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Review: The Air War:
“The Air War” — a book that will in my mind always be called “The Wasp Empire Strikes Back” — is the eighth installment of “Shadows of the Apt,” the steampunk/fantasy epic by Adrian Tchaikovsky. For background on the series, see my reviews of the last two books.
In many ways, “The Air War” is exactly what I wanted. After three books of the calm before the storm, we’ve finally reached the storm. The Wasp Empire has recovered from its prior defeats. Empress Seda has consolidated her power, both political and magical, and now stands poised to unleash both the nightmarish magic of the Inapt and the industrial brutality of the Apt upon her foes.
And yet, I found “The Air War” just a bit underwhelming compared to how stellar the last book, “Heirs of the Blade,” was. I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is that Tchaikovsky has started to fall into the trap many authors of long stories do: the cast is simply getting too big. “Shadows of the Apt” was already an incredibly vast story with numerous major characters, each with their own arcs, but “The Air War” heaps even more new characters and subplots onto the proverbial plate.
The story is now so crowded that it’s becoming difficult to get invested in any particular character or plot, because the moment you do, you’re yanked to the other end of the world for another subplot, and it could be multiple chapters before you get back to the first character.
And despite the overcrowding, some characters are still managing to get neglected. After an entire book devoted to the adventures of Che Maker, it’s jarring that she is mentioned only once in all the six hundred pages of “The Air War.” And things just aren’t the same without Tynisa or Thalric.
To be fair, Tchaikovsky is still doing a better job of handling his characters than many other authors in similar situations. He has not yet reached the point Raymond Feist is at, where he’s just churning out an endless stream of generic and unimportant characters for no apparent reason. Even if I wish he’d focus on old characters instead of new ones, I must admit the new ones are pretty well-crafted.
The other issue is that it becomes clear very early on in the book that this is hour of the Wasp Empire’s ascendance, and that nothing is going to stop them. At the risk of giving too much away, “The Air War” is essentially just an endless litany of Wasp victories.
On the one hand, this does add a nice intimidation factor to the Wasps, which I feel they’ve generally lacked, but on the other hand, it gets repetitive.
I like books where the protagonists are frequently on the losing end of things. I’ve even written a few myself. But there needs to be some balance. The good guys need to win a few times, or at least come close, to throw their losses into even starker relief. There’s none of that here. I apologize for the gamer lingo, but this book consists almost entirely of the Wasps facerolling the rest of the world.
Still, “The Air War” has a lot going for it. It’s pretty much non-stop action from start to finish, and Tchaikovsky’s action sequences are not something anyone in their right mind is going to complain about.
There were also some characters that really stole the show.
The first, unsurprisingly, is Seda. She is well on her way to becoming one of my all-time favourite fantasy villains. Her depraved passions and utter ruthlessness are absolutely chilling, and the way we’ve seen her progress from someone utterly helpless to the most dangerous woman in the world is just masterful.
The second was surprising. Jodry Drillen, speaker for the Collegium Assembly, was never a character I took much note of. While not a bad man by any means, he was always portrayed as a politician to the core — a morbidly obese Beetle who loved power and its privileges. He never struck me as heroic, or even particularly likable.
But as the war wears on, a very interesting change comes over old Jodry. His veneer of political calm is slowly stripped away, and we’re left with our first real glimpse of the man beneath the calculated public image, and there’s more steel and more compassion there than one might have expected.
Also, while not a specific character per se, I quite enjoyed the portrayal of the citizens of the city-state of Myna. I don’t want to give too much away, but… let’s just say Mynans are badasses.
In the end, “The Air War” is a pretty solid book, but I’d hoped for more.
Overall rating: 7.4/10 Neither the best nor the worst installment of the series.