The world of the Apt is a fascinating one. Drawing on a vastly different set of sources to the vast majority of Fantasy fiction, being both modeled on the Classical world via Steampunk and using insect based races in a Shamanic bargain that bypasses gods and other forms of higher powers. Tchaikovsky has made some interesting choices in the creation of his world and there are places where they truly shine.
It is a world of empires and city states, sustained by martial law, fear, and magic or mystique. Only Collegium, our heroes, have experimented with democracy, in a fashion far more inclusive than ancient Athens ever did. The Ant cities, as Adrian pointed out in his interview, are basically Sparta without the Helots. The Wasps at least resemble the Persian Empire and there are other analogies. Khanaphes feels very Egyptian for instance. The Scorpions are more like the Bedouin, travelling tribes of nomads, while the Dragonflies are the culture who really seem to break the mold, being more like the Medieval period. The Sea Kinden dwell in a truly alien world, but still one that is based upon the city state, which is the basic building block of any polity here. Only the Dragonflies resemble anything like a kingdom, and that has been largely destroyed.
Let's look at the Kinden, those fascinating amalgams of man and invertebrate. They're a hard concept to wrap your head around in some ways. Each has a different look, and individual groups resemble different species of insect - so the Ants of Tark, Maynes and other Ant city states look different to each other, even if that's largely their skin tone (reflecting red, black, blue and other coloured ants). As I said in my general review I'd be fascinated to see what the massive colony of ants along the Mediterranean coast looked in the Apt's world. Conceptually the Kinden allow for a lot of different perspectives, and gives Tchaikovsky a lot of toys to play with, not just through modeling the behaviour of insects but through our interpretations of those behaviours as they're extrapolated to humanity. As a result there's at least an element of cliche in the mix, that Wasps are hot headed (and Hornets more so), that the Spiders are cunning, patient and Machievellan. In many ways this fits them into human understanding rather than leaving us with a huge alien landscape to navigate as readers. The exercise by and large leaves us with quite novel fantasy races, different to many of the other books out there.
At the same time, if we take the Inapt races as a chunk we can see correlations with other fantasy works. Consider the fate of Tolkien's elves, those beautiful fading, magical creations and then look at the Moths, Butterflies, Mantis, Dragonflies and so on and there are certainly ways that they echo each other. The fading power, the reversion to being recluses, their territoriality, their ancient secrets; all hint towards a dichotomy of the Elven peoples in a vast number of fantasy worlds. On a slight tangent, I feel that Spiders and the Melniboneans have a great deal in common, not least a large reliance on slave races to do their dirty work. Again, they represent fading glories and dying civilisations, even if the Spiders have not yet begun to feel the Revolution's bite one senses that soon they will, and that the great houses will probably hasten their own destruction by playing typical Spider games.
In a similar fashion the Wasps and the cliche Orcs, there are similarities between them, with the need to fight, for conflict and battles. One thing I applaud Tchaikovsky for is adding substantial depth to the Wasps, throwing away a 'baddies' perspective to explore a more nuanced approach of a conflicted race that in many way has simply moved its internal divisions into a more nuanced form of combat.
It would be easy to go through each Kinden drawing parallels to other work, but ultimately that would be pointless. Suffice to say that 'under the hood' the Kinden aren't entirely free of Tolkien's Shadow, though it is very hard to create anything entirely new especially in Fantasy. One only need to look at roleplaying games that try to recreate the wheel only to end up with classic races, only with different names, to see that.
Perhaps the most novel aspect of the Kinden is the Ancestor Art, giving them access to magic without needing to become mystics. This ups the stakes of the novels, blending new ideas into what characters can do, while still keeping magic mysterious and dangerous. As 'true magic' seems more like the kind you find in Sword and Sorcery, full of peril and summoning forces as likely to destroy you as come to your aid, the Ancestor Art allows characters to do interesting things without going down that road. It also fits thematically, what would a Dragonfly be without the ability to fly? This trick, if we can call it that, allows Tchaikovsky to play with different aspects. From the Ants' telepathy (which gives us both the idea of outcasts who cannot allow themselves to be subsumed into the group mind and eventually an Ant psychopath who though he seems to be connected to the hive mind has such a strong sense of individuality that it has unhinged him), to the Wasps' sting the Arts enliven the setting. It is a shame that the Beetles' don't seem to have much in the way of Arts, and it feels as if the Revolution may have led to them overly rejecting their mystical side to focus on science. An interesting position for the race, who are arguably the central one, to be in.
