Shadows of the Apt. Visionary, masterful, sometimes annoying.

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Spoiler alert! Unless you’ve read till the end of book 8, don’t go further 😉

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of our favourite modern genre authors. There are several proper reviews and many favourable mentions here. I’ve just finished volume 8 in his 10 book long Shadows of the Apt series, I’ve read Spiderlands, and a few doorstopers patiently wait on my shelves for the right time. I trust this author, and I don’t feel the need to read everything at once. I know I won’t be disappointed, so I can wait. Although, if he keeps publishing two books a year, I might speed it up a bit, there seems to be quite a few stories left in him.

Shadows of the Apt are becoming one of my all-time favourite series, and  two final instalments would have to be really terrible to change that. I essentially agree with everything Ola wrote in her review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about one topic, something important for genre literature in general, and here presented with art and vision, in my opinion, unparalleled. Czajkowski makes the clash of magic and technology one of the central issues here.

Nothing I’ll complain about changes the fact that I love the books. But, at times, I’m annoyed, when the writer’s goal to write a great, readable novel clashes with what I feel would be a realistic depiction of how ways and means of waging war would change in a world like this. What I believe gives me the right to do so, is that I consider Shadows of the Apt to be realism in a secondary world. Yes, we have magic, and technology that would not be possible with our world’s physics, but the characters psychology, the mechanisms of scientific progress, social change, international diplomacy and armed conflict – are presented as realistically as possible. That is not Tolkien way, but it’s still a great way. And Czajkowski used it to create one of the most interesting universes I’ve encountered as a genre reader.

The ways magic can be described in fantasy literature were analysed here a few times. Recently reviewed Brandon Sanderson is and example of how the famous Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

can be easily reversed:

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

In Shadows… magic is more mysterious than that, partly because the magicians – inapt – lost control ages ago, with the rise of mechanically-minded peoples. But the very way the inapt mind works assures there never was a science of magic in our meaning of the word science. Euclidean geometry, empirical science,even the simplest mechanics – are closed to those who see world as supernatural. They have sophisticated art, but cannot use a crossbow. And for the last 500 years, crossbows prevailed.

Ok, the great art/science divide is a bit exaggerated, but 1) it works great in the novels 2) it’s not my point here.

As many people point out, magic has it consequences, not only for directly affected individuals, but the way society works, how the power is distributed, economy organised etc. There are reasons to think magic would lead to stagnation, rigid social structure and relative poverty of the vast majority of people. There was a great piece on Tor.com, by Rober Repino, analysing Westeros from this point of view. And the world of Czajkowski’s series was just like that, until the slaves rebelled to start a new era of progress, growth and mechanical bloodshed. His greatness lies in, among other things, the fact that he presents both sides as having something important to say, both ways of perceiving the world as legitimate, and if the apt seem to have won – well, we did, that’s how modern civilisation came into being.

Ok, I digress to much. So we have technology, and progress, and nothing accelerate technological progress like a great war. And warfare progresses in geometric sequence here. Even faster than it did here on Earth.

Maybe a bit too fast, even faster than it did on Earth during world wars, and previous 500 years in Lowlands show Apt universe as no faster than us, in this regard. It always makes for a more engaging story, but sometimes stretches the things too far.

First – while there is a lot of training, and characters claiming to have troubles getting used too modern artillery, tanks and flying machines that invaded this fantasy world, usually everyone (every Apt-one) adapts pretty quickly. It took time to invent effective tactics for tanks, planes – and even more time for simple soldiers to learn to use it effectively. Here, it’s way quicker, but not everyone has it equally easy. For dramatic reasons, Wasp have it better, and the rest need to catch up before they get annihilated. Understandable during the first war, but after that? Beetles are no dumber, Ant might be conservative, but as soon as one learns something, the rest can follow immediately. Ok, Wasps have bigger armies, institutions capable of utilizing effectively death-bringing inventions. But their technical prowess is unjustified in my view. Collegium is a city-wide polytechnic, they really should have the advantage of superior technology, most of the time. Empire could easily make this up with number, being just as dangerous, but not overpowered.

