As much as it may feel like I’m repeating myself, now starting my eighth review of this series, I still cannot deny the greatness of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s books. Returning with The Air War, the start of the final segment of the story, he continues to impress with his volatile imagination, knack for characterization, and appreciation for the truly epic. Despite a meandering start, The Air War eventually showcases Tchaikovsky at the top of his form, and a story more action-packed and exhilarating than ever. With war against the Wasp Empire breaking out once more across the continent, we are treated to the finest battles and intrigue yet seen in the Shadows of the Apt series.
All is in turmoil as the world moves towards war. In Solarno, the spies watch each other and ready their knives, while Myna sees the troops muster at its border - and emotions run high as it vows never to be enslaved again. In Collegium, the students argue politics, too late to turn the tide.Almost more impressive than the quality of his writing (but not quite), has been the pace at which Tchaikovsky has churned out volumes of the Shadows of the Apt. The Air War is no less than the eighth book in the series to be published in an unprecedented four years. With a total of ten books planned though, Tchaikovsky opted to divide the series into sub-arcs marking the beginning and end of certain plot-lines in the series. The first four novels narrated the first conflict with the tyrannical Wasp Empire and formed the first arc. The subsequent three novels were almost standalone in that they chronicled the journeys of individual characters (or small groups of them) during the ‘inter-war’ years. The Air War sees the resuming of fighting and the start of the series’ denouement.
In the heart of the Empire, new pilots have completed their secretive training, generals are being recalled to service and armies are ready to March. Their Empress, the heir to two worlds, intends to claim her birthright. And nothing - either within the Empire or beyond it - will stand in her way.
A conflict is coming, the like of which the insect-kinden have never seen.
But it isn’t fast-paced storytelling and unrelenting action from the get go. Indeed, the first part of The Air War, aptly titled ‘The Calm,’ isn’t very exciting at all. In part due to Tchaikovsky’s habit of playing it fast and loose with his cast of characters - what he’s called his ‘machine gun’ approach on his blog - the presence of original characters from the early books is somewhat lacking. Stenwold Maker, spymaster extraordinaire turned staunch warmonger according to some, is of course still front-and-center, but that’s about it for the characters we first grew to know in Empire in Black and Gold, minus a few minor appearances from Totho.
Along with this, ‘The Calm’ is mostly exposition, Tchaikovsky getting the reading back up to speed, and of course introducing new characters to fill the empty spots. Story-wise, he takes the opportunity to tease us a bit with the first few skirmishes of the war. Surprisingly, it feels in some ways like Tchaikovsky had here regressed, with his coming across as dense and clumsy. This isn’t helped by the need to switch between the many unfamiliar points of view (sometimes multiple per chapter) in order to establish the necessary elements for what is to unfold next. In spire of this, there were enough familiar characters and overbearing anticipation for the first part to be bearable.
With ‘The Storm’ though, the second part of the book, ‘the shit hit the fan’ as they say, as the second war with the Wasp Empire kicks off with much martial fanfare and excitement. Any of my qualms with the first part were dispelled by the thrill and pace of ‘The Storm’. It even felt as if the quality of Tchaikosky’s writing improved, gaining in fluidity and eloquence. This also marked a return to the staggeringly wide scope of the first few insect-kinden books, as battles are fought across the breath of a continent.
It’s a pleasure to see a fantasy author take some risks with his worldbuilding - not that Tchaikovsky is any stranger to this. Drawing on historical precedents of such events as the Battle of Britain, he chooses to include large scale bombing-runs and aerial warfare in a setting which when we first encountered it not many years before commonly used crossbows (and still do). This means we’re treated to traditional sword-and-spear, aerial, and even tank warfare alongside each other. Chuck in a bit of magic, and I don’t think anyone can deny how awesome that is. In this though, the Shadows of the Apt fails to be classified into any of the traditional sub-genres of fantasy (think: medieval analogue, gun-laden fantasy, etc.) as it has a tendency of throwing everything into the pot, and doing all of it at once.
Sure, the relative lack of ‘old’ characters from the past seven books was initially disappointing, but the new faces fought strongly for our acceptance. It was also great to be able to see elements of history repeating itself, with certain new characters bearing strong resemblance to the first lot of insect-kinden we learned to love. It also adds a bit of inner-conflict for the usually steadfast Stenwold, as he comes to recognize how much his many years of opposing the Empire have changed in him, and how his determination may have led him astray. By the end of the novel, all the characters - old and new - had gained equal standing, in my mind.
Rarely have encountered a book which better fit the notion of ‘sprawling epic as The Air War. Though the growing cast of characters, types of kinden, locations, elaborate politics, and technological advances are sometimes devilishly difficult to keep straight, it’s the complexity and enthusiasm of Tchaikovsky’s worldbuilding which, in part, keeps me coming back. The ending is a satisfying one, but we’re back to the cliffhanger ending we last saw in the first arc of the series. All evidence from this eighth tome, though, points to this final leg of the journey being a glorious success of fantasy literature. If you’ve read the others, for sure read this one; if not, get going.
Adrian Tchaikovsky's Website: http://shadowsoftheapt.com
Buy The Air War:
The Air War
The Air War (Shadows of the Apt 8)