The most interesting part of the relationship between the Kinden and the insects is the lack of religion in the setting, something that only becomes apparent at the end of the series. Sure, there are Mantis shrines where they undertake barbarous rituals and the text talks about bargains struck in the distant past, but the idea of religion, of Godhood is largely absent. At the end of the series it become a central theme. The Centipede spirit, extracted from within themselves by 'The Worm', is a mindless thing, all consuming but essentially just a force of nature (which is interesting to me because the work I'm undertaking at present also uses this as an idea). In contrast the salvation of the Mantis Kinden comes in the form of another God, or something as near as damn it to a God. A parental figure, determined her children should find their own path and destiny, an 'ur mantis' takes over the role of leader of the two remaining Mantis holds in the Low Lands. This is an entirely different view of godhood, one far closer to the modern Western ideal of what a deity should be. I find it interesting that the concept of Gods is introduced towards the end and that it takes such conflicting shapes.
On the flip side we have science, mostly dedicated to war (hardly surprising given how prominent that activity is in the series). It is here that the series travels through leaps and bounds via a steampunk collision with madness that transforms the world. Again the world building is interesting, not just because of the form the technology takes but from the ones it doesn't. For instance, we don't see the development of difference engines, or other forms of computing, and the bombers in the later books are dependent on slaves to launch their incendiary devices. The huge Sentinel automatons are operated by men, there's no danger of AI's blossoming in this world. There's also no sign of a domestic market, even in Collegium (this is entirely in keeping with steampunk and superheroes, where to introduce too much technology into 'the real world' would rapidly transform the setting into something the reader no longer recognises). While this latter problem isn't an issue for Tchaikovsky, this being a world based on cultures long dead, though he does portray a slave dependent world, and we know that one reason the Romans did not push their own industrial revolution forward was because of concerns over what they would do with all the slaves. Of course the other reason we don't see the domestic development is that, as I said above, war is the focus and there's not much call for the equivalent of a modern oven in a world where you're mostly writing about people blowing each other up.
All in all this is an interesting world, one that's use of antiquity with modern technology renders it fascinating to read.
Friday, 19 February 2016
"It was a Fly Kinden war."
I love these six words. Hidden deep in War Master's Gate, they sum up pretty much everything about the Kinden that became my favourite. I had expected one of the Inapt races to fill that spot, I'm not the most Apt person, most science either baffles or bores me, and I'm much more interested in people and 'soft sciences' than I am Physics etc. In the earliest books, the character I liked most was Salma, closely followed by Tisamon. They both had style, grace; and were deadly on the battlefield. Both reminded me of Michael Moorcock characters, and took my back to my teens, reading the narrow paperbacks filled with the adventures of Elric, Corum, and their ilk. The fact that the Spider society seemed to have been modeled, if only slightly on the Melnibonean culture added to my affections for the Inapt, and I was honestly surprised when I encountered the Kinden that became my favourite.
The first Fly I remember reading about is Taki. Aviatrix, maverick, all round cool girl. I fell in love with her a bit, adoring her attitude and the fact that she was as devil may care as they come. The character grew with every appearance too, the author investing her with more than enough character to keep her interesting even after the initial conflict was over. Her eventual fate is so in character for her that I winced, too able to see her making the decision.
What surrpised me was that the other Flies in the series also wormed their way into my heart. Laszlo, introduced in the Sea Watch became another favourite, reminding me (as so many of Tchaikovsky's characters do) of a roleplaying character. He seemed so lively, so full of life, something I came to associate with the Kinden in general. They were such a difference to the dour Inapt, the stolid Beetles and scheming Wasps. The accounts of their tendency to change with the breeze, going with whoever was in charge (while at the same time making sure they go their own way) seemed to have an honesty and practicality that the other Kinden lacked. Going back to the concept of a Fly Kinden war, they seem to naturally fit the niche of guerrilla warriors, of saboteurs and spies (though Laszlo's attempt at a career in espionage is admittedly a disaster).
