I’ve recently caught up with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series (the sixth of ten planned books was released recently and the seventh is delayed until October), and I’ve been hooked since I picked up the first book in February.
Reading the blurb, I didn’t expect much. I generally like books with lots of flashy magic and fantasy, and this didn’t really seem to have any of that. On top of it, I thought the idea of insect-themed races seemed kind of… hokey.
In fact, I don’t even remember when I first downloaded the sample to my Kindle. I think it had been sitting there at least since November, repeatedly passed up by other samples that more immediately piqued my interest and earned themselves a purchase.
At long last, I found Empire in Black and Gold, the first of the series, as the most palatable sample on my device and gave it a try, and I never really looked back.
The series has a few things going for it. The humans are divided into kinden (almost like country-men) which all share a particular insect totem. The insect totem manifests itself in physical traits, mental qualities, and pseudo-magical abilities called “art.” Examples of art include wings (possessed by many races, though the fly- and dragonfly-kinden are the masters of the air), night vision (possessed largely by the inapt races, see below), and even the ability to grow various weapons or shoot bolts of energy (stings) from their palms.
The kinden are divided into the apt and the inapt. Long ago, in what the beetles like to call the ‘Bad Old Days,’ the inapt races like moths, spiders and mantids ruled over the slave races, such as beetles, ants and flies. Five hundred years ago, the slave races rose up and overthrew their masters thanks in very large part to the invention of the crossbow. The crossbow suddenly reversed the tables, as now a commoner with no training could be almost as deadly as a mantid warrior who’d spent his entire life training with a bow.
The inapt races are utterly incapable of using any technology, even incapable of turning a knob to open a door. The main character, an apt beetle, has an inapt spider-kinden ward and as a result must instruct his servants to always leave the doors in his house ajar.
That said, while it may seem being inapt is a purely detrimental quality, that is certainly not the case. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’ll mention that the nature of aptitude (and inaptitude!) is really explored deeply in the fifth book of the series, The Scarab Path. I will, however, say that it is not mere coincidence that the inapt races also tend to be the most comfortable in the dark…
The books have a large cast of main and minor characters. Every book weaves together a number of disparate threads, and the characters are really one of the strong points of the series to me. It should also be mentioned that Adrian is not shy about killing off characters the reader is deeply invested in, so things can be quite tense and you’re never quite sure what might happen.
The first four books form a discrete cycle which follows the Lowlands’s war with the Wasp Empire (the eponymous ‘Empire in Black and Gold’), and every book in the series features at least one full-scale siege against a heavily-fortified city, though the circumstances are ever-changing and it always feels fresh, tense and exciting.
I really can’t recommend the books enough.
Links to the 6 currently-available books (affiliate links):
Salute the Dark (Note: This book is not currently available on Kindle for customers in the US. 🙁 At the time I bought it, the US edition had not yet been published, so I suspect that has something to do with it.)
The Scarab Path (Note: This book is not currently available on Kindle for customers in the US. 🙁 At the time I bought it, the US edition had not yet been published, so I suspect that has something to do with it.)
The Sea Watch (Get this one before it’s not available on Kindle!)