Psalms of Isaak Readthrough – Lamentation

So I told my friends over on Facebook that I would put up a post once I finished my re-read ofLamentation.  I’m going to do that for each of the books and create space in the comments for some Q and A.  To catch everyone up, I’m digging out of the last round of life rolls (as Kris and Dean would call them) and finally getting back to work.  But because it’s been over seven months since I’ve looked at Hymn and a year since I did any regular work on it — and since it’s been two years since I did my last re-read of the series — I decided to soak myself in the story as I prepare to finish the last half of the last book in the series.  (And while I’m thinking about it, there’s still plenty of room over at Facebook so send your friend requests.  Just remember to send a message if we don’t have mutual friends.  That’s still the best place to get the most current updates though I’m working on that.)

LAMENTATION REVISED JACKETI decided this time to listen to the series.  Macmillan did a brilliant job recording the first two books and Audible has continued from there, keeping a few of the original voice talents on board.  So I put the books on my phone, got myself some bluetooth headphones, found a cord that lets me listen in the van, and I’m off and running.  I finished Lamentation yesterday morning.  I think it was my first complete trip through in audio only and it was well worth it.  Being read to opens me back up that child state of wonder in the midst of hearing story.

So…some back-story that you may or may not already know.  You can watch videos ofme and Beth Meacham and me and Jay Lake talking about the book back in the early days.   That covers a lot of it…short story writer tackles a novel based on two of his short stories on a dare from his wife and best friend.  Before Lamentation, I’d attempted two novels — one in 1995 and one in 1997.  I got about 20k words in before bogging down.  Before Lamentation, the longest piece I’d finished was 15k words and I had been so afraid of writing novels that I gave up and decided to just stick with short fiction.  But I took the dare and wrote Lamentation in six and a half weeks of crazy pushing.  Thirteen months after starting the book, I had a five book offer from Tor.

Originally, I saw just one short story.  At its core, about a king who finds a weeping robot in a fantasy-ish setting.  I wasn’t really planning an entire world or cast of characters.  And in my short stories, the other characters are often just a part of the setting — the main character is where I keep the POV of those stories.  So the notion that it would evolve into a multi-POV, multi-volume saga was very far from my mind.  I wrote the first short story,then realized when I saw the art for it that it was a much bigger story.  I had the notion that it would be four short stories — all with rhyming titles:

Of metal men and scarlet thread and dancing with the sunrise

Of missing kings and backward dreams and the honoring of lies

Of fishing moons and iron tombs and the melody of sadness

Of downcast eyes and empty skies and the Age of Laughing Madness

But ultimately, I ended up just writing the first two stories and then incorporated some of the key moments from the unwritten stories into the series in Antiphon and Requiem.  On September 11, 2006, I took the short story about Rudolfo finding the metal man and pasted it into the document.  Then I took the second short story about the trial of Sethbert and did the same.  I converted that text to red so I would know to check it carefully and make sure it syncs up.  Then, without an outline and with only the vaguest sense of a war over Windwir erupting and culminating in a war crimes trial, I started writing.  I would love to learn how to be more of a planning/outlining writer but for most of this series, I’ve been discovering it as I go.

I’ve shared pretty openly that I didn’t love Lamentation when I finished it.  I even tried to get Jay and Jen to let me off the dare early on but to no avail.  I’m glad I didn’t stop, obviously, and I’m delighted that other people saw its worth when I couldn’t.  This would’ve truly sat in a drawer, in my mind broken beyond repair, if I hadn’t been pushed.  And on this re-reading — nine years after first writing the book  — I had a different appreciation for its language, complexity, underlying message about humanity and suffering.  I also have a different perception of the world and myself as my worldview has continued evolving around the more conservative days of my early years.  As a first novel goes, I can be proud of it and pleased with it.  It certainly launched me nicely and provided a great long bit of road to stretch my story-telling legs on.  Now I can see just what a big story this is that I’ve been trying to mine out of my brain and heart and bones.

So when I first started the book the only characters I knew much about were Petronus, Rudolfo and Isaak.  I didn’t realize when I was setting up the first book that I was regurgitating fantasy tropes (for good or ill) within a setting that may or may not be science fiction.  Neb showed up the day I started his scene and it quickly evolved into an adaptation from another novel I’d thought I might write called The Ship That Sailed the Moon:  Being the 100th Tale of Felip Carnelyin.  I cribbed that story about a habitable moon and a Moon Wizard and turned it into the mythology of the Psalms of Isaak.  Jin Li Tam had no substance in the short stories and her character evolved initially from the courtesan spy role not even hinted at in the short story into who she becomes as the story unfolds.  There are a lot of thing I think I got right in the first book…and probably an equal number of things I got wrong.