The other thing that caught my eye was that the Flies had only recently become Apt, something I found fascinating. In part I found it interesting that their essential nature had not changed, though its hard to envisage them as anything other than freewheeling, almost bohemian types. Even the existence of Fly academics doesn't dilute that aspect of their nature to me.
I confess that after the Flies, I do have an enduring affection for the Mantis, I like, and pity, them in a way. Their loss of touch with the world, as it moves on and they cling to traditions, their barbarous magic; even the fact that they have been pawns for one group after another, touches me. I like their seriousness, the fact that alone of the Kinden they don't seem to have a sense of humour. Above all I like the admission late in the series that they have set up strictures so constraining nobody can live up to them. It's refreshingly honest and a lovely critique of a fictional culture. I suspect that in part its my love of Elric that motivates this love, the fact that I like things that are a bit straight faced, even when they are, well, ridiculous.
Returning to Tisamon, he who is far too serious. I felt his arc was fascinating, and liked that he was redeemed after death. I liked the fact that he had given in to his desires for 'the enemy' and that though he valued his daughter, he was also partially ashamed of her, because of what he had done. That complexity was a wonderful thing to see and I hope I can write it into my own work. I liked the fact that he ran the gamut between the man and the Mantis; it was an interesting insight into the world of the Kinden and how they operate that such a distinction could be made. His nobility, tarnished as it was endeared me to him.
In terms of the world, which I'll go into more when I write the World Building blog post, I very much liked the Commonweal, and would like to see more of it. Aside from the fact that it feels a bit more Medieval than the rest of the world, with castles and so on, I liked the culture Tchaikovsky built up in the Dragonflies, from their dancing to their attitudes towards hunting and war. It was a lovely way of adapting the things they could do to the world (something he's been good at doing throughout).
I also, again from Heirs to the Blade, enjoyed the admission by Maur, an Inapt necromancer, that she preferred sex with Apt men because they were more straightforward. It wasn't anything more than a nice moment, but it seemed to capture something special, even if it seems to underline on one level the masculine/feminine divide of the Apt/Inapt split, adding 'man simple, woman complicated' to it.
Wasp culture and architecture is also fascinating (seriously at this point I'd happily read a 'guide to the world of the Kinden'), which again draws from a different culture, different sense of right and wrong. I liked the fact that so much of the Wasps' ambitions was based on the fact that if they didn't focus outwards they would fall to fighting each other. While I don't condone sexist societies, it was interesting to see one so thoroughly sexist as the Wasps, if only because this sort of culture seems to have grown quite rare in Fantasy (we're a far cry from Middle Earth's attitude to women, even in the more traditional cultures you see in modern books). Admittedly the Empire are the bad guys, but there is a distinction between the Empire and the individual Wasps - when female members of the Kinden are shown; change being forced through a punishing war and the advance of technology, they are able to hold their own.
This brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: change. I like the fact that the work constantly evolves, growing all the time, societies change and develop. Even Khanaphes, which has stayed the same for thousands of years shows signs of being forced into change by the end of the series. Sexism breaks down, the masters of the past come out of their centuries long strop, the clannish Ants set aside their differences. This, in effect, is what makes it feel like a living, breathing world. Unlike others it doesn't just sit in stasis; things change and grow. And that's glorious.
Sunday, 14 February 2016
Jumping ahead a little from what I'd planned, I asked Adrian Tchaikovsky some questions about his Shadows of the Apt series. His website can be found at: http://shadowsoftheapt.com/, where he talks... well, sense most of the time.
1) Your work seems to have a consistent theme of magic versus technology. Is this intentional, or do your novels just evolve to reflect that theme?
1) Your work seems to have a consistent theme of magic versus technology. Is this intentional, or do your novels just evolve to reflect that theme?
I think I have a very keen sense of things past or failing: lost worlds, extinct species, fallen civilizations and ways of life. When I was a kid I felt the absence of dinosaurs and trilobites and the like very keenly. A passing or ebbing age of magic is not uncommon in fantasy, and it can be a very poignant thing, or it can be a very sinister thing – it’s good story fodder. One day I must write a book about a failing age of technology that’s being overrun by a new and energetic magic. Or something…
2) In some places it seems like you use quite broad strokes with the kinden, was that intentional? Are there very specific groups like Trap Door Spider Kinden out there?
