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Shadows of the Apt Series by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Books 1 – 3)

Shadows of the Apt Series by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Books 1 – 3)
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Book Name: Shadows of the Apt Series (Books 1 - 3)
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Military Fantasy
Release Date: November 15, 2008

Empire In Black and Gold (cover)

Empire In Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Empire In Black and Gold is the first volume in a dramatic and colourful new fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt, about the fight for survival against a menacingly regimented empire. Seventeen years ago, Stenwold witnessed the Wasp Empire storming the city of Myna in a brutal war of conquest. Since then he has preached vainly against this threat in his home city of Collegium, but now the Empire is on the march, with its spies and its armies everywhere, and the Lowlands lie directly in its path. All the while, Stenwold has been training youthful agents to fight the Wasp advance. The latest recruits include his niece, Che, and his mysterious ward, Tynisa. When his home is violently attacked, he is forced to send them ahead of him and, hotly pursued, they fly by airship to Helleron, the first city in line for the latest Wasp invasion.

Stenwold and Che are Beetle-kinden, one of many human races that take their powers and inspiration each from a totem insect, but he also has allies of many breeds: Mantis, Spider, Ant, with their own particular skills. Foremost is the deadly Mantis-kinden warrior, Tisamon, but other very unlikely allies also join the cause. As things go from bad to worse, amid escalating dangers, Stenwold learns that the Wasps intend to use the newly completed railroad between Helleron and Collegium to launch a lightning strike into the heart of the Lowlands. Then he gathers all of his agents to force a final showdown in the engine yard.

Characterization: 6/10
Tchaikovsky gets us set up with a wide variety of characters ready to do his literary bidding. Stenwold, the main character at this point, is an academic frustrated by the fact that all his warnings are falling on deaf ears, and so he has been training a small core of friends to help stop the Wasps. We get to see characters from both sides and Tchaikovsky doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the characters and their struggles may feel a bit too familiar, but there are other elements that make up for this.

Plotting and Pacing: 7/10
From the start, we know that the Wasp Empire is coming for the Lowlands. This anticipation allows Tchaikovsky to perform some maneuvering that may otherwise have made me feel like the plot was bogging down. The constant scheming and politicking makes it seem as though very little happened during the course of this novel, yet it also feels like a great deal happened (much akin to George R. R. Martin’s series, although I would obviously not claim that Martin and Tchaikovsky are on the same level in this regard).

Setting: 9/10
The setting is where this novel really shines. The idea of humans being given, for lack of a better word, powers based on which kinden (insect-race) they belong to is fantastic. Although sometimes I felt like this made it too easy to set roles for the various races (like dwarves mining and elves protecting forests), it was a concept that hooked me and hooked me good. Tchaikovsky somehow manages to mix medieval weaponry with steampunk-ish technology in a way that doesn’t seem completely bizarre. My interest in the setting was one of the main reasons I continued reading the series.

Style and Themes: Style 1/5 and Themes 2/5
There were enough stylistic issues that I cringed at various points in the novel. Sometimes a secondary character would be used for a few lines to reveal some important bit of information, and sometimes it would be a POV shift in the middle of a scene without using a scene break. The book was good enough for me to keep reading, but these issues were quite annoying. I can’t really say much with regards to themes. Again it was the whole bit of normal people struggling against something greater than themselves and trying to not get ground into the dust by the politics. Let’s just say that there are other, better reasons for reading this book.

Total: 25/40
I read it and, annoying stylistic issues aside, I enjoyed it. Perhaps more importantly, I kept reading and spending money on later novels in the series after finishing this book. I’ll leave it at that.

Grading: Note that “5” is an average grade for each category, unexciting but still decent. Therefore, any novel that scores above twenty is above average and thus better than most of the other stuff floating around in bookshelves (at least in my opinion).

Grading Scale
01-09: Nigh unreadable
10-19: Get it from the library
20-24: A modest endorsement
25-34: Highly recommended
35-40: A must-read!

– – –

Dragonfly Falling (cover)

Dragonfly Falling

Dragonfly Falling is the second book in the enthralling Shadows of the Apt series of epic fantasies. Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant eternal life. In Collegium, meanwhile, Stenwold is still trying to persuade the city magnates to take seriously the Wasp Empire’s imminent threat to their survival.

In a colourful drama involving mass warfare and personal combat, a small group of heroes must stand up against what seems like an unstoppable force. This volume continues the story that so brilliantly unfolded in Empire in Black and Gold – and the action is still non-stop.

Characterization: 7/10
The cast of characters is much the same as the first book, although with a few notable additions. Many of them are put in difficult circumstances which helps build empathy for them, but they don’t feel quite as “real” as GRRM’s characters (although most characters don’t). If you liked the characters from the first book, it’s unlikely your opinion will change here.

Plotting and Pacing: 8/10
This one moves along at a nice, quick pace with only a few exceptions. There were times when reading this book where I felt the novel slipping a little off track, but not many. It seems that people are fairly divided on this front in other reviews, so you’ll just have to try it yourself and see what you think. However, since I do think the plotting is moderately more complex and well-done here, I’ve increased the score slightly.

