A deep dive into Tchaikovsky's Shadow of the Apt
Tchaikovsky, who is better known for his Sci-fi classic “Children of Light” started his writing career with the fantasy saga “Shadow of the Apt.” (ShotA) The first two books definitively show that it was indeed the start of his careers, having yet to adopt the whimsical flowing and descriptive style that fits so well his subject matters.
Furthermore, the e-book edition available on the Kobo store is filled with editing mishaps. I counted about 70 errors ranging from missing spaces, uncapitalized names, spelling mistakes/repeated worlds and uncut sentences across all the 7 tomes.
However, ShotA captures the interest by presenting a very well thought-out world inspired by our own history in which creditably interesting characters evolve.
The sheer breadth and depth of the world and its mysteries invariably invite curiosity and make for thrilling discoveries. Tchaikovsky is careful to never reveal too much of his world and leave to speculation and wonder a lot of the phenomenons both reported and hinted at.
Tchaikovsky’s love for Pratchett transpire throughout the whole series. ShotA isn’t at all satirical. However, the themes dear to Pratchett seem to also be dear to Tchaikovsky. The relationship of magic with storytelling definitively hint at Pratchettian meta-narrative. The focus on characters rather than the world (even for such a well imagined and detailed world as Discworld and ShotA) is also a common trait. As with Pratchett, those characters often fall by accident into a fantasy trope archetype and find themselves at a loss as to what they are supposed to do. Tchaikovsky also loves the “spill words” trope so often found in Discworld, there isn’t one book where Tchaikovsky doesn’t use this at least three times.
ShotA’s characters are hit-or-miss. Some are extremely interesting, capable of introspection, constantly evolving and questioning everything. Tchaikovsky definitively re-used some them in other series. Some are extremely archetypal and feel unrealistic or very dumb.
Tchaikovsky is extremely good at setting interesting situations and interactions, and sometimes, interesting means funny. Tchaikovsky sense of pacing and original characters leaves a lot of room for humor. Tchaikovsky’s characters are aware of their situations and often a fantasy trope is challenged by characters that are more than tokens in a narrative flow.
Magic in ShotA is weak, as technology and mechanics gain in force. The story happens about 500 years after the “revolution” which sees the magician races overthrown by their “Apt” slave races, makers of crossbows. The magician races are “Inapt,” and while they are capable of listening to the fabric of the world, have glamors bind people to geas, their magic are receding and they cannot wield or use any mechanical device.
While magic is not held as a fundamental secret by the author, in breakage of the Tolkenian golden rule, it is held as a fundamental secret by the characters and their culture, and generally said indescribable by the characters themselves. Making the narrator not a conspirator against the reader, but a resigned unhelpful comrade.
The world of ShotA starts set in the Lowlands. The Lowlands is a region containing many independent city-states. It is under invasion of the Wasp Empire coming from the East. One of the driving characters, Stenwold Maker, is set to unite the Lowland against the invader, and his met with utter contempt.
The Lowlands are clearly inspired by the polis of antic Greece, as the Wasps empire reminds mostly of the Romans.
In later tomes, the Wasp Empire has become extremely acute at diplomacy. Their approach to undermine their future conquest by sowing division and sugarcoat their conquest as “self defense” is eerily familiar in 2022.
Each book hints to larger horizons, and those horizons are progressively explored in latter books. Sometimes delivering surprises barely hinted-at. Tchaikovsky is great a tickling the want to explore and delivering on his baits.
The world building is what makes Shadow of the Apt exceptional, but it’s also the reason the books are so dang long-winded bordering on the “too long.” Yet, the world is not fully described, leaving a lot of room for imagination and speculation.
In ShotA, the narrative is harrowing, most of the time, everything feel absolutely hopeless. And the narrative supports this hopelessness by delivering on it a lot during the beginning of the saga, killing relentlessly main characters and destroying important places. So that when something bad is announced, it can very well happen, making it all the more harrowing. Although to be perfectly honest, the second half of the saga reveals that Tchaikovsky cannot stand a non-happy ending (which is fine! I love his endings)
Tchaikovsky is good at characters! Children of Light is not at all character centric, and ShotA was my first opportunity to know what his characters look like. As said earlier, the characters of ShotA are very Pratchettian, but they definitively have a Tchaikovsky twist.
Recurring characters in ShotA change a lot through the saga. Not only the invariable fantasy trope of “lvl 1 char levels up to lvl 20 and becomes as god.” We also see changes in allegiance, betrayal, rethinking of fundamental assumption, new knowledge or skills and others. This makes ShotA characters rich and diverse not only as individuals, but inside themselves. Evolutions are smooth and often believable.
My favorite characters include Thalric (which I won’t expand on, because spoilers!) and Stenwold Maker.
Overall, even if it’s not the best series Tchaikovsky wrote, it’s still really good. And unlike his more recent sci-fi, it’s strongly inspired by history and might teach readers one thing or two, while sucking them in a well crafter world of fantasy.