Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Book Ramble: In the Shadow of The Shadows of the Apt

I really don't read epic fantasy.

This has nothing to do with how much I like or don't like epic fantasy, but everything to do with a lack of hours in the day, or at least a desire to read as diversely as I can in the limited time that I have.

So it was that when I picked up Adrian Tchaikovsky's debut novel Empire in Black and Gold, it wasn't with any intention of reading beyond that point.  I didn't know Adrian back then, I wasn't familiar with his work because I was hopelessly ignorant of the publishing scene in general, but he'd been kind enough to provide a blurb for Giant Thief and I had an idea of thanking him in a small way by picking up one of his books.  It seemed like about the least I could do; but not being a reader of epic fantasy, I fully assumed that that would be the end of it.

Yet here we are, however many years later, and I just finished Seal of the Worm, book ten in the series that Empire began.  So clearly something went very wrong.  Or very right.  Or perhaps a bit of both.

First up, I feel obliged to point out, if only to myself, that The Shadows of the Apt isn't really epic fantasy at all.  I mean, yes, it's epic and yes it's fantasy, but ... okay, maybe it sort of is.  But that's about the lowest level it's operating on; epic fantasy is SotA when it's idling, and how many such series can claim that?  It's the premise, that's the thing: a reality where humans have acquired what amount to superpowers by emulating various insect species, and then are further divided into the technologically able Apt and the magically inclined Inapt, who understand so little of machinery that they can't so much as pull the trigger of a crossbow.  It's a setting that works equally well as science-fiction and fantasy, and SotA treads a hair-thin line between the two, but those twin central concepts have advantages well beyond that.  They lead to a world, for example, that can still offer surprises all the way into its tenth book, as we're drip-fed new insect-kinden with new, crazy powers, but also entire new cultures, each detailed with loving affection.  Those two marvelous notions collide against each other in endlessly interesting ways, and while perhaps neither alone could warrant seven thousand and some words, somehow the two in combination provide an all but limitless scope.

(I'll admit it here, slightly shamefacedly: I got to the end of book ten and found myself wanting more.)

If that was all SotA had going for it, however, I suspect I'd have drifted away, a little sadly, somewhere round about book four or five.  The thing is, The Shadows of the Apt is also an alternate history of about two hundred years of human progress, twisted and reshuffled but still potently reminiscent of our own recent triumphs and misdeeds.  At the risk of slight spoilers, the world of the Apt sees its own blitz, its own industrial revolution, even its own terrible equivalent of the holocaust.  And only as I got towards the end of the series did I fully appreciate how much that was what kept me reading: beneath the magic, the fantasy, the intriguing alternate technologies, there is in these ten books a deconstruction of our own development as a species, at our worst and our best.  The results are sometimes devastating and sometimes hopeful; Adrian's bug-people aren't quite us, and often they avoid our mistakes, or else manufacture even worse horrors of their own.  Still, there was rarely a point when I felt I was reading a work with nothing to say about my own reality and its bloody, tragic, occasionally marvelous history.  In the end, these books aren't escapism; instead, they're a side step into a might-have-been world with all the frailties and potentialities of our own, one that in turn has no end of things to say about the ways we've chosen to make ourselves and each other suffer, how we might have done better, how we might do yet.

There's plenty more I could talk about here - Adrian's Miyazaki-like refusal to give us villains who are anything less than fully comprehensible human beings certainly warrants an essay all of its own - but in the end it's perhaps enough to just point out that these are tremendously good books, works of exceeding cleverness and imagination, and you should absolutely give them a go if you haven't already.

Just be prepared for the fact that once you start, it might be a while before you stop.

1 comment:

  1. Cool post. Love these books, thankfully I've still got a bit to go with them