Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Dragonfly Falling - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant eternal life. In Collegium, meanwhile, Stenwold is still trying to persuade the city magnates to take seriously the Wasp Empire's imminent threat to their survival. 

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s SHADOWS OF THE APT series and I have a bit of a sordid history. When I first picked up EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD (book #1) back when it was published, I’d heard some early buzz and it sounded interesting enough to buy. I grabbed it and when I started reading it I was initially quite impressed. Here was a fantasy book that eschewed the traditions of Elves, Dwarves, Ogres and the like and replaced it with Insect-aspected human races, who had traits in common with their namesake brethren. Beetle-kinden were shorter, squatter, and generally more industrious, Dragonfly-kinden were elegant, could fly and were lethal with a sword, Wasp-kinden were vast in numbers and had magic in the form of a sting that blasted out of their fingers and oh they were ruthless. Every possible insect imaginable can be used and Tchaikovsky spends a lot of that first book fleshing out the world. I was enthralled for the first half…but somewhere around the midway point my interest flagged and things got truly bogged down for the reading experience. The various young characters took on a bit too much of a teenage angst and the various situations they found themselves in were “trying” to say the least.

I put the book down, sad that it didn’t live up to the early excitement it gave me.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when fellow forum members had stuck out the series and got to the latter books (there are 7 volumes out now I believe), that I heard that not only did things improve greatly with each book, but that the things I disliked about the latter half of the first book were absent from the second one onwards.

So I randomly picked up the 2nd book DRAGONFLY FALLING one day and let it sit in my ToRead pile for a few months, and somewhere in that time I finished the first book as well. While the first book finished stronger than I thought it would, it still didn’t knock me out. So the 2nd book sat a little longer. Then one day last week I picked it up and began to read it.

And damned if the thing wasn’t immediately a hundred times better. Perhaps it was the situations that the characters were put into, or the fact that we’ve moved past a lot of the teenage growing pains that plagued the first book, but something was noticeably different…and for the better!

Let’s get one thing out of the way, the world is MUCH larger in this book, as the Wasps have begun their invasion in force and none of the Lowlands are safe from their onslaught. We are introduced to many more new kinden races (Mosquito, Mole Cricket, Fire Ants), while other kinden are further fleshed out (Ant’s, Beetles, and Wasps), and we even get a decent look at the Emperor Alvdan II of the Wasps and his young sister Seda and what exactly drives the Wasps to expand and conquer. Most notably though, reading this book is like being dropped into the middle of a war being fought on various fronts from the very get-go, and being able to see all facets of it. We see many battles, and how the various factions, events and even characters affect our heroes (or non heroes). There is added intrigue, with exiled Wasp Rekef Thalric attempting to regain favor after his failure in the first book…but he is being systematically hunted by a mysterious Dragonfly woman named Felise Mienn who seems intent on ending his life. Young Totho makes what he thinks is an honorable sacrifice only to end up in hotter water than ever before. Stenwold finally gets through to the council of the Collegium just in time for the Wasps to have sent the Ant-kinden armies of Vek against its walls. Mantis-kinden Tisamon and his half-Mantis/half-Spider daughter Tynisa head out to the sacred isle of Parysol for her to start on a path that he hopes won’t get her killed by his own brethren in Feylal (since to them Tynisa is an abomination born of one of their own Mantis-kinden and a Spider-kinden [their hated enemies]).

I don’t want to spoil too much storywise as this one really has a lot of meat to it (It’s nearly 700 pages long) and I don’t want to steal any of that enjoyment from you. I’d like to say that this book really doesn’t have a main protagonist, and that if it did…I’d say that protagonist is War. The main characters are thrown into the chaos of war, and this book is kind of like a diary of those various and disparate experiences in the face of such horrors. It makes the narrative altogether more interesting to see how each deals with those things. I think that some of the characters get heavy depth added to them (Totho, Thalric), while others do get the same depth, but it happens off-page (Tynisa) and that presumably will come up down the road, but it is all compelling.

The pacing is much better in this book. It only slowed down for me very briefly in the middle, but that was only for about 20 pages or so and was a personal foible with an extended sequence. I can definitely say that Tchaikovsky has improved as a writer between the volumes (and I hear he continues to do so in future books), since I thought his positioning of chapters and character arcs was very deft in DRAGONFLY FALLING. I always felt like just as things were getting truly interesting the chapter or section would end and I’d have to wait to the next one to see what happened. That’s always the mark of a good storyteller, leave us wanting more. I have my favourite characters in this series now, and I have my loathed characters (because they are evil, not because they are poorly drawn) and I have an ever-expanding world to explore. I’ve already gotten a brief look into the Spiderlands in Book 3 (BLOOD OF THE MANTIS, which I’ve already started) and it’s wholly different from the Lowlands or the Empire. It makes me feel like I’ve begun a truly special series.

If you enjoyed the first book (or at least had it entertain you on some level), then I really urge you to read the second book. It fixes most of the issues I had with that first book, and shows growth on the part of the author and his craft. But most of all, it’s a rip-roaring story set in a unique world populated by a unique and varied set of main characters, each of which are fleshed out quite well. The added facet of a slightly steampunkish mechanized world interacting with an older fantasy magic world just gives it more to excite you with. This book has swords, and magical Art wings, it has airships and airguns, it has buzzing-winged Orthopters and oldschool sailing ships, it has insect defenses (like Mantis claw) built onto human frames, and even has vampiric mosquito-kinden dinking blood. This whole series is probably one of the most unique and fresh settings in the entire fantasy genre today, and Tchaikovsky ought to be proud that he broke onto the scene with such a triumph.

I am now embarrassed of my initial sordid relationship with the series as I have since become such a big fan. So much so that the very moment I put down the 2nd book upon finishing it, I picked up the 3rd book and dove right in!


  1. Hmm . . . interesting to hear there's such a big difference in quality from the first book to the second. I've tried reading EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD a few times, and while I couldn't quite get into it, I actually picked up the paperback instead of the e-reader version to see if that propels me forward.

    Regardless, good to hear that DRAGONFLY FALLING redeems the effort required for the first. I had the same initial hesitance with Steven Erikson, and now I can't get my hands on his Malazan books fast enough.

  2. The first piece of advice I give to people saying they write epic fantasy, having made the mistake myself and seen many others do so, is don't plan your first novel as the start of a long series. Do a stand-alone where you can make mistakes and learn from them, then just into the ten book series. Otherwise people will read the one with the mistakes and assume you never get better.

  3. Damn. I suppose this means there's another book to add to my To Be Read pile. I need some steel support beams for that pile.



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