My Top Ten Fictional Races

One of my favourite things about speculative fiction is imagining non-human sentient races. It’s endlessly fascinating to me to imagine creatures who are not quite like us, who have different thought processes, different perspectives.

I thought it’d be fun to run down my ten all-time favourite non-human races within fiction.

We all know what’s going to be #1, but let’s pretend there’s some suspense.

10: Elves, The Obsidian Trilogy

Cover art for "The Obsidian Trilogy, book one: The Outstretched Shadow" by Mercedes Lackey and James MalloryInnovation is good, but there’s also something to be said for taking the same old stuff and just doing it really, really well.

This is what Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory did with their Obsidian Trilogy. In many ways it’s an extremely generic high fantasy adventure, but it polishes all the old tropes to a brilliant lustre.

The best example of this the series’ Elves, as fascinating and alien a bunch as you’ll ever see. I loved the subtle intricacies of their culture, their bizarre yet somehow logical ideas of politeness.

9: Castithans, Defiance

Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) in DefianceCastithans are one of those things I shouldn’t like, but do. Objectively speaking, they’re a nasty bunch. Dogmatic, brutal, conniving, unrepentantly sexist.

But if their society is cruel, it’s beautifully cruel. Gloriously cruel. They’re like if the painting The Scream was a society: horrifying, beautiful, disturbing, and fascinating all at once. There is such depth, such intricacy, and such artistry to everything they do that it’s easy to forget how horrible it all is.

8: Cylons, Battlestar Galactica

Lucy Lawless, Tricia Helfer, and Grace Park as the Cylons Three, Six, and Eight in Battlestar GalaticaThere’s a lot of brilliant things about how the Cylons were depicted in the BSG reboot, but to boil it down to its core, they hit a great balance of making them clearly real people with real feelings, but also clearly not human. Always a difficult tightrope to walk.

The whole point of the series is that Cylons are not mere machines but feeling individuals, but they didn’t fall into the trap of making them identical to humans. They clearly have their own unique perspective and psychology, as seen in things like their “projection” ability.

7: Drow, Dungeons and Dragons

Art of a Drow warriorThe wonderful thing about the Elves is that they’re equally compelling as both heroes and villains.

I’m not the biggest D&D fan around, but I’ve always had a great fascination with the Drow. I think they’re perhaps the best example of Elves who are anything but noble.

There is something enticingly alien about the Drow. They come from a place without light, or life as we understand it; a place of darkness and mystery where those of us born under the sun are not welcome. Like any good Elves, they are beautiful and majestic, with an intricate culture, but whereas some Elves are virtuous, Drow are terrible and deadly.

6: Orcs, Warcraft

Saurfang dual wields Chuck NorrisAfter the last few WoW expansions, I think the whole Warcraft community is a bit burnt out on Orcs, myself included.

That said, that doesn’t change the fact that Warcraft’s Orcs are awesome. They are a fresh take on the archetype, not just savage brutes but a complex and multifaceted people. Over the years, they’ve been used to make all sorts of great points about the assumptions we tend to make, judging books by their covers, and how one society’s monster can be another’s hero.

Their story is an incredible rollercoaster of highs and lows, and even after all the terrible things they’ve done, it’s almost impossible not to feel sympathy for them. They destroyed themselves as much as they destroyed their foes.

5: Night Elves, Warcraft

Art of Warcraft's Tyrande Whisperwind and the brothers StormrageI like to make fun of the Night Elves. They’re dogmatic, xenophobic, smug hypocrites, and as a proud native of Quel’thalas, I’m somewhat obligated to dislike them.

And World of Warcraft has certainly ill-served them. They’ve become little more than hippies these days.

But all that said, there’s still a lot about Night Elves that’s incredibly cool. The original vision of them being savage, feral Elves was a really fresh take on the archetype. They’re not Drow, and they’re not the traditional cultured Elves, either. They’re a very unique breed unto themselves.

Listen to Nightsong, remember the days when Ashenvale was a place outsiders feared to tread, and reflect on the terrible majesty of the Kaldorei.

