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Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series from Tor Books.
“An extremely interesting original fantasy world with tons of conflict of all kinds and some really exciting characters. Only a few small missteps prevent it from being truly great.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
In my constant ramblings about reading books that are “different” from the mainstream affair, there have been a fair few times when I’ve been utterly gobsmacked. Whether science fiction or fantasy (and whatever subgenre within), these books have done much to give me a much wider understanding of trends and preferences across the board. Not to mention, sparking off ideas of my own, some of which I’ve attempted to incorporate in my own work. The latest work to join this list is Adrian Tchaikovsky’s first Shadows of the Apt novel, Empire In Black And Gold. This book is as unconventional as you can get with regards to world-building and that is the aspect that I found to be the highlight of the novel.
Picking up Empire In Black And Gold, the characters will leave you stunned. Not with their characterisation, no. But with their background, specifically, their race. The characters in this novel, and the world that it is set in, are not humans or elves or dwarves or any of the classical fantasy races. They are insects. Specifically, they are insect-kinden. To be even more specific, they are humanoidal insects with as much variety as there are humans on Earth: species, colour, location, etc all combine to provide a great variety among the characters. I read on a Goodreads review that these insect kinden were borne out of a mystical merging of giant insects and humans, the latter taking on the unique characteristics and abilities of the former. I like that theory. It is certainly something that I can get behind, since it helps to explain the humanoidal nature of the kinden.
Spiders, Beetles, Mantises, Wasps, Moths, Ants, Scorpions, Dragonflies, etc, this novel is just brimming with interesting and nuanced races that you want to read more about. This is, for sure, the most compelling aspect of the novel. Throughout, Adrian does a great job of introducing these species in a way that makes you want to discover their history, the intricacies and complexities of their relationships with each other, their specialties, and so on.
On the strength of this alone, I would highly recommend the novel. But that’s not all that there’s to it. In Stenwold, Tisamon, Salma, Tynisa and Kymene, Adrian Tchaikovsky has characters who are as fascinating as the races they are from.
Stenwold is perhaps the most important character in the entire novel, connecting most of the cast together through his actions, whether in the past or in the present. He is portrayed as a scholar and intelligencer both, as someone who is dedicated to saving his people, his family, his friends, his city from the ravages of the empire that is inexorably swelling up beyond the traditional borders of the known world. He is the glue holding everyone and everything together. In him, I found a character that I could really connect with him. He is not the typical heroic protagonist, far from it. But, he has a quiet strength and certain smarts that help level that particular playing field.
Tisamon, is a typical “warrior” character, and so initially he comes off as little more than a cliche. It isn’t until the second half of the novel that he really starts to develop and gain more nuance. This is also when he is the most likable, even for someone like me who actually loves cliched characters of his kind. His fight scenes, of which there are many, are a joy to read. Action choreography in SFF is not an easy thing to put to the page. I’ve struggled with it quite a bit myself, so I’m well aware of some of the ins and outs of it, mostly in relation to how to make the action sequences realistic and vivid. Much as Feist did with his Talon of the Silver Hawk, or Paul Kemp did in Erevis Cale Trilogy for example, Adrian’s action choreography is just amazing. There’s a natural flow to it and all the scenes are easy to visualise.
Salma, Tynisa and Kymene are not as major protagonists as Stenwold is, but they also are integral to the entire narrative. They each add bits and pieces to the world and setting that Adrian is creating, each in their own ways. Salma provide the perspective of the Dragonfly-kinden, Tynisa the Spider-Kinden, and Kymene the Beetle-kinden (and she thus provides an alternative to Stenwold’s own perspective since he too is of the Beetle-kinden, as are some of the other important characters in the novel). Whether it is Salma’s unique action choreography and the level of his dedication to his friends and allies, or Tynisa’s Spider-kinden abilities and her motivations, or Kymene’s insurgent mindset and clear, precise leadership, each character adds to the greater whole.
Now, if I had issues with the characterisation in the novel, they pertained to two of the other important characters that I have not yet touched on: Cheerwell Maker and Totho. The former is Stenwold’s niece and other than him, has the most number of scenes in the novel, if I’m not mistaken. Totho is an engineer and a friend of Cheerwell, Salma and Tynisa. My problem with Cheerwell, or Che as per her nickname, was that she was often too reactionary and also gullible. She gave in too easily to her feelings and some of the choices she makes with regards some of the characters were doubtful at best, because they were spontaneous (and thus without proper explanations) or because they verged too much on the damsel-in-distress cliche. Did not make for that fun a read. But, Che does get some good scenes later on, especially as relates to the special Beetle-kinden Apt arts, and that made for some great reading in the final pages of the novels. With Totho, while in the main he was a fairly decent character, his obsession with two other characters (one that he likes and one that he actively hates) just felt shallow to me. Again, it was a case of the obsession not being explained all that well. It just happened.
And there are several cases where the novel struggles with its pacing, in addition to the characterisation issues as above. There is an element of cross-continental travel involved in the novel and some of the scenes as they pertain to this trip fell entirely flat for me because they were just… boring. Nothing of great import really happened here, other than some inexplicable magic stuff. This made for some rough reading, and given that the novel is almost 600 pages in length, it made the novel feel bloated in terms of the content therein. Rarely a good sign! I feel that the novel could easily have been about 40-50 pages shorter, at least, if some of the stuff had been cut out.
However, redemption of sorts comes when Adrian starts exploring his setting beyond the characters and gets down into exploring the relationships between the different races. The Moths for example hate the Beetles. Finding out why and seeing how this affects Stenwold and his band of charges (Che his niece, Tynisa an adopted daughter, Totho an apprentice and Salma a student) when they meet some Moths later on in the novel.
And then, in Thalric, Adrian has such a great villain. There are some instances in the novel where I thought the character acted uncharacteristic of his station and role within the Wasp Empire, but thankfully these were quite few. On the whole and in balance, his scenes made for some great reading because he went above and beyond his remit quite often and he added a much needed second perspective to the novel, so that we don’t get just the “good guys’ version of events” but also are able to see beyond that, see how the Wasp Empire really works. Kudos to the author for writing such a great character.
The narrative itself is straightforward, and parallels could be drawn between this and several other fantasy novels, but that is hardly the point here. Within the comforts of the familiar, Adrian Tchaikovsky provides the reader with a really interesting world, populated by some really interesting characters, and adventures that are fun to read from start to finish.
This should be a must read!