Spoils of War is a Shadows of the Apt companion book consisting of 12 short stories set in the world of the Apt and Inapt around the time of the Twelve Year War. Some of the stories, such as Ironclads, Spoils of War or The Dreams of Avaris have been previously made available to readers on Czajkowski’s blog, others, like The Shadows of Their Lamps or Brass Mantis, are entirely new. Most of the tales take place in Commonweal at the time of the Wasp invasion, but there are also entries from Myna, Helleron and Collegium, before or after that time. And though the stories are very diverse, touching on topics from ingenious technical inventions through mystical hidden treasures, confidence ploys to love and sacrifice, the theme spanning them all is war.
I won’t wax over Shadows of the Apt now, having said enough already here. Let me just one more time emphasize the sheer scope and originality of Czajkowski’s series. I am a devoted fan of the incredible world he created and the complex, living, breathing, and most of all real protagonists populating it. Finishing Seal of the Worm had been a curious experience for me; one of a deep reading satisfaction mixed with more than a tinge of regret. The enormous, extraordinary tale Czajkowski spun through ten hefty books was coming to an end. A very well written, thoroughly considered, well planned and deeply moving end, granted, but still. And so I won’t surprise anyone saying that Spoils of War is a very welcome – if somewhat short – trip back to the world of Apt. I have missed the crazy reality of Insect-kinden, where steampunk clashes with high fantasy in an alternate WWII setting ;).
The tales collected in Spoils of War don’t make any breakthroughs into new, virgin territories; Czajkowski explores the backstories of several characters important for the Shadows of the Apt, from Hokiak and Varmen to Gaved and Tisamon, giving us more than a glimpse of what shaped them and what moved – or still moves, hopefully 😉 – them.
All of the collected stories are very well written, in a variety of voices that are sufficiently different from one another to make them interesting and not repetitive, but similar enough that they never turn into a cacophony of experience. Czajkowski hadn’t forgotten his world of Insect-kinden, despite the ambitious detours into the territory of science fiction (Children of Time) or post-apocalyptic fantasy (Echoes of the Fall sequence, now at two installments and in preparations for the third). Some of them I have read before, regularly stalking Czajkowski’s blog 😉 These are mostly about Wasps – and it’s refreshing to see the other, more likeable side of them. Czajkowski tried very hard to show us the good side of the series’ race of villains – Thalric would be the best example of that. But still, an Apt race of tall and fair-skinned thugs with a killing force in their hands, who are a final product of an aggressive, highly masculine society, and with a crazy Emperor and even crazier Empress at their head… Well, we’ve seen it before, and it can never end well 😛
Having studied WWII a bit, I see Shadows of the Apt through an inevitable WWII lens. And thus Wasps, I believe, need no explanation whatsoever. The distant Spiderlands – as well; their similarity to Italy and other Mediterranean countries is definitely more than a simple coincidence. The race of bumbling, peaceful, portly Beetles merges with Britons in my head. The Collegium overlaps with London and Cambridge and Oxford at once – Helleron being a mirror for Manchester and other working-class cities – mixing ingenious, sometimes truly revolutionary ideas, lively curiosity and tolerance of otherness with a mindless adherence to tradition, a ruthless drive for money and power vaguely reminiscent of Marx’s critique of early capitalism, and a down-to-earth pride of being “in the norm”. The opening story To Own the Sky showcases it all in one short account of a daring attempt to create against all odds a flying machine able to transport cargo. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but Czajkowski has a way of writing about the science bits in a really thrilling way. Totho, anyone? 😉
Mynans – well, the process of elimination makes the bluish, moody and ever restless Ant-Beetles seem like a good approximation of Poles 😉 And so the Hokiak story takes on a new meaning, Wild West merging with even wilder East 😉
I must admit to having a bit of trouble with the Commonweal – it seems like an unlikely cross between imperial Japan and tsar-ruled Russia, very different from the Stalin-ruled USSR from the WWII times. But there we are: Commonweal is an enormous country ruled by feudal relations between several Inapt kinden living in a far away, secluded, forested land, where magic is real and old, crumbling castles hide dangerous secrets from a distant past. And it is with Commonweal that the Wasp empire fights through a long and cruel and horribly bloody Twelve Year war. Czajkowski doesn’t spare us much, showing the ugly – the only real – side of war in many of the stories.
As I mentioned before, I thoroughly enjoyed the opening story, To Own The Sky, and the indirect paean for multiculturalism it contains. But my favorite from this collection is Brass Mantis, a thoughtful twist on the Pygmalion and Galathea myth. This one is short but perfect, flipping over the readers’ expectations while at the same time providing much awaited background story for Tisamon, one of the most tragic protagonists of the whole Shadows of the Apt series.
All in all, a great little addition to the Shadows of the Apt universe. I’m already waiting for the next collection, A Time of Grief (at least according to my copy of Spoils of War). However – I believe it’s better to read it after reading the Shadows of the Apt series. Otherwise it might get confusing, and you won’t be able to appreciate all the hidden ties and nods to the main series.