The best fantasy takes you there. This was certainly the case with Ken Scholes's short story "Of Metal Men and Crimson Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise," which appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine in 2007. "Metal Men" is the story of a "mechoservitor" (think steam-powered robot) named Isaak who is compelled to destroy the ancient city of Windwir after someone tampers with his programming. His act amounts not only to genocide—home to thousands of Androfrancine priests, Windwir is one of the most populous and influential communities in the Known Lands—but to a profound erasure of knowledge: the destruction of the city's Great Library is comparable to the destruction of the Alexandrian library in the Greco-Roman era. Discovered prostrate in the ruins of the smoking city, the guilt-ridden Isaak agrees to help his rescuer, the gypsy king Rudolpho, discover the real culprit for the crime. The stage is set for revelation and showdown.
Reading "Metal Men" you sensed yourself in the hands of a game-changing author. Scholes showed a knack for combining elements of fantasy and sf into a strikingly different vision of the fantastic. His world contains walking talking robots and labyrinthine religious orders, flamboyant gypsy kings and post-apocalyptic landscapes. The melding of a medieval setting with a plot that hinges on the actions of a machine—and a machine who brings down a city by uttering a magical spell (The Seven Cacophonic Deaths of P'Andro Whym, no less) defies convention. But Scholes's story also demonstrated a genius for details (the system of colored thread used by leaders in the Named Lands to communicate via carrier-bird) and a genuine ability to tug at readers' heart-strings (Rudolpho's waltz with a mysterious—and, we sense trapped—courtesan in the heart of an enemy encampment brings to mind the delicate romance and subtle agony of Aragorn and Eowyn). Setting down "Metal Men" you felt you had just discovered something huge—and you hoped to hell Ken Scholes would take his characters and start churning out the door stopping volumes of his epic sage—pronto!
Scholes has now done this. The first two volumes of The Psalms of Isaak (entitled Lamentation and Canticle, respectively) hit bookshelves this year. Isaak and Rudolfo will now have five novels through which to caper, suffer, and solve the crime of Windwir. The heart of the story is still the same and the full, unaltered text of "Metal Men" still exists, redistributed across the first few chapters of Lamentation in all its beguiling beauty. But in many ways, this is all that is left of the robot who rocked the world. Save for the iconic Isaak—still the most compelling character—Scholes's cast suffers early on from a case of the clichés. Mysterious Names Spelled in Capitals substitute for world building and the supporting players have an unnerving habit of popping into existence when it's time to serve the plot—and popping out again once they've discharged their duty. There are still strong themes and beautiful prose to be found in The Named Lands, but the coherency and much of the mystery of Scholes's world has been stretched thin in the transition from short story to novel.
Part of the charm of "Metal Men" was its intimacy. It dealt with a single viewpoint character, Rudolpho, through whom all our knowledge of the Known Lands and its customs were filtered. We stayed with him for some ten, highly detailed, event-packed pages, getting to know him, sampling the textures of his life. This still happens in Lamentation—the sensual detail Scholes provides about his landscapes and the characters' culinary predilections still wow—but now Rudolpho is sharing space with seven other viewpoint characters and Scholes keeps jumping from one head to the other every three-to-five pages, dashing from gypsy camp to bad-guy's tent to windswept plain and back again without leaving us time to savor, or even form an opinion about, his cast. Frequent point-of-view switches have worked for many of today's most successful fantasists, but this is because authors like George R.R. Martin stay with that character long enough for us observe the world through their eyes and experience their joy or discomfort in realistic detail. We don't always like being thrown into a dungeon with Ned Stark or forced to drink tea with bitchy Aes Sedai, but by God, we know what both dungeon and tea taste like.
In Lamentation, Scholes stock traits substitute for personality. His red-headed courtesan, Jin Lee Tam, is nearly unreadable in the beginning, possessing every bad-ass-hot-chick cliché ever cooked up by a horny geek author: she's a spy, an assassin, an expert lover! And the collective groan from female readers as Scholes describes her six-foot-tall, big-breasted frame (at one point she even jiggles) is nigh-on audible, especially when we realize this idealized female is the basis for all the female characters in the series. A fifteen-year old girl named Winters (admittedly, she has one hell of a secret) may belong to a culture (The Marsh-folk) who cover themselves in mud, but she still spends the whole of Lamentation acting either saintly or sexy, depending on the emotional needs of her male counterpart. These rather one-dimensional depictions of women, however, are infinitely preferable to cliches like Sethbert, the evil Overseer of the Entrolusian Delta who seems to have been cribbed directly from Dr. No, or Gregoric, a general in Rudolfo's gypsy army, who exists solely to provide Rudolfo with someone to feel bad about when tragedy strikes mid-novel. Unfortunately, you can't mourn the pain of a non-character—and Scholes will ask us to do this twice before Lamentation grinds to a halt.
