Nestled within the pages of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Tales of Apt short stories collection was a bit of a bombshell: It revealed that his other fantasy series, Echoes of the Fall, also takes place within the same world as Shadows of the Apt, merely on a different continent.
Book one, The Tiger and the Wolf, is a decidedly mixed experience. There is a lot I like about it, but also a lot that really bothers me.
The Tiger and the Wolf is mainly the story of Maniye Many Tracks, the miserable and abused daughter of the chief of the Winter Runner Wolf tribe. Maniye’s mother was the queen of the Tiger tribe, and her father hopes to use her to bring the Tiger under his control. Maniye herself bucks under his authority and finds herself torn between her twin heritages, the Tiger and the Wolf.
I’m willing to bet any long time fantasy reader involuntarily rolled their eyes a bit reading that. Yes, it as exactly as cliched as it sounds.
To be clear, Maniye is by a comfortable margin the worst thing about this book. She is a deeply uninspiring protagonist for reasons even beyond how unoriginal her story is.
My biggest issue with Maniye is that she is entirely reactive. She has no plan, no ambition beyond escaping her father. She spends the entire book reacting to the actions of other characters, usually by running away. She has no true agency; she does not drive the plot in any way.
Her meek attitude is perhaps best encapsulated by the subplot dealing with her twin souls. As a daughter of two tribes, Maniye has two souls — Tiger and Wolf — and they are at war within her. Eventually the conflict between them will drive her mad, so she has to choose one or the other, but she doesn’t want to.
And that’s it. She just doesn’t want to. It’s made clear that while half-breeds like Maniye are rare, they are hardly unheard of, and it is standard practice for such people to choose one soul or the other once they come of age. It’s a difficult and painful choice, but entirely doable. Maniye simply refuses to make the choice.
I get that both souls are crucial to her identity, and for her to find the choice painful makes sense, but when you try to wring a few hundred pages of drama out of the protagonist simply refusing to make a decision, you start wondering why you should even care.
If Maniye were the only character, this would not be a book worth reading. The good news is the rest of the cast is a lot stronger. Maniye recruits a number of allies along her journey, and they are all likable and interesting characters in their own right. It’s worth it for them.
One in particular is a standout. Unfortunately I can’t say much without spoiling things, but their story is both a genuinely surprising twist and one of the richest pieces of characterization I’ve seen in a long time. Not everyone in this book is who they seem to be at first glance.
The setting of The Tiger and the Wolf, like the cast, is a mixed bag.
As always, Adrian Tchaikovsky puts tremendous effort into his world-building. If I hadn’t already known this series shared a universe with Shadows of the Apt, I’d probably have guessed. The idea of the separate cultures based on totem animals is pretty much the same in both. The only difference is now it’s vertebrates instead of insects, and now instead of Ancestor Art each tribe can shapeshift into their totem animal.
Even if it feels a bit samey relative to Shadows of the Apt, it’s still a cool idea, and I like seeing how each tribe’s culture is influenced by the temperament of their totem, from the majestic cruelty of the Tiger tribe to the patience of the Crocodile Nation.
However, I do have one big problem with the cultures in this book: They’re all terrible. With only one apparent exception (the Horse Society), every single tribe and nation in this book seems to be built on human sacrifice, rape, cannibalism, slavery, and any other kind of brutality you care to name.
Given this setting is so obviously inspired by native American cultures, the fact that they’re all savages — there’s just no other word for them — feels more than a little problematic to me. Very surprising given what a progressive person I know Adrian Tchaikovsky to be.
Tales of the Apt raised the grim spectre of colonization by the insect-kinden, which seemed deeply chilling at the time, but honestly, after reading this book, I’m not sure I care. Tthere’s nothing the kinden could do to these people that would be any worse than what they do to themselves.
I will probably read the rest of this series, but it’s definitely a very inconsistent experience. It’s frustrating because with a few changes — a better protagonist, a few tribes that aren’t just brutal thugs — it could have been something truly special. As it is, it’s just okay.
Overall rating: 6.9/10