A Time for Grief, the second Shadows of the Apt companion book, consisting of ten short stories, gives us a world of fragile peace. While Spoils of War focused on the pitfalls of war, A Time for Grief tries to convince the reader that times of peace can be nearly as dangerous, and even outright lethal to some – especially to academics. And, with Czajkowski being in a good writing form, it generally succeeds.
The stories in A Time for Grief are a diverse mix: they’ve been coming up slowly, one at a time, since 2008. The most recent stories were written in 2017, but the nine-year gap between the oldest and the newest is practically invisible. It’s pretty clear that Czajkowski never really left the world of Shadows of the Apt and, in a way reminiscent of the late sir Terry Pratchett uses his creation to form a timely commentary on universal problems of our world, from poverty to prejudice. Some of the stories have already appeared on the author’s website, some were written specifically for the new volume. Their timeline covers a span from before the Empire in Black and Gold (the first installment in the Shadows of the Apt series) to events well after The Seal of the Worm (the last, tenth part of the series). The stories cover a swath of the world, from the far deserts of Spiderlands to the farthest reaches of Commonweal, with special nods to Helleron as the center of deadly vice ;).
We meet again certain characters from the main series, but usually those from the second-tier, who hadn’t gotten the chance to shine within Shadows of the Apt. One recurring main character, who’s made an appearance in both Spoils of War and A Time for Grief is of course Tisamon. I say “of course”, because he’s such a tragic and complex personality that not writing about him would be a crime. His story here, Fallen Heroes, is, unsurprisingly, a western set deep in Helleron’s darkest alleys. There always was something of Clint Eastwood in Tisamon for me, from his physiognomy to his character, and that makes seeing him in such circumstances all the more rewarding. The lonely bladeslinger in town, distant and brooding and out of place wherever he goes, fits perfectly into the Helleron setting, with its mills and factories, endlessly grinding everything from raw resources to human lives. A Western with a Marxist tinge ;).
The Dragonfly brigand Dal Arche and his unusual pals: the Wasp Mordrec, the Grashopper Soul Je and the Scorpion Barad Ygor make an appearance in not one, but two stories, The Price of Salt and The Peacemongers. The first one I’ve had pleasure reading while it was still on Shadows of the Apt website, and it’s a cool story showcasing not only Czajkowski’s interest in western as a genre, but also his deep fascination with the biology of insects. It’s a horror story of sorts, full of the uncanny and mysterious, and of course truckloads of requisite blood. Those faint of heart or easily grossed out by insects should read at their own risk. One thing is sure, though – after this story you’ll never look at cicadas the same way. The Peacemongers is for me the weakest story of the collection. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, not by a long shot, but somehow it didn’t resonate with me the way the author intended. The discussion of Czajkowski’s socio-political worldview, between Piotrek and me, can be found in this post, but here the almost happy ending seemed too forced and unrealistic even for me. Processes like post-war reconciliation don’t happen in a blink of time – they need years. Plus, as the Wasp Kinden is clearly based on historical examples, I couldn’t help but notice the discrepancies between the treatment of war criminals in our world and in the Kinden world. I doubt anyone in our world would send an infamous butcher of an ethnic group/nation as an envoy of goodwill to their land (with some helpful troops) right after the war.
The titular story, A Time for Grief, fills the gap between Salute the Dark and Sea Watch and deals with origins of the city of dispossessed, Princep Salma. The recurring characters of Balkus and Sperra, as well as Sfayot and his daughter accompanied by a cameo of Aradocles all play a part in it, but mostly it’s about Grief in Chains, the Butterfly lover of Salme Dien. As I was never a big fan of this character, and I knew what happened afterwards, this story didn’t make a big impression on me. It’s good to see Balkus though, not once but twice, as we see him also in the opening story of the volume, Loyalties. It’s a nice, character-driven tale of the difference between who we really are and what kind of face we show to the world. And of course about the deviousness of Spiders :D.
There are also two stories dealing with the dangers of the academic world. The first one, Bones, is a lovely executed tie-in to Czajkowski’s new series, Echoes of the Fall, and confirms my intuition that the new trilogy deals with Kinden-world Americas just as Shadows of the Apt dealt with an alternate Europe. The second one, The Naturalist, deals with themes of racism in terms of Kinden and their totem animals. I enjoyed the artful and sinister meddling of Spiders in all things, especially those not even remotely political at the moment, but possessing potential of becoming political, and now I need to re-estimate whether their real-world counterparts are indeed Mediterranean, as I assumed from the Shadows of the Apt series. This sort of policy sounds like something in which a couple of big eastern countries are nowadays especially interested in ;).
My favorite stories deal with Moth lore and magic juxtaposed with the down-to-earth approached of Apt Kinden – especially scientifically oriented Beetles. One of them, Queen of the Night, deals with the dangers an amateur theatre troupe in Collegium faces when it decides to play an ill-fated opera about the usual stuff: star-crossed lovers, evil magicians, foolish servants – and how the art and the life begin to perilously meld into one. The second story, Alicaea’s Children, is a typical noir set in Helleron and deals with very timely themes of prejudice and violence. This tale was for me the very best example of what Czajkowski is capable of – a whole range of emotions evoked on few pages, a bit of mystery and magic and a successful take on a very serious matter.
The story I kept as the last is The Last Ironclad – a redemption tale of sorts, with a very likeable, broken character at its centre: the Wasp Varmen of the Sentinels. I’ve read it before, on the website, and I’ve read it again in A Time for Grief with great pleasure. Another Western-type story set in Helleron, which curiously lends itself perfectly to such themes. It is a great tribute to Scott’s Gladiator, with a typically Czajkowski bitter-sweet happy ending. Varmen is another compelling anti-hero who holds a special place among the hundreds of characters populating Shadows of the Apt world: he’s stubborn and proud, and won’t meekly fade in the background, instead returning here and there, always with a purpose and a story to tell :).
All in all, A Time for Grief is a great treat for every Shadows of the Apt fan, and a very good compilation of stories centered around the themes of peace, its costs, as well as its dangers. One small flaw of the book is the editing – there are noticeable spelling mistakes which for a pedantic nature like mine can be a bit irritating at times. Still, they are not so numerous as to detract from the pleasure of reading. On the plus side, there’s a very nice cover art :).