Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Bear Head

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series: Dogs of War #2

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.

Bear Head is a loose sequel to 2018 Dogs of War; but as it’s happening twenty years after Dogs of War, and portrays a vastly changed reality, it can be treated as a stand-alone and read without any previous experience with the prequel – at least according to the publisher. And that’s what I did: having only rudimentary knowledge of Dogs of War premise, I embarked on the journey with Bear Head. A couple of the main characters appear in both books; the secondary cast is largely (almost entirely) different. Bear Head is certainly a sequel in terms of main themes and ideas: from artificial intelligence to neurological experimentation to forced sapienization of animals to neurobiological processes of limiting freedom – but they are explained here in enough detail that the previous knowledge of Dogs of War is indeed not necessary; though still, I’d wager, emotionally rewarding.

The main characters in Bear Head are Jimmy, a heavily modified human adapted to Mars conditions, and Honey, a sapienized bear, who as a result of convoluted and dangerous events happening on Earth, about which we’ll learn in due course, comes to share Jimmy’s head (and, at times, the rest of his body). The unlikely duo: the embittered, barely educated addict and the high-profile academic quickly realize that they need to learn to cooperate in order to survive. For while Mars might not be the best place in the Universe, what with one type of job, no prospects, lack of sun and constant seasonal depression, it’s still much safer – and saner – than Earth. Because Earth, as could have been expected, when faced with existential crisis caused by global warming, instead of working together to alleviate or solve the deadly problems turns toward populist distractions such as decades-old rights of sapienized animals and the issues of human Collaring (i.e. depriving them of free will).

Let’s be clear here: Jimmy and Honey parts of the novel are really pretty good. I really enjoyed their interactions, the slow puzzling out of Honey’s past, the mistakes and amends they make between them, the slow building of trust. This emotional layer sketched lightly in pencil and left to be filled by the reader is what Tchaikovsky does best. I also appreciated the small scale of Martian colonization and its Western feel with its petty drug lords, its lonely sheriff with his posse of dangerous sapienized animals, and the ever-present bureaucracy in the form of Admin.

I even enjoyed reading about the not-so-covert war on Earth for the minds and hearts, stemming from the sad, repetitive, but no less true for it, forgetfulness of the humankind; the growing populist tide denying rights to other sentient life forms from fear and a sense of entitlement. These parts are brutal and pretty close to the bone, sure, but that’s fiction’s privilege and obligation. I actively look for that social commentary when I read books, and I might not agree with the authors and still love their novels. When it comes to Tchaikovsky, our views are quite similar after all. So I can even appreciate his burning need to express his views on what has been happening in our own reality for the last several years. I can see the temptation to synthesize, distil the failings and ails of our own democratic processes faced with undemocratic contenders. In short, I totally get the need to analyse the phenomenon of popularity of antidemocratic leaders such as Trump and Johnson and Kaczynski and Orban and Putin and Xi and Bolsanero. The list goes on, sadly, but you get the gist. But sure. The temptation is there, and the feeling of obligation, and the need to sound if not an alarm than at least a wake-up call. Is Tchaikovsky’s archvillain Thompson based recognizably on one of the above? Yes. Is it a parody, like in Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds? Not exactly. Tchaikovsky attempts an analysis, an understanding of the populist phenomenon. And even if I don’t agree with his diagnosis, if I see it as inherently faulty because he still doesn’t seem to see the reciprocative nature of this relation, choosing instead a parasitic angle (which doesn’t make sense in an intra-species relationship) I can still appreciate the effort.

What ultimately soured me on Bear Head was a two-fold problem. In focusing the book on the analysis of the current populist phenomenon Tchaikovsky made Bear Head dependent on the “now.” And so, in the understandable haste to get the book ready and out before it loses some of its relevance, and because of the laudable effort to create something more than just a parody, he didn’t spend nearly enough time on the plot. The ultimate motivations, the final reveals, and the climax as well the conclusion are simply subpar and unconvincing. In Jimmy’s words, they suck.  

Would Bear Head be a better book with less Trump? I don’t know. I think we need to take a good look at what makes us – and the political systems we live in – so vulnerable to populism and easy answers. Tchaikovsky gives his suggestions, and they certainly interesting if flawed. As for Bear Head itself, however, I do know that it could’ve been much better with more focus on the plot and the character motivations.

Score: 6/10

74 thoughts on “Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

      1. Oh, I’m sure he’ll get back to the top of his game at some point – I feel he’s just bitten more than he can chew at the moment and it affects the quality. He’s still a very good writer – just seems that not in the best moment of his career 😉

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Yeah, I get that. I think for you it’s also a matter of reading books for other reasons – it’s supposed to be entertainment, and if you wanted a political piece you could just go and read an essay in Foreign Affairs or Washington Post or NYT… I’m usually okay with politics in my novels – provided it doesn’t work to the detriment of the novel!

