Review: Shadows of the Apt: The Sea Watch
Although this is a very recent book I’m reviewing, I’m also tagging this as a retro review because, in order to properly review it, I’m also going to have to give a lot of info on the series to date, so you can also think of this as sort of a review of the series as a whole. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but a few vague ones are inevitable.
“Shadows of the Apt” is a fantasy/steampunk epic by Adrian Tchaikovsky consisting of
six seven books (I’ve just discovered a seventh; more on that later): “Empire in Black and Gold,” “Dragonfly Falling,” “Blood of the Mantis,” “Salute the Dark,” “The Scarab Path,” and now “The Sea Watch.” To be honest, its plot, while adequate, has never been anything special. It compensates for this with a high quality cast of characters, and even more importantly, incredibly interesting world-building.
In Tchaikovsky’s universe, humanity is divided into subraces, called kinden, based upon certain totem insects the kinden draw powers and abilities from. There are dozens of kinden, each with unique physical and psychological traits, from the hardy and inventive Beetle-kinden, to the diminutive Fly-kinden, to the melancholy and bloodthirsty Mantis-kinden.
The kinden are further divided into two groups, the Apt and Inapt. The Apt are creatures of light, reason, and science, but the Inapt are creatures of darkness, mystery, and magic. The Inapt are completely unable to understand even the most basic machinery (like doorknobs), but the Apt are wholly ignorant of magic–most don’t even believe it exists. In the “Bad Old Days,” the Inapt ruled with their magic, but the light of reason eventually drowned out their old powers, and now the Apt have overthrown them — excepting the Spider-kinden, who, being Spider-kinden, were able to talk their slaves into believing they wanted to be slaves.
If I have one consistent complaint about this series, it’s that it focuses on the Apt, when the Inapt are clearly far more interesting. Mantids and Spiders are infinitely cooler than those dull, ordinary Beetles and Ants.
The main plot of “Shadows of the Apt” centers around the conflict between the city-states of the Lowlands, particularly egalitarian Collegium, and the conquering armies of the Wasp Empire. The Wasps are fairly cliche and generic villains, with the exception of a few specific characters, but it gave the story purpose.
That story seemed to end with “Salute the Dark,” but “The Scarab Path” was quick to establish that the war had merely been postponed. There were many frightening descriptions of the new Wasp empress, who was even more psychotic than her predecessor and might have developed the ability to call on dark Inapt magics in addition to her armies of Apt soldiers and war machines. It was all very intimidating, and looked to add some much-needed spice to the Wasps.
But that brings us up to “The Sea Watch,” and here the series takes an odd left turn. Rather than renewing the Wasp war, Tchaikovsky suddenly pits Collegium against the fleets of the Spiderlands. But even that is just a plot device to (literally) pull the series’ protagonist, Beetle spymaster Stenwold Maker, beneath the ocean into the heretofore unknown world of the sea-kinden, a group of people based upon all the invertebrates of the waters.
Here, once again, he shows himself to be a brilliant world-builder. The underwater kingdom of the sea-kinden is incredibly detailed and well thought-out, and the aquatic kinden are just as diverse and interesting as their terrestrial counterparts. He also does an admirably job of not making the huge amounts of information about the sea-kinden dumped on the reader too overwhelming. For instance, to save time, he lumps most of the sea-kinden into broad groups–all crustacean kinden are labeled as Onychoi, and the various Squid, Cuttlefish, and Octopus-Kinden are classed as Kerebroi.
Unfortunately, as interesting as the sea-kinden are, it all just ends up feeling like a random and unnecessary detour from the main plot. The Wasps are barely even mentioned in this book. It feels like Tchaikovsky just let his love of world-building run amok at the expense of plot.
I’d like to see the sea-kinden prove crucial to the war with the Wasps in some later book, but based on the way this one ended, I don’t see it happening. So I’m left to wonder what the point was.
Also, at the risk of giving away too much, I really wish he’d stop killing off all my favourite characters.
As an aside, those of you who are Warcraft players may be interested to note that the story of “The Sea Watch” is eerily similar to the main storyline for Cataclysm’s Vashj’ir zone. The climax deals with trying to find a rightful monarch and restore him to the throne instead of defending the Abyssal Maw, and Ozumat is named Arkeuthys in this version, but otherwise, I’m hard-pressed to see a difference.
Overall rating for “The Sea Watch”: 6.5/10 Good characters and excellent world-building fail to fully make up for a plot that seems to go nowhere in the long run.
Overall rating for “Shadows of the Apt”: 8.2/10 Despite recent stumbles, it’s still a very good series overall, and I recommend checking it out.
You can buy every book of “Shadows of the Apt” on my Amazon Affiliate, including a seventh book, “Heirs of the Blade,” which apparently is somehow available already. And I thought I was up to date…
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Now, just watch: an hour after I post this, Blizzard is gonna release the official preview of the Raid Finder or announce Mists of Pandaria or some such.