Urskuul’s Reading Circle: The Bear & the Serpent
Hello, and welcome to the second official Urskuul’s Reading Circle Newsletter! Read on for brand new details of the discussions that occurred at the latest meeting (wherein we reviewed the book of the month), and of the thoughts and insights that were raised during the meet.
Hello lovely, paying members of Urskuul’s Reading Circle and not-so lovely freebooters taking advantage of the fact I can’t prevent you from reading this or force you to pay me some kind of remuneration.
I did try, believe me. We had a look at some black magic that would have caused the words to fly off the page and attempt to gouge your eyes out, but it proved far too expensive to link to our membership list and ensure no one who was paying fees weren’t attacked as well. So, for the moment, you’re safe.
Now, as you know, the Reading Circle is a democracy. I am merely your humble chairman who takes it upon himself to organise the times and locations of the meetings, sort out any extra-curricular Reading Circle activities and ensure relevant information is disseminated to everyone in a timely and efficient manner. It is only fair that everyone who comes along to the meetings has a chance to suggest what book to read next and vote on their favourite. This way you feel like you actually have a say in making a decision whilst also allowing you to abrogate responsibility if the book you voted for wasn’t very good, since you weren’t the only person who voted for it. I’m very much an advocate of this form of democracy, especially when I’m in charge.
That being said, sometimes democracy doesn’t seem the best way to run things. Most notably when people don’t vote the way I want them too. It’s very frustrating. You may have a right to vote, but it should be a right to vote responsibly. And voting responsibly tends to involve agreeing with my suggestion for the book of the month rather than our treasurer’s proposal.
Yes Melissa, I’m talking about you. Simply because you’re annoyed and jealous that I got the chairperson role and you were only given the position of treasurer, you try and sabotage me at every turn.
Apologies, I’m digressing. Melissa’s suggestion was the second book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall series, The Bear and the Serpent. You may be wondering what I’m complaining about. After all, Tchaikovsky has written some fantastic books. Did I not like his Shadows of the Apt series? Guns of Dawn? His Arthur C. Clarke award-winning sci-fi novel, Children of Time? Why am I moaning?
Well, for those of you who haven’t read any of these, the Shadows of the Apt series follows the war between various kinden. Kinden are humans who share characteristics and abilities with certain life forms. Wasp kinden, for example, can fly and fire stings at others. Preying-mantis kinden are skilled at fighting and killing things. Spider kinden weave their political webs of intrigue. So the whole series follows humans who have attributes from different creepy-crawly creatures…
And Children of Time? Yes, it follows humans searching the universe for a new home. However, it also follows spiders living on a planet and evolving throughout millennia to become giant, intelligent spiders.
Spotting a pattern here? He keeps writing about insects and arachnids and small scary things. Wasps? Flying stinging bastards. Mosquitos? Damn bloodsuckers. Spiders? Nyaargh. If I find one in the same room as me as I’m about to head to bed I have to capture it and get rid of it. If it does escape? Well, I’m in for a long, sleepless, vigil throughout the night: watching the building burn to the ground just so I can ensure it didn’t escape from its deserved fiery death. Luckily, it has only happened once where I had to go that far. Though I did feel bad about the other hotel guests who didn’t make it out in time…
So, yes. I was a tad worried that he might again stray into spider territory. Introduce a spider tribe that turn into gigantic eight-legged monsters, most likely in the final chapter I read before going to bed and thus ensuring the nightmares would come. He hadn’t in the first book of the series, The Tiger and the Wolf, but I didn’t know if I’d get lucky again.
Now, as mentioned, this is the second book in the series. It’s worth picking up the first one, which introduces us to Maniye and her coming-of-age as well as the key elements of the series; that of the ability to shift into an animal (from a human) depending on the tribe to which they belong. Maniye has grown up in one of the Iron Wolf clans with the ability to turn into a wolf (not a werewolf, an actual wolf). However, unlike the rest of her clan, her mother was of the Tiger and thus she can turn into both and her father, the Chieftain, seeks to exploit that to take control of the Tiger tribe (and from there, command of the entire Wolf nation and the North). It’s not a great father-daughter relationship. Counselling may have been a good option had it been available. I will try not to spoil it too much, but Maniye does survive.
First thing you notice on picking up The Bear and the Serpent is it has a pleasing cover (much like the first) with a rendition of a snake with a mesmerising eye. Why not stare at the eye? Does it make you feel peaceful? Tranquil? Perhaps a little sleepy and relaxed? Go on, let the hypnotic trance take you.
If this has worked, you should find yourself in a suggestable state. This worked surprisingly well on Trevor when I attempted it with him, but I don’t think Trevor is much of a challenge. If you’re not feeling this way, then skip the rest of this section of the text, since it won’t achieve anything by you reading on.
