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Monday, August 13, 2012

"The Air War" by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Shadows of the Apt Website
Order "The Air War" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Empire in Black and Gold"
Read FBC Review of "Dragonfly Falling"
Read FBC Review of "Blood of the Mantis"
Read FBC Review of "Salute the Dark"
Read FBC Review of "The Scarab Path"
Read FBC Review of "The Sea Watch"
Read FBC Review of "Heirs of the Blade"
Read FBC Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky

INTRODUCTION: "The Air War" is the eigth book out of ten of the ambitious Shadows of the Apt series. It is also the first book of the final trilogy of the series as the author has structured the 10 volume epic as follows:

 - a tetralogy with a clear main focus and where the several storylines that start in Empire in Black and Gold develop in Dragonfly Falling and Blood of The Mantis, only to converge at the climax of  Salute the Dark. These four books follow a large cast of characters which of course renews itself as the storyline moves on and they are all fast paced yarns in the usual epic vein with battles, intrigue and the fate of the known world at stake. They are best seen as volumes 1-4 of one single huge novel.

- three relatively self contained novels, The Scarab Path, The Sea Watch and Heirs of the Blade, which follow only a few storylines from the larger tapestry so only some of the main characters of the series appear, though again new characters and settings are introduced. The Sea Watch was a bit too sfnal for the general tone of the series, while being the one novel so far whose main storyline still remains tangential in the larger scheme of things, though lots of things happen, quite a few main characters die and the main strategic realignment of the series occurs.  

On the other hand, The Scarab Path and Heirs of the Blade hit it out the park and provided the best two novels of the series to date and some of the best fantasy around, each in a package that was remarkably self-contained considering their place as "bridge novels" as well as 5th and 7th novels in a 10 book series.

- a trilogy with a dual focus, one that has been clear for a while and forms the larger part of The Air War and one that while still shadowy (!) is starting to reveal itself and will surely be the focus of the last series volume, The Seal of the Worm, with the 9th volume, The War Master's Gate completing the three titles.

Note that in what follows there will be the inevitable spoilers for the series to date, though I will try to keep them at a minimum.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: While The Air War has been a hugely awaited title of 2012 and I bought and read it twice on publication several days ago, I had two major qualms before starting it. 

One was its self-explanatory title - at least for people who have read book 5 which starts laying the ground for the actual air war of the novel, the nature of which is quite different from the battles from the previous volumes. This was mainly because the series works best when the storyline gets closer to the hints of magic, rather than evolving modern tech at a breathless pace.

I also feared that as the action moves back to the Collegium and its allies preparing for the resumption of the war against the Empire and as the novel would overlap at least partly with Heirs of the Blade - based on the stunning ending of this last one of course  most of the favorite characters of the series (Che, Tynisa, Thalric) won't appear, which was one of the main reasons The Sea Watch while still a highly recommended novel of mine remains the least favorite from the second part of the series, when the other two have been top five yearly novels.

When I finally got The Air of War, first thing I did was a quick search for their names and as feared none appears in the book more than in quick mentions - as fate (or the author!) has it, both Che and Thalric are rivals - in magic and love - of powerful characters who have important roles in this novel, so their continual existence is a thorn in the side of such and they get mentioned in that context.

I started The Air War bracing myself a little for the reasons above - of course I still expected the wonderful inventiveness of the author, the interesting characters even without those three and the impossible to put down narrative flow Mr. Tchaikovsky perfected over the course of the last 5 volumes of the series after a somewhat cluttered style in the first two books to carry the day, but still...

However I had a very pleasant surprise when from the very beginning The Air War starts twisting and turning away from the expected, introducing quite a lot of new characters who seem destined for starring roles - a new "tetrad" of special Collegium youngsters - more or less as, well, would not want to spoil it but there is a scene that strongly reminds one of how we met Che, Tynisa, Totho and Salma, the original four - a cool Assassin Bug kinden on a mission, a Wasp kinden spy master with a secret...
The book builds up the action gradually and there is a point when the pace becomes such that one must turn the pages almost too fast just to see what happens, so when I finsihed the novel, I immediately embarked on a more leisurely reread where lots more little details are seen adding even more depth.

Mr. Tchaikovsky manages to keep the series fresh while juggling all the freight from the previous 7 books. Seda just takes over whenever she is on the page and The Seal of the Worm makes its quietly menacing appearance while the ending is not unlike the one from Dragonfly Falling, at a good stopping point but with a clear to be continued stamped on the last page so the next book - War Master's Gate - cannot come too soon.
I also want to note that The Air War hits that sweet spot for longer series: neither "revolution" - ie all new characters and stories - nor "stagnation" - ie old characters, old stories - but "evolution", mixing the familiar from earlier volumes with new stuff and characters and intertwining the expected action which is to a large extent dictated by the logic of the world building with quite a few surprises.

 Overall, The Air War has been another hit from the author consolidating the series position as one my top five sff ongoing ones, with the book itself also a top five of the year to date.



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