Bringing the kinden down to species level is one way madness lies. So, yes, the major kinden represent large groups of invertebrates, but you also see numerous sub-species (and there are more you don’t see that are definitely in there!). In Scarab Path, for example, there are leafcutter Ant-kinden, and there is a horribly unzoological thing with the Firefly-kinden being like Flies (rather than beetles). If you really squint there are tarantulas, orchid mantids… probably there are trap-door spiders, but they don’t play any part in the books because, by definition, they don’t get out much…
3) I know the world span out of a roleplaying game you ran in the 1990s (Bug World, using GURPS), was the world fully established during that time or did you have to build new parts when you set about writing the novels?
A lot of the game world translated fairly well – especially the major geographical and political beats found in the first 4 books. If I remember the game properly, I did ramp the steampunkery of the Apt up quite a bit (and certainly the later innovations of the series are all new). Certainly all the kinden in the books were in my material for the game, the map is the same, and many of the characters first saw life on the tabletop.
4) How did you go about deciding what technology to use and what it should look like? It sometimes feels like you've skipped over gunpowder, and at times I felt confused as to whether the Great Shotters were spring powered or not.
I had a few axioms, mostly to do with what energy sources or technologies worked better than the real world, and which worked worse. So there is a gunpowder analogue (which the Greatshotters use) but it’s not very efficient at a smaller scale, so the personal-level weapons are mechanically powered, first crossbows and then the air-power of snapbows. Conversely, clockwork is insanely good compared to the real world, and there’s a lot (in the Air War especially) about the trade off between wind-up engines and fuel engines, and flapping orthophers against prop-driven fixed-wing aircraft. And hopefully it all makes sense, but it is at least intended to be internally consistent throughout. Some of the tech is insect-inspired (hence the flapping-wing aircraft are generally the best, or the great Ear, which is based on anti-bat countermeasures that mantids have) but the kinden are ingenious little devils, so you see multiple solutions to problems, and indeed rogue solutions looking for problems to attack (especially in the defence of Collegium in Dragonfly Falling). The main point with the kinden’s tech is that they face essentially the same problems as humans have, but the rules of their toolkit are different and so their solutions differ as well.
5) Do you plan to return to the World of the Apt in the future?
Definitely. Firstly there are going to be some short stories collections which will have a lot of new stuff, and also bring together most of the stories I’ve written for other outlets (such as my Gemmell-inspired Sword and Circle from Newcon’s Legend antho). I also fully intend to return to long-form fiction with the kinden when the inspiration strikes, but we’ve had 10 books together. That’s a long road, and I definitely want to go cross country for a while. If I do return to the kinden properly I’d also need to find a proper new entrypoint – it couldn’t just be a continuation of the same story because that cuts out readers who haven’t read all the others.
6) Did you model the cultures in the novels on any in the real world?
The initial setup for the game, which carried over into the books, was Classical. The Lowlands are kind of a Greece analogue, with Collegium as Athens and the Ant cities as a handful of feuding Spartas. The Wasps are the Macedonians exploding out to conquer. The Spider satrapies are maybe-kind-of-Persia – vast and varied and very rich. Except that there is a distinct Chinese feel to the Commonweal, and then we get to Khanaphes which is a definite Pharaonic Egypt analogue in a kind of convergent evolution (the reasons make sense, but they’re nothing to do with the real world). As the plot gets going, there is a distinct echo-history of the 20th century going on, with obvious WWI and WWII equivalents – each one seen and solved through the kinden’s very different perspective.
7) Do you have plans to return to the world and explore it further? Perhaps revealing other continents?
There’s an old LARP answer to questions about the setting: FOIP. “Find Out In Play.” In this case the only answer I can give is Find Out In Print.
8/) Who's your favourite character in the series?
Tough call. Many of the villains turned out to be the most fun to write. Thalric, for example, or Drephos the horribly amoral artificer. I also really liked writing for the “students” who turn up from Air War, Eujen, Straessa and the rest.
8) Which volume is your favourite?
