The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbors. But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, it killing Art… And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable.
Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people, before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the Lowlands and burns away everything in its path. But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.
Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant eternal life. In Collegium, meanwhile, Stenwold is still trying to persuade the city magnates to take seriously the Wasp Empire’s imminent threat to their survival.
Shadows of the Apt is a ten book series with two storylines so far of four books each, written by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’m reviewing the first half of the first series: book one: Empire in Black and Gold and book two: Dragonfly Falling.
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
You’ve probably heard of races or aliens developed from insects before. In this series the world is populated by insect-kinden. At first I thought they meant real insects with human minds because for the most part that is what you see – super large insects trying to kill humans. Instead the author developed human races based around the insect world. Each kinden is gifted by an ability and traits related to the insect after which they are named. That is really the extent at which insects come into play. I found it highly creative and worth the read simply to experience the various races.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
I found the first book, Empire in Black and Gold, at, you guessed it – Half Price Books. This time I read most of the first chapter and was totally captured by the characters and the opening gambit. Wow, I thought, I normally don’t like fantasy books solely about war but this really seems like a series I could get into. Did you see where I slipped in my gaffe? Yup, I read MOST of the first chapter. Aaghhh, most!
The book is nothing about those characters in the first chapter. Well kind of. Stenwold is there and Tisamon does come back later in the book, way later. You can go read most of the first chapter on Amazon if you like and see what I mean…sounds good, right?
The first problem is the writing. Sure it gets across what is happening and being said but it adds nothing. Just like the visuals in a movie add to the story and dialouge, the words used, the way things are phrased should add to the story, setting, characters. I normally don’t knock this particular part of a book because for the most part it doesn’t bother me. If a writer gives some effort toward word ambiance (as I like to call it) it is noticeable and given props. In this case, he seemed to me to be most consistent in the very lack of word ambiance. The contrast between that first chapter and the rest of the book probably heightened my awareness of the problem. I find for the most part men don’t mind this – they can easily read a dry history book for the pleasure of battles reenacted as a fantasy series for the same. Now don’t take offense any males out there – for I mean none – I find this a worthy trait to have (for those who do), I find though females simply rarely have this skill. That isn’t to say I want Tolkien volumes of description either. He did well with the amount of words, it’s the quality of words I question.
Now if one can look past this failing – which I did – then the next problem lay in the main characters of the series.
Stenwold Maker is basically who you can call the main, main character. Beetle-kinden spymaster and statesman, supposedly he gathered the group and is responsible for whatever resistance there might be against the empire. He really epitomizes the traits of a beetle. Stocky and trundling he’s obsessed with the empire and stopping what happened to his close personal friends from happening to his city, Collegium. I see why Sten was chosen as the main character from those who died in that initial chapter. He’s loyal to his own and rather persistent if not very effective. On paper he should make an unusual and interesting main character. I found in reading about him though to be rather bumbling and shallow.
Cheerwell “Che” Maker is Stenwold’s niece and perhaps the best of the “heros” we’re presented with in the first couple of chapters. More than anything she just wants to be a part of her uncle’s life which is all to do about resisting the empire. She’s a beetle so stocky and plain and about treated as well as you’d think a stocky and plain person is treated. This causes massive self doubt and isn’t helped by the way her uncle excludes her. I didn’t really relate to her much until the action really go started. The way she was presented just made me dislike Stenwold more. She did grow on me though and character wise is why I could keep reading.
Tynisa starts out as Stenwold’s ward and is treated by him as a daughter would. In fact many suspect she is a half-breed but spider is all they can detect. They’d be right but not about who the father is – it’s Tisamon, a college friend of Sten’s who, unbeliebably to anyone who knew him, fathered a child with his mortal enemies the Spider-kinden. At first she is presented as this beautiful and charming rival to Che whom Che has no hope of rivaling. Over time her character is better developed and given much more depth but I never could overcome the way she was initially presented. If given her own plot line in the next book I can see her mantis and spider-kinden sides coming together into a really cool character…it just has yet to happen for me.
Prince Salme “Salma” Dien is a dragonfly nobleman and one of Sten’s spies. The male version of Tynisa he knows full well what the Empire is up to as his people have already been subdued. He is presented as extremely shallow and yet you feel he has possibilities. Presented more neutrally than the two women I felt like I could wait and see. As a dragonfly, one of my favorite bugs, I though he would really pop ability and trait wise, such was not the case. In the end he’s a nice guy who can fly a little but really as shallow as first presented. It pains me because he could have been the real hero here but digresses into romance novel territory.
