Shadows of the Apt – final thoughts.

Quite recently I dedicated an unusually long post to a heated critique of some minor points of one of my favourite fantasy series ever. Apart from my conviction that one of the characters is overpowered and unnecessary, I concluded: arguably some obscure details of how war develops are slightly distorted, giving the series 9,5/10.

That was before reading Seal of the Worm and now I have to admit – the final instalment made me sad. So – the whole series keeps the “well done” tag, “medium” applies to the Seal of the Worm.

Czajkowski_Shadows of the Apt

Spoilers ahead, even more than in the previous post.

I’ll divide my argument into two parts. First one is, I believe, less controversial. The second, more emotional, will probably just prove that the series really moved me and, too attached to my own sympathies, I was unable to read it with cool head and open mind 😉

So – I’m quite sure Seal of the Worm is not as good as the rest of them. All the threads weaved for several thousand pages, the entire depth of history and mythology, the harsh realism of war and politics – are finally reduced to a morality tale. Sympathy for the villains are hammered into our heads, new artificial threat is created to dwarf the atrocities of the Nazis of this world*, and, in the end, at the first meeting of the new League of Nations, everybody sits in the circle to hold hands and sing kumbaya. Apart from some peoples that remained enslaved, but the author assures us they like it better this way, not really being able to rule themselves after a couple of generations under Wasp rule.

*it reminded me of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, where, to quote Wikipedia:

The plot begins in late 1941, while the Earth is torn apart by World War II. An alien fleet arrive to conquer the planet, forcing the warring nations to make uneasy alliances against the invaders.

Ok, I went a bit far too, too fast, but the first thesis remains – we get an easy solution, cheapening all the struggles we went through with our heroes. The sudden transformation of Assyrians into Care-Bear kinden is something I do not find convincing. From Genghis Khan to Angela Merkel in one decade? I’m not buying that. It’s too easy, too artificial, and not on the level of gritty realism of the preceding struggles.

That was me being considerate. Now I’m going to complain further with greater intensity. Before that, let me, once again, emphasise that this is still series extremely well written, rich in great characterisation and marvellous worldbuilding. I’m not going to concentrate on that, Ola did it in her initial, highly recommended review.

In my disappointed view, within a superbly created world, the author cheated his way towards the artificial solution he preferred. In the end, the Collegium fell not to superior military force (which could be easily justified within the world Czajkowski created), but because of unstoppable walking tanks on cheat mode. And I couldn’t even properly mourn, because by then the emphasis was on humanising the victors. Look, the good guys lost, but Hitler has feelings and you should sympathise with her, and even Dr Mengele gained some conscience… Slave Corps, one of the most repulsive collective protagonists of the series, get a moral upgrade while guarding death camps. That is not how it works, with few noble exceptions, operating a GULAG system never improved on one’s humanity.

These days, Germans and Japanese are among the most peaceful nations on Earth, but not because they suddenly decided that they’ve raped enough, their leaders demand a bit too much killing, and why won’t we all just lay down our arms…

On the one hand, Lowlanders and just about every other non-Wasp kinden suffered enormously, and it is a logical consequence of how things are. But the Wasps got off easy. And yes, I wanted to witness some revenge, it’s not nice of me. But it’s not only my desire to see the Capitas in ruin that left me an unsatisfied reader.

In the first books, there was the brutal, expansive Wasp Empire and complicated Wasp characters. Now all the Wasps show so much human face, it’s a wonder how they manage to run all these concentration camps. We are led to believe that even the Slave Corps enjoys it less than all the raping and old-school murdering of the old times, and the author seems to try to force upon us the idea, that the Wasps are actually rather nice.

It’s too quick and it’s contrary to the lessons of history. The Wasps should suffer a few crushing defeats not only because I would enjoy reading about them, but also because nothing teaches a nation a value of peace like a lost war. Otherwise it just gets drunk on spoils and glory. At least, in a pre-post-modern world ;). No matter how high a price of blood all the kinden paid, they did not get there yet. Reading about the council of reformed imperialists, establishing a new republic of freedom and near-equality, reminded me of Kingdom of Heaven with it’s laughably anachronistic speeches.

Collegiates sabotaging the Capitas offensive, one thing I was still looking forward to, near the end of the book, so pacifistic they refused to counterstrike at enemy that attacked them repeatedly, occupied their city, killed many and enslaved others. Still kept imprisoned, but apparently they don’t matter any more. Is this a realistic depiction of how groups of people act? No, it’s just a step towards an unrealistic conclusion of the novel.