            Liked by 1 person

        1. He won’t, is my prediction. Only very few writers can keep up quality until the end of carreer. And once they figured out that subpar works sell just as well, it easily becomes quantity over quality for ever.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Goodness, that’s depressing. Not that you’re not right – it’s just so… sad, really. I feel like Adorno and Horkheimer are more relevant than ever with their analysis of the culture industry. And seeing how they were linking this to rampant conformization and saw similarities with how fascism works… We’re in for some interesting times, that’s for sure (yea, even more interesting than what we have today!)

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m totally ok with political undertones in SF – that’s actually a given for me in all SF; you can’t really write a book about future without your own worldview shaping it and coloring it. And that’s one of the draws for me, really. The problem starts when the political aspects override everything else, as in this book, which impacts the plot and characters in a detrimental way… 😒

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I expect an author’s world view to color their writing, ie, Asher. But as you say, when the political blathering becomes the point of the story, the story has failed. I’m saddened to see Tchaikovsky go down this route. Oh well, at least I’ve still got the Apt….

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Plus, to be honest with you, I feel that Trump is demonic and despicable enough as he is; I have no good words for him. But to me, he is a particularly noticeable result of a wider socio-political problem that needs to be addressed.
      That said, making half of the book about an unmistakable Trump version seems very transient to me. I’ve read similarly conceived novels from the 50s or 60s, I think, and they were so deeply rooted in their own time that without a significant amount of knowledge of that time the modern reader was left floundering at what clearly seemed jabs aimed at particular figures or modes from the past, which became mostly indecipherable half a century later.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Sounds like this book has the same problems that I had with Children of Ruin: a hastily finished work. No time taken to edit down or polish the novel. Just the writer writing books at top speed and then we lose some quality control.

    I also have no real problem with politics in sf because most sf is about politics. Even marvel movies are about politics. But when an author starts to slack on story and characters, then something is going wrong with the basic storytelling fun.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Exactly! As I said, to me all SF is to some extent political; I’ve got no problem with this, on the contrary: I think that’s one of the genre’s strengths. But when the political “here and now” starts to interfere with storytelling, we’ve got a problem. This book would’ve been much, much better if Tchaikovsky spent on it another month or two, reading through it and polishing his ideas. It’s still well-written, don’t get me wrong; the problem is that the main conflict and the villain don’t make any sense, which leaves me as a reader completely cold, uninvested in the story and slightly befuddled. To quote the Bard, Much Ado About Nothing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah.. I’ll skip this one then. There seems to be a pattern emerging in his writing. Children of Ruin’s main problems were pacing and plot progression (and overly descriptive prose). Ultimately these are editing faults. If Tchaikovsky writes another sf story and the reviews are really positive, I might pick him up again, but he’s not an automatic buy for me.

        Liked by 2 people

            1. Oh, I’ve read and loved Children of Time: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2016/05/26/adrian-czajkowski-children-of-time-2015/. That’s why I don’t want to read a sequel. To me it was a perfect stand-alone.

              My favorite Tchaikovsky’s novels are his 10 Apt books: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2015/05/06/adrian-czajkowski-tchaikovsky-shadows-of-the-apt-2008-2014/. These are absolutely a must-read for every epic fantasy fan! There’s also a sequel trilogy of sorts, Echoes of the Fall (review for the first book is here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2017/12/30/adrian-czajkowski-the-tiger-and-the-wolf-2016/, the second here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2018/05/04/adrian-czajkowski-the-bear-and-the-serpent-2017/, and the third here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2018/06/20/adrian-czajkowski-the-hyena-and-the-hawk-2018/. I’ve also reviewed his short stories collections which are tie-ins to Apt, and his unrelated novella Made Things 😉

              I haven’t read his Doors of Eden; I read mixed reviews on this one, seems like I’ll have to read it at some point and make up my mind. I have One Day All This Will Be Yours in my TBR, coming soon. For years Tchaikovsky was an autobuy author for me; I think it changed when he started publishing several books a year. Now I think I’ll revert to reading reviews first and buying later 😉

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                1. You could start with short stories: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2017/02/01/adrian-czajkowski-spoils-of-war-2016/ and https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2018/03/15/adrian-czajkowski-a-time-for-grief-2017/.

