Adrian Tchaikovsky seems to be one of the more prolific authors writing at the moment, it's only been a couple of years since he finished his ten-volume Shadows of the Apt series and this book is the third novel he's published since then (and they haven't been short books). After last year's two standalones this is a return to the series format, although this isn't intended to be as lengthy a series as the Apt books.
The setting this time is a bit different to his previous fantasy books, whereas they had relatively advanced societies this book feels like it is set in its world's equivalent of the Bronze Age with most people living in small warring tribes. Because of this the world-building feels a bit simplistic compared to the Apt books, but it does a reasonable job of making it feel convincing and mostly avoids the potential trap of having the characters have too modern a mindset for their surroundings. Tchaikovsky does usually like to have a high-concept premise; in this case it's that all humans have the ability to shapeshift into the form of their tribe's animal. There are a variety of different tribes shown from the relatively mundane wolves, tigers and bears through to the more exotic Komodo dragons and one character who is able to change into the form of an unnamed animal reminiscent of a Jurassic Park-style velociraptor. If nothing else, this does make for some distinctive and entertaining action scenes, I feel like I’ve read a lot of fantasy books where all the fights could have come straight from medieval Europe so it’s nice to have a bit of variety.
Although Tchaikovsky can always be relied upon to have some inventive ideas I find it’s often his characterisation that I like best about the books. I did like the characters in this, the protagonist Maniye is very likeable and gets some good character development, to a large extent the book is structured as her coming-of-age story so it can occasionally feel a little bit clichéd. I thought there were also some good characters among the supporting cast, and there is some subtle character development where the reader’s initial impression may be biased by Maniye’s opinion of them but it gradually becomes apparent that she’s not always the best judge of character.
I think maybe my biggest criticism of the book might be that while this is clearly meant to only show the beginning of a conflict against a potentially world-threatening threat, that more epic part of the storyline is perhaps a bit too much in the background for it to really be interesting. The book can also sometimes be a bit predictable in its plot developments; it’s not too hard to anticipate some of the plot twists although there were also quite a few things which did take me by surprise.
Overall, I wouldn’t say this is Tchaikovsky’s best book (I think last year’s “Guns of the Dawn” is still my favourite) but it was a consistently enjoyable read with some unique and memorable scenes.
Rating : 7.5 / 10
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Shadows of the Apt” series was one of my favourite epic fantasy series of recent years so I was looking forward to reading his first book in a different setting. Unlike his previous 10-book series, “Guns of the Dawn” is a standalone novel (although not a particularly short one) and rather than the Apt series’ sprawling set of characters this focuses on a single protagonist.
The first chapter introduces Emily Marchwic experiencing her first firefight while her military unit attempts an advanced through a trackless swamp and has a bloody but inconclusive skirmish with their enemy. After this introduction the first section of the book flashbacks a year to show how Emily got into this situation. In the earliest part of the book she is as far from a soldier as it would be possible to be, living with her sisters and brother in their ancestral estate and from a social class which means it would be inconceivable that she would have anything as common as a job, let alone fight in a war. However, there is a war and it is going increasingly badly for her home Kingdom of Lascanne as they fight against the radical revolutionaries of Denland and one by one all the men of fighting age in her household (and Lascanne in general) are conscripted until in a final desperate act the King is forced to order that every household must provide one woman to be conscripted into the army. Therefore, after a rushed boot camp, Emily finds herself a junior officer assigned to the swamps of the Levant front of the war where most of the book takes place.
