Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Review: Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky


Having recently finished this series of books, I thought I'd dedicate a few blog pieces to them, looking at the various components of a long Epic Fantasy series, looking at its various arcs, the world building in the series, as  well as talking about my favourite Kinden. Cheekily, I'm also going to see if Adrian will answer some questions... 

The Basics

The series is spread out over ten books, and arguably there are three arcs within them. The first four books were written as one story, and are fairly focused on two matters; the First Wasp War and the quest for the Shadow Box. After this Tchaikovsky begins to diversify his world, both geographically and historically. In many ways these novels are my favourites, they feel as if they stand alone far more than the others and in some respects they show that Tchaikovsky can blend other shades of fiction into his fantasy. With the Air War, the conflict resumes and yet more secrets are revealed. The world is divided into different 'Kindens', groups of people who have made pacts with insect spirits and can channel their essence. As a result civilisations have arisen among the various nations, dating back thousands of years to very ancient times. The Wasp Empire is the newest, and brightest star in the political firmament.

Image result for shadows of the aptThe narrative Tchaikovsky weaves shows that the nature of being part of a Kinden is more than skin deep. Wasps are effected by a rage that, until thirty years before the books start, left them as nothing more than feuding hill tribes, and the Wasp characters acknowledge that all that stops them from returning to that state is their war against the world. In a similar fashion, the Mantis Kind are merciless killers, not quite the ninjas of the world, but close to it, while the Moth Kinden are mysterious, the keepers of ancient secrets. So it goes, through various types of insect and arachnid both on land and in the sea (the Sea Kinden are wonderfully strange). Each Kinden has ancestor arts that allow them to certain tricks, Ants have a hive mind for example, and Wasps can fly and fire a 'sting'. These are not considered magic in the setting, that's something else entirely, something that's steeped in rituals and rites.

The other great division is between Apt and Inapt, which is to say between those who see the world in terms of machines and technology and those who see through the terms of myth and legend. The world used to be ruled by the Inapt, the magicians had all the power and it is only in the last five hundred years that that has changed, and the Inapt are being squeezed into the remoter corners of the world for the most part. At first the two states are presented as largely exclusive and inviolate, it is only later that we learn that this isn't necessarily the case; learning that Apt can become Inapt and that entire Kinden can change. Tchaikovsky uses the Flies and Scorpions to underline the way that a group can become Apt and that once the process begins there's no stopping the changes. In addition two protagonists become Inapt, and in doing so become the inheritors of the mystical power of the age. The later books also make it clear how deep the differences are between the two states; it isn't simply a case of the Apt being able to use technology where the Inapt can't (even to the extent that they have curtains instead of doors, and can't mentally connect pulling a crossbow trigger to the way the bolt flies free). They cannot understand each other's maps, or writing, and even when they reach the same conclusions it is through demonstrably different means.

I don't want to go too deeply into the world building, because I think the world deserves its own piece. I will say that Tchaikovsky has made some very interesting decisions here, and there are elements that seem to indicate how far from Tolkien we've come as a genre, while at the same time still being very true to a lot of traditional fantasy motifs and elements. At the same time there are places where I wonder if its possible to escape Tolkien's Shadow and whether we simply have adapted it slightly.

The Narrative

The central story in Shadows of the Apt concerns the growth of the Wasp Empire and the powers that resist them, led by Collegium, a university city in the Low Lands where Stenwold Maker has been warning of the Wasps for over twenty years and is dismissed as 'the man who cried wasp'. This pivotal conflict is what drives the story up until its bitter end. Initially the series also focuses on four new agents, Tynisa a halfbreed Mantis/Spider, Salma a Dragonfly Prince, Cheerwell a Beetle, and Totho, a halfbreed Beetle/Ant. The first arc is very much focused on these characters and what they do to try and halt the Wasp's war machine; trying to create alliances with other Kinden, dealing with the strange new world they discover, including cities at the bottom of lakes, horrific forests and the ever changing face of war.

This plot is almost countered by two others, one involving a Wasp intelligence officer named Thalric and his fall from grace (and redemption… and fall – its complicated), and the other the Emperor's sister, Seda, who falls under the influence of a Mosquito Kinden sorcerer seeking to resurrect the past. This second plot brings in a maguffin in the form of the Shadow Box, an ancient Moth artefact that contains a great deal of power. It's influence is also the thing that switches Seda and Cheerwell to being Inapt, so it would be wrong perhaps to say it is merely a plot device.