Setting: 8/10
Is the setting still cool? Absolutely. A few new kinden are introduced (still a brilliant concept), which I can’t complain about. The interesting blend of medieval and steampunk-ish technology is still there. But does the second book really add much in the way of worldbuilding? Not really. Frankly, I only want to be giving 9s in books with absolutely incredibly, immersive settings, and this doesn’t quite feel that way just yet. I expect a lot more in future volumes if the setting score is going to remain this high.

Style and Themes: Style 1/5 and Themes 2/5
The themes remain basically the same as the first book. If you want to see how various powerful and not-so-powerful people act when thrown into the fire, this is what you get. I’m not losing sleep at night thinking about the implications regarding human nature this book raises, but it’s fine. Style-wise the novel is plagued with some of the same issues as the first (POV changes within a single scene are the most notable example). The novel itself is a fun read, but glaring problems simply shouldn’t be there in the second volume of such a good series.

Total: 26/40
An improvement over the first book, although still plagued by the same stylistic issues. A fun setting and some careful plotting more than make up for these issues, however, so enjoy!

– – –

Blood of the Mantis (cover)

Blood of the Mantis

Blood of the Mantis is the third novel in his enthralling Shadows of the Apt sequence of epic fantasy adventures. Driven by the ghosts of the Darakyon, Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh-town of Jerez, but he has only days before the magical box is lost to him forever.

Meanwhile, the forces of the Empire are mustering over winter for their great offensive, gathering their soldiers and perfecting their new weapons. Stenwold and his followers have only a short time to gather what allies they can before the Wasp armies march again, conquering everything in their path. If they cannot throw back the Wasps this spring then the imperial black-and-gold flag will fly over every city in the Lowlands before the year’s end.

In Jerez begins a fierce struggle over the Shadow Box, as lake creatures, secret police and renegade magicians compete to take possession. If it falls into the hands of the Wasp Emperor, however, then no amount of fighting will suffice to save the world from his relentless ambition.

Characterization: 6/10
All of our favourite characters are here once again. We only get a few snippets of the characters who are not part of the main plot threads, so mainly you’ll be dealing with Stenwold, Che/Nero, Achaeos/Tynissa/Tisamon, and Thalric. Do I still have issues with the believability of some characters and their motivations? Yes. Do I still generally enjoy reading about them though? Yes. At this point, however, three novels in, I feel like I should have a better sense of the characters, their pasts, and their motivations. The characters are working in different settings, under different circumstances, but have they really changed? I’m not sure.

Plotting and Pacing: Plotting 3/5 and Pacing 4/5
The pacing starts off with a bang for Tchaikovsky’s third installment. It’s a little bit annoying to use an action scene just to hook readers and then go back in time, but by this point most readers are probably already hooked. Blood of the Mantis is shorter than previous works, with fewer jumps between threads, and this makes the reading experience feel smoother and faster. There are less plots, but it moves at a faster pace and, since parts of it feel like setup, an explosive sequel is pretty much guaranteed. I’ll note that some other reviewers did have issues with the length of this novel and the fact that parts of it feel plagued with “middle book syndrome.”

Setting: 8/10
The setting remains an intriguing mix of medieval, steampunk technology and kinden “superpowers.” I like that Tchaikovsky is trying to add bits and pieces to the edge of the map made for the original book to give us a better sense of the world around the Lowlands. We get to see some of the technology from Solarno and its environs, and I’m all for learning more about this world’s tech. I almost cut this to a seven, but he adds just enough new, shiny toys that I kept it where it was.

Style and Themes: Style 2/5 and Themes 2/5
Tchaikovsky’s style seems to be improving by this point, as there are less issues with POV shifts and random scenes injected to reveal some key bit of information. Perhaps that’s just his editors at work. Theme-wise, it’s pretty much the same stuff, if you’ve read this far, I doubt you have any issues with that.

Total: 25/40
Well, again the novel made it to the highly recommended category, so yay for that! The series continues to lead us down its road, twisting and turning, and I look forward to seeing where it goes. I have issues with the magic side of things where sometimes the conflict feels a bit flat, but overall this is a series to watch and a fun way to pass the time. On another note, I have no idea how he’s writing these so quickly. So Mr. Tchaikovsky, if you’re out there, please let me know where you found the twenty-fifth to twenty-eighth hours of each day.

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Rating: 9.3/10 (8 votes cast)
Shadows of the Apt Series by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Books 1 - 3), 9.3 out of 10 based on 8 ratings
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2 Comments

  1. Good review Khaldun, I don’t agree with your rating of his characterization but the rest I do agree with. Wait until you read book 4 and 5 when things get more interesting. I believe he was working on books 2 and 3 before he signed his publishing deal in the UK so that would explain how quickly the first 3 books hit both in the UK and the delayed US release. Similar to what was done with the Temerarie series.

  2. Khaldun says:

    Hi Paul, thanks for your thoughts. While I like Tchaikovsky’s characterization, I’m just saying that it isn’t, in my opinion, the main strength of the series (I’ve had some issues with believing character motivations). It’s a fantastic setting and I’m wildly impressed with the quality of these books based on the speed at which they are being written and published. In any case, I’d love to hear more thoughts on the review or impressions of the novels.

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