One of the things Tchaikovsky did really well in the Apt series was the battle scenes (even if there were perhaps too many of them at times), as well as managing to combine character development and action the series did a good job of showing how technology and worldview of the different civilisations in the series would effect the outcome of the battles. The battle scenes in this book are equally good. Everything is seen from Emily’s perspective and it does a good job of showing the confusing nature of the warfare where the combatants are often unclear about where their allies and their enemies are and how in this sort of battlefield the different tactics and personalities of the commanders on either side shape what happens. Although this is a fantasy setting there are only a couple of fireball-throwing warlocks to add magic to the battles, otherwise the level of the technology sees the musket being the main weapon, part of the reason that the female conscripts are sent into battle since (as Emily’s instructor points out) they don’t need to be able to match the strength of a male soldier to be deadly. The swamp setting is claustrophobic and means the focus is generally on small squads fighting each other, rather than some of the epic battles in the Apt books these are battles where individuals can have a real impact and as the book goes on and Emily grows in experience and slowly rises in rank through a mixture of luck and good judgment she starts to learn to be a leader and play a bigger role in the outcomes of the fighting. Many of the scenes feel very tense, the Lascannes army is taking heavy casualties and seems in a desperate situation so it feels as if the characters are genuinely in peril (even if Emily as the sole protagonist is protected a bit). Although the battle scenes may be compelling the overall tone of the book is very anti-war, with the overall senselessness of the brutality being one of the main themes, as well as the futility of all the soldiers dying in a front that is largely a sideshow to the much larger conflict in the other fronts of the war. Since the book’s plot follows the first female conscripts in a previously all-male army their interactions with the male soldiers are one of the main focuses of the plot, I think this is explored well showing the reactions of the male soldier varying from outright misogyny to (initially grudging) respect as the female soldiers make a useful contribution to the battle.
Compared to the Apt books it may have lost the epic scope and imaginative worldbuilding, but thankfully the characterisation lives up to his previous work. I found Emily to be a compelling protagonist and although she changes a huge amount during the book in terms of what she is capable of and how she acts I thought the character development felt plausible at each stage and even in the earlier sections of the book she does show signs of the (possibly foolish) bravery and stubborn determination that will help her a lot during the war. By the end of the book she is making decisions that would have been incomprehensible to her at the start of the book but the development along the way means that her actions do seem consistent with what her character has become. I think it also avoids the potential trap of making Emily too good at being a soldier, she may become a useful fighter and officer but the book does show there are better soldiers and her capabilities do generally seem believable (although to be picky she seems surprisingly good with a sabre when the book never shows her being trained with it). There is also a good cast of supporting characters, some of the best dialogue comes from the scenes between Emily and local dignitary Mr Northway who is an old enemy of her family and he is an interesting and ambiguous character who initially feels like an antagonist but evolves into something more complex since in his own way he is often trying to the right thing. As the book goes on the interactions between them also become more complex after Emily begins to realise he has a romantic interest in her, something that she is unsure how to deal with. There are also a number of interesting characters among Emily’s fellow soldiers in the Levant, including some likeable characters and some who feel as much the enemy as the initially faceless soldiers they are fighting against.
In the past Tchaikovsky has sometimes had a bit of a problem with the pacing (sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow). I think in the book he has got the pacing just right and after a steady start it increasingly picks up momentum until it gets to an initially surprising, but satisfying, final section. Everything that happens in the book has a purpose in terms of Emily’s character development, I think that helps the pacing but it does have a downside that it can feel a bit contrived at times and sometimes the setups for future plot developments are obvious enough that it’s possible to predict what sort of event is going to happen to Emily next.
As well as the predictability of parts of the plot, I think another flaw is that the world-building feels a bit drab and lacking in depth compared to Tchaikovsky’s previous work. It does feel like Napoleonic War-era England with a few token pieces of magic added (and the possibly non-human race of swamp dweller who are probably the most interesting piece of world-building). It’s also hard to get much impression of what Lascannes is like beyond the one provincial town Emily lives near.
Overall, this isn’t without a few flaws but I think they are fairly minor and I found this to be a very entertaining fantasy novel that lives up to the best of Tchaikosky’s previous work.
Rating : 9 / 10
The Shadows of the Apt has been one of my favourite epic fantasy series of recent years. While it has had a few ups and downs over the ten volumes it has maintained a reasonably consistent quality and I think Tchaikovsky’s writing and characterisation has improved significantly since the first book. I was looking forward to this, the final book, especially after the ending of the previous book had set up some intriguing cliffhangers, although I was slightly nervous about how many plots would have to be resolved in a single volume.
