Friday, March 26, 2010
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shadows of the Apt 1-3: Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis
Succeeding volumes may introduce further elements that either serve to deepen the reader's understanding of what is transpiring, or perhaps shake that reader out of a false sense of security that s/he knows what is going on. The action tends to rise. In a trilogy, the second volume may contain a cliffhanger climax, before the succeeding volume(s) supply the falling action and denouement.
In reading the first three volumes of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, I was reminded of the five dramatic stages that my mother, a high school English teacher, would teach every year to her freshman English classes. It is not a 1:1 correlation, but Tchaikovsky's first three novels (released or to be released in the US in monthly intervals between March and May 2010; the UK edition of the fourth book is already out, with a fifth due to be released this summer) do fit several of these conventions, both dramatic and epic fantasy alike. In the first novel, Empire in Black and Gold, Tchaikovsky devotes most of the book to establish the major factions. Tchaikovsky divides his nations into racial/ethnic groups who appear to have totemic (and to a degree, physical) connections to a variety of insects. Due to a barely-explained feature called the Art, each insect-connected group displays personality and physical features akin to their totemic insects. Ant-kinden are industrious, fierce warriors with telepathic connections. Beetle-kinden are also industrious, forthright, apt to trade with all around. Spider-kinden are clever, devious manipulators. And the invading Wasp-kinden are ferocious, battle-hardened warriors who attack with both sword and Art-endowed stings.
These characteristics set up some interesting plot tensions, as several of these groups have centuries of prejudice and bad blood that divide them. At first, it felt as though Tchaikovsky might use these race/totemic characteristics as a crutch, but as the series progresses, it turns out that he has several characters go against these typologies to create situational ironies that add layers of depth to the story.
There are several characters introduced in Empire in Black and Gold. From the spymaster Steinwold to his niece, Cheerwell/"Che" (I have to admit that thinking of Guevara in the scenes in which the female Che appears was quite comical), to the swordsman Mantis-kinden Tisamon to a local Wasp secret service commander, Thalric, Tchaikovsky uses several points of view to relay the impending devastation and how each side was viewing this conflict. After finishing three novels in this series, the woven narrative was done fairly well, but when reading the initial volume, it make for a very difficult read at times, as the narrative kept shifting from character and character without much in the way of external action occurring to help crystallize what was actually occurring.
I found this volume to be much easier to read, not just because things are happening, but because Tchaikovsky does a better, more fluid job in developing both his characters and his settings. There are more layers to each character, with few being anything near "pure" characters and few being anything near "total, complete bastard." Tchaikovsky also has created a setting where elements of Steampunk (mechanical devices, steam-driven artifices, airships, etc.) are married to the more sword-based technologies of standard epic fantasy fare. Although there were some incongruities here (such as the question of gunpowder), on the whole, it made for a fantastical setting.
Furthermore, Dragonfly Falling introduces the beginning of a quest, one that in many respects will be very familiar to epic fantasy readers. Yet despite the almost clichéd nature of the quest, Tchaikovsky mostly pulls this off without being too derivative, in large part because of how well-rounded several of his characters are becoming.
On the whole, Shadows of the Apt was enjoyable after a very rough start. Once the characters were introduced and the various subplots were set in motion, the storylines moved at a brisk pace. The prose was tolerably decent, although nothing evocative comes to mind. The characters were developed fairly well over the course of these first three novels, but there were times that the character interactions, especially early on, threatened to devolve into stereotypical exchanges. Thankfully, most of this was resolved further on and in ways that took those stereotypical exchanges and stood them on their heads. The setting was fairly nice, with a touch of mystery about the Apt races that were revealed only in little segments scattered throughout the three novels. The author has cited Gene Wolfe as an influence and although this is not readily discernible in the plot, in some of the ways that the characters are drawn, a slight bit of similarity may be seen. Although this is not the best epic fantasy I have read, it certainly is well above standard fare and I am curious to see how this story arc concludes in the next volume.