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Book review: The Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky


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Shadows of the Apt 1: Empire in Black and Gold


Thousands of years ago, the tribes of humanity were menaced by the giant insects that inhabited their world. Through means long forgotten, humanity bonded itself to the insects, taking on some of their attributes and abilities, becoming the kinden. They mastered the insects and then came to dominate the world.


Now it is a time of invention and progress. The industrious Beetle-kinden have forged impressive vehicles and tools to drive their world into the industrial age, but they have no fear of war, for the city-states of the Lowlands thrive on their peaceful competition with one another. But, unknown to the Beetle-kinden, another people outside the Lowlands have no such restriction. The Wasp Empire, an empire painted in black-and-gold, is beginning its expansion into the Lowlands and only one Lowlander of influence, Stenwold Maker, artificer-turned-agent, is ready to stand against them. With only a small band of followers to assist him, Stenwold sets out to prevent the Wasps' latest conquest from proceeding.


Empire in Black and Gold is the first volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky's epic Shadows of the Apt sequence, a series currently projected to run to ten volumes (Book 6 is out in February 2011, followed by the seventh later in 2011). However, the series is divided into distinct acts which provide some sense of closure, with four volumes in the first act. I must admit that I was cautious over beginning another huge series, but I'm glad I took the plunge with this one. Empire in Black and Gold is a winner.


Tchaikovsky succeeds here in creating a world unlike most in secondary world fantasy. The mix of steampunk, traditional epic fantasy tropes, the echoes of real history (particularly the Lowlands resembling the Greek city-states of antiquity) and the use of the insect-kinden idea to make the races unique is very effective. These elements raise some interesting questions about slavery and racism (since in this world the different races, although all human, are differentiated from one another by their insect totems and have notably different traits). Tchaikovsky can't be faulted here on his worldbuilding, which is impressive, convincing and original.


On the character front, Tchaikovsky is also successful. Although the Wasp Empire is presented as the antagonists, individual Wasps are characterised as anything from indolent and corrupt rulers to efficient and loyal servants of their cause and ideology. Extremely well-realised is Thalric, an agent of the Empire's secret service, who is presented as 'the villain' but has his own, understandable motivation and driving force. His opposite number, Stenwold, also comes across well. Tchaikovsky captures the frustration of an old man past his prime who has been waiting for a long time for this conflict and now finds himself unable to fully confront it without the use of allies.


The primary POV characters are Stenwold's students, whom he has recruited into the fight: the engineer Totho, the industrious-but-unfortunately-named Cheerwell, the aristocratic swordsman Salma and the Spider-kinden swordswoman Tynisa. These are reasonably familiar character archetypes, but Tchaikovsky brings them to life convincingly, although Totho perhaps could have been developed a little more.


Prose-wise, Tchaikovsky goes for accessibility here, with an approachable and easy-to-read prose style reminiscent of say Brandon Sanderson. Despite the book's length (about 600 pages in paperback) it is a fast read.


On the negative side of things, some elements could have been explored in greater depth, such as the role of women within the Wasp Empire and more about the intriguing 'lightning engines', but then this is but the first volume in a long series and there's plenty of time for such elements to be brought into play later on.


Empire in Black and Gold (****) is a fast-paced, page-turning read set in a vivid, interesting and different type of fantasy world. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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Shadows of the Apt 2: Dragonfly Falling


War has come to the Lowlands. Three great cities - Tark, Collegium and Sarn - are in danger of assault from the Wasp Empire and their allies, with the Empire hoping to seize all of the Lowlands in a single, swift campaign. In Collegium, the spymaster Stenwold Maker finds himself pressed into leading the defence of the city of students and artificers against the disciplined Ant-soldiers of Vek. In Tark, Salma and Totho find themselves aiding the defence against the Wasp onslaught, whilst in Sarn Che and Achaeos are hoping to find new allies amongst the Ant-kinden and their Moth and Mantis neighbours.


But in Capitas, in the heart of the Empire, the young Emperor has found himself a new prisoner, one with access to dark and powerful sorcery which he has offered to put at the Emperor's disposal...


The second volume of The Shadows of the Apt series picks up where Empire in Black and Gold left off, with the Wasp-kinden and their allies launching their invasion of the divided Lowlands in force. Whilst Empire was a story of back-alley knife-fights, political intrigue and clandestine dealings, Dragonfly Falling is an outright war story. Great armies and naval fleets clash, walls are defended and all manner of heroic last-stands and unexpected reversals (for both sides) take place. The slightly over-familiar military activity (Tchaikovsky is good at this stuff, but nowhere near as good as say David Gemmell or Paul Kearney) is livened up by all manner of steampunk battiness: airships, gyrocopters and even primitive submarines join the battles, one engagement turns on the deployment of a primitive air-rifle, troops are rushed into the warzone by steam trains and so on. This gives the scenes of combat and battle some much-needed freshness, as do the different kinden using their racial abilities in a massed form on the battlefield.


All of this action comes at the expense of some of Empire's quieter moments of intrigue, scene-setting and characterisation. Tchaikovsky hasn't got the time, even in a book almost 700 pages in length, to dwell on some moments like he did in the first volume and some elements are under-developed as a result (and some, like the formation of the Ancient League and the growing concerns of the Spiderlands over the Empire's expansion, take place entirely off-page). That said, there are some very well-developed subplots. Totho, one of the less-visible characters in the first novel, gets his own story here which may be nothing new (the corruption of power and ambition) but is told extremely well and based on his character development through the first two novels. Salma, the foppish swordsman of the first book, finds himself reluctantly becoming a Robin Hood figure behind enemy lines, whilst Major Thalric of the Wasp intelligence service finds himself drawn into political infighting whilst being relentlessly hunted by a murderous old nemesis.


