Shadows of the Apt, the acclaimed ten book series about the world of the Insect-kinden, took place in an alternate Europe, during alternate World Wars – mostly the second one, to be precise. Shadows of the Apt is an epic tale of the struggle of different kinden, i.e. humans in kin with different types of animals which serve as their metaphysical and physical totems. Those totems can be perceived as ideals holding certain spiritual power, but also as matrices for particular species, influencing genotypes and phenotypes of individuals belonging to different kinden. But Shadows of the Apt is also a gripping tale of deadly rivalry between technical aptitude and ingenuity – and old wisdom and magic. The world of the Apt and Inapt is fully developed and based on an intriguing premise: it is a realm bereft of vertebrate. Their place has been fully taken by invertebrate of every kind and size, from insects through mollusks and crustaceans, to snails, jellyfish and arachnids. And although the reviews of the series are many – and varied – on this blog, there is a reason I make this short summary at the beginning of the review of Czajkowski’s new series, Echoes of the Fall.
With his new post-apocalyptic trilogy, Echoes of the Fall, Czajkowski takes the readers on a seemingly entirely different ride. Tribes from the time of early Iron Age, brought about as a result of an earlier, terrible shattering of their world, vie for domination in an unforgiving part of the world. They too are linked to their animal counterparts – but this time around, vertebrate are the only types of animals that count. Wolves and tigers, hawks and seals, bears and serpents, owls and bats, hyenas and lions, even toads, crocodiles and Comodo dragons (and wolverines! ;)), all of them act as true totems in the sense that they are the emblems of tribes, but they are also spiritual entities, powerful in their own way as non-omniscient, limited god-like beings watching over their chosen peoples.
They grant them the ability to change shape, Step in Czajkowski’s term, and become for a while their totem animal. It comes with a few handy twists, for example whatever you carry as a human can be incorporated into your body during the Stepping. The animal spirits can be pleaded with, but they usually stay beyond the profane plane of existence, watching from far away and rarely deigning to act. It is the tribes, and their priests, who tend to act in their name, enforcing cruel rituals and keeping vigilant guard over the borders of their domain. If you belong to the Tiger’s tribe, you cannot belong to any other. You have a Tiger’s soul and cannot possess a second one or exchange it for another. At least that’s the popular wisdom…
Enter Maniye, a young girl with two souls. She belongs to the Wolf tribe, but her mother was a Tiger – and now Maniye, nearing the coming of age rituals, must choose between her two souls. Otherwise she’ll succumb to madness, the two parts of her identity tearing at each other and eventually tearing her apart. She’s alone and vulnerable, fighting with herself, her tribe, and her father, who happens to be the tribe’s chieftain and a rather nasty, self-absorbed fellow. When an old Snake priest from southern lands is captured to be sacrificed in a winter Wolf ritual, Maniye seizes her chance at escape. She frees the Snake and flees her home, trying to find herself along the difficult winter journey through frozen land. On her track are many wolves, but only one is truly dangerous – Broken Axe, a lone wolf at her father’s bidding.
That’s the beginning of the first installment of the trilogy, The Tiger and the Wolf – a rather conventional one this time, you might assume. A young girl and her mentor on a long journey, discovering who they are and what is their role in the world… A Bildungsroman of a very classical kind. And it is, really, although this time around it took a whole lengthy book to grant the main protagonist both the self-awareness she so badly needed and the ability to act independently. I will be frank: the main protagonist was also the main problem of the book. It was difficult for me to make a connection with Maniye, despite the author’s best efforts – she was too generic, too vague, at least at the beginning, for me to really appreciate the first stages of her journey. She eventually becomes an interesting, likeable protagonist, but I much more enjoyed the side characters of the Serpent, Hesprec, and the Bear, Loud Thunder, and the Comodo dragon Venater, not to mention Broken Axe, who frankly stole the whole story for himself. Their personalities were complex and believable from the very beginning, which sadly cannot be said for Maniye. It’s only the first book, however, and though she’s not Cheerwell Maker, nor Tynisa, and not even any of the memorable Portias or Biancas of Children of Time, she still has time to become someone more like them.
The Tiger and the Wolf is well-written and evocative as usual, but at the same time unusually chaotic, with unending chases through winter landscapes, both on two and on four legs, so many kidnappings and escapes that I lost count of them, and with at least a few sudden and predictable twists that didn’t seem entirely necessary (Tiger’s love, anyone?). It was the first Czajkowski’s book that seemed slightly too long and edited by someone rather soft-hearted. Czajkowski is still an undeniable Master Worldbuilder and a very talented writer, who can create a mood or an immersive landscape with few chosen words, and he definitely doesn’t disappoint this time – the world of Echoes of the Fall is inherently logical, very detailed and realistic to the point of being grim and gritty. It also contains several nicely packaged clues as to its real-world inspiration. Don’t be mislead by the Iron Age vibe – it’s alternate Americas and an alternate history of their habitation and conquest, told from the perspective of the indigenous people. I loved the bits of the old legends, retelling “the time before”, when the tribes ran away from a plague of soullessness spread by peoples who wanted to have all souls. I loved the details of the legends pointing to the archeological theories that American Indians came to the continent from Asia through Bering land bridge that probably existed some 20 000 years ago… More details on that to be found here. As to the conquest part… Well, the review for The Bear and the Serpent will appear on Reenchantment pretty soon ;).
And that’s exactly where Shadows of Apt, mentioned at the beginning, fit: Echoes of the Fall seem like the other side of Shadows’ coin, the perfect mirror image of the Apt/Inapt world. Shadows of the Apt realm was limited to one continent (with the addition of the equivalent of Northern Africa and underwater U.S.). The world depicted in Echoes of the Fall seems like the other side of that reality, a side grown apart as a result of a deep cataclysm and the resulting diaspora as socially and religiously different as Native Americans were different from Europeans. It’s just a hunch, though – we’ll see how it pans out in later books ;).