Just as annoying was another trick, when the beautification of the Wasps was complemented by villainification of the other side. To make Wasps generals into even bigger heroes, every vice of the Allied leaders had to be pointed out and exaggerated. Tynan gets treatment Rommel got from many western historians, but simultaneously Milus/Patton is made into a monster. And we are supposed to forget that the former still left way more corpses behind him. When the Wasps were on the offensive, it was supposed to be all about the cool mathematics of power, when the other side gets to counter(!)attack, the morality factor gets back into war. It goes beyond moral equivalency and good taste. It’s like a collective responsibility in reverse, and just as immoral. Every mass murderer can be absolved if he only feels uncomfortable about it. It’s not common cynicism, not claiming everybody is the same, regardless of their claims. It’s always giving benefit of the doubt, but only to one side.

But surely, they are honest this time, and a lasting peace will follow.

Everything is forgiven, no evil is punished, most of it is not even stopped. And I’m supposed to cheer that. I did not get my katharsis.

When I was reading the final book I felt like I was at war with Czajkowski. He was twisting his own characters and stories against their nature – as I saw it – and I was refusing to see things his way. Reader vs. author, I should write a terrible fanfic, self-insert probably, I could be the one to raze Capitas 😉

So, still loving books 1-9, not caring much for the final one, I end this rant while Joan Baez sings Battle Hymn of the Republic in the background…

And I’ve managed to get a reaction out of blog’s co-author, who was kind enough to disagree strongly 🙂

Ola: I still stand by my earlier assessment of Czajkowski’s Shadows of the Apt series. It is brilliant, riveting, moving, thoroughly thought out and written in a clear, fluid prose, perfectly understandable and still unique. I do agree that the last tome was inferior to the rest of the series, especially with the ninth tome, War Master’s Gate, being the ultimate peak of Czajkowski’s literary prowess.

Your rant is the perfect confirmation of all that. It’s an angry, sometimes vicious monologue of a spurned lover. He cheated! He didn’t do what I wanted! Not enough blood! These arguments are based on emotion, not reason. The claim that the tenth installment is illogical by the rules of Czajkowski is simply not true. It’s your thirst for vengeance that drives you 😛 And I write it, because I too thought that the Wasps have gotten away too easily. In his attempt to implement relativism, so vogue these days, into the world of the Apt, Czajkowski made the Wasps, at least for a short while, meek and rational and human. But I wouldn’t call it beautification – there are two sides to everything, after all. And if he chose to enlarge the good things on the Wasps’ side in the last book – well, that’s his choice and I respect it, even if I don’t fully agree with it. I didn’t notice the humanization of Slave Corps at all, nor all Wasps suddenly becoming saints. A bitter, bloodthirsty lover’s quarrel, that’s what it sounds like. However, I would call the process on the other side vilification, but not in the least by Czajkowski. This process has some strong historical precedents. What happened to Churchill after IIWW? Or Wałęsa in the 2000s? Both times it were their own people that decried them as agents or brutes or warmongers, etc. As for Milus, I didn’t read it that way either – I thought that’s just a lesson in how war corrupts. Everyone. In the book I read now, The Found and The Lost, Ursula le Guin wrote beautifully that in war everyone is a prisoner. And in the end, is evil ever really punished? Show me evil that can be punished. A personalized evil that you can burn and cut and brand, and will never grow back from the ashes. Don’t make me delve here into the psychology of humans, that would be a bitter rant in itself 😛

As for the League of Nations, I had a strong impression we are given just a moment in time. A moment hung in balance after ten-book war, just to get some kind of all-encompassing closure. Judging a whole series – or even one book – by it is like judging Harry Potter series by the epilogue. Had Czajkowski ever said that Wasps have truly changed? They are mere spectators, cautious observers, met with distrust or neutrality at best. Is it an idealistic view? Sure it is. Is it jarring in the comparison to the earlier vividly brutal and unforgiving scenes – gee, even whole series? Sure it is. Should I hold it against the author that he chose to close his series with something approaching cautious optimism? Well, I for once will say no.

But I get it. I do. You fell in love. You thought “this is it!”. Everything was just as you wanted. And then – a disappointment. A difference of opinions. But love isn’t my way or highway. It’s about compromise and learning to accept the otherness – among other things, obviously 🙂

Piotrek: Sure, I’d never be that emotional about a series I don’t love. I remain unsatisfied, but I believe both points of view are legitimate and I’m happy I’ve had this long adventure with Czajkowski’s saga! Not many authors are able to provoke such a strong nerd-rage 😉

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