I’ve been delaying writing this review for a while now. The reason is quite simple: I couldn’t make up my mind about the final installment in Czajkowski’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. But I figured this in itself is a fair indication of my experience with the book so there’s no need to wait until the muddled waters finally clear up :P.
I deeply admired the creativity, sheer scope, and ambition of Shadows of the Apt, as well as Czajkowski’s truly exceptional writing skills and the ability to maintain logical structure on something as immense and prone to sprawling as a series with an over 6k overall page count (not counting the short stories!). Not everything was perfect in a ten book long series, then again – there almost never is. I was truly impressed with Children of Time, a great SF standalone with a mad scientist, a colony ship, and spiders. I enjoyed the Guns of the Dawn, a flintlock spin on Pride and Prejudice. But the Echoes of the Fall, while impeccably written, left me unenthusiastic. All three are good books, there’s no question about it. And yet some vital detail is missing, and I can’t bond with the characters, nor force myself to feel invested in their fate.
But to the point. The third installment in the Echoes of the Fall series leads us back to Maniye Many Tracks and her small band of misfits, preparing to attack the soulless invaders who destroyed the Horse settlement. In the North the united tribes under the leadership of the unwilling, self-doubting recluse Loud Thunder, whose position strengthened after the victory over the Plague People on the ocean shores, prepare to march South. Asman, finally at peace with himself and his place in the world, gathers the army of the River Nation, and Venat, finally free, tries to rouse the Dragon to the oncoming war. Hesprec travels to the fabled kingdom of Serpent, taken over by the usurpers of Pale Shadow millennia earlier, either to find unexpected allies and knowledge necessary to stand a chance against the mysterious Plague People, or else – gruesome death.
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.
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 ;).
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.
Quite recently I dedicated an unusually long post to a heated critique of some minor points of one of my favourite fantasy series ever. Apart from my conviction that one of the characters is overpowered and unnecessary, I concluded: arguably some obscure details of how war develops are slightly distorted, giving the series 9,5/10.
That was before reading Seal of the Worm and now I have to admit – the final instalment made me sad. So – the whole series keeps the “well done” tag, “medium” applies to the Seal of the Worm.
Spoilers ahead, even more than in the previous post.
Spoiler alert! Unless you’ve read till the end of book 8, don’t go further 😉
Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of our favourite modern genre authors. There are several proper reviews and many favourable mentions here. I’ve just finished volume 8 in his 10 book long Shadows of the Apt series, I’ve read Spiderlands, and a few doorstopers patiently wait on my shelves for the right time. I trust this author, and I don’t feel the need to read everything at once. I know I won’t be disappointed, so I can wait. Although, if he keeps publishing two books a year, I might speed it up a bit, there seems to be quite a few stories left in him.
Shadows of the Apt are becoming one of my all-time favourite series, and two final instalments would have to be really terrible to change that. I essentially agree with everything Ola wrote in her review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about one topic, something important for genre literature in general, and here presented with art and vision, in my opinion, unparalleled. Czajkowski makes the clash of magic and technology one of the central issues here.
Spoils of War is a Shadows of the Apt companion book consisting of 12 short stories set in the world of the Apt and Inapt around the time of the Twelve Year War. Some of the stories, such as Ironclads, Spoils of War or The Dreams of Avaris have been previously made available to readers on Czajkowski’s blog, others, like The Shadows of Their Lamps or Brass Mantis, are entirely new. Most of the tales take place in Commonweal at the time of the Wasp invasion, but there are also entries from Myna, Helleron and Collegium, before or after that time. And though the stories are very diverse, touching on topics from ingenious technical inventions through mystical hidden treasures, confidence ploys to love and sacrifice, the theme spanning them all is war.
I won’t wax over Shadows of the Apt now, having said enough already here. Let me just one more time emphasize the sheer scope and originality of Czajkowski’s series. I am a devoted fan of the incredible world he created and the complex, living, breathing, and most of all real protagonists populating it. Finishing Seal of the Worm had been a curious experience for me; one of a deep reading satisfaction mixed with more than a tinge of regret. The enormous, extraordinary tale Czajkowski spun through ten hefty books was coming to an end. A very well written, thoroughly considered, well planned and deeply moving end, granted, but still. And so I won’t surprise anyone saying that Spoils of War is a very welcome – if somewhat short – trip back to the world of Apt. I have missed the crazy reality of Insect-kinden, where steampunk clashes with high fantasy in an alternate WWII setting ;).