In a shocking twist that will surprise absolutely no one, I grew up reading lots of fantasy. While that doesn’t exactly make me an expert or anything, it has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about the genre and what makes it tick, and even try my hand at writing some. At some point, I do intend to do an article on fantasy in general, on what works and what doesn’t, but that’s a pretty huge topic and one I don’t want to go into in a half-baked way. For right now, suffice it to say that a lot of fantasy bugs me, despite my love for the genre. I grow weary when I walk into the fantasy section of the bookstore and come across endless series of impenetrable pseudo-Tolkien stories and retellings of the author’s D&D campaigns. Then more recently, I’ve come across the works of mega-authors like Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, both of whom I dislike (as authors, I’m sure they’re perfectly nice people). Jordan for his bizarre sexism and unwillingness to finish a story, no matter how many thousands of pages he takes, and Martin because, although he is at least a talented writer, his books are essentially plotless amoral blood porn, which also can’t finish a single story in thousands of pages. Given all this, when I do read fantasy, it’s either the classics, such as Roger Zelazny and Robert E. Howard, or light-hearted one-shot novels by A. Lee Martinez or well-done parodies like Order of the Stick, and I’ve generally avoided newer series altogether.
Then my friend Tom tells me about a series he’s reading called “Shadows of the Apt” by a fellow named Adrian Tchaikovsky. He says it’s a very good fantasy series and I would probably like it. I nod my head, somewhat interested, but given my recent skepticism of fantasy, combined with the fact that I am naturally both lazy and cheap, I didn’t jump on buying them. This is how I know Tom is a good friend: he actually bought me all four books on Amazon and mailed them to me. Given the brazen generosity of this act, I had no choice but to read the series, and I am very glad I did.
While the premise of the series is pretty standard, i.e. an evil empire is trying to take over the world, and only a small band of mismatched idealists and miscreants can stop them, the unique execution is where the story shines. For one thing, the races of the world are all attached to totemic insects. Usually in fiction, when insects are portrayed, it’s as being icky or evil or at best primordial, but Tchaikovsky is clearly a student of entomology, and treats the underappreciated creatures with a grand sense of reverence and fascination that to my knowledge has not been done elsewhere (funny enough, the series actually made me like insects more). This allows for a fascinating variety of cultures that may be dotted with elements you’ve seen before, but are extremely distinct and filled with vibrant individuals as well as believable cultural cohesion. For another, most fantasy worlds tend to be suspended in time, as magic by its nature is timeless, and for some reason, technology never moves beyond the medieval level, except for ancient races and bad guys. Tchaikovsky’s world has a fair amount of technology to begin with, but much like in real life, the war moves it forward. We see the technological people (as there is a clear divide between who can use magic and who technology) grow more advanced, while the magical races slowly diminish, and all this just in a few short years. This allows the stakes to rise without seeming absurd or artificial, and in fact, it resembles our own war history.
Obviously, a story like this wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t interesting. What Tchaikovsky does to make them work well is to force them into places where they must make decisions that aren’t clearly black and white. As most of the protagonists are youths on the cusp of adulthood or veterans who are past their prime, and the Wasp Empire is such a colossal enemy, they must often choose between doing the moral thing and the practical thing to survive or help others survive. I don’t tend to like stories where characters always choose the practical thing in the most amoral way possible (I’m looking at YOU, Battlestar Galactica!), but in a story where the characters make a variety of choices along this spectrum, and the results are just as varied, I am pleased to see how these choices are used as honest-to-goodness character development that also moves the story along. And while the story focuses on a relatively small number of characters at first, the cast grows to be huge without ever feeling overwhelming. Even the villains are very different one to another. Certainly enough agents of the Wasp Empire are ruthless and brutal (the Empire itself being a curious mix of Nazis, Spartans, and Mayans), but many are just people doing their best in an unstoppably evil society. It is also worth noting that people die in these books. While it’s not filled with pointless shock-value deaths like Martin, just about no one is safe, and many people you come to care about will die or have horrible things happen to them. As a consequence, when the heroes do succeed at something, it feels like they’ve earned it.
So far, there are seven of these books, only five of which are currently available in the U.S. (though I cheat and buy them from England), of a planned ten-book series. Considering he is a family man with a demanding day job, the fact that Tchaikovsky releases these 500+ page books every six months or so implies a nigh-superhuman speed and prolificity (is that a word? I’m not sure). Makes an aspiring slacker like me feel incredibly humbled by my own meager turnout.
I also highly recommend checking out his website, Shadows of the Apt, which has all manner of supplemental information, artwork, and short stories, many of which do eventually filter their characters into the books.