The later volumes circle around what happens next, as Seda becomes the first Empress of the Wasps and sets her sights on expanding the empire even further, using not only modern warfare but conquering the ancient world as well. This takes the series into new territory, uncovering more of the past and exploring how it interacts with the present.

Seda's quest occupies the background of a great deal of the middle part of the series, as she explores her mystical heritage (or lack of one). By the eighth book she has her own guard of Inapt Wasps, and is seeking the 'ultimate' power in order to reinforce her conquest of the world. As the gears of war grind into motion again, the Empress is also making her own horrific progress in the occult world, enslaving the soul of one of the dead characters, and later hatching a terrible plan that will kill thousands in the name of saving as well as conquering the world.

Image result for shadows of the aptPerhaps the most surprising book of the series is The Sea Watch, in which Stenwold Maker and some compatriots are abducted by undersea forces. It feels unconnected to the rest of the series in many ways. While Scarab Path and Heirs to the Blade obviously connected deeply into the main plot, but also allowed the lesser protagonists to grow into roles as developed as Stenwold's, at first Sea Watch feels like it's too tangential to really be anything apart from a lovely novel. Tchaikovsky conjures up a truly alien world, one very different to the land dwellers'. He uses this to good effect, exploring the amazing world under the waves. I hope he will return to this at some point, as I feel there are more stories to tell under the sea.

In fact, I feel there's a lot of the setting left to explore, from the Spider Lands to the fate of the Ant cities (I would love to know if somewhere in the Apt world there's a huge ant colony like the one that strings its way along the north Mediterranean coast). Come to that we still don't know what lies to the east of the Wasp empire. I hope we find out one day.

Elements

Shadows of the Apt draws on a wide variety of components in its construction of a story, including warfare, romance, magic and espionage. This latter makes up a surprisingly large part of the narrative, from the very beginning the reader knows that there is a shadow war going on between the Wasp Rekef and the Stenwold's, catspaws. This theme continues throughout the series, with enemy agents clashing frequently. The world even has its versions of Amsterdam and Instanbul in Cold War thrillers; Khanaphes and Solarno call back to those locations and style of fiction, albeit with a typically Fantasy acceleration towards open warfare. The Wasp empire is shown to have a very complicated relationship with espionage; all that aggression seems to have been subsumed into internal struggles and attempts to control the throne and plots are rife. Perhaps ironically it is the Empire's own security services that seem to sit at the heart of them, spy masters trying to control the very monarchs they claim to serve. Throw in the Spiders, Inapt masters of social games who are drawn into the conflict initially by the Wasp threat to their northern most territories, and later by their own quixotic urges, and the ten books positively brim with undercurrents of treason, betrayal, and sabotage. Arguably this comes to a head at the start of the second Wasp War, where Solarno is presented as being akin to Berlin in the Cold War, full of spies all second guessing each other's motivations.

While the meat of any fantasy series these days seems to be open warfare, it could be said to reside at this series' heart. Empire of Black and Gold, the first volume, opens with war and it is a continuing theme from that point. Handled in long, but inventive, ways the battles are well written, and Tchaikovsky does not stint in either the imagination to create exciting theatres of war and is brutal in their execution – witness the destruction of the Mantid forests and devastation in Khanaphes where half the city is destroyed by a twin Scorpion/Wasp assault (in a proxy war that's reminiscent of the shadow boxing America and Russia engaged in during the Cold War, or going further back, the way the War of the Roses was a proxy war between France and Burgundy). While naval war doesn't really develop, as only one book has a connection to the sea, aviation advances through leaps and bounds, and air warfare becomes increasingly important during the second Wasp war. The discovery of oil leads to an updated air corp, and the growth of blitzkrieg tactics. In the space of only a couple of years the setting goes from a World War One style knights of the air to the hard and fast style of combat of World War Two.

The delightful thing here is that there's no shying away from tactical missteps, the distance between high command and the front line is emphasised by the decision to clear the skies above Collegium with giant hornets; as one character points out, its an attempt to fix a problem that doesn't exist any more.

Technical advances in warfare also come in the form of the Iron Glove, led by two renegade scientists from the Wasp army who go AWOL in the aftermath of book four. Obsessed with growing more powerful, with developing war into an art form they mastermind new weapons, and new ways of death only drawing the line at chemical warfare (after a deadly gas nicknamed 'the bee killer' is used towards the end of the first Wasp War). This last proves to be an increasingly important plot point later, as the events of the main arc draw to a head and atrocities are planned.

