5.06.2009

I'm programmed for etiquette, not destruction!

What would you do if the core of your civilization - a city containing the repository of human knowledge - were suddenly to be destroyed? I've pondered this question off and on throughout my life, and I think what I'd do is stockpile flour. That way I could always have hot buttered toast no matter what. Oh, and chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

So you should probably not ask me that question. Instead, I think you should read Lamentation, a recently published book written by Ken Scholes. It came out a couple of weeks before The Warded Man, and both of them were highly anticipated and touted by critics. Well, somehow, The Warded Man is the one that's getting nominated for awards, but if the universe were a just and fair place in which to reside, it would be the other way around.


Lamentation is a beautifully written book (the first in a series of five called The Psalms of Isaak) that starts off with a bang: the sudden, nuclear-bomb-like destruction of Windwir, the capital city of the medievaloid Named Lands, where advanced technology is a thing of ages past (and where the moon, having been terraformed or something millennia ago, shines down with a blue and green light!), but where the knowledge of that past has been carefully sought after and preserved by a religious order, the Androfrancines. What happens after the devastating loss of the Androfrancine city and its vast library - who perpetrated this act and why, and what it means for the future - is the concern of the characters in the book.

The story is told through the eyes of several "main" characters: Neb, a young Androfrancine acolyte who is probably the only eye-witness to the event; Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, who does what he can to restore what was lost; Jin Li Tam, at first a sexual/political tool of her father, who later comes to reject him and ally herself with Rudolfo; and Petronus (I think that's his name; I don't have the book anymore), an ex-Androfrancine pope who faked his own death to get away from it all, but who is forced to reconsider his decision in the aftermath of the conflagration. There are a couple of other more minor narrative viewpoints, but we do not hear the inner voice of one of the most intriguing and poignant characters in the book: Isaak - a "mechoservitor" or mechanical man who carried out the destruction of Windwir after having been nefariously reprogrammed to utter the Seven Cacophonic Deaths - is seen only through the eyes of the other characters.

One of the teachings of the Androfrancine Order is the concept of a Whymer Maze, an intricate maze that, I gather, can be symbolic for one's path in life. Reading Lamentation was like making your way through a Whymer Maze: you don't always really see what's coming, and then you turn a corner and something unexpected is revealed, some new pathway, changing your perspective of the entire picture. And the story is one of a maze within a maze, as the characters in the book realize that they have been following certain paths, led as one might be led by a maze, to an inevitable center point.

I want to reiterate how beautifully the book is written. The story starts off with the catastrophic explosion, but then goes on to unfold at a contrastingly slower pace than one might expect. And although the action picks up quickly enough, there is a kind of thoughtful stillness and sadness that permeates the tone of the whole book. It is, after all, titled Lamentation, and it is written as one.

I do have one quibble. And it is connected to one of my favorite complaints about literature in general, i.e., the depiction of women. So if you don't want to hear about that (again), skip the rant.

[rant]
Why are so many fantasy novels written by men so cruel-to/dismissive-of/stereotyped-in-their-depiction-of-women? Would it kill ya to not have the single main female character be a concubine/prostitute/sexual-tool of her father/brother/warlord/king? I'm not saying women have never been concubines and never been used as tools. In some societies, that was often the only way women could wield power and influence, and so they did it, and sometimes they even did it willingly. But for crying out loud, is that the only kind of woman character fantasy writers know how to write?
[/rant]

As one of only two named female characters among a host of male characters (and I'm trying to remember if there were even any unnamed female characters of note - I don't think so), Jin Li Tam was at first a disappointment to me. "Not another tool," I thought, shaking my head. But she improved upon acquaintance, and by the end of the book she - along with Rudolfo and Isaak - was one of my favorite characters.

I don't add many books to my personal library nowadays. I have my favorites from days of yore, but I'm generally not overly impressed with modern stuff. Lamentation surprised me a little by making me wonder if I shouldn't get a copy for my shelves.

Which brings me back to my original question. If I was truly worried about the imminent destruction of society, I'd stockpile books. And lots and lots of chocolate.

3 comments:

kcanyonscopes said...

I couldn't agree more about the beauty of the writing, and I never get tired of rants about poorly drawn female characters. I'm happy to see that you warmed up to Jin Li Tam since I have been lucky enough to see how the women characters develop in the next books, and they only get better. Ken writes women characters that sound and act like complex, whole people, the roles they play in the cultures they live in may appear at first to shape them, and the initial book only gives you glimpses of who they really are. The story is 5 books long and from the middle of the third I can tell you that I have found the women of the Psalms of Isaak very satisfying. They live and breathe, think and suffer and are as rounded and real and central to the story as you might hope for. You may reflect back on this first book and see the women in it in a whole new way, I certainly have.

Jared and Megan said...

interesante!
yet another book to add to my 'to read' list...

friezen said...

Sounds like a pretty interesting book! Perhaps I'll read it someday.