Totho rounds out the group as one of Sten’s students, another half-breed, this time Ant and Beetle. He’s presented as love lorn for Che and yet another ho-hum beetle. This isn’t the case, he’s rather a brilliant artificer with a war loving twist from his Ant parent. At first he’s not presented as such, which actually I don’t mind except for the fact he doesn’t really come into any character until the second book. In the first he does accompany Sten and act the part of a jealous fool if you consider that character. I never could work up any desire to see Che with this fool in the first book and I couldn’t even feel sympathy towards him. In the second book he quite became my hero and I rooted for him to stay with Drephos and at least be less pathetic than what he has been up to this point.
I hope by now you are able to see my point about the characters… In the first book Che was the only main character I could bear, luckily she was the focus of book one’s main plot. In the second book, Che ranked little and Totho actually made the book worth the effort. He had a strong place in the story if not the main plot. I just wish I’d been more connected with all the characters. I don’t have to like them but make me care what happens at least. I really dislike it when I spend precious time reading a book and want to skip over whole sections because I could give a whit about the character involved.
So it has to be the plot! Well…no. Some of the plot details are really well done points that have loads of possibilities. The problem is the author took those points and headed back into well-known territory. For example, Achaeos and the Darakyon have a connection that you really want explored and developed to fuller and fuller effect. The tiny taste you get in the first book wets the appetite but the secondary plot point it takes in the second book is terribly disappointing. Using the Darakyon as a way to find out information about where Che and Salma are located was a great idea, but then we move on to the predictable rescue operation. Basically, for the first book the author took what amounts to a short story length foray against the empire’s designs and shoved a predictable kidnapping/rescue mission right in the middle. I have to admit the way he split the group up was great – a mercenary able to take on anyone else’s face is very cool, it’s just he didn’t utilize his best elements well and relied on the contrived and stereotypical when he couldn’t think of anything else.
In the second book, Dragonfly Falling, he did better plot wise because we experienced different aspects of the start of a war through the different character eyes. In this way he took stereotypical plot and ran it through a personal experience which helps ho-hum plot to a great degree. The off putting aspect in this book was this strange subplot with a dragonfly royal. She was a cool character and somewhat intriguing but really had nothing to do with any of the main characters. So at the end when we should have gotten a pay off from her character we were severely disappointed. I expected her to have some connection to Salma as they share a background. At least we should have learned more about her from him – such was not the case.
So bad writing and bad characters with so-so plot… I know, I know, so why did I finish the first book let alone buy and read the second? The villain.
Thalric is the best written of all the characters and perhaps is the point of view the writer should have went with as main character. A wasp-kinden and a major in the Rekef, the secret organization that really runs the Empire’s military, he’s basically Stenwold for the villains. He’s a true spymaster with all the good intentions, morality and focus…the only problem is he’s totally loyal to the empire. In several series I’ve seen the main character think they are on the good and right side and find out they are indeed not and switch sides…so perhaps not main character material if you want to keep it really unique. Still he’s just the best drawn character. You feel for the conflict between his personal ideals and his nation’s ideals in which he represents. He’s one of the few characters whose kinden really plays little into his character except to put him squarely on the villain side. Which is a rather important detail.
By making him the protagonist and main character I think I would have found the “good” characters in a better light. In other words since the author wanted to keep the good characters of a more murky morality by making them antagonists rather than protagonists we present this dichotomy about whether they are even worth saving. This softens the contrivance of him being on the wrong side and switching to the right side. It builds in us a sympathy for the good side as seen through Thalric’s point of view. We needed this sympathy for Sten, Che, Tynisa, Salma and Totho. I believe it would have achieved the author’s aims of being a more unique point of view and about characters of a more realistic morality.
The thing is the secondary villain in book one would have made an awesome main villain for book one. Being able to take on anyone’s face, male or female, has it’s benefits and makes one a massive opponent. In the second book this villain character, Scyla, becomes more an opportunist villain than on any real side so why not just start out with her as such from the beginning? I think the author did really well having degrees of good and bad people. The main characters have such flaws as almost to be not worth the effort of saving and the main villain has such promise you want him to succeed and the villain villains are such that you want them taken down at any cost.
When the protagonist is unequal to the antagonist the conclusion can’t promise much more than satisfactory. It threatens a reader’s suspension of disbelief when an okay hero overcomes a stellar villain. With a simple switch of perspective these somewhat unsatisfactory books could have blown their readers away. For all it’s faults there is something compelling about the Shadows of the Apt series. Certainly the battles play a large part in making the world feel real, whether on a personal scale or on an army scale, especially in the second book, Dragonfly Falling. The combination of a well-developed world and basic story and writing skills come together to give us adequate books about adequate characters. If only all the elements could pay off as well as the world and the villains.
For a fantasy series the most important aspect in developing the story is the world in which a writer’s character acts and lives. If the world works much of the audience can overlook almost any flaw. For the Shadows of the Apt series this is very much the case.