My biggest shortcoming in Lamentation — and where I had some cringing especially in the first half of my re-read — was my portrayal of women.  I’m fortunate that my wife pointed it out to me and gently educated me.  (And don’t get me wrong — I’m still being educated.)  I was regurgitating what I’d gobbled up as a kid and wasn’t being mindful or conscious of my writing choices.  You can see where things shift when Winters shows up.  Still, at the end of it all, the Named Lands has a lot of Patriarchal tropes in it especially in Lamentation.  Girls hiding behind big strong men, women being commanded by their father to bear heirs in an arranged, strategic marriage.  I have to own that and as I’ve evolved as a human and a writer, I hope that I’m showing progress in addressing it all.  I fell into the trap of trying to write what I know out of a fear of getting “writing the other” wrong and forgetting that we can learn what we don’t know by listening to others and being empathetic.  And by trying and by caring.  That said, I have heard both praise and criticism about my portrayal of women and I accept that it’s a both/and, not an either/or thing.   I’m a work in progress just like the Psalms of Isaak and I’m going to keep challenging my assumptions, my privilege, etc.  Writing is a sandbox for me to explore life in addition to telling stories…and learn something along the way.  And hopefully leave the campsite better as I pass through by sharing what I learn as I go.

The second biggest shortcoming in the book, I think, is probably also part of its strength.  I wrote it really fast.  I needed to do that in order to outrun my fear of novels.  But in doing so, the world wasn’t really well put together and some of the characters weren’t as well thought out.  I think the worldbuilding itself has the combination of backstory, myth, history, religion, art all referenced to give a sense of being real.  Alas, I didn’t track it all that well (that ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style of writing doesn’t work well for that) so next time I tackle a big story like this, I’ll be a good DM and build my campaign world a bit more and let writing be my treat for building the world.  Still, it’s far more consistent than I thought it would be here nine years later.  Just little bits of things I could’ve done to make the rest of the series easier.  And there were a few places in the book that were inconsistent.  I picked up a few places during that rather complex trial scene where there were some POV violations despite how many times I went over it.  Still, that stuff doesn’t feel like such a big shortcoming.  And we already know that my view of my own work is…problematic…at times.  As they say, there are no perfect books.

One thing I’m not sure I’ve talked about is the subconscious soup I was writing from.  When I wrote the story (in 2005) and the novel (in 2006) I was dealing with my mother’s failing health as her various mental disorders combined with diabetes started slowly consuming her.  It culminated in me moving her south from the Tacoma area to Portland, into a nursing home, which was a really tough stretch of time.  She died just after my offer from Tor.  A lot of the Psalms of Isaak is metaphor as I processed the different bits of life I floundered through between 2005 and now.  It’s really clear in Lamentation:  Through years of therapy and hard work in my 20s and 30s, I’d survived the Age of Laughing Madness, moved beyond the Keeper’s Wall and out of the Churning Wastes, tucked into a city of knowledge, only to have the spell that devastated my early world suddenly within the gates.  I don’t really set out to write this way but it’s inevitable that my life leaks into it, dressed up as story.  And I don’t resist it because I think it gives the stories a spark of life and it gives me a sense of what I’m processing in my life.  It’s a story about how we deal with trauma and loss and how different responses of love and fear impact us and our world.  And it’s also a story about my processing the events of 9/11/01 and the transition in our culture with the rise of secularism and how it all plays out against old, old beliefs around blood and faith and superstition.  Beliefs I used to have quite strongly as  young Baptist pastor and have watched slowly evolve as I’ve become a secular humanist.  Lamentation is more about questions than answers, I think, and in listening to it, I was struck by how it all comes together and how it brought Vlad Li Tam and Winters to the front for regular scenes through the rest of the books.  It’s also about laying down power willingly and taking up power reluctantly to effect change.  I’m listening to Canticle now and I’m pleased with how it syncs up and I’m pleased with the growth I see between books.  Though I know Canticle is probably the darkest of the books.  Still, go look at the body of my work as a writer and there’s a lot of apocalypse there.

My favorite lines from the book:

The Desolation of Windwir has reached us all, he thought.

It no longer mattered why. It mattered that it never happen again. And Rudolfo saw clearly his part in that, and he saw how a lamentation could become a hymn.

It’s where I get the title sequence.  And the original titles were A Lamentation for Windwiror Lamentation for the Light.  But by the time I was submitting it, I knew it was five volumes and knew all of the titles except for Antiphon.

My favorite scene from the book is the confrontation between Rudolfo and Vlad Li Tam over the bonfire near the end.

And favorite quote from the underpinning philosophy of the Androfrancines:  “Change is the path life takes.”  My fancy way of saying “Evolve or die.”

Favorite loose end:  Neb buries Resolute’s hand cannon in the woods.  Pistols placed on mantles in book 1 should be used by book 5 methinks….

My favorite awesome thing that happened because of this book?  Well, too many to list.  A lot of amazing friends, an awesome launch into the world of novels, a lot of great trips out to promote the book, lots of nice notes and reviews.  I guess the trip to France’s Imaginales was a pretty amazing high point, too.

So…I’m going to wrap up and take questions in the comments section if you have any.  I really enjoyed my journey through the book this time and highly recommend the audio version if you’ve not picked it up over at Audible yet.  The voice talents are amazing.  And being read to really make sit a different experience.  My head is filling up with the story and its characters.

So what are your thoughts?  Questions?  I know some of you are re-reading with me…now’s a great time to jump in and talk about it.

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