Last autumn I binge-read a ten book series, Shadows of the Apt, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is highly unusual for me. I tend to prefer to read something different in between titles in the same series because otherwise I get fed up. In fact, the only other time I read books in a series consecutively is re-reads of A Song of Ice and Fire.
What I’m trying to say is, these books are good. Really, really good. To start with I loved the concept of the world. Humans are evolved from insects and retain characteristics of their parent insect. Some of these species are Apt, which means proficient with technology but insensitive to magic, and others are Inapt, not able to mentally grasp technology but possessed of magical power. A few species have a little of both. Each has an ability from their insect ancestor, perhaps flight, night-vision or a weapon. Within each species individuals are different. Some societies are more monolithic than others, but all have internal tensions.
Beyond that, it is a war story. A great sweeping tale encompassing many nations and peoples. It starts with Stenwold Maker, a college professor beetle in a Lowland city trying to convince his complacent compatriots that the Wasp Empire is not the profitable trading partner it appears but rather is bent on military conquest. He uses his student as a spy network, and it is through those characters that the story unfolds. Naturally, the wasps are evil. I was never sure if it was based on Nazi Germany, the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, and I expect elements of all three were present.
I enjoyed the exploration of the arms race in the books. The war swings back and forth. At first the wasps seem irresistible, then the clever beetles develop weapons that put the wasps on the back foot, but then the wasps come back with something even worse. The wasps are apt, but not especially mechanically-minded, but they have colonised peoples within their empire who are and they use those talents ruthlessly. In the later books, there is a thread of rebellion from within the empire and, rather realistically, some of the conquered people side with the oppressor. There are characters who develop weapons purely for the creative joy of it and sell them to all sides. I liked how there were many moments in the books when it felt impossible for the beetle cities of the Lowlands to survive, yet somehow they did.
The books also explore what people are willing to do in times of extremis. Some species use torture and others don’t, but all are confronted with the need to deal with traitors and spies and forced to face the consequences of their actions. Characters are complex and painted in shades of grey. No one is wholly noble and good, no one is one-dimensionally evil. Some people are swept along by their circumstances and others manage to steer their own courses at least a little.
There’s even room for a few love stories. You know, tragic ones where everyone dies. Well, almost everyone.
I couldn’t put them down while I was reading them. Compelling, thought-provoking stories. I highly recommend them. I fully intend to read everything Tchaikovsky writes which, given that he’s quite prolific, is already a substantial reading list.