Also, 'It was a Fly Kinden war', is one of those sentences that filled my heart with joy. 

Increasingly, as the stakes rise, the reader is introduced to more and more about the world's history; drawing back a veil that not even most of the characters in the setting seem to be aware of. This may be because most of what we discover concerns ancient wars fought among the Inapt races, and as a result their conflicts are forgotten, or seemed so slight in comparison to the wars fought with leadshotters (cannons) and with light arms. Nonetheless the plot slowly reveals that the last great Inapt war was fought against 'The Worm' and was as deadly as anything the modern age has created and that the Inapt Kinden's victory actually led to their eventual overthrow by the Apt.

Crucially it is revealed that rather than destroying the Worm, it was only locked away. This creates the stage for the final parts of the series, and to the discovery of a lost people; a people doomed to serve an idiot god, devoid of thought or feeling. Interestingly this is one of the only 'god like' figures we encounter in the entire series.

It is this last war that drives much of the last part of the series, as the Empress of the Wasps tries to consolidate her new found power and unlocks the seal, allowing the Worm to reach back into the world. As a result the narrative reaches a crescendo on both the Apt and Inapt conflicts with the Wasps fighting their way to Collegium, even conquering it, and then having to fall back. The Low Landers rally their forces and fight their way to the Wasp capital for a final battle.

Romance does figure in the story, though love is often shown as a fragile thing, which seldom grows right. Hearts are broken from untimely deaths, as characters die love struggles to blossom. In fact there isn't a relationship in the novels which runs smoothly; the most enduring romance starts out as abduction and torture (though not in sense of the 200 pages of BDSM porn that I understand sits in the heart of Wizard's First Rule). The relationships that develop are actually quite touching, and serve to reflect the different stages of love, the ways that it can feel different at different stages of life. Stenwold's relationship with a Sea Kinden woman in the later books is particularly touching in this regard, as is the way that the central romance between Cheerwell and Thalric grows over the course of the story. This is in some ways a redemptive plot, one that rescues each part from their worst natures, and allows them to grow.

Characterisation

One of the thing that struck me reading the series is how concrete most of the characters feel. In a cast of hundreds, there isn't a figure that feels lost or underwritten. As the cast expands Tchaikovsky is careful to keep a firm grip on who everybody is and how they interact. He also doesn't balk from treating his characters as individuals; we find heroic Wasps among the ranks of the Empire's soldiers, and psychopathic Ants and rapist Dragonflies among the 'good' guys. We find that enemies become allies and vice versa, without ever feeling as if a critical character beat has been missed.

Flaws

So what are the pitfalls of the series? Given there are about 20,000 words of story, the whole thing hangs together remarkably well and I have to assume that there's an extensive bible to make sure there aren't any mistakes in continuity. The characterisation is strong too, no spots when you find yourself wondering who's speaking or who someone is (though I confess that the glossaries became increasingly useful as the series progressed, because there are so many names to remember).

For me, the battles became a bit too long, too involved and I ended up skim reading them a fair amount in the later books. I found myself missing details, as a result. While the denouement to the series was suitably climactic and didn't stint from demonstrating the wastefulness of war it also felt somewhat rushed, and the feeling that the Worm's intrusion into the real world is a rather convenient way to close out the final battle; both sides switching their attention to battling its rather Lovecraftian troops.

There are a few things about the Arts that seem a little strange too, abilities we are told are lost, or rare, become increasingly common during the latter half of the series. In particular this is true of the ability to communicate with the immense insects that fill the world. What starts off as 'throwback' to older times in the middle of the Nem Desert seems to proliferate until it seems like everyone bar the Spiders and the Beetles is at it, with even the Ants using their 'kin' to act as sappers and saboteurs against the advancing Wasp army. Perhaps this is intended as a sign of a sort of synthesis, as the Apt are forced to seek Inapt answers to the problems they face, but it seems a bit strange how quickly the old knowledge proliferates.

Other than that I found it strange that almost all the relationships in the books were between Apt men and Inapt women, and wondered if this was something Adrian was aware of doing, or something that just evolved. It seems curiously old fashioned, underlining a sense of men being rational and women more emotional, and that surprises me.


Beyond that though, I feel that the series is a testimony to good storytelling, interesting world building and the development of a different set of ideas in Fantasy, which I can only see as a good thing.


Lastly, you can find Adrian's site through this link, with artist's impressions of what the Kinden would look like. I would love to point you to my friend Emma's picture of Thalric but I don't seem to be able to find it.