There’s a lot going on in this first book, from a plot viewpoint, from a character viewpoint and from a worldbuilding viewpoint. Let’s start with the last first. The world and culture is like nothing I have ever read in a fantasy or science fiction novel. The humans of this unnamed world have risen from primitive times to a near-Industrial Revolution level but have taken an odd magical evolutionary sidestep along the way. Insects, which are often of huge size in this world, have been the totem animals and the cultural inspiration for society. So you have ant-aspected people who enjoy fighting (other ants most of all) and can join in a communal hive mind with other ants and you have dragonfly-aspected people who are expert fliers and so forth. The main driving force is the rise of a fascist Wasp culture. And I use the word ‘fascist’ advisedly.
Let’s move onto plot and character because I want to springboard off that ‘fascist’ remark. Adrian Tchaikovsky (real name Adrian Czajkowski) has written the best fantasy Nazis I have ever read. That’s what the Wasp-kinden is his book read like and I assume deliberately. But, and here’s the fun part, I’m guessing Mr Czajkowski/Tchaikovsky has read his Shirer*. The Wasps are show with all their might, all their evil and all their humanity. That is what sets this book up and above so many fantasy novels. The characters are well-rounded, real and even the villains can almost be sympathetic, when seen from their point of view. It takes a great writer to pull this off and so I name Adrian Tchaikovsky a great writer.
The book has several point of view characters, on both sides of the conflict that drives this book. Some I liked better than others but all are well done and well worth the reading. As soon as I was half way through this book, I had already purchased the second. That’s the second highest praise I can give, the first, is that I’m passing this first book along to my friends for them to read and get hooked as well. The world is interesting, exotic and original. The war and the build up to war is exciting. The characters are interesting. The action is well-staged and well-described (another rarity in fantasy, alas).
There are a few flies in the ointment and I’ll share them here with an eye towards fairness. There aren’t enough reversals and failures for the heroes. There is one major reversal which throws off everyone’s plans but from a plot viewpoint, the main characters go from success to success. That is rather boring, especially in a book that is otherwise nothing like heroic fantasy (ala Conan). No one important dies, no one makes any sacrifice worth the name. This is just the first book, so there may be more drama to come but it became almost more interesting to see the Wasp character’s POV as he is the character that suffers the most and has the biggest reversals of fortune…which is interesting in itself. I’m not saying Mr. Tchaikovsky needs to go all George Martin on us but I stopped feeling any sense of danger towards the main characters about three quarters of the way through the book.
An example: Cheerwell Maker (wonderful name but my least-favorite character) is captured by the Wasp. She is almost raped, almost tortured, almost killed. And each time the situation listed previous occurs, I sat forward on my seat, tense and concerned. But when time and again she is left almost cheerfully unharmed, I became less and less interested in her so-called drama. This is baffling to me as in almost every other way, the world feels real and the decisions people make are realistic despite the fantastic setting. The refusal of the author to ‘pull the trigger’ on Cheerwell or anyone else pulled me out of the book and cooled my infatuation a mite.
There is so much more to talk about in this book that I could go on and on. If I ever corner the author at a convention, I’m going to ply him with booze and talk his ear off. But I’ll wind up this review with a solid endorsement of this book to anyone who loves a good fantasy novel and especially to anyone looking for something different.
*I’m referring to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich here. A fascinating, horrible masterpiece of historical non-fiction.