In the third installment of his Psalms of Isaak series, Ken Scholes continues to embody the best and worst attributes of the fantasy genre. Best because for pure, unbounded imagination there is simply nothing to rival this post-apocalyptic science fantasy with its combination of robots and religion. Worst because the story's powerful themes of science vs. superstition are largely underserved by the sparse and often juvenile prose. For all his good and glorious intentions, Scholes remains a conundrum: a man with the vision of a Vonnegut and the hit-or-miss pulp sensibilities of an early Moorcock. While this third novel, Antiphon, does contain scenes of genuine nuance and power, and while, overall it is a far more balanced and controlled tale than its predecessors Lamenation and Canticle (both 2009), it bogs down quickly and repeatedly in rehashes of its overly-Byzantine plot and in Scholes's continuing difficulty with the construction of three dimensional characters.
In the previous book, Canticle, all prior plot machinations—including the destruction of the ancient city of Windwir that memorably opens the series—were traced back to a foreign conspiracy perpetrated on the denizens of The Named Lands by the mysterious Crimson Empress and her disciples. Scholes's cast of heroes—Gypsy King Rudolfo, his bride, Jin Li Tam, awkward Neb, Marsh Queen Winters, and fallen Pope Petronus—are now scattered to opposite ends of the earth, all attempting to grapple with the alarming swiftness of the foreign invasion. Their enemies are The Matchvolk: religious zealots and practitioners of "blood magicks" who routinely carve themselves, and others, with salted knives in a bid for spiritual purity.
This is all perfectly graspable. Mid-book, there are some effective scenes in which teenaged queen Winters becomes privy to the Matchvolk's indoctrination of small children and has to justify her own people's methods of religious instruction. With her single-minded dogma of "homefinding" (the belief that a messianic figure will lead her displaced people to a promised land), Winters walks a fine line between faith and zealotry and it is exciting when Scholes's deliberate parallels between Matchvolk and Marshfolk (the first name being an intentional, Germanic-inspired riff on the other) force us to question the purity of her motives.
Less graspable is the storyline undertaken by Neb and Petronus in the Churning Wastes that seems dependent on knowledge of Scholes's short fiction. His story “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” has been suggested to me as something that might help me understand The Psalms of Isaak's tangled mythology. Alas, as much as I have previously crowed about Scholes's talent as a short story writer, a novel must stand on its own. I have deliberately not read “A Weeping Czar” and, as a result, can only decipher Scholes's myths of Moon Wizards and fallen celestial orbs, of dreams and songs and visions of dreams, after a distracting amount of deliberation. While pretty, I find explanations like the following more Byzantine than helpful:
Lightbearer? Vlad had never heard of the term before. But he’d heard of the Moon Wizard’s Ladder from the mythology of the Old World. He’d certainly heard stories as a boy about the Year of the Falling Moon and the ladder the first Wizard King had used to return and avenge the kidnap of his daughters, establishing the firm but just reign by blood magick in the now desolate lands to the north of them. (p. 172)
The penchant, endemic to the series, of Scholes's characters to pause for blank verse explanations of important events is nearly as off-putting as his unfortunate habit of having so many of these events occur off screen. At several points in Antiphon characters are hunted by vicious Matchvolk blood-scouts but, while we are told, for example, that Petronus's people have been "perpetually under attack from the south, losing nearly a third of their ragged company to blood-magicked agressors" (p.270) we are seldom if ever sucked into an actual scene of face-to-face combat.
Save for one crucial last-minute detail, Petronus's storyline might have been excised completely. Previously one of Scholes's more engaging characters, he has nothing to do this time out but fret about Neb and, like Neb, be set upon by one-note secondary characters who appear at the will of the plot and die when they have provided the viewpoint character with the next revelation. It’s a distracting phenomenon that makes it hard to be emotionally invested in the action and, though Antiphon fairly drips with blood, very few of the novel’s deaths make any sort of impression. We know so little of the faithful servants or sexy blood-scouts who die that we cannot credit the viewpoint character’s response. Worse, some of this one note-ness ends up affecting major characters like Rudopho, the usually vibrant Gypsy Lord, who does little here but drink and worry about his family. Even a sudden attack of blood-scouts and the murder of a number of his own men do little to liven things up. We never know the names of either aggressors or victims and, thanks to the introduction of a number of invisibility powders, are robbed of even their physical attributes. How can we miss something we’ve never even seen?
Ironically, in a story of human-wrought destruction and desire, most of Antiphon's emotional heft belongs to a robot. Several of the viewpoint characters wither this time around, but Scholes's central character—the tormented, more-human-than-human mechoservitor, Isaak, never fails to capture the imagination or arrest the heart. In Antiphon, Isaak's scenes with Brother Charles—the monk responsible for building the mechoservitors—are a high point, recalling Victor Frankenstein's long tête à tête with his wayward Creature. Though the relationship between Charles and Isaak is decidedly more positive than Victor and the Creature's, Isaak’s questioning of his human tendencies (particularly a scene in which he asks Charles to let him dream) and his desire to be redeemed for the crimes men have forced him to commit, is heady stuff. The jaded Charles’s awakening to the possibility that he has created a surrogate child in Isaak is genuinely touching—and his anxiety when an accident makes him fear that Isaak's personality has been lost provides more narrative urgency than a hundred invisible swords.
The Frankenstein analogy may sound grandiose, but like Shelley's creature Isaak is surely destined to be remembered as one of the most iconic characters in science fiction—not only articulating Scholes's themes of technology and creation, but perfectly embodying them. His "sun-stone" (read: battery) powered heart—battered and broken as a result of Isaak's having been programmed to commit genocide—acts as a powerful metaphor for the human cost of technology both in Scholes's world and our own. It is, indeed, Scholes's inclusion of these larger social themes which make his work resonate. One cannot read his descriptions of desolate, smoking cities with their trailing plumes of smoke and not flash upon any number of current geopolitical conflicts. Nor can one ignore the parallels between his religiously zealous villains with extremists from the Christian Right to al-Qaida. This resonance elevates his work above the level of pulp—and makes it hard to simply dismiss his writing when it goes astray.
Unfortunately, it strays a lot. Each chapter (or subchapter as Scholes prefers to feed us in short, controlled portions) seems to begin with the weather and end with a pronouncement. Variations of "And then she cried" are used to distracting effect—as summation of whatever spiritual crisis the character has been pondering in their allotted section. It's epiphany Scholes is after but his prose is not always capable of supporting his ambition. In a scene where spy-clan leader Vlad Lee Tam battles his treacherous grandson—a character who has helped kill hundreds of his extended family members—"The young man’s surprised cries were the welcome of an innkeeper and the wideness of his eyes, a latern-lit window." (p. 363) Not quite the scorching sentiment we might wish from a scene of Cain-and-Abel-like significance.
On the other hand, when Scholes sticks by Isaak, the pathos is matched by appropriate language (and even some winning humor):
"I am too old for this," [Charles] said.
Isaak’s eyes dimmed momentarily, and his bellows wheezed. "You do exhibit outward symptoms of physical deterioration as a result of advanced age." (p. 255)
In the end, Antiphon is a mixed bag. For many readers, a few moments of haunting power may not be enough to redeem the shortcomings of the rest of the series. For others, the images and ideas Scholes continues to conjure from this world of thorn-rifles, kin-wolves—and one very special mechoservitor—will command a heartfelt response.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.
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