4: Romulans, Star Trek

Romulans in Star Trek: NemesisOne of my favourite styles of villain is that of the cultured, sophisticated villain. They could crush you outright, but they’d rather spin such an intricate web of deception you prove your own undoing, and they’ll do it while finely dressed and sipping a rare vintage

That’s the Romulans in a nutshell. They’re the bad guys, yes, but there’s also an incredible sense of history and culture to them. They’re better than you, and they know it.

I don’t think Star Trek has ever really explored the Romulans to the extent they deserve, but at the same time that sort of adds to their mystique.

3: Mantis-kinden, Shadows of the Apt

Art of the Mantis-Kinden from Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt"Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Mantis-kinden are similar to Elves in many ways. They’re forest-dwellers, they live in tune with nature, and they’re a relic of a long-forgotten time.

However, the Mantids are much harsher, more savage, and more bloodthirsty than Elves. They are graceful, but also terrifying. They’re not just a relic of an older time, but a relic of a darker and far more brutal time.

Of course, that just endears them to me all the more.

2: Protoss, StarCraft

A council of Protoss leaders in StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidMore than almost any other non-human race I’ve encountered in fiction, the Protoss manage to feel both convincingly alien and yet still like real people.

On the one hand, the Protoss are very clearly not human. Their long lives, their telepathy, their warrior culture, and their connection to the Xel’naga give them a perspective completely different from that of humanity.

But unlike many aliens in fiction, the Protoss are not just an archetype or a rigid set of personality traits. They are not a mono-culture. There is great diversity among them. This was true from their inception, and Legacy of the Void went to great lengths to further expand upon the various different Protoss cultures.

Think about it. How often does fiction bother to give non-human races a variety of nations with unique cultures? I’m sure it’s happened outside the Protoss, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples off the top of my head.

All of the Protoss cultures share the same warrior spirit, but how that identity manifests varies greatly, from the rigidly honour-bound Khalai, to the fiercely individualistic Nerazim, to the brutal Tal’darim.

Even within those broader cultures, there can be variation. Aiur’s society includes dogmatic hardliners like Aldaris, open-minded idealists like Artanis, curious scholars like Karax, and bombastic warriors such as Fenix.

This diversity has allowed some fantastic points about multiculturalism to be made throughout the Protoss story. The Nerazim were rejected by greater Protoss society for their “deviant” behaviour, but without them, the Protoss never could have survived the onslaught of the Swarm.

When the tables were turned, many Nerazim did not want to harbour the Khalai refugees, but without them, the Nerazim would have fallen in the End War — and all creation with them.

And beyond all that, it’s hard not to admire the honour, dedication, and sheer badassery of the Protoss.

Take the immortals. These are people who have been crippled and mutilated by combat. A human in that circumstance would consider death a mercy. But the Protoss willingly — gladly, even — volunteer to have their ruined husks implanted into giant war machines so that they can continue to serve their people for years, perhaps even centuries, to come.

“Uhn dara ma’nakai — our duty is unending.”

1: Blood Elves, Warcraft

Art of a Blood Elf paladin from the Warcraft universeYeah, this is the most unsurprising ending to a listicle in history.

By now my love of the Sin’dorei is very well-documented. I’ve talked before about how they won my undying devotion by maturing along with me. When I was a child, they were a majestic if simplistic embodiment of goodness, and when I became a teenager, they evolved into something darker, edgier, and sexier — everything a teenage boy could want.

Their story has so many strong commentaries to make on issues like addiction, genocide, racism, and victim-blaming. Which isn’t to say that they are saints or without blame in their own downfall, but that just further deepens their profoundly complex themes. For the Blood Elves, there are no clear right answers. Nothing is ever simple.

They are one of the most fascinatingly complex moral studies in speculative fiction, their elegance and grace are unmatched, their tragedy is heartbreaking, their endurance is inspiring, and their sheer cool factor is undeniable.

Selama ashal’anore.

Honourable mentions:

My love for non-human races in fiction is such that there are many more favourites who didn’t make the list.

One thing Warcraft has never lacked for is fascinating races, so in addition to those mentioned above, I could also praise the Tauren, the Worgen, the Forsaken, the Pandaren, the Faceless, the Vrykul, and the Nerubians.

Adrian Tchaikovsky gifted us with no end of fascinating races in Shadows of the Apt, and in addition to the Mantids, Spider-kinden were always a favourite.