The world itself is rather intriguing, mixing what can be called magic with that of an industrial nature. Many are fans of this kind of world, populated with guns and machines but also layered with swords, walled cities and beings who linger even after death. Making this kind of contradictory world work though is not often successfully done. Tchaikovsky with his slant on insects characterizing his world’s races successfully carries off this industrialized magical world.
A rich history acts as background for the current conflict. Magic has been pushed to the fringes and now industry reigns. The beetles are central to this as they are the ones who overthrew the moths and their mantis mercenaries. Now here come the wasps ready to further the beetles civilizing influence by using their machines and weapons to bring every kinden under one flag. Though these two books are centered around certain kinden there are really no boundaries when it comes to other lurking insect tribes. That’s what makes the world feel so rich and developed. The spiders are actually kept out of the whole conflict for the most part but there are definitely possibilities put out in Dragonfly Falling of their potential to expand on the wasp problem.
The characters I listed above are only the main characters. Between Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling there was a whole cast of secondary characters that enriched the story and picked up the slack for the story centered ones. These secondary characters make the series worth the effort and what kinden they are plays a major part in this fact.
Tisamon, Sten’s college friend, a Mantis-kinden Weaponmaster and Tynisa’s father really does a lot as the strong silent type. We meet him after everyone and everything has been presented. He slips in much as he does as a weaponmaster and hits one upside the head. His claw is perhaps the most fascinating of weapons and I craved right from the start knowing more about him and his weapon. As the strong, quiet, background kind of figure he really couldn’t play a role of main character unless the writer was prepared to really let him play a good part of a point of view character. I think he worked as well as Thalric because of the conflict developed due to believing his lover, whom he betrayed the Mantis code for, betrayed him and the rest of their friends but then finding out she didn’t. His kinden really played a huge part in his character conflict and that’s what makes him really pop.
Uctebri is a mosquito-kinden, the last of his kind, who is manipulating the emperor to gain power. Just an introductory character for the larger series arc, this slave to the Empire is perhaps enriched by his uniqueness. Besides his ability to suck blood, as all mosquitoes, is his ability to halt time so he can converse with the emperor’s sister. His desire for the heart of the Darakyon adds to his mystery. His hatred for the emperor adds dimension to his character and makes you want to root for him, at least to a point. Again cornerstone to the success of the character is his kinden and the conflict it creates in his situation.
Achaeos is a Moth-kinden magician and perhaps the character I fell in love with first, much like Che did. The moths are mortal enemies to the beetles but a beetle saved his hide. He helped me come to love Che as he started to fall for her as well. Right from the get go his story arc and group conflict came from his moth roots. You started to root for him right away when he went against his race and left to help this beetle girl. He even bought knowledge from ancient places of his people for her. For some it might seem rather contrived he let himself be bound with beetles this way but I think Che and his initial meeting supports his actions from that point on.
If you noticed one commonality between the three characters I chose to expand on it’s that they all share a deeply rooted conflict that is at the heart of their character and the plot surrounding them. The real secret to a good character is simple…conflict. Whether lions, tiger and bears or mantises, mosquitoes and moths conflict with their environment is cornerstone to their character. As a writer, if you can use a character’s world to develop naturally rising conflict all the better to pull a reader in. By developing kinden to populate his world Tchaikovsky hit upon the best kind of draw for his series.
For a little over three years during my middle school years I found myself moving to Germany. My dad was in the military and was stationed in a little town outside Nuremberg. The military is a well-known melting pot for the racially diverse. Any military brat knows a person is not judged by their color or sex but by how well they perform under stress and as a team.
Back in the States I was not as racially exposed as overseas. In high school I found myself among other white teenagers. Even though I lived in San Antonio where those of Hispanic culture abound I didn’t find myself experiencing a rich culture diversity in school. I look back at those two years in an overseas high school (there was no middle school) as the best of times of all my school years.
From the handsome pair of African-American boys all the girls went gaga over to the smart Asian tutors to the exotic Hispanic girls who whispered secrets behind my back it was the diversity of the school that made those years so rich and fascinating. It’s also a rather conflictal time in my life when I was bullied, sexually harassed and had to rise to the occasion and defend myself. Whether as a writer or just a lover of a well executed piece of media it’s essential that a work come from a place rich in culture, diversity and conflict whatever form those might take.
Some books you read for character, some for plot. In Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling a reader can immerse themselves in a world populated by characters as real and somewhat as conflicted as the readers themselves. While not a series I’d buy as soon as it was published it is worth a look see if you enjoy a new fantasy world and specifically one at war.
As a child were you fascinated by insects? Are good battle scenes worth the brand new price tag? Do you find the conflicts in your life make you a better, more fascinating individual? Are you a lover of fantasy or sci-fi genres?