Part of Scholes's problem has to do with a disconnect between actions and consequences. For a novel that begins with an act of genocide Lamentation is shockingly polite. The "war" that results from the destruction of Windwir is barely engaged in by main characters like Rudolfo and is literally viewed from the sidelines by characters like Neb and Petronus—a young orphan boy and an old priest, respectively, who, in some of the most effective passages in Lamentation, begin a campaign to bury the city's dead. Both characters are more than they seem and, like Rudolfo and Isaak, fare a bit better in the characterization department. Still, they do more talking than acting, as their sojourn on the burial/battlefield quickly proves:
Neb watched as the two cavalries made another pass before breaking off. Then he watched as a group of soldiers and horsemen moved north to meet the next wave of Marshers. But these weren't Entrolusians—more likely the Honor Guard of the Queen of Pylos. At least that's where Neb thought their camp was. "He's outnumbered three armies to one." He looked at Petronus. "Why would the Marsh King enter into this war? And why on the side of the Gypsy King?" (Lamentation, p. 175)
Having a couple of characters stand off to the side and comment as armies clash instead of having said characters clash themselves is hardly a recipe for success in a genre that thrives on believable depictions of physical conflict. Robert Jordan tore men to pieces at Dumai's Well. George R.R. Martin is both loved and reviled for the various tortures, rapes and beheadings he puts his characters through. When Rudolfo is falsely accused by the leader of the surviving Androfrancines of destroying their city and robbing the world of knowledge, he bravely goes to clear his name and is thrown not into a dungeon, but a gorgeous marble apartment where he is allowed conjugal visits from Jin Lee Tam. This treatment hardly matches the crime for which he is accused. Would the Nuremberg judges have slapped Hitler down in the Hilton if he'd sauntered up to them after the war?
Sadly, believability isn't Scholes prime directive. How else to explain a ludicrous sub-plot concerning Jin Lee Tam's father Vlad Lee Tam (the name itself gives one pause) whose family has successfully (conveniently?) manipulated every important political decision in the Named Lands since time immemorial? And who then turns around in Canticle, surprised to discover that he himself is a pawn? How else to explain Neb's sudden transition from nebbish orphan boy to Destined Leader, when the narrative conveniently skips ahead six months and we get passages like this:
Over the last several months [Neb had] commanded a camp of gravediggers, presided over discipline, even buried some of their own dead when the war crossed into their work. He knew how to order and inventory the supplies for a camp, and he found himself suddenly understanding and proposing military strategy. (Lamentation, p. 291)
Suddenly is right. Less than ten pages earlier Neb was left alone to handle the grave digging with winter coming on. We might have learned to respect and admire him—if we'd had even a few scenes of him laboring to stay alive under increasingly harsh conditions. This abrupt flash-forward enables Neb's superiors to talk about what a great leader he's becoming, and sets Neb up to take a on a leading role in Canticle, but it does nothing to convince the reader that any legitimate development is taking place among Scholes's characters.
Some of these problems start to correct themselves in Canticle (by far a superior book to Lamentation). Lamentation, ending with the execution of who we think is the responsible party for the destruction of Windwir, also manages to dismantle all the pre-existing social constructs that were in place at the beginning of the novel. This wipes the slate clean and gives our characters a chance to start over with new alliances, new priorities and new problems. The themes of destruction and rebirth in Lamentation take on a more weight in Canticle; the novel opens with a rash of assassinations and a very important birth. It soon dawns on the characters that Windwir was just the beginning of some nefarious plan by outside sources, and one by one they disperse to various parts of the globe, all trying, in their own way, to corner the threat before it corners them.
After the too-polite Lamentation, the torrent of violence unleashed in Canticle feels a tad extreme—we get massacres, blood-soaked dream sequences, and psychotic "magicked" assassins all before page fifty—yet upping the ante also ups the intensity of the story and our ability to empathize with the slowly coalescing central cast. Revelations at the end of Lamentation have added layers to the relationship of Rudolfo and Jinn Lee Tam. The death of a secondary character provides opportunity for a striking funeral sequence that not only enriches our understanding of one of the story's central cultures, but spurs other characters to come in to their own. The Marsh girl Winters, reduced to Neb's snogging partner in the first book, quickly steals the show in Canticle, taking on daunting political responsibilities as well as the demeanor of an actual person—in this case a frightened yet determined fifteen-year-old girl haunted by visions and prone (in one of Scholes's most unique and fascinating developments) to fits of glossolalia in which she spews ecstatic utterances.
