a lie about his former life, when he sees the tower of smoke to the north. Lovely, redheaded Jin Li Tam is one of the highly trained children of Vlad Li Tam (who sends them out from the Emerald Coasts to spy for him, and more) and consort to Overseer Sethbert. She hears madness in the latter's voice as he claims the fallen Windwir as his 'finest hour'.

As armies converge on the ruins, misinformation spreads and Sethbert's cousin declares himself the new Pope. Petronus returns to what was once 'his most beautiful, backward dream' and buries the dead, assisted by Neb whom he mentors. Rudolfo's Gypsy Scouts (magicked into invisibility as is common practice) return from Windwir with a 'talking metal man', a damaged mechoservitor he names Isaak, who claims responsibility for the disaster. Isaak, in whom a kind of humanity awakens, turns into one of the most sympathetic characters in the story.

After meeting Rudolfo, Jin Li Tam flees Sethbert's army and joins Isaak under his protection. She learns that Rudolfo plans to rebuild the library in the far north, and comes to his aid when he needs her. Neb dreams of his father. The mysterious, formidable Marsh King, leader of 'a complex and spiritual people', inexplicably brings an army to Rudolfo's aid, gives daily War Sermons in an ancient tongue, and summons Neb. It seems that Neb is the prophesied 'Dreaming Boy' who will lead the Marshers' long pilgrimage home.

It's easy to like and dislike characters in Lamentation, but don't be too quick to assume you know who's doing what and why. Macchiavellian manipulation goes on behind the scenes by firm end-justifies-means believers. As Jin Li Tam muses, 'moving the center of the world came with consequences and sacrifice. So did shifting history, that wide and strong river, in a new and unexpected direction.' I can't wait to see how history shifts next in The Psalms of Isaak, especially after reading the intriguing Postlude to this first episode. If you read fantasy and haven't found this brilliant new series yet, then rush out and acquire a copy of Lamentation; you won't regret it.

Audiobook Review:

Having enjoyed reading Ken Scholes' Lamentation so much, I anticipated great pleasure in listening to Macmillan Audio's unabridged audiobook recording (involving 12 CDs). I was not disappointed as this production is one of those I enjoy most, with not just one but a cast of inspired narrators - Scott Brick, William Dufris, Maggi-Meg Reed and Stefan Rudnicki - who distinguish the different characters and underline their personalities beautifully.

Neb's horror at the destruction of Windwir, lovely Jin Li Tam's strength and sophistication, the romance in Gypsy King Rudolfo's soul and the innocence in mechoservitor Isaak's are all conveyed perfectly to the avid listener. And, as always, listening gives new perspectives and insights on the story. My only lament is that I have listened to so many Dune recordings that I identify Scott Brick's distinctive narrative style with that series, which kept distracting me from the recording of this first of the The Psalms of Isaak.

So, if you've already had the thrill of reading the book, try listening to enjoy it in even greater depth and with a renewed appreciation of its subtleties. If you haven't either read or listened yet, then what's holding you up?

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