Star Trek’s aliens tend to be pretty bland as a rule, but they have come up with some good ones over the years beyond Romulans: Klingons, Borg (pre-Voyager), Trill, Tamarians, Denobulans.

The much-missed Myth franchise of video games was fantastic for coming with interesting new races instead of just relying on the same old archetypes. I especially liked the nightmarish Myrkridia and enigmatic Trow.

Ian Irvine is also pretty good at coming up with new concepts within fantasy, and I’m especially fond of the mighty and regal Charon.

Do you have any favourites I didn’t include on my list?

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Review: Shadows of the Apt, “Seal of the Worm”

This is a murderously difficult book to review.

Cover art for "Shadows of the Apt, book ten: Seal of the Worm" by Adrian TchaikovskyAnd so we come to it at last. The tenth and final book of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s massive Shadows of the Apt series. After so many books, so many years, it felt like this series would be around forever.

There’s so much emotional baggage that comes with the weight of history behind this series, and that alone would make this a difficult book to review, but it’s such a mixed bag, too. It gets so much so wonderfully right, and so much so terribly wrong.

There will be spoilers ahead. Lots of them.

Seal of the Worm begins with the world in an incredibly bleak state. Credit where it’s due: Tchaikovsky had me completely at a loss as to how things could possibly be set right, which is something I haven’t felt towards a book since I was… eleven, probably.

The Wasp Empire stands triumphant. Collegium has been conquered, and only a handful of the world’s powers still oppose the black and gold. Their fall seems almost inevitable as the Wasp war machine continues onward without pause.

But there is far worse to come. Empress Seda, in her recklessness, has shattered the Seal of the Worm, that greatest and most terrible accomplishment of the Inapt powers of yore. The most feared race in the world’s history, the Centipede-kinden, are loose.

Cheerwell Maker and her companions have been cast into the lightless, horrific world of the Worm, and there they will discover that the Worm has only grown more terrible in its centuries of isolation.

A propaganda poster inspired by Adrian Tchaikovksy's "Shadows of the Apt"Even Seda, who was trained by Mosquito-kinden blood mages and managed to surpass them in both power and cruelty, quails in horror at the all-consuming hunger of the Worm. She has a plan to reforge the Seal and banish it from the world again, but it is almost as terrible as the evil which she hopes to vanquish.

For the most part, I’d say this is a brilliant book. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end, it’s full of epic action and true terror the likes of which few fantasy novels, and likely even a fair few horror novels, have managed to evoke.

Once again, Tchaikovsky proves himself to be an utterly masterful world-builder. The realm of the Worm is as fascinating as it is horrifying, meticulous in its detail and unrelenting in its brutality. It is pure, undiluted nightmare fuel, and not since Mordor has a fantasy location inspired such utter dread.

Seal of the Worm also provides a welcome respite from the unending bleakness of the last several novels. While things start out hopeless, it doesn’t take long for the good guys to finally, after so long, start winning some victories, and it feels great.

In particular, Stenwold Maker’s return to Collegium is absolutely amazing.

Unfortunately, here Seal of the Worm also makes its first stumble. As great as it feels for Stenwold to retake Collegium, one does have to wonder why he didn’t simply bring the Sea-kinden to bear before now. If he had this ace up his sleeve all along, why did Collegium need to fall in the first place?

This is never explained, and one is ultimately left to conclude this is nothing but a transparent deus ex machina. It feels contrived, and it adds an unfortunate blotch to what is otherwise the highlight of the book and one of the highlights of the whole series.

A map of the world of "Shadows of the Apt"Still, even with that hiccup aside, the first ninety percent or so of the book is nothing but excellence, and this almost could have been Adrian Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Almost.

Endings are always the most important part of a story. They are the memory that the reader is left with, and they forever colour perceptions of the entire series. And as an ending, Seal of the Worm fails miserably.

The Worm is dealt with well. I have nothing bad to say about how that part of the story turned out. Beyond that, though, I have little to muster but disappointment.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a terrible habit of killing all my favourite characters. First it was Tisamon, then Teornis. Countless other more minor but still endearing characters fell, replaced by less compelling new characters like the Antspider. The cast was slowly stripped of almost everyone that I cared about. Through it all, I maintained my interest in the series by repeating the mantra, “At least there’s still Tynisa. He better not kill Tynisa.”