I think the final book offers a satisfying conclusion to the series that manages to provide good resolutions to the various story arcs that have been running through the series. I think the bittersweet tone of the ending where successes have often come at a very high cost works well, particularly for a series which while never feeling all that grim still didn’t shy away from the high cost of war and conflict. I think there are some downsides, the pacing of the series has always been a bit erratic (sometimes too fast-paced, sometimes getting bogged down in subplots) and the problem reappears in the final book. Some of the plots such as Che’s attempts to fight the Centipede-kinden who are the final book’s main antagonists work better than others. Some events that might have had more time spent on them in previous books get dealt with very briefly and some of the cast don’t seem to get much attention paid to them. In the latter category there are both major characters from previous books like Tynisa, who doesn’t do much for most of the book even when she’s present in scenes, and also significant new characters like Ernain who plays an important role in the conclusion to one of the plots but it feels like we know very little about him. There are so many things happening and such a large cast to follow that there doesn’t seem to be as much character development as in the some of the best books in the series (such as The Scarab Path or Heirs to the Blade) although there are some good character moment (Stenwold’s return to the city of Myna where he began in the prologue to the first book is particularly effective).
One of the book’s strongest points is its main antagonists; the malevolent civilisation nicknamed The Worm. The previous book had featured a number of dire warnings about how horrific they were and now that we finally see them on page they live up to and exceed those warnings. They are conceptually horrifying as well as being plausible and deadly (but not invincible) enemies and because they’re so horrific it does allow some interesting questions about what sort of acts would be justifiable when facing such a threat. It does seem appropriate that the final book in the series should feature a bigger threat than any of the previous books and while the Wasp Empire were very effective enemies, the Worm are a completely different level of threat.
Another of the series strong points has been showing how the development of technology can change civilisations and the final book is taking this to its logical conclusion, showing both the positive and negative effects. It’s particularly interesting when showing how the Wasp Empire’s attempts to mould itself into an effective fighting force has paradoxically begun to bring some positives changes to its ultra-conservative society. While that part of the world-building has obvious correspondences to the real world there’s also some good exploration of the long-running contrast between the Apt and Inapt peoples and their mutual incomprehension of the other side’s mysticism and technology. The Worm, as a force that negates both those things seems a very appropriate villain for the final book.
Overall, I’d say this is a good although occasionally flawed conclusion to a good but occasionally flawed series. Although the ending of the book doesn’t demand any sequels there still seems to be plenty of potential in the world for further stories and I’d definitely be interested in reading more books set in this world.
Rating : 8.5/10
I’ve enjoyed the previous 8 books in the “Shadows of the Apt” series, but it has been a bit of an uneven series and some books have worked better than others. For example, the previous book “The Air War” seemed to spend too much time on the aerial battles and not enough time on characterisation. Fortunately, “War Master’s Gate” manages a better balance between the different elements.
The book is split between two main plotlines. The first is the Empire’s latest attempt to conquer Collegium with Stenwold Maker leading the city’s defence while the second focuses on his niece Che’s attempts to thwart an expedition into the heart of the Mantis forests by the Wasp Empress Seda to try to gain the power of an ancient magician. Previous books have sometimes had problems when splitting the plotlines with one being more interesting than the other, but I think both plotlines work well in this book. One of the main themes in the series is the contrast between the two ways of looking at the world, the practical technology-driven approach favoured by the Apt people, and the Inapt worldview where magic and mysticism play a central role. The two plotlines show two different ways of waging war, the latest technology being used to besiege and defend Collegium while for the first time we see how Inapt magicians would wage war. The balance between the two could have been tricky, but the book manages to both clearly describe the technology and tactics of the Collegium plotline and also portray a more otherworldly setting as Che and Seda make their way towards Argatos’ tomb. The Inapt world works on a different sort of logic, but it does still manage to make a strange sort of sense and although the steampunk elements of the world-building have been inventive throughout the series, the more fantastical elements are becoming increasingly interesting.
I think this is probably the first time in the series since the fourth book “Salute the Dark” where all the main characters in the series play a significant role in the same book and the series is clearly building towards its climax in the next book. Che probably gets the best plotline in the book and she has developed a lot as a character through the last few books with this book seeing her come to terms with her newfound abilities. The rivalry and conflict between Che and Seda does offer some of the book’s highlights, with Seda also getting some good characterisation – while she is one of the series’ main villains there are still glimpses of the more sympathetic character she was in the earliest books in the series. The Collegium plotline has another rivalry between Stenwold and General Tynan in command of their two armies, Stenwold is as reliable as ever in the series although it’s fortunate that the book doesn’t focus too much on him since he can be a bit too predictable to be entirely compelling as a character. Tynan is also an interesting character due to being intensely devoted to his duty to win the war while also being regretful about some of the things he has to do to win it. There are also plenty of good supporting characters with the ‘second generation’ of Collegium students being at the focus of some of the best scenes in the Collegium plotline. One of the few irritating bits of characterisation is Laszlo’s brainless infatuation with someone he knows is an enemy spy.
