Review: Echoes of the Fall, book one: The Tiger and the Wolf

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.

Cover art for Echoes of the Fall, book one: The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian TchaikovskyI’d ignored Echoes of the Fall until now, as it sounded a bit cliche, but now that I know it’s part of the Apt universe, the completionist in me compels me to check it out.

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

Review: Dogs of War

A few weeks back, Adrian Tchaikovsky held a contest to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shadows of the Apt. Fans were invited to email in with concepts for kinden that weren’t in the books, and those he liked would win autographed copies of some of his non-Apt books.

Cover art for Dogs of War by Adrian TchaikovskyMy pitch was for Daddy Longlegs-kinden. Given daddy longlegs are creatures which are often mistaken for spiders, my concept was that Longlegs-kinden would superficially resemble Spider-kinden. My thought was perhaps Longlegs are the same as Spiders, except they’re Apt, and as a result have been banished from the Spiderlands and scrubbed from history as a shameful secret.

Apparently, Mr. Tchaikovsky liked my idea, because shortly thereafter I received a package from him containing an autographed copy of a sci-fi novel of his called Dogs of War.

It’s the story of Rex, a genetically engineered “Bioform” soldier. Based on canine DNA, Rex is a massive, highly intelligent (for a dog) super-soldier created as a weapon of terror and destruction. But at the end of the day, all he wants is to be a Good Dog.

Rex fights alongside other Bioforms, including Honey, a bear whose frightening intelligence vastly outstrips anything her creators ever intended, and Bees, a Geth-like distributed intelligence taking the form of a swarm of insects.

Rex and his Bioforms are viewed by the world as monsters, but it is their human master who bears the ultimate responsibility for the horrors they unleash over the course of an anarchic counter-insurgency war. Over the course of the book, the true natures of Bioforms and their role in the war are brought to light, with the potential to reshape society as we know it.

If it sounds like a strange premise, you’re not wrong. Dogs of War is definitely different. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t fully deliver on the potential of its premise.

Considering the vast scale of Shadows of the Apt, it’s amazing how rushed and incomplete Dogs of War feels. There’s at least a trilogy’s worth of story here, but it’s all crammed into just 350 pages. Nothing is described or fleshed out enough. The story never has room to breathe.

There’s a lot of commentary on relevant real world issues here, but maybe that’s the problem. Dogs of War tries to tackle too much at once: the mentality of a soldier “just following orders,” the effects of AI research and cybernetics, and corporatocracy, among others. It’s spread too thin, and none of the issues get to be explored in the depth they deserve.

It doesn’t feel good giving a negative review to a book I won for free. And don’t let me send the impression I hated it or anything. It does have its strengths, such as the aforementioned originality of the concept.

The main highlight, I would say, is Rex himself. He’s a very well-realized character. He captures the essence of a dog’s temperament very well, tempered with a horrifying level of higher intelligence. There’s this odd emotional feedback loop around the character where he’s terrifying for what he is capable of, yet still lovable because of his simplistic canine worldview, and yet all the more terrifying for the fact that he’s so likable even when he’s doing monstrous things.

Still, it’s not a book I can give a glowing recommendation to, much as I’d like to.

Overall rating: 6.9/10