                  You can also read 4 first books as a separate arc, if 10 is too much, or just read the first book, Empire in Black and Gold 😉 My review for the whole series, spoiler-free, is here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2015/05/06/adrian-czajkowski-tchaikovsky-shadows-of-the-apt-2008-2014/

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. *OUCH*
    After loving Dogs of War to pieces, I was looking forward to this one, but I understand what you mean when you say the author might be falling prey to the need to publish as many books as possible in a short span of time: there is no need to remind ourselves about what happens to quality when quantity dictates the rules… And as I was disappointed by Children of Ruin when compared with Children of Time – which I loved – I’m now afraid I might be equally disappointed by this one. Only time will tell…
    Thanks for sharing!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, “Dogs of War” seems a much better book – at least from what I gleaned from “Bear Head.” This one suffers a lot from the twin feelings of immediacy and rush, more focused on political commentary than actual plot. The plot holes in this one are the size of Mars!
      I’ll not be reading Children of Ruin, I think. I’m afraid it would spoil my pleasure from reading Children of Time 😉 But I might check out Dogs of War, as it seems a much better book 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dogs of War is one of my favorite books from last year, and one that in the end moved me quite deeply: it’s more about people (even when they don’t exactly have human form) than politics. Not that I have anything about a dash of politics in my reading material, but the author must not bash me over the head with it, and it would seem that Bear Head does exactly that, and I’m not very partial to preaching from soapboxes… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Unfortunately, you’re right. Bashing over the head is quite pronounced in Bear Head, sigh… The sad thing is that it had the makings of a really good book – and it’s not a bad book, but it could’ve been so much better, on par with what Tchaikovsky get us accustomed to.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you, I think Tchaikovsky is trying to produce too many books at the same time. He’s a good writer so even if he puts out a lot of stories, they are not bad yet they lack the quality of his previous works. I haven’t read his Apt books but Children of Time is one of my favorite books and I was disappointed by Children of Ruin. Ruin is not bad (it’s quite a bit better than a lot of books actually) but it wasn’t necessary and it feels like a Time 2.0. It didn’t need to exist and it feels almost pointless because of that. I have Dogs of War on my TBR so I will give a try, I hope it’s better than Bear Head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Not bad, but he accustomed us to something much better! I might give Dogs of War a chance, from what I gleaned from Bear Head it may turn our to be a much better book than its sequel.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek

    I get my daily doses of Trump-bashing from late night TV, and I expect more sophistication from novels – Tchaikovsky we know is able to write a good society, not just strawmen, so yeah, it’s a worrying trend, he should charge more and write slower 😉
    That being said, it seems Dogs of War might be interesting, and if it’s good enough, I might read this one as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah, me too! 😉 Agreed; it is a worrying trend, and if Bart is right it won’t get any better – culture industry always wins 😉
      I might give Dogs of War a chance; from Bear Head perspective it seems to be more interesting and in-depth.

      I have a really bad streak this year, even with favorite authors – the only outstanding book among the 15 or so that I’d read was Asher. I’m almost afraid to read another Cornwell! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, right! Has someone warned Kinga that buying you a Kindle will actually make your bookish addiction worse? In the cloud, nobody sees you gathering a Babel tower of books… 😂😂😂

          What are you reading?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            I don’t even have the device yet, should arrive tomorrow, but I already bought 9 books from Amazon and a Warhammer Humble Bundle 😉 I’ll probably read Gardens of the Moon before I start anything on Kindle.. but I hope to save some money, not only shelf-space, as I browsed through my TBB and checked what is significantly cheaper in electronic form…

            Liked by 2 people

              1. piotrek

                I don’t know if I have the patience to try it, but there are some ebooks in the Krakow Library, just not necessarily the kind I want to read… Brexit made it more difficult – and expensive – to buy physical copies from UK, so my goal is to get books in English cheaper.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. …and faster 😉
                  I do read quite a lot on my Kindle – it’s just perfect for travel, and you can easily change books midway and remember where you are in each (well, Kindle remembers).
                  But I suspect you’ll still be buying the odd physical copy or two, of books you really love 😀

                  Liked by 1 person

                    1. Heh, in my home, they usually mysteriously disappear from the books they were in… Plus, lugging a 1000-page long book around is no fun 😉 But I did splurge recently on that beautiful hardcover edition of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy 🤩

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  5. Seems like he fell victim to Reynolds problem too: writing too much, probably encouraged by his publisher.

    Expect it to only get worse from here on. Writers simply can’t get over that, especially not if they keep selling.

    Seen lots of lukewarm reviews for the sequel to Children… too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, don’t break my heart! I still hope he’ll get over that publishing rush and returns to the pace more inducive to quality writing… His ideas are still very cool – it’s just he doesn’t seem to think them through 😉

      Yeah, I’m pretending there’s no sequel to Children of Time 😉 It works perfectly well as a standalone!

