Faren Miller reviews Ken Scholes

Blue Yonders, Grateful Pies and Other Fanciful Feasts, Ken Scholes (Fairwood Press 978-1-933846-51-4, $17.99, 272pp, tp) August 2015. [Order from Fairwood Press]

While the titles in Ken Scholes’s Psalms of Isaak sequence for Tor seem as monumental as Bach oratorios (Lamentation, Canticle, Antiphon, Requiem and the forthcoming Hymn), his col­lections have longer, more offbeat yet deliberately chosen names. In November 2008 (issue #574) I reviewed Long Walks, Last Flights, and Other Strange Journeys. Though I missed the sequel, I’m back for his third collection, Blue Yonders, Grateful Pies and Other Fanciful Feasts.

Since Scholes can adopt so many themes and voices and make them his own, this time I’ll focus on novelette ‘‘If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear’’ and novella ‘‘A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves’’ (the first a ‘‘holiday story’’ written for Tor.com; the second originally an audio recording, and later part of an anthology of linked short novels).

The combination of myth and music, hope and grief in the Psalms books grows even more intense in the novelette whose title comes from the first verse of a holiday song (#475 in Hymns of the Dragon and his Avenger):

If Dragon’s Mass Eve be cold and clear

The Santaman’s grace may find us here.

But if Dragon’s Mass Eve be clouded sky

The Santaman’s grace may pass us by.

The Prelude to the Santaman Cycle (another part of the yearly rites) may sound bleak, compared to tales of the Magi and carols about the Jolly Old Elf, but it suits Melody Constance Farrelly’s task: digging her father’s grave, as she recalls past Eves where he recited the opening words: ‘‘Muscles tire. Words fail. Faith fades.’’

In this world, abstractions have become quite literal – most notably Bureaucracy, while Hope lies buried deep in half-forgotten mines. Humanity grieves, endures, and survives.

Like The Weave, ‘‘A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves’’ alternates between viewpoint characters: both of them earthly here, equally opposed to religious terrorism but approaching the task from different angles. Charity Oxfam heads an armed patrol that picks up criminals, until an old boss from her years in the military (now a female senator) sets her to find the son who vanished into a Christian sect. Preacher George Applebaum inadvertently comes into contact with followers of that cult, led by a former colleague whose faith became rabid while George’s grew more humane, unwilling to blindly accept dogma, breed fanaticism, or promote approaching End Times.

Maybe, he thought, a religion founded upon the principle of shedding blood in exchange for life was destined to breed that level of crazy. If the God you worshiped was willing to kill to make His point, why wouldn’t you be willing to do the same? He shook the thought away, foreign and frightening.

Scholes turns these elements into a suspense­ful thriller where plotlines take unexpected turns, invoking the kinds of violence we see in the daily news, but raising the stakes, in a future America that may not hold together if circumstances grow too grim.

‘‘Symmetry’’ was inspired by a character in­vented by Jay Lake, and several other tales show Lake’s influence: there are both collaborations and tributes, in a book dedicated to the friend and col­league who died much too soon.

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