War Master’s Gate (book 9). It has some of the most emotive scenes in it, and it balances the magic and the tech side of things while previous books tend to focus on one or the other.
9) What was the greatest challenge in creating the series?
Tempted to say “keeping it going for 10 books.” In Heirs of the Blade I hit a real plotting issue, as the book had quite a complex plot, and also need to tie off stuff from the previous books, and foreshadow some stuff from Air War, and getting all that in without crippling the book needed a lot of rewrites.
10) The recent years have highlighted the importance of writing female characters well, do you find that's something you struggle with?
Well. I am a male writer. I have done my level best to write a large and varied selection of female characters from leads down to spear-carriers, and that seems to have worked – Che Maker in Shadows and Emily Marshwic in Guns of the Dawn both have their fans. As for whether I actually get it right, that’s the call of the individual reader.
11) In the past you've said that you feel that fantasy novels have to start with combat now, and there's a lot of fighting in your work. Do you enjoy writing battles or would you prefer to focus on other areas?
I like writing fights, but I try to rein myself in because you can have too much of any given thing. A lot of fantasy-fiction is combat-heavy, so that works for many readers, but like all readers I’m working on more than that level – there’s the sweep of history, the politics, the magic, the romance. One advantage of a long series of long books is that you do get to fit all that in.
13) You've said in the past you're not a natural 'sit down and bang out 2000 words' writer, what's your creative process? Do you have any writing rituals?
Not rituals, but I plan the crap out of everything I write, and I try to keep the next scene churning in my mind until I get to sit down and write it, and that preparedness is how I get past my natural sloth.
14) What advice would you give to new fantasy writers?
Well, I have, what, 14 books out as of this month, plus novellas and shorts, and I honestly feel the genre is full of so many contradictions that it’s hard to give any advice or predict where the genre’s going to go next.
15) Who are your writing heroes?
Mary Gentle, Gene Wolfe, China Mieville, Mervyn Peake, Diane Wynne Jones, Peter S Beagle, Ursula le Guin.
16) What's your favourite novel?
Peter Beagle’s “The Folk of the Air.” It’s out of print and I’ve never met another soul who’s even heard of it, but it’s beautiful.
17) If you had to do an elevator pitch for a Shadows of the Apt TV series, what would you say?
Oh God, I hate elevator pitches. How about:
“It’s like Starship Troopers but the bugs are also the people.”
“Steampunk insect wars!”
“Like Lord of the Rings. With insects. Who are people. Like… Frodo is a boll weevil or something. And Aragorn is a – no, don’t look at me like that – he’s a person who’s a praying mantis and – oh, is this your floor?”
“You cannot possibly afford to make this and nobody would watch it.”
Wednesday, 10 February 2016
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 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.
The 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 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.
Perhaps 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, 9 February 2016
Sometimes part of a book will stay with you, no matter what else you read. You find it sits there, never quite forgotten, sometimes only half remembered.
I read The Dragonbone Chair the year it came out (way back in the 1990s) and this part has stayed with me ever since and coloured my perception of our species. If fiction is about what makes us human, then in a very real sense I feel Tad Williams nailed an aspect of our essential natures.
To put it in context, the heroes are searching for a sword which is meant to be a great defence against a mythological threat known as the Storm King and the humans have been joined by a group of 'Sithi', the settings version of Elves (though written in a far more alien fashion than Elves ever were. At this point they're huddled by the fire and the wolves are howling.
The howling quieted. A long forefinger touched Simon's hand, making him jump.
'Do you listen to the wolves, Seoman?' Jirki asked.
'It's hard n-not to.'
'They sing such fierce songs.' The Sitha shook his head. 'They are like your mortal kind. They sing of where they have been , and what they have seen and scented. They tell each other where the elk are running, and who has taken whom to mate, but mostly they are merely crying "I am! Here I am" ' Jiriki smiled, veiling his eyes as he watched the dying fire.
'And th-that's what you think we ... we m-m-mortals are saying?'
'With words and without them,' the prince responded.
I must admit one thing I like about it is that with the growth of social media and the internet (and especially Twitterstorms and so on) it seems particularly apposite to say that we're all running out shouting 'Here I am'.