Ken Scholes’s “Psalms of Isaak” – A Haunting Science Fantasy

Inevitably, when you read a lot of sci-fi fantasy, you discover works that you find to be absolutely marvelous but that go by relatively unnoticed by many other readers. Books that you feel deserve awards and widespread sales disappear from publication and booksellers’ shelves. There are several series or standalone books that fall into that space for me. Ken Scholes’s genre-defying “Psalms of Isaak,” a five book series filled with horror, wonder, and hope ranks very highly among them. There will be light SPOILERS for the series in what follows.

My Journey to Reading the Series

I bought Lamentation, the first book in the series, when it first came out in paperback. It languished on my shelf, showing off its beautiful cover art (are those… cowboys in front of a ruin? or warriors riding around?). I lost it in a move but couldn’t shake the image of the cover from my mind. I grabbed it in paperback again, but it was purged when I was getting ready for another move–after all, why keep just the first book in a series I wasn’t sure I’d even like? Finally, as I browsed for audiobooks available through the library, I saw that alluring cover once again. Knowing I like listening to books, and that this one in particular seemed to be haunting me, I dove in.

I was in for an absolute treat. Lamentation has nearly everything I could want in a science fantasy. It has an awesome sense of vastness of the world, both in space and time. There are ruins and mysteries lost to the past. There are subtle hints of technology that may be recovered. There are mysterious steampunk vibes mixed with those of fantasy. Truly wicked villains populate the whole series, while interesting main characters manage to keep hope alive in the darkest of times. The book was brilliant! I immediately grabbed the next one on audio and went through them all. I rarely read series back-to-back, enjoying a break in between with other books, but I couldn’t stop with the Psalms of Isaak and continued all the way through.

What Genre is it?

One of the many things that makes this series so excellent is its ability to defy genres. At its core, it’s a kind of epic fantasy, with some feeling of the hero’s journey happening throughout. But it also has clear elements of science fantasy, with some fantastical elements scattered throughout seemingly explainable with scientific means and in-world rules. Additionally, there is a helping of steampunk swirled in. Ancient artifacts are scattered throughout, as well–one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy tropes. Each time I started a new book in the series I struggled with which genre to file it under, and I ultimately just piled on the labels so that I could find the books if friends asked for recommendations.

On top of all of that, though, there is an evocative sense of religious crisis. I read some autobiographical stuff from Scholes as I read through the series and it appears he has had his own crisis of doubt–I’m unsure where he came out of it. That sense is mixed throughout this series as religion plays a major pot in many of the plot threads. It adds yet another layer of both hope and dread.

Read It!

I hope I’ve sold you on the Psalms of Isaak, because it is a series that is well-worth your time. I’m nabbing the audiobooks on Audible as I get credits. It’s a wonderful journey through a fantastic world, filled with so many vibes and ideas that you might think it’s overwhelming. But it’s not. Scholes does a great job grounding readers in this haunting place, and his storytelling will make you want to stay there forever.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

4 thoughts on “Ken Scholes’s “Psalms of Isaak” – A Haunting Science Fantasy

  1. socrates17 says:

    I’d enjoyed Ken’s first collection of short stories, Long Walks, Last Flights & Other Strange Journeys, when that came out from a small press. So, when Tor published Lamentation I picked it up at once. Sometimes I wait until a series is finished and then binge read it. I did that with Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, for instance. I wish I had done that with The Psalms of Isaak, for reasons that I’ll get to. As it happened, I read Lamentation almost right away and loved it for many of the reasons that you cite.
    I bought and read Canticle when that was released, as well. Still great stuff.
    When Antiphon came out, my first reaction was irritation that Tor had switched cover artist from Gregory Manchess, whose covers are, as you say, beautiful, to much more pedestrian (cheaper?) cover art by Chris McGrath, who did the art for the rest of the series. That didn’t impact the excellence of the text, though, and I fully enjoyed Antiphon.
    There was approximately a 3 year gap between the release of Antiphon and the release of volume 4, Requiem. I’m not a particularly patient person, and was champing at the bit. But more importantly, I’d forgotten some of what had happened in the earlier volumes. Consequently, reading Requiem was a bit of a tough go.
    The gap between Requiem and the final volume, Hymn, was 4 years. Unbeknownst to me, Scholes had been dealing with some personal/family issues and had been unable to work. I don’t know what those were, and it is none of my business, but unfortunately it meant that I had forgotten a LOT of what had happened in the earlier volumes. (I remembered Requiem a little more clearly, but struggled to recall the events of the 1st 3.) Yes, I know I should have reread them, but my TBR pile is so hellacious that I rarely reread except for some of the real classics like Lafferty or Cordwainer Smith.
    It would have meant an 8 year wait, but that’s what I meant when I said that I should have waited until the entire thing was in print. Fortunately, people starting now will not have that issue.

    • J.W. Wartick says:

      These are the only things from Scholes that I’ve read, but I may see if I can track down some of his short stories. I also like to binge series if possible, though of late I’ve been getting into too many ongoing series. One of the benefits of reading plenty of vintage sci-fi is that so much of it is standalone, and if they aren’t standalone works, the series is complete.

      Anyway, regarding this series, I’d say you should definitely give it another go. I’m planning to re-read them all on audio once I get the credits to fill out my collection (which may be years from now). I also did like the first couple covers far more. Lamentation has the best cover, in my opinion. It captures the essence of the novel with both the action and hints of far more going on all in one gorgeous image. Anyway, I hope you’ll give it another go. Scholes was clearly shaped by his own life quite a bit while reading it. I read his blogging about it and it sounds something like a crisis of faith. You can see themes of that throughout the series, which I enjoyed immensely. I hope the best for him.

      Thanks for coming by and commenting. I always enjoy your comments!

  2. David says:

    You’ve sold me! At least as far as putting it on my “to read” list, which is as far as I can promise any book at the moment. Thanks for the recommendation!

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