Throughout the series Tchaikovsky hasn’t shied away from tragedy or from killing off characters and that continues here with probably the two biggest events in the entire series unfolding. The stakes are certainly high and with only one book to go none of the characters feel entirely safe, which does increase the tension. The book ends on a huge cliffhanger with the entire world seemingly in peril, while it doesn’t work as a standalone it is a perfect set-up for the tenth and final book in the series although I am a bit worried that there does seem to be a lot of plot to cover in that last book. Despite the more epic parts of the story there are also some powerful scenes on a smaller scale as various characters and peoples try to survive in a world at war, with the Mantis-kinden’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a place in a world that has left them behind being particularly tragic.
Overall, I’d say this is a contender for being the best books in the series, it’s a very entertaining read and I can’t find anything more than minor flaws in it.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
The Fantasy genre is a genre that should have a near-infinite potential for imaginative world-design, innovative societies and novel ideas. This potential is often squandered and most Fantasy novels have little original world-design in them, the maps may be different and the names of the nations new but there is a definite tendency to reuse ideas from medieval European history or to reuse traditional Fantasy ideas familiar from the likes of Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with using a familiar setting if the storytelling is good enough but it is nice to have the occasional book which does have some innovative ideas in it.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s debut novel “Empire In Black And Gold” (the first book in the 10 volume “Shadows of the Apt” series) is one example of a book that may in places reuse a few common Epic Fantasy tropes but also has plenty of unique content. The defining concept of the world-building in the series is the idea that humanity in Tchaikovsky’s world is divided into different races (called kinden), each of which appears basically human but takes some characteristics of a certain species of insect (or arachnid). For example, the Beetle-kinden are typically short, stocky and inelegant, they are industrious and good at manual labour, their cities are dominated by their factories. The Spider-kinden excel at trapping prey in their webs, although in a more metaphorical sense than actual spiders, they are excellent manipulators continually scheming against each other and inveigling others into doing their bidding. The Moth-kinden are nocturnal, capable of flight, they are scholars and philosophers but are baffled by the factories and machinery of more practical races such as the Beetles. Similarly, the Mantis-kinden are expert warriors, Butterfly-kinden are bewitching and unworldly and Ant-kinden have hive minds with an entire city able to think as one. It is an unusual concept for a fantasy world and one that initially takes a bit of getting used to but Tchaikovsky’s world is well thought-out and the interactions of the different races are convincingly portrayed.
Most of the book takes place in the Lowlands, a collection of loosely-allied cities of various kinden. The dominant force is the cities of the Beetles, a society reminiscent in many ways of Victorian Britain (or the Steampunk subgenre) with large factories, railways and airships linking the cities, built on the Beetles’ aptitude for engineering with wealthy merchants and squalid slums all packed together. With no instinct for conquest they are happy for their society to grow wealthy trading with the Lowlands other races, the aristocratic Spiders, the squabbling rivals of the different Ant cities, the itinerant Flies and, deep in their forest and mountain strongholds, the Moths and Mantids that were previously the rulers and soldiers of the Lowlands before being overthrown in a revolution centuries past. The Lowlands tranquillity is under threat from a new power approaching its border, the aggressive Wasp Empire, a highly regimented and militaristic society whose sole purpose is to expand as fast as possible and conquer their neighbours. Most of the Lowlanders are blind to the danger the Wasps pose, believing that they will honour their treaties promising peaceful co-existence, the Beetle merchants are happy to grow rich from selling supplies and weapons to the Wasps during their long war with the distant Dragonfly Commonweal – meanwhile the Ants are too busy fighting with their fellow Ant cities and the Moths and Mantids are too absorbed in brooding over past defeats to worry about the future.
