Book Review: The Air War by Adrian Tchaikovsky


The Air War is book eight in this planned series of ten (I’m weeping in frustration that book nine isn’t already in my tear-soaked hands) so I can’t tell you much about the specific plot unless you’ve already read the previous seven. I’ll assume you haven’t. Tchaikovsky writes big epic fantasy- these are your proper 400-500 page chunks of story each time, each one adding to what has come before and propelling you hysterically towards the (argh only two books left!) conclusion. I’ve actually managed to delay reading this one for quite a while – I’ve been holding it ready for when I really needed something fantastic to chew through. I even tried to read it slowly, but I didn’t have a chance and inhaled it within a week.

The series The Shadows of the Apt is very different from your average fantasy story. Sure, there are swords and heroes, empires clashing, magic, good and evil – but it’s all cleverly subverted and converted into something new and brilliant. ‘Aptitude’ is the key – magic has waned, being replaced by technology and those who are ‘apt’ and can conceive of and work with tools and machines. The apt civilisations have rapidly outstripped the magic and ‘inapt’ cultures who once ruled the world. We have war, huge battles and brutal skirmishes throughout the series, charting the rise of new weapons and instruments. So far we’ve gone from swords and bow and arrow, through nail guns and snap bows to full blown aerial bombardment. The Air War sees this new and terrifying development as the Wasp Empire casts the shadow of its bombers over the Lowlands and their independent city states.

Wasp Empire? Yes – perhaps the most awesome conception of the author is the people themselves. They are insect-kinden – each group of people has specific social and physical attributes of the insects which long ago humanity somehow became bound with. The ant-kinden – militaristic, hive-minded, suspicious of outsiders; wasp-kinden – violent, empire-building; mantis-kinden – shadowy, moody warriors. The list goes on, and we get introduced to new kinden across the world. They all have some ‘art’ – this is in part the waning magic of the age, but is also a gift of their kinden – wasps and fly-kinden can fly, physically manifesting their art, others have empathic bonds with the creatures of their kinden (huge in this world). It sounds incredibly odd, but once matched up with the compelling characters, heroes, martyrs and villains in the series it works perfectly. It’s perpetually intriguing and gripping.

The Air War is a relatively compact chapter of the series, primarily covering the fresh advance of the Wasp Empire now that it has settled following the assassination of its emperor. We switch between story lines and locations: the ancient moth-kinden infiltrating a new assassin into the empire – of the Empress Seda, herself a terrifying character, newly steeped in ancient magic. Our main character Stenwold Maker – a teacher and now war-master from Collegium is still striving to defend the peoples of the Lowlands from the Wasp threats but he witnesses the destruction of cities and the second assault on his home city. We also follow Taki, the pilot in the aerial battles, and receive dark hints of wheels within wheels.

So much has been set up by this point that whole casts of characters have died, or whose paths will return in a later book. The action switches deftly between actors and places. The characters are very well-rounded – even the villains and one-act heroes are credible, interesting people. I still miss some of the fabulous players from the first three books, and many who we last saw two or three books ago! It’s a fantastic fantasy series with unique twists and features that lifts The Shadows of The Apt out of its genre and makes it something completely new.
Read them all.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – The Shadows of the Apt

Get The Air War at