These storylines are handled well and come together satisfyingly at the end in a solid convergence. However, after several hundred pages the battles do start blurring into one another and the relentlessly fast pace with barely a room for breath is somewhat wearying at times. In addition, the sudden deployment of a magical deus-ex-machina talisman into this steampunk story feels a bit redundant, especially since it seems mainly to be scene-setting for the next book. Still, this is for the most part a page-turning, inventive read.


Dragonfly Falling (***½) isn't quite as inventive as the first novel, but remains an enjoyable and different slice of epic fantasy. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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Shadows of the Apt 3: Blood of the Mantis


With the Wasp armies' advance stalled by the arrival of winter, Stenwold Maker takes advantage in the lull to send his agents on dangerous missions. Achaeos, Tisamon and Tynisa are dispatched to Jerez, a marsh-town on the edges of the Empire, in pursuit of the stolen Shadow Box, which holds an evil that cannot be unleashed back onto the world. Elsewhere, Che and Nero are sent to Solarno, a city on the distant Exalsee, which is also under threat from the Empire's expansion. However, the feuding political factions of Solarno seem rather unmoved by the threat they face.


Blood of the Mantis is the third volume in the Shadows of the Apt sequence and the penultimate book in the opening story arc. In this novel, Tchaikovsky abandons the large-scale war stories and huge battles of Dragonfly Falling to return to the back-alley intrigue and politicking of the first novel in the series. He also reigns in the book's length, delivering a relatively slim 400-page novel that certainly benefits from a greater focus following three storylines in tandem: events in Jerez, the intrigue in Solarno and Stenwold's attempts to forge the Wasps' myriad enemies into a single, cohesive force. This growing focus means some characters get short shrift - Totho and Salma's storylines are put on the backburner for now - but those characters who are featured benefit from more page-time and development.


Tchaikovsky also (for the first of at least two times in the series) widens the scope of the worldbuilding, introducing a whole new area of the world (the Exalsee or Sea of Exiles and its surrounding city-states) and establishing a whole new set of characters and politics. This is achieved reasonably well, although the Exalsee cities aren't vastly different from the established Lowlands locations and the blindness of Solarno's rulers to the Wasp threat is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Collegium's similar scepticism in Empire in Black and Gold. That said, some of the new characters, such as Taki the pilot and Cesta the assassin, are well-drawn and welcome additions to the (already very large) cast.


The book is certainly enjoyable and page-turning, with the weird and steampunk elements raising what would otherwise be a pretty standard epic fantasy to some interesting new heights, but the Shadow Box is a disappointingly traditional 'evil magical talisman of doom' and it's hard to invest too much in that storyline, especially as Jerez is not a particularly interesting locale (though some late developments near the end of the book may cause some reappraisal of that). Another weakness is that Thalric has, extremely reluctantly, become an ally of the good guys and immediately lost some of the elements that made him more interesting in the first novel. Stenwold's attempts to merge disparate allies into a cohesive alliance against the Wasps is also rather over-familiar and perhaps too easily achieved given the daunting difficulties he faces.


Blood of the Mantis (***½) continues to develop this enjoyable series and benefits from a shift in focus away from the battle-heavy second volume. However, some weaknesses mean that it continues to fail to fully achieve its potential. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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Shadows of the Apt 4: Salute the Dark


Spring has come, and the war for the Lowlands has resumed. A freshly-reinforced Wasp army is marching on Sarn, whilst a newly-assembled force is preparing to assault the Mantis-held woodland of Felyal and clear the coast route to Collegium. With the chances of victory hanging in the balance, Stenwold Maker embarks on a daring diplomatic mission to the Dragonfly Commonweal, hoping to convince them to attack the Wasp Empire whilst their attention is elsewhere. Meanwhile, Nero and Taki are returning to the Exalsee to try and arrange the liberation of Solarno.


Elsewhere, other events are coming to a head. Tisamon's path leads him to Capitas for an attempt on the Wasp Emperor's life. Uctebri, now master of the Shadow Box, is preparing for the culmination of his own plans. And Cheerwell sees an opportunity to tear apart the Empire from within, but finds that old allies now see her as a deadly enemy and traitor...


Salute the Dark is the fourth book in the Shadows of the Apt series and whilst it isn't the conclusion of the whole series (which will run for ten books), it is the culmination of the first major story arc. Enough closure is given here so that the reader can pause before reading the next book in the series (Books 5-7 form a trilogy of their own within the larger series). Events that Tchaikovsky has been laying the ground for since the first book finally take place and some questionable earlier storytelling decisions are here explained fully. Whilst there's a large amount of military activity going on in the fourth volume, it isn't as overwhelmed by it as the second book was, and there is a good mix between the war scenes, character-building and political intrigue. Thalric's return to the centre of attention is well-handled, and characters like Cheerwell, Tisamon and Salma are all developed impressively.


The main startling thing about Salute the Dark is the death toll. Perhaps aware that the number of characters was getting extremely large, Tchaikovsky takes a scythe to the cast with enthusiasm, killing off major and minor characters in a bloodbath that even George R.R. Martin might find a tad excessive. This gives rise to a genuine feeling of unpredictability and tension as you don't know who's going to be offed next. Some of the deaths fall a little flat, as they're minor characters who haven't had much screen-time, but there's enough major ones to be surprising.


The book's conclusion is well-handled, giving a good explanation for the pause in hostilities whilst laying just enough groundwork for future stories to make you want to pick up the next book without being left on a tedious cliffhanger.


Salute the Dark (****) is the best book in the series to date, featuring impressive developments in the story, the worldbuilding and characters. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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