Mechanisation of the supply train within a couple of months? Easy and fast supply of countless artillery shells for new guns? No problem. Instant proficiency in combined arms operations? Heh…

Sieges are too easy. Ok, in modern era they did not take years. But defensive operations are usually easier then offensive ones, and generals of our universe found it rather hard to take cities from determined populations. Stalingrad, anybody? Early Wasp victories can be attributed to the element of surprise, but the fall of Myna in book 8? Of course, historical tanks were not particularly successful in urban warfare, due to not being tachikomas with magical armour.

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Where are the AT-guns, why is FLAK so ineffective, machine-snapbows so rare… and the bad guys are always on the offensive, honestly, I cannot believe how passive the Lowlanders are, almost always only responding, letting the Wasps keep the initiative. Even with disparity of forces it’s not healthy.

Hmm, I believe David Weber got the dynamics of technology and warfare better. And everything else much worse 😉

That reminds me how I hate Dariandrephos.

In fantasy, magic is usually the… magical force. Wizards- giants among people, deciding the fate of nations. Here it’s almost the other way round, magic is much less exciting than technology, here progress is made made by leaps by geniuses, while many mediocre magicians cling to what remains of their world. And that’s a great idea! One of my favourite things in the series. With the exception of Drephos, who is just grotesquely overpowered. He would serve his purpose if he died when he was supposed to. A cautionary tale, a mentor for Totho in the ways of evil. Kept alive to create the Iron Glove cartel of technical wonders…

Book 8, the main inspiration for this rant, got great really fast and I started to forget about my doubts. I thought that perhaps it’s all just realism loosing once again with the requirements of art… a necessary sacrifice. Halfway into the book I was totally entranced. There were many cool treasures for military history geek in me. Some FLAK (finally!! but with disappointing ineffectiveness…), sort-of radar, emergence of the armoured warfare (invented by protagonist experienced with chariots 🙂 ), to name a few. Even echoes of the Coventry raid… and, as always, the blend of fantastical and mechanical was masterful! I’ve read till 2AM, I just had to finish.

Luckily, final two pages made me annoyed again 🙂 In the final attempt to win air superiority, beetles used a device invented by a lonely genius, who perfected it by decades of hard work. Single great achievement of a great mind in a city uniquely suited for the great minds to prosper. In the final two pages… the abominable Drephos ex machina! He listened to an account of one survivor, and comes with a solution (that we won’t learn until well into book 9, cliff-f*ing-hanger).

So, I believe that:

1) bad guys cheat, like a computer game that cannot match human player’s intelligence, so spams stacks of overpowered units

2) arguably some obscure details of how war develops are slightly distorted

Hmm, ok, not that big a problem. The series continues to be 9,5/10!

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After all, it would be hardly fair to lower the score because the series is only the best ever in what it does, and not even better at the cost of artistic appeal. It goes against the popular – even in Tolkien – fantasy take on the nature versus science question. A conservative – in a traditional way – view on technology as something unnatural, destroying the proper balance and order of things. In Shadows of the Apt we see good and bad of both, and understand why the world changes. Forces of history are not judged through the lenses of simplistic – and anachronistic – morality, but presented in all their brutal glory; and then we see that it’s up to people and their choices to achieve something good, regardless of the circumstances of their birth and allegiance.

Although it’s easier if these circumstances placed you in liberal, prosperous city state of Lowlands than, say, among subjugated slave-cities of Wasp Empire. Yet another point for Czajkowski.

Now I’m afraid of the final volume. I hated the conclusion of Asimov’s Foundation cycle so much, I haven’t revisited even my favourite part in years. I hope here I won’t be so disappointed, although I have a feeling it will be a close call..

 

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4 thoughts on “Shadows of the Apt. Visionary, masterful, sometimes annoying.

  1. Oooh, rant it is 😉 Part eight must’ve really touched a sore point 😉 Although I admit that Drephos was irritating for me too – although probably less for the reasons of his untamed and unbridled genius and more for his total a-morality and the silly belief you can stand outside it all. I think that was the point of his existence, really, to 1) serve as Totho’s mentor and 2) ultimately an ethical reference point. Totho through the 10 books becomes one of the main characters in the series – and a fascinating one at that, a very complex and twisted one, and I loved his story from the beginning to the end.
    I agree that the final solution of “Air War” was a bit of letdown, an easy way out, but the whole air war, the advance of technology and the discoveries and moral choices along the way – were simply brilliant. And so I must warn you – I will fight for that half a point to the bitter end 😛

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