Damn it all.

It’s not even a good death. Not even a properly tragic, heroic Mantis death. She’s just randomly shot dead by Seda. She died for nothing — it serves no purpose to the story whatsoever. It’s not as if Seda needed to be made any more unlikable.

If anyone out of this entire odyssey deserved to live happily ever after, it was Tynisa. She who was so young and full of life, she who never had a chance to truly live. Haunted by the ghosts of her father and the legacy of her birth, she deserved better.

Art of the Mantis-Kinden from Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt"Stenwold, too, does not live to see the end of the war he spent his life fighting. And just like Tynisa, his death is utterly random and pointless: sniped by an anonymous Wasp snapbowman in the streets of Myna.

Killing off the main protagonist of a very long series is a pretty tough pill for your readers to swallow, and doing it in such a meaningless way sure doesn’t help.

Seda, of course, also meets her inevitable and violent end. I am not disappointed that she died, because she’s the villain and that’s expected. But once again, it was an incredibly weak death and nowhere near what a character of her stature deserved.

I loved Seda. She was one of the greatest fantasy villains I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about, and I’ve read literally hundreds of fantasy novels, so I don’t give praise like that out lightly. She deserved a truly epic end.

She didn’t get one. We don’t even get to see her die. Just the aftermath. It’s the definition of underwhelming.

So on the small scale, at the character level, Seal of the Worm fails to provide a satisfying resolution. But on the larger scale, the situation doesn’t get any better.

In the early days of this series, I felt the Wasps were fairly weak villains. They failed to inspire much in the way of hate or fear, as good villains should. But gradually that turned around. Between Seda and a huge list of brutal victories by the Wasps, I came to truly loathe them and hope for their eventual defeat.

So I imagine my disappointment that the Wasps basically got off scot-free. The Lowlanders show up at the gates of Capitas long enough to put a scare in them, they implement some reforms so they’re not quite so evil, and that’s it.

Art of the Wasp-kinden from "Shadows of the Apt"I know it’s not reasonable to expect to see Capitas burned to the ground and Wasps slaughtered by the thousands. Aside from being ethically questionable, it doesn’t make sense for the characters or the themes of this series.

But surely justice should be served at some level. There wasn’t even an attempt at that.

How about war crimes trials for the Wasp generals? How about any acknowledgement whatsoever of the tens of thousands of innocents they slaughtered, of the countless lives they ruined, of the cultures they crushed?

Nope.

The one good thing I can say about the resolution of the Wasps’ arc is that it feels very appropriate that it was ultimately the ideals of Collegium that defeated them more than their weapons. But that still could have been done without letting their entire corrupt civilization off the hook for all their crimes.

Unfortunately, in light of this utterly disappointing ending, I am forced to reexamine my views of the entire Shadows of the Apt saga to date, and knowing there’s no payoff at the end does not improve those views.

The first four books were good, and I have nothing bad to say about them, but it is now clear the series trended downward after Salute the Dark. The Scarab Path was all right, if a bit odd, but The Sea Watch was in retrospect pretty much a complete waste of time. It was a strange and random tangent that added nothing to the story but a much delayed and largely illogical deus ex machina.

Art for "Shadows of the Apt, book four: Salute the Dark" by Adrian TchaikovskyHeirs of the Blade bucked the trend and was probably the best installment of the series.

But The Air War, War Master’s Gate, and Seal of the Worm were nothing but a bleak, grinding slog to nowhere. They were brilliantly written in almost every way, but they failed to be an enjoyable source of entertainment, and that is the truest and most important goal of any novel.

I am really, truly saddened to be saying those words, because I do think Adrian Tchaikovsky is a fantastic writer in many ways, and there is so much good in Shadows of the Apt. But I can no longer ignore the truth: This series went off the rails and never got back on.

Overall rating for Seal of the Worm: 5/10 A brilliant piece of art, and a complete failure as entertainment. The two cancel each other out, and all that’s left is mediocrity and a profound sense of disappointment.