My traditional Wednesday post is somewhat late, because I was led astray by the charms of country life, mainly by the responsible tasks of growing lettuce, basil and tomatoes. But the second and no less important cause is that I find it very difficult to review a whole ten book series in one post. It simply doesn’t do justice – as it should – to every book.
But enough of justifications, let’s talk about the books. The first installment in the Shadows of the Apt series, Empire in Black and Gold, was Czajkowski’s debut. Actually, the first four books were his debut, as he managed to write them all before any of the books were accepted by Tor. Here was a guy who wrote for his own pleasure, was consistent, imaginative and perseverant. At first the world he created – and populated with insects – might have been seen as a slight disadvantage by any sensible publisher, but soon this very world, unique and fascinating, set Czajkowski’s work apart and made him popular.
Shadows of the Apt is set in a world where insects became the dominant life form. Imagine giant spiders, enormous predatory mantids, monstrous mosquitos, moths and dragonflies as big as airplanes… People, in order to survive, had to align themselves with specific types of insects, creating Kinden. In exchange for their souls they gained power: different forms of Art, giving them the desperately needed edge in the hostile world. Some Kinden can fly; some can form mindlinks; some are stronger or faster or can throw fire from their bare hands. But in general, Kinden in Czajkowski’s world are similar to our races – people belonging to different Kinden vary slightly in appearance: their skin color, build and talents set them apart immediately. But at the same time Kinden form their own cultures; they have different beliefs, myths, and traditions, and all those intangible traits set them apart as readily as the physiological or anatomical differences. There are the Beetle-Kinden: down-to-earth, with sensible, no-nonsense attitude, solid as rock (literally and metaphorically), rather stocky and not too pretty; there are Spider-Kinden: beautiful, nimble, manipulative and politically minded; there are Mantis-Kinden: fierce traditionalists, trained in combat, viewing world as a place of eternal fight and opposition; there are Fly-Kinden: small, quick, witty, jacks-of-all-trades; there are Ant-Kinden: constantly living in the minds of others, with non-existent facial expressions, with difficulties in communicating with those who do not belong to their nest. There are also Dragonfly-Kinden, Scorpion-Kinden, Woodlouse-Kinden, Mosquito-Kinden and a multitude of others. There are also the halfbreeds: descendants of parents from different Kinden, who inherited a mix of their parents’ characteristics. Last but not least, there are the Wasp-Kinden: strong, fierce, able to kill with their bare hands, extremely militant and willing to conquer everybody else.
It would take a long time to properly explain all the ins and outs of this complicated world. If you’re interested, check Czajkowski’s page. However, let me add just two more bits of information before I get to the proper reviewing part 😉 First, all of the Kinden can be either Apt or Inapt. Aptitude/Inaptitude is a form of worldview combined with specific skill-set: you either view the reality as rational, conforming to the laws of physics and probability, and can create and manipulate technology, or you see the world as magical, conforming to the laws of importance and will, and for the death of you cannot understand how even a simple machine works. In the Bad Old Days (or the Days of Lore, if you listen to the other side) the Inapt Kinden: Moths, Woodlice, Slugs and Spiders where the masters ruling over lesser races: Beetles, Mantids, Ants, Flies, Wasps. But then came an Apt revolution, when the previous slaves realized their own advantage over their masters and overthrew them. The magic was waning, the industrial revolution came steaming, and the world irrevocably changed. And here comes the second bit of information: in this new reality a call for a new order was sounded. The Wasp-Kinden, after decades of bloody infighting, decided to take the fight to their neighbors, conquer and subdue them, and form an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen before.
This is the opening for Empire in Black and Gold. When I tried to recommend this book to a friend in two sentences, I said: “It’s like War World Two in times of industrial revolution, only fought by people who have various insect qualities. And there’s even a Winston Churchill!” It didn’t go well. I was looked at strangely and the topic died quick and painless death.
So let me be more precise this time. The book does remind me of WWII in many ways, and there really is a Winston Churchill. I’m not going to say who. You’ll figure it out as soon as you start reading the book 😉 But at the same time the Wasp Empire is simultaneously Nazi Germany and Roman Empire with many qualities of modern United States. The Collegium remarkably resembles England in 1940’s, but at the same time resembles ancient Athens. And so on, and so on. The war is fought in many ways, on many separate levels. We have espionage and politics, we have all-out war on all fronts: field, air, navy, we have saboteurs, regular army, engineers, pilots, weapon masters, technological visionaries, etc. The picture of war created by Czajkowski is compelling, riveting and intriguing, realistic, psychologically probable, and is enormously, painstakingly detailed. We get descriptions of battles next to glimpses of lives of regular soldiers, we get political discussions, arguments of dissenters, duels, myths, intimate psychological portraits, moral disputes, arms race. whatever you need as a reader. Except maybe dragons 😉 But seriously: every single piece is moving, and every has its final place.
I haven’t found a single character that would feel flat or unconvincing. There are hundreds of them in the series, and still I was intrigued by every single one. There are some instant darlings and the ones you feel you should hate, but Czajkowski allows them to evolve and change in a very convincing, sometimes rewarding, sometimes painful way. There is a strong undercurrent of morality sneaking through the books, compelling the reader to take a stance, to question characters’ decisions, to mourn and to celebrate in turns.
I liked all the books in the series. Of course, some are better than others, but it’s really just a matter of personal preferences. All of them are flawlessly written, all of them are gripping. There is a major plot arc, spanning all ten books, there are also three smaller arcs: first in books 1-4, second in books 5-9 and third in the last book, but every installment has also its own plot and its own set of unique characters and problems. As you can expect from a series which has several thousand pages, there are some slower moments, but there are also many of those when you feel you won’t be able to put down the book. It’s a difficult read sometimes, mainly because the reader must very closely follow the events and remember multiple characters showing up and disappearing throughout the story. It is also emotionally draining, as in fact it should be, considering it’s a realistic political military fantasy. Last but not least, it’s a highly rewarding read.
Czajkowski’s Shadows of the Apt is definitely one of the best fantasy series I have read.