One man who sees the danger the Wasps pose is Stenwold Maker, a Beetle artificer and lecturer in Collegium, the Beetle’s cultural centre. Twenty years before he was part of a small band attempting to stop the Wasps’ conquest of the city of Myna, the members of his band being forced to flee the sack of the city after being betrayed by one of their own. Since then he has been trying to warn the Lowlands of the dangers the Wasp Empire poses but his fellow lecturers and the merchant lords of the Beetle cities dismiss him as a paranoid lunatic. He has also been attempting to build up a network of agents in various Lowland cities to covertly fight against the Wasps’ own agents. Many of his agents are his former students and after an attempt is made on his life some of his current students help save him from the attack. Realising they will also be potential targets for Wasp agents he sends his students to join up with the rest of his network in the Beetle capital of Helleron, despite having some misgivings since his current students are inexperienced and naïve and two of them are from his own household. The group of four are the main protagonists in the book, consisting of Tynisa, Stenwold’s Spider-kinden foster-daughter, Che, Stenwold’s Beetle niece, Salma, a student and minor royalty from the far-off Dragonfly lands who lost many of his family in wars against the Wasps and Totho, a half-breed Beetle and aspiring engineer. Thrown in at the deep end, they find themselves sharing an airship ride to Helleron with a Wasp captain supposedly on a diplomatic mission and when they get to the city they find Stenwold’s network compromised. As the novel progresses some of them will find themselves betrayed by their own kinden, forced to go on the run through Helleron’s underworld, captured and enslaved by Wasps and ultimately forced to confront some surprising revelations about their own identity.
As previously mentioned, the world-building is possibly the best thing about the book (which is not to say it is necessarily lacking in other areas). As well as the novelty of the different kinden there is also plenty of depth in the portrayal of the interactions between the different kinden. Issues of racism and prejudice are repeatedly explored and there are plenty of echoes of real-world history and current events in the portrayal of imperialism, the benefits and dangers of capitalism, the evils of slavery, the perils of appeasement, the prejudices against mixed-race relationships and the clash between progress and traditional ways of life. Fortunately Tchaikovsky is never heavy-handed either in explaining the world-building or the themes of the novel and there’s a lot more telling than showing with the author managing to describe the world without either excessive description or clunky exposition.
The plot is original, interesting and compelling as well as being consistently entertaining. It is fast-moving and manages to cover a lot of ground and reveal a lot of the world while still including plenty of interesting character interactions, a few intriguing mysteries and some pretty good fight scenes. Occasionally it is not entirely convincing and can sometimes feel a bit contrived, especially in the early stages. It doesn’t really seem plausible that Stenwold would (even reluctantly) send his students out in the field with such inadequate training. The political intrigue also seems a bit shallow at times, the dialogue between him and his fellow lecturers as he tries to persuade them of the Wasp threat is predictable and although the Beetles’ instinct towards appeasement is believable the extent of their blindness to the danger posed by the Wasps does seem a bit unlikely especially given how many potential enemies they had in the Lowlands even before the Wasps appeared. The quality of the writing and dialogue is generally fairly good, although the prose tends to be competent rather than noteworthy. Fortunately, none of these flaws are enough to really detract significantly from the book and once the main plot starts and the action begins the plotting does become more convincing.
As well as the excellent world-building the other strong feature of the novel is the interesting characterisation. The characters tend towards the morally ambiguous, and there are some interesting interactions between them. Che is arguably the main character and a fairly traditional fantasy archetype, a young person with a lot of potential but fairly innocent and lacking in self-confidence. Her foster-sister Tynisa is a more complex character, brought up in the civilised surrounding of Collegium she mostly behaves in a fairly civilised manner but when pushed into dangerous situations she finds herself exhilarated by the combat between her and her enemies and she finds she enjoys manipulating, fighting and killing. Salma is superficially a diffident noble but also driven by the desire to defeat the Wasps after seeing the destruction they brought to his homeland. The main antagonist, Thalric, is also an interesting character, a member of the Wasps’ ruthless secret intelligence agency he is willing to do anything and commit any atrocity that might help the Wasp cause but he is increasingly disturbed both by the first flickers of conscience about what he does in the name of the Wasp Empire and by the realisation that some of his fellow Wasps are not as self-sacrificing and committed as he is.
In summary, this is a good Epic Fantasy even ignoring the novelty of the book’s unique selling point (the innovative world-building). Occasionally it does feel like the first novel it is and Tchaikovsky’s writing will probably improve as time goes on but it is an entertaining and memorable story and well worth reading.
Rating : 8/10