The second installment in the Echoes of the Fall trilogy follows the events of The Tiger and the Wolf. I promised a review a long time ago, but somehow there were always more important things to write about 😉 The long May break gave me a bit more time and an opportunity to come back to Maniye Many Tracks and her small band of outcasts from different tribes. Unable or unwilling to find her place up north after the events of The Tiger and the Wolf, Maniye decides to accompany Asmander in his return journey to the southern lands.
Asmander’s homeland curiously resembles South Americas/ancient Egypt in its undeniable higher level of civilizational and technical development, paid for with new depths of sheer brutality, political ruthlessness and sophisticated cruelty. The grand viziers of this Southern world are suitably cunning and heartless, the priests mysterious and the warriors brutal, and if I had to voice my reservations I’d say I wished for a less conventional treatment of the topic. Too many old, used tropes to my liking. Thankfully, the Northern events were in typical Czajkowski’s style – engaging, emotional, and superbly written.
In the South, Maniye and her band find themselves in the middle of a highly dangerous conflict, in which the usually smooth ascension of a new ruler is broken by an accident of birth – instead of one heir there are two: twins, each fighting for the doubtful privilege of becoming a pharaoh of sorts. Asmander’s loyalty is torn, and his typical Hamletic behavior is not helped in any way by the fact that Venat leaves him to fulfill the dreams of his youth and claim the terribly uncomfortable throne of the Dragon people. Add to it mysterious and lethal invasion in the lands of the North, the grim destiny awaiting Loud Thunder as an unwilling leader of an unheard-of, all-tribes warband gathering on the shores of northern lands to protect them from an ancient danger, a risky awakening of old myths (fans of Batman, rejoice!) and a deeply dangerous, political play between different Serpent factions… One thing is certain: Czajkowski surely knows how to amp up the tension and the levels of plot convolution.
The Bear and the Serpent is divided in almost equal measures between the description of the events in the South (seen mostly through Maniye’s, Asmander’s, Venat’s and Hesprec’s eyes) and the events of the North (depicted mostly from Loud Thunder’s point of view). This gives the reader a broad perspective of the upheavals and changes coming over the alternate Americas, and an unusual insight into the alternate European invasion/discovery of those lands. There’s place for political intrigue and diplomatic efforts, for sneaky concerted attacks and traditional duels, for treason and abduction and sacrifice – two things that book is full of are ideas and action. The sheer scope of the novel is the evidence of the ambitions of its author, and I am more than happy to applaud it. Czajkowski has shown more than once – with Shadows of the Apt and with Children of Time – that he’s more than capable of creating incredibly complex, realistic worlds. Still, this time more than in any of his other series it introduces a lot of chaos into the plot, and it makes the process of bonding with the protagonists that much harder. Inasmuch as we can gather insight into Loud Thunder’s character and can understand the source of his perspective and his subsequent actions, both personal and cultural – and of Venat’s, come to think of it – yet Maniye and Asmander still remain characters largely pushed by the events around them, reacting in a way which seems shallow and unconvincing; more like a handy plot device than living, breathing persons. I’m still waiting for a tad less flashy but instead deeper psychological growth of those characters. Weaving the whole story arc around Maniye, who remains one of the least relatable of Czajkowski’s plethora of characters seems like a risky endeavor. But knowing the author’s skill at writing and creating credible, realistic protagonists, a resolution to this problem should happen quite soon.
As usual, Czajkowski populates his world with memorable characters, and is very consciously even-handed with the gender division. It doesn’t seem forced in any way, which in itself is a huge achievement, and I very much enjoy reading about (almost) each of the numerous protagonists. Surprisingly enough, the most depth and credibility in the second installment was in my opinion gained – or maybe pirated – by the Dragon Venat. My other favorite character was Loud Thunder, put in an unenviable position by the leader of his clan and his mother. These two grew by far the most in The Bear and the Serpent, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion of his fates. I also enjoyed the side quest of the Owl, nicely weaving the vampiric lore of our tradition with totemic magic and some Batman vibes 😉 And I cannot but applaud the Wolverine connection! 😀
All in all, a chaotic and slightly uneven, yet ambitious and quite enjoyable ride.
I believe it is not a spoiler any longer and so I can say with clear conscience that the Shadows of the Apt and the Echoes of the Fall series are closely linked. Both series happen in the same world and show the different evolutionary, religious and civilizational paths chosen by the Kinden linked with vertebrae and invertebrate. Totemic, animalistic religion of the alternate Americas is juxtaposed with a noticeably secular outlook of the alternate Europeans, resulting in the creation of categories such as “soullessness”. There are many vivid parallels between the development of his alternate world and the history of our own, and I wonder where exactly, and how boldly, Czajkowski will lead his readers on this journey. He has a penchant for moderately to fairly happy endings, so the conclusion will probably be a bit more optimistic than our own history. The invasion of Spider-Kinden and Beetles (at least that’s my bet) on the shores of North America nicely set up the stage for the final volume of the series, The Hyena and the Hawk, which has been published less than a month ago. I am definitely going to read the conclusion to an interesting series.