‘Shadows of the Apt’ series by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Don’t let the first half-dozen paragraphs here put you off for being fantasy fiction; this is an intelligent work.
I entered upon the mammoth undertaking of reading these works without believing I would actually see it through to completion. A ten-book fantasy series? No chance. But they had fallen into my hands courtesy of a gent who didn’t want to drag them around China any longer, so I began the first. That read, I turned eagerly to the second. And so it just went on.
Tchaikovsky’s is a unique conception. A world or, more accurately, a continent on a world. That world may be Earth populated, as it is, by humans, but very strange humans they are. In an odd paragraph somewhere in the midst of the work I gathered that, long ago, these humans found a way to bond mentally with insects and, in that bonding, to develop ‘arts’ that had them split into different ‘kinden’ depending upon which insect they bonded with. Okay, spiders are arachnids and are an important kinden to the story, but let’s put that to one side for now. Along with the fact that beetles, another kinden, would seem to cover a multitude of species. And perhaps I’ve got my explanation wrong here anyway; like I said, it was just one para in a ten-book series.
The ‘arts’ developed cover many different abilities. Flight is an obvious one, at various degrees of competence. The Wasps’ sting is a bolt of fire from an open palm. Then there is being able to climb sheer rock faces, or seeing in the dark, or… well, you get the picture.
In addition to that, different kinden take on the ‘personalities’ of their insect. Bees are a collective, loyal to their queen. Ants tend to function still more collectively, and utilise telepathic powers. Beetles are hard-working and somewhat clumsy individualists. Dragonflies are stately. Spiders are scheming, with their webs of intrigue.
Still with me? Good, the complexity isn’t done with yet.
If you detect magic in the above, there is none… or, at least, not according to the pragmatic materialist kinden whose artifice has taken control of the world at the time of our introduction to it. Magic is for children’s stories, the stuff of legend, and doubtless never existed for all the talk of its past dominance. For these pragmatists, their art is a fact of life, not to be considered on that level. This is the world of the apt, the materialists, the artificers and engineers who seek technological advance which, broadly speaking, is somewhere around the level of the 18th through early-20th centuries in terms of Earth history.
Yes, there are the inapt, those who still believe in magic, kinden for whom artifice is entirely absent, people who have difficulty in so much as opening a door given that the mechanical principles are so hidden from them. These are largely regarded as relatively primitive people given to superstition.
I’m going to deal with ten books’ of plot here in two sentences before moving on. The Wasp kinden have become greedy for conquest, and are attempting to build an Empire across the continent with considerable success opposed, of course, by those kinden they seek to subjugate. Meanwhile, magic begins to play an increasing role in the world, though few of the apt care to acknowledge the fact being as blind to it as the inapt are blind to their artifice.
That, far more than a comprehensive plot analysis, is going to have to do. It’ll give you some idea of the environment Tchaikovsky has created and the theme of the work. Far more important, and already too-long delayed, is what Tchaikovsky does with it all.
As I said at the beginning for fear of losing potential readers for the series, this is an intelligent work. With all the gee-whizz-bangery Tchaikovsky has given himself, gee-whizz-bang there certainly is. However, it is subservient to plot development, and plot development is heavily focused upon character. Tchaikovsky’s characters are no ‘superhero’ cardboard cut outs. They have personal histories, conflicts of interest, personalities that mismatch them with their environment or their society, doubts, concerns, prejudices, the entire gamut of human experience.
Take for example ‘good’ and ‘evil’. If you’re seeking for them in this work, forget it; and if, like me, you’re someone who tries hard to avoid them, this work is for you. The realism of the moral ambiguities of the characters throughout is much of what drives the work. Very broadly speaking there are the ‘good guys’, the alliance against the Empire; and the ‘bad guys’, the Empire itself. However, that is painted with the broadest brush possible such that the alliance often finds itself cooperating with some very dubious regimes in their mutual desire to defeat the Empire, while the Empire itself has its own internal struggles as to whether or not the path it is taking is correct or brought about by the ambition and bastardy of imperial leadership. Then, of course, there are all those people on the sidelines who don’t really care either way on either side so long as they make their money out of the result. Few characters make it through the series sullied from beginning to end, and no character makes it through entirely unsullied, even the most innocent.
Inevitably, some of Tchaikovsky’s societies, kinden, and / or cities lend themselves to individuation far more readily than others. That is the nature of the scenario with which he is dealing. The Ants, for example, do not come across as individuals for the most part, while the two cities of central concern – Collegium for the Beetles on the side of the alliance and Capitas for the Wasps – are highly-individuated, albeit the purpose of the Wasp conquest is to make the world comparatively homogeneous in accordance with its own customs, value-system, and interests.
This brings us to the to other levels of superposition upon character Tchaikovsky’s conception allows him – the distinctions between kinden, (with their cultures, their outlook, and their psychology), and the broader divide between the apt and the inapt, (an existential outlook, tempting to divide between ‘technological’ and ‘primitive’ were it not for the fact that magic is real here, and so the primitive is invested with the rational). It is tempting to see models for familiar societies in some of the peoples Tchaikovsky presents us with. There can be little doubt – from its history, location, environment, and available natural resources, and even from the names of its characters – that Khanaphes is Egypt. Beyond that, however, parallels with the familiar become questionable. The Empire – Nazi Germany? Collegium – western culture in its broadest sense? Tchaikovsky is also able to experiment. The ideal of Mao Zedong, for example, could never have been brought about with people as they are, but with the Ant kinden, Tchaikovsky is able to present us with fully-functional, coherent, and successful Maoist cities. Then, of course, there’s the question of how things could play out if the primitive and superstitious were actually grounded in reality.
Tchaikovsky’s intelligence shows itself too – and, presumably, his scholarship though I know nothing about it – in his battle scenes, often blow-by-blow, feint-by-feint accounts of actions across a range of battle environments, from mediaeval hand-to-hand combat, through to the trench warfare of World War I and its battles in the air with early fighter pilots. Plus, of course, with the range he has given himself, a few other variations entirely his own.
Tchaikovsky has an eye to detail. One difficulty I myself face as a writer is sparsity of gesture. People nod, people shrug, but more nuanced gestures are difficult to write. Tchaikovsky has no difficulty with this, it seems, and for that I rather envy him. He is able to describe gestures in a way that make them instantly familiar. This is a minor detail perhaps, but it is indicative of the strength of Tchaikovsky’s writing overall in ways this review simply isn’t going to cover given I have to get out of it sometime.
I did toy with giving the series a five-star rating, but there were a few glitches along the way. Some of the books felt over-extended and particularly towards the end Tchaikovsky’s affection for his characters perhaps outweighed the reader’s, leading him to become a little too involved with their thoughts and ideas to little real purpose either in terms of the story or their philosophical interest. The final book, on the other hand, crammed in way too much and became a little breathless in its rush for the finishing post. Prior to that, for the first two-thirds of the series perhaps, the pacing was exemplary with Tchaikovsky introducing his cast en masse, each with their own projects, before pulling some of the subsequent works back to concentrate solely upon individuals and their own exploits, in one book going so far as introducing us to a whole new hidden environment with its own rich range of kinden.
As a review, this does little justice to what is, after all, a ten-book series with a very complicated world underlying it. If you like your fantasy presented by an intellect, then Tchaikovsky’s is a world worth exploring.