From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Canticle by Ken Scholes

Canticle is Book 2 in a five book epic fantasy series by author Ken Scholes (book 1 being Lamentation). This is not your daddy’s fantasy full of elves and dwarves and knights. Instead, there are spell-casting robot monks, deadly scouts who turn invisible, exploration of a magical wasteland, themes of belonging, family and trust, and the fruition of schemes and plots that span centuries, all told with a to-the-point style.

Canticle takes place in the Named Lands where the people have foresworn the blood magics and wizardry that enslaved and nearly destroyed them centuries before (which I think we can all agree was probably a good move), and instead rely on the safer Earth Magics and shiny bits of science recovered from the wreckage of the old world. For centuries, knowledge has been guarded and doled out by a secular order of monks (who impose tighter control on their information than a Star Trek movie set).

In the first book, Lamentation, this new world order is thrown into chaos when the city that is a combination scientific Vatican City and Library of Alexandria is destroyed using ancient and forbidden blood magic (there’s nothing like kicking off a series with a magical nuke I always say). Several key figures must then fight to discover the truth behind the attack, and to restore some balance to their world and their lives. They mostly succeed. Or so they think.

Canticle opens with a series of devastating attacks by a mysterious enemy, and the birth of Rudolfo the Gypsy King’s son. These events, and the fallout of actions taken in Lamentation, cause all of the major characters from the first book to be launched into new, more thrillinger quests.

Rudolfo the Gypsy King (who is a rascally king with land and armies, not a bad stereotype traveling around in wagons, thankfully) must seek the aid of a hated enemy to save his newborn son. Scout trainee Neb, who was more or less along for the ride in Lamentation (and who apparently looks like a young Steve Martin), risks losing everything he cares about in order to come into his own power and purpose. Vlad Li Tam takes his iron armada (and kick ass name) to seek a hidden enemy beyond the Named Lands, and finds more than he bargained for. Jin Li Tam shows her strength and cunning (and post-partum aggression) as the new Gypsy Queen. And Winters must take her place as the Marsh Queen, only to discover her mud-caked people have some very dirty secrets indeed.

The ending was very satisfying. It offered tantalizing clues of where the series is going, raised new questions and oh-crap possibilities, and left me eager for book three, but did not make me want to throw Canticle against the wall for leaving me hanging on central plot points or needlessly dragging anything out.

Reasons to Read Canticle

All the Jordan Goodness but without the Fat
Scholes has been compared to Robert Jordan. But if you’re a Jordan fan who wishes Jordan had compressed his last six or seven books down by half and gotten to the point already, I’d say you will be very satisfied with the fine job Scholes has done balancing pacing and rich detail. He never confuses plot for plod. So unless he announces his five book series is being expanded into a fourteen book series, it’s Scholes for the win.

Rewarding Promptness
Scholes publishes quickly, and on time. At least, so far. Neither Rain, nor Sleet, nor Day Job, nor Birth of Twins has kept him from his appointed deadline. We should not only be happy about this, but reward his efforts (and lack of sleep) by snatching up his books when they come out. Operant conditioning is a wonderful thing.

It’s Got Weight without Being Heavy
Comparisons to Canticle for Liebowitz are inevitable, and not just because this book is titled Canticle, and the next one is titled Liebowitz. (Actually, Book 3 is titled Antiphon. Which is good, because somebody needs to take a stance against phon).

Canticle does include a pseudo-Francine order that gathers knowledge in the aftermath of an apocalypse, and explores issues of science versus superstition and the dangers of both thanks to human nature. Canticle also toys with the issue of prophecies, and whether they are real or self-fulfilling.

But Canticle is an epic fantasy, not a satiric look at our own future. It does not beat the reader over the head with any point or agenda, and if the author has any social, political or religious biases I didn’t feel like the story reflected them.

The issues that are present in Canticle feel like a natural outgrowth of the characters, the plot, and the world in which the story takes place, not the other way around. At this point, we are really only getting sonar pings that tell us we are passing over some serious depth here. If anything, I hope Scholes takes us down into those depths and explores them a little more thoroughly before the end of this journey.

It’s shaping up to be an epically cool Epic Fantasy of epic proportions
There aren’t many of those coming out these days. Support the ones that do come out and tell the publishers we want more.

Reasons Not to Read Canticle

  • If You Haven’t Read Lamentation
    Certainly, you could skip to book 2, but you’d be missing out. So go buy Lamentation. And go ahead and buy Canticle too, to save yourself the return trip to the store (or website) two days later.
  • If You Are Only Interested In Vampire Stories
    There are no vampires in this book. No, wait, scratch that. There is an evil bloodletting vixen. Close enough. Go ahead and read it.
  • If You Are Landing A Commercial Jetliner:
    Pay attention. Read later. Or at least circle until you finish the chapter – that’s what I’d do.

In Conclusion
Canticle is a fun read, and a fresh addition to the epic fantasy genre.

And if you did not find this review helpful in deciding whether you should read Canticle or not, then there’s really only one thing to do — read Canticle. Then you can write to me and tell me what I should have written differently.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Books (October 13, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0765321289
ISBN-13: 978-0765321282

Randy Henderson stays crunchy in milk. His fiction has appeared in Alienskin Magazine, The Harrow, and From the Asylum. He likes milkshakes. He recently graduated from Clarion West. He has a robot monkey army. And most importantly he has won the prestigious “Fantasy Friday Blog for a Beer” award five times (to date). For his genre-related musings, go to his blog.