      Liked by 1 person

                1. It makes sense in the book, and you can easily get accustomed to it after a while – it’s a bit like different tribes/races and the whole insect thing can be viewed as a very peculiar magic system 😉

                  Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah, I thought this one was okay and it didn’t bother me too much that he included the political angle, but I do think that it will date the book much quicker and this was definitely not as good as Dogs of War which I really enjoyed. For the most part I think I was enjoying this for the return to old characters that I liked more than anything else. And, I have to agree, I think he’s putting out too many books too quickly. I can’t really understand why the rush and it is making some of his books a bit hit or miss for me – I couldn’t get into Doors of Eden at all although I’m thinking to perhaps give it another chance and see how I get on second time round.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, not having the pleasure of having met these characters before I was left with noticing the flaws all too clearly 😉
      I think I’ll give Doors of Eden a pass; I really wish the critical reviews this time around will serve as a wake-up call for Tchaikovsky and he’ll slow down a bit.
      Happy reading! I’ll be looking forward to reading your opinion on the second attempt! 😀

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  7. I’ve only read Dogs of War, but I found it so toe-curlingly bad, that it put me off the author for good. To be fair the narrators of the audiobook might have a had their share in this bad experience, but I couldn’t get on with the story either. It didn’t help either that I rarely find books narrated by animals (not even Bioforms…) work particularly well. Anyways… Perhaps I will give Tchaikovsky another chance one day, but certainly not with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, sorry to hear this was such a bad experience! But if you didn’t enjoy Dogs of War, by all means steer clear of Bear Head, which by all accounts is much, much worse! 😅
      His Children of Time are definitely worth reading (though not the sequel), and I absolutely love his Shadows of the Apt, though this is a huge time investment with 10 big books… Still – worth it! One of the best epic fantasy novels out there, IMO. Lots of politics, WWII, war, technology and magic, and convincing, well-developed characters 🤩

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Not wanting the politics of the present day to appear too much in your supposedly enjoyable literature seems like a decent request. As does not wanting too much of the present day in there at all. But ALSO wanting a plot that makes sense seems to be asking a lot. Plus there was a sentient bear! Well… how bout some giant insects or dinosaurs or anthropomorphic wolves or space squid instead?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, yes, I know I ask a lot 😜
      And I’m absolutely fine with sentient bears, spiders, dinosaurs or even space squid – just make the plot internally logical at least! Is that too much to ask? 🤣

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  9. I am sorry to read that here the political factor is so… Heavy! I love some politics to my books (and I, too, think it is almost impossible to write sci-fi and fantasy without at least a trace of political or sociological element to it) but I love them best (even if they depress me a bit) when they can stand the trial of times (and what I find sort of depressing is that we are always fundamentally humans, with all the good and bad, but sometimes seeing that the wrong of the past are the wrong of the present can be a bit… Saddening. I don’t know if I made sense here, but I would need to write a post about something like that, not a comment!). Anyway, I am sorry that this book fell short of your expectations and that the author became too much involved in the political present. But this author is one that I want to read, so far I have read only one of his books, and I need to read more of them, but I would keep your comments in mind!
    Also, as always, this was an amazing review!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t mind the politics, even heavy, if it weren’t paid for by inferior plot resolutions and rushed, disappointing narrative 😉

      Yeah, I totally get what you mean – one would be much happier seeing humans learning from their past mistakes for once and not repeating history again and again and again… 😉

      If you’re looking for a great Tchaikovsky book, I can wholeheartedly recommend his best books to date IMO:
      Children of Time (my review is here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2016/05/26/adrian-czajkowski-children-of-time-2015/)
      and Shadows of the Apt series (review: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2015/05/06/adrian-czajkowski-tchaikovsky-shadows-of-the-apt-2008-2014/).

      Happy reading, Susy, and thanks for stopping by! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m sorry this didn’t work for you since Tchaikovsky is an author whose work you’ve liked. Bear Head doesn’t sound like my sort of thing, so I’ll most likely not try it. But I do want to get back to Children of Time. I attempted it about 2 or so years ago but wasn’t in the mood for it to give it a solid chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that was a saddening surprise; I hope it’s just a hitch and he’ll get back to form soon. I have his new book on my Kindle already – we’ll see 😉

      Definitely! I hope your second attempt at Children of Time will be better – it takes some time to get into it, but it’s a great book and a very rewarding reading experience 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I like how you look beyond the superficial story proposed by the author to actually look at the intention behind such a story. I do agree that writers who spread themselves thin and write too many stories in too little time tend to put themselves between a rock and a hard place, the result is always something less-than-stellar (unless your name is Brandon Sanderson apparently). Great honest review nonetheless though! I’ll probably still read Empire in Black and Gold as well as the duology of The Children of Time before determining if he’s an author I’ll be insta-reading or not hahah

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll, that Brandon Sanderson counts as less-than-stellar is an axiom for me 😉 Whereas Tchaikovsky was an auto-buy author till Bear Head… I’d definitely recommend Empire in Black and Gold and Children of Time, but I wouldn’t be too eager to read Children of Time’s sequel 🤣 Lots of bad reviews for this one, too! And thus we come back to the problem of writing too many books in too short a time 😁

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  12. Pingback: Adrian Tchaikovsky, One Day All This Will Be Yours (2021) – Re-enchantment Of The World

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