Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review: Seal of the Worm

I used to say that I didn't like Fantasy as a genre, usually accompanied by some dismissed comments about Elves. However since being properly called out on it a few years back, I've probably read more Fantasy than any other genre, and whilst a lot of that prejudice remains - I don't trust it still - there are more than a few books and series that I'm now rather fond of. I'm most wary of the long, epic, super-cycle, which is beloved of the genre but feels like a bad habit at some levels. After all, what can say in 10,000 words that you can't say in 500? Well, mostly the same thing twenty times, comes the snide answer from my brain. But in the rights, that sprawl can feel like watching history unfold before you, some vast and complicated and involved and deep, and when that works, its totally worth the time. Which brings me neatly to The Seal of the Worm.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's The Shadows of the Apt was one of my gateway drugs into fantasy. I bought the first book, Empire in Black and Gold, as the third in a three-for-two offer, which means that effectively it was free (first hit usually is) and I've never regretted it. Set in a full on fantasy world populated by insect-themed "kinden" (and indeed, giant bloody insects, so thanks for that) it#'s build on familiar fantasy foundations but very quickly reveals a huge amount of complexity. Firstly, each Kinden have their own "Art"; inherent abilities that vary hugely; Wasp-kinden can fly and fire energy blasts (stings), Ant-Kinden are all mind-linked, and so on. This affects both individual temperaments, but more importantly for the series a complex, geo-political structure across world itself.

Folded on top of this is the Apt/Inapt divide. Kinden fall broadly into two categories - the Apt, with an understanding of machines and technology, who live in rational, clockwork world, and the Inapt, who live in a world of magic, portents and the unknowable mysteries. These worldviews are deeply incompatible; more than just opinion an Apt individual will simply not understand magic if they see it in front of them, whilst an Inapt one will struggle to open a door latch. I'm usually very wary of the old magic vs technology tropes, but it's well presented and fantastically realized. I particularly love the technology of the series, which manages to feel fantastic (ie, not constrained by too much realism) but more importantly evolves and develops in response to the massive wars that break out over the course of ten books.

So here we are Seal of the Worm, book 10, Look, plot wise it would take me far too long to explain just were we start, but to sum up there is a war going on over the fate of Empires, an ancient evil has been sprung lose from under the world, cities burn, true colours are revealed, redemption is earned and lost, and about half the supporting cast wind up dead. Its pretty brutal, as endings should be, and defies easy categorization into good guys and bad guys. Its a reminder, actually, that not all tropes are cliches, as there are times when some of the archetypal familiarity of some characters becomes some to cling onto as the story plunges on around them.

I guess if I had to pick fault I'd admit that what attracts me to the series has always been the grand politics and warfare element, rather than the more magical elements that emerged over its run. Seal of the Worm naturally has a lot of the latter and there's nothing wrong with it - actually thats harsh because there is a lot right with it - but my heart was always with the rumble of Orthopters and rattle of gunfire across the Lowlands. A couple of characters also seem to get lost in the sprawl, which is especially sad for Tynisa, who ultimately feels like her story should have ended back in the Commonweal, three books ago. Most of the main cast, however, get great sends off, whatever their ultimate fate.

And now I live in a world with no more Shadows of the Apt to read, and that makes me conflicted. On the one hand, more books would mean that I get to spend more time in that world, and see the bits we've not got a clear handle on, but on the other hand, more books could mean that all the blood and pain and struggle were for nothing. I'd like to think that the paths in front of most of the Kinden at the end of Seal of the Worm are positive ones; the options for all of them are certainly there, as are the people to see them through. And I guess is a sign of my investment in a wholly fictional world that I'd rather never see another book set there, so I can believe that it's future will remain bright.