Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Title: Shards of Earth
Series: The Final Architecture #1
For a long time, Tchaikovsky was my go-to author. I still contend that his Shadows of the Apt series is among the very best of epic and military fantasy out there. It’s a huge commitment, sure, 10 books getting consecutively bigger, as if Tchaikovsky was bent on proving that a book can be a weapon, too 😉 – not unlike Erikson in that regard – but if you do commit, you’ll be rewarded. Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s first foray into SF, was great, too. Making spiders the protagonists of the book was a wonderful choice, giving the book a unique perspective and gravitas. Afterwards, however, it was more of a hit and miss. He seemed to produce books non-stop, like an upgraded version of Sanderson, and with similar results. I still rather enjoyed his fantasy novella Made Things, as well as his SF novella One Day All This Will Be Yours, but was thoroughly disappointed in his SF novel Bear Head. It seemed that Tchaikovsky had already used all his unique and original ideas, and started treading water, indulging in overused tropes and lazy structures. It was all still reasonably well written, but redundant, or even verging on ad-hoc political commentary. I stopped reading everything he was putting out. But when I saw several fellow bloggers praising his new SF novel, Shards of Earth, I decided to give it a go. So thanks, Jeroen and carol. and Nataliya!
I’m happy to write that Shards of Earth was for me a notable improvement in this regard. Not original, but putting a fresh spin on old ideas, and with some promising world-building (or rather universe-building) and character development. Tchaikovsky creates a post-Earth universe where human diaspora is dispersed among many planets, cohabited with several other sentient species, one of which, hive-mind AIs, have recently gained independence and a form of recognition from humans. This universe’s sentient life is constantly on the verge of extinction due to the existence of Architects – a strange planet-sized species of alien known for their penchant to transform inhabited planets into indecipherable – and totally uninhabitable – works of art. I mean, if you look at what’s left of your planet and even in this traumatized and near-death state you have an inkling that those wavy lines of exploded organic and inorganic matter have some aesthetic merit, it must be art, right?
Anyway, even in this threatened universe humanity still does what it does best according to Tchaikovsky, i.e. argues, creates factions, hates each others factions, and generally engages in a tedious organization of a rigid pecking order where some have and some don’t – not only money, but everything, freedom included. Somewhere among this petty squabbling we meet our crew of misfits, flying remote routes and scrabbling meagre winnings, generally busy with living – until they drop right into the middle of trouble on a galactic scale and afterwards are just busy with not dying. Yep. It can always get worse.
There is a lot of metaphysical hand-wavium with regards to the Shards of Earth’s equivalent of hyperspeed, or warp speed, called here travelling through unspace. I guess someone watched Stranger Things recently ;). That said, it’s interesting enough, reminiscent mostly of Asher, at least for me. One of the main characters, one Idris Telemmier, who helped win the war with Architects by actually communicating with them and telling them there was a war, is one of the very few who can travel through unspace. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone involved, and I liked the claustrophobic atmosphere of the unspace travels, the apparent emptiness of the universe stalked by an unseen and incomprehensible presence which makes the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. Everybody says it doesn’t exist, that’s it’s a figment of imagination, but whoever tried the unspace knows better. Something’s there, and it’s curious.
I must admit it took me a while to get into this book. The setup was pretty generic. It smacked of Asher and Banks, but probably because these authors’ space operas are the freshest in my mind ;). The found family trope was… okay but not immediately catching, and the manner of speech of the captain of The Vulture God was getting on my nerves. Fortunately for me, he didn’t have too many chances to speak. Yup, Tchaikovsky’s not stingy on the losses. But by setting up the stakes so high so early in the game, he manages to imbue the plot with a sense of seriousness, and urgency. And it works: the mad capering flight through the universe is filled with enough action and plot twists to make the constant self-pity, self-doubt, righteous anger and depression of the three main characters more bearable. Not that they don’t have their reasons – on the contrary – but all their gloomy doom does make for a rather dreary read at times. At least the crab-like alien Kittering is cheerful – or their translator malfunctions ;). Because it’s a first part of a series, I know that Tchaikovsky plans for the character development arcs; admittedly though, the bar here is set quite low: the entirety of the crew had been badly mauled by life and all of them bear the scars, some better than others.
What I enjoyed the most, however, were the glimpses of the alien culture of Hegemony, offered by its wayward son, Aklu the Unspeakable, the Razor and the Hook, the Lucifer-like gangster with a seemingly clear – if incomprehensible for humans – agenda. They know what they want, even if we don’t ;). The second favorite is the Hiver Trine, a collective of insectoidal robots with a hive intelligence who refuses to be taken back into fold and maintains his unique identity seemingly through sheer stubbornness and some handy excuses.
I also appreciated the various forms of Otherness Tchaikovsky toys with here: the inter-species relations seem sometimes more benevolent than those intra-species, where tribalization is quite advanced. The vat-cloned Partheni, all looking basically the same, all a part of a military organization, are a good example; but equally interesting are both Ollie and Kris, both alienated for different reasons – and let’s not forget about Idris, an Int treated like a valuable property for his unique set skills, winning a war not an excuse enough to stop others from trying to enslave him.
All in all, an enjoyable read. Entertaining and filled with action, at least once you manage to get through the slow beginning. The misfit crew of the Vulture God grows on you, too, so despite some misgivings regarding the book’s conclusion I’m quite looking forward to the next installment.