Now then, when we hold the vote for next month’s book to read, you will agree with my selection, no matter what other choices there are. Understand? Oh, and if I also suggest raising membership fees by 10%, not to mention increasing the salary of a certain hard-working Chairman, you’ll agree with that as well.Thanks, you can come out of the trance now.
Although called The Bear and the Serpent (which you assume refers to Loud Thunder and Hesprec), in many ways this is Asmander’s coming-of-age story as well (The Bear, the Serpent and the Crocodile who can also become a Running Lizard doesn’t have the same snap to it as a title, though). Asmander is a Champion. While his normal shape is crocodile, he can also become what is known as the Running Lizard, as well as a flying beast. Tchaikovsky doesn’t specifically name them, but it seems likely these are dinosaur creatures.
There were some arguments regarding his Running Lizard shape. Alex and Amy, our resident squabbling twins, felt it was important for visualisation purposes to decide what dinosaur it was. Amy was adamant it was a velociraptor. Alex felt she was choosing that because the popular Jurassic Park documentaries meant it was one of the few dinosaurs people knew. Doubtless there was other dinosaurs or reptiles that Tchaikovsky was describing. I think most of us were happy to go with velociraptor, but Alex did make an attempt to sway others to his side by offering brownies. However, Amy brought in cupcakes and a crossbow which proved a more persuasive argument. Especially after she shot him in the leg.
Asmander has persuaded Maniye and her wolves to come with him to the Sun River Kingdom, where it turns out there’s a minor squabble over a throne going on. Tecuman and Tecumet (twins, one male, one female) both want to sit on it and be acknowledged as Kasra. A bit like Alex and Amy fighting over which chair to sit on at the meeting. Except they’ve managed to get actual armies to take their side (I dread the day that either Alex or Amy proves capable of raising an army. It may be the best time to take a holiday in some far-off land). Strangely enough, neither Asmander or Maniye consider taking a holiday but feel they have to get involved. Nominally, we’re on the side of Tecuman, simply because Asmander is. However, neither Tecuman nor Tecumet is shown to be evil (there’s no propaganda stories about murdering old people in their sleep or cheating at monopoly) and Asmander himself seems a bit conflicted about the whole thing. The main nasty person in the South seems to be Asmander’s dear old dad, who sent his son off to the North in the hopes he would fail to come back. Another one of those problematic father/child relationships. If a psychiatrist opened a clinic there, it sounds like they might get a lot of work. Thus the civil war gives us the opportunity to understand Asmander’s back story and a feel for how his father messed him up and lets us appreciate that Asmander manages to still be quite a nice fellow in spite of the neglectful parent.
Meanwhile, we also get a bit of Venat’s history. Venat, in my opinion, was one of the best characters in the first book (though called Venater for most of it). You may remember that I mentioned dragons in books tend to make them better, right? Well, Venat is of the Dragon. Admittedly, I think it is a komodo dragon, but he’s still a great, fun character. Attitude to obstacles? Kill them. Someone’s annoying you? Kill them. Bit bored? Kill something. You hope that if he ever finds a champion shape it will have wings and a tendency to set things on fire. After returning home and killing a few people for fun, his story does eventually bring him into the civil war as well, having grown following his time with Asmander and no longer satisfied by the life of raiding, killing and sleeping with things.
As for the North? Well, Loud Thunder has been set a task by the Bear matriarch of forming some kind of alliance between the different tribes (due to the currently unknown threat that has been foreseen). He’s not particularly successful at the start, choosing instead to argue a lot with his brother and pining after a woman (so, apart from the whole changing into a bear thing, basically acting like a teenager). However, following an attack and destruction of a Seal tribe by the unknown threat, things start to go a bit more his way. With the seal attack, it seems the true baddies of the series are being revealed. I mean, who kills a seal? That’s just mean.
In many ways, the Reading Circle agreed the strength of Tchaikovsky’s writing are the characters. Maniye and co. head into a civil war, but this doesn’t feel that important. You’re not really invested in Tecuman or Tecumet as to which of them sits the throne. Neither of them are evil. You know there are bigger things happening than this civil war and you’re reading the story not to see who wins the throne but to see where Maniye, Asmander and co end up in their own personal stories. The Plague people (the ones who killed all the seals) appear to be the real enemy. That will be the important war that determines Maniye’s (and the other characters’) fate. We all look forward to the next book (wherein we will doubtless learn more of the Plague people and hopefully see Venat learn how to breathe fire and boast about how great he is as a result of it).
So yes, very much a book recommended by Urskuul’s Reading Circle, especially for the fact that Tchaikovsky managed to stay away from spiders within. Providing you can find a connection and liking for one or more of the key characters, I suspect you’ll enjoy it as I did (your attempt at sabotage came to naught, Melissa). Why not give it a go?
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