Canticle is also a book of breathtaking set-pieces: Neb's journey to the Churning Wastes where the magical and technological destruction of a past civilization has created a landscape where "glass mountain ranges cast bloody shadows over forests of bone." (Canticle, p. 144) A queen's trek up a frosty mountain, bearing a wicker-throne upon her back. An ancient temple where the blood of tortured prisoners runs through pipes like veins. Long after you close the novel you cling to its haunted vistas—and wish this fiercely beating visual heart had been matched by an equally compelling emotional core. For, while Canticle is definitely an improvement on Lamentation it is still the sum of its parts. The weak secondary cast remains an impediment.
What is most frustrating about both novels is the convenient way characters keep popping up to steer the plot, then dying when they're no longer needed. Two of Vlad Lee Tam's children figure prominently in Canticle—yet as only one of them is even mentioned by name in Lamentation, and as Scholes continues to cram in a point-of-view change every five pages, it's hard to accept that they're now front-and-center players in the tale, initiating earth-shattering betrayals or acts of heroism. One of them only lasts as long as Vlad Lee Tam's plot arc and then dies as swiftly as they appeared. A couple of new and distinct characters do emerge—an insane mechoservitor named Charles and a shadowy priest named Renaud are both welcome additions to the tale—but by and large the supporting players in both novels are mere foils for the more developed central cast to play off of—and so generic that some, like the River Woman, are known only by the title of their profession.
More often than not Scholes tries to compensate by dazzling us with Cool Concepts. So many of these are spelled out in capital letters it soon becomes distracting. A brief sampling from the first page of Canticle: The Churning Wastes, Gypsy Scouts, the Keeper's Gate, the Whymer Way, the Desolation of the Old World, Third Alarm, First Captain, Watch Captain, the Seventh Forest Manor. This is, of course, standard fare in epic fantasy, but the problem is that The Named Lands don't go much deeper than their Cool Names. Witness, for example, a characteristic passage of Neb pondering the latest league of his journey:
Of course, it wasn't where Ruefello had lived. Ruefello had lived before the Great Migration, even before the Age of the Weeping Czars. He'd been a scientist-poet who had spent his life studying out the treasures, toys and tools of the Younger Gods, leaving behind his Book of Specifications that now only existed in fragments. According to Neb's history lessons, the book was rare, and only scattered copies had remained past the Year of the Falling Moon—forbidden by the Wizard Kings once their thrones were established upon the earth. (Canticle, p. 233)
Look, working in the back-story of a mythical realm with thousands of years of pre-history is never easy—but this sounds more like a grocery list than a tangible reality. Six-hundred pages into this story, I should have some idea of how these lovely names are adding to the experience. I do not. The Weeping Czars Scholes speaks of sound certifiably awesome, but what does their inclusion in this passage really do to clarify our understanding of events or of this secondary world? When Tolkien had Legolas pause beside a stream to extol the beauty of Nimrodel it deepened our impression of Middle Earth as a real place. But Tolkien also based his entire mythology on the idea of a vanishing world, making these trips down memory lane thematically important. Scholes's mythology is based on the idea of civilizations rising continually from the ashes of holocaust. It's a world where knowledge is precious and liable to be ripped away at a moment's notice. Why then are we given these vague, ethereal concepts? Wouldn't the people of the Named Lands—or at least a scholar like Neb, born and bred to research and understanding—have preserved the actual names of leaders and geographic locations (a la Lorien, Durin and Elessar) rather than grouping everything together under a uniform concept (a la The Year of the Falling Moon)?
If I sound harsh or overly critical here, it's because for all the mess, Scholes's work has an undeniable potential for greatness. There are moments in Canticle where, despite it all, he makes your heart ache. There's a particular poignancy in the figure of Isaak and of his insane counterpart, Charles—two machines who seem more frail and vulnerable than any of the human characters. Isaak in particular, donning garments after the realization of his part in Windwir, takes on a near-biblical grandeur. And what Scholes lacks in minutiae he makes up for in the broad spectrum. Thematically, The Psalms of Isaak is one of the more compelling of today's fantasies, for at its heart is a war of and about information. It's full of secret libraries and coded messages, its action compelled by the exchange of letters and by the characters' ability to interpret them correctly. Knowledge is power. Ignorance and superstition have therefore become even more ferocious in their assault upon the "light" of the well-informed. At the end of Canticle, when a character must choose between the end of personal torment and the assistance of an enemy's magic, magic wins because the scientific knowledge that would have solved the problem has long since been buried by a man-made cataclysm. This, we sense, is where Scholes has been going all along: the conflict of the rational and the primal, the dangers of technology as well as of its dearth coalesce beautifully into a scene of raw emotion and real consequences. It's real enough that you want to keep going. In such breathless moments, Scholes takes you there.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.