Friday, 4 September 2009

‘Blood of the Mantis’ – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor UK)

Despite it only being three books old, the ‘Shadows of the Apt’ series has been a real ‘stop/start’ affair for me with a great opening book followed by one that I felt went off the boil a little. While there’s never been a doubt that I’ll stick with the series (I love the concept and some of the hints regarding where the plot is going) I’ll admit that the last book left me wondering how this one would turn out.
I’m happy to say that, as far as I’m concerned, things look to be back on track...

The Wasp army’s advance has ground to a halt while they prepare for their next great offensive and the Lowlands wait to see what new weapons will be brought to the fore. Stenwold Maker and his band of followers must seek out new allies before war breaks out again and the Wasps sweep all before them.
However, just because hostilities have temporarily ceased it doesn’t mean that matters of great significance are not taking place in the background. Not only has the legendary Shadow Box been stolen but it has now gone missing altogether. Those on the trail of the Shadow Box will find that the trail ends in the marsh town of Jerez and an auction where the highest bidder will win it all. If the Wasp Emperor should come into possession of the Box then the future will be bleak indeed...

My main concern about the last book in the series (‘Dragonfly Falling’) was that its length encouraged unnecessary rambling to the point where the story was in danger of being lost altogether as characters manoeuvred for position. Happily this was not the case with ‘Blood of the Mantis’, a book that weighs in at just over half the size of ‘Dragonfly Falling’. This relative brevity doesn’t leave room for meandering; what we get instead is a book that doesn’t mess around and is straight to the point, a move that can only be of benefit considering there are still multiple groups of characters about their business.

‘Blood of the Mantis’ switches from epic battles and sieges to the cut-throat espionage that is going on behind the scenes. While Tchaikovsky writes a decent battle, he really comes into his own with descriptions of covert activity in the marsh town of Jerez and the lake towns of Exalsee. A hurried glance can mean the difference between life and a lonely death in a back alley. Deals are struck in dark corners and the outcome is nothing less than the fate of nations. Tchaikovsky excels in giving this covert activity just the right amount of heightened tension (along with a suitably murky backdrop for it all to take place against) and I was hooked right up until the blood chilling finale.

It’s not just cloak and dagger work though. The war has briefly died down but there is still room for the occasional bloody skirmish and Tchaikovsky drops his reader’s right into the heart of these, leaving them to dodge every sword thrust and wince when a blade or bolt finds its mark. Such moments are full of swashbuckling action and that’s just the kind of action I like to see in a book. There were moments when a particularly daring set piece had me holding my breath as it took place!

We’re three books in now and Tchaikovsky is still showing us that there is a lot more to this world than simply the Lowlands. This world is also one that’s developing almost as quickly as you can read it with advances in warfare meaning that this is not your regular run of the mill fantasy world. There are hints that weapons technology will become even more destructive and I’m certainly going to be around to see where things go next.

While the characters are as well drawn as ever I found myself more interested in what was happening rather than who it was happening to. Certain characters that I haven’t particularly enjoyed following (I’m looking at you Ms. Cheerwell!) still elicited the same response in me although it looks like they’re open to some interesting developments. This was more of a personal preference thing, for me, than anything that Tchaikovsky had neglected to include. Sometimes a character just doesn’t work for a reader (which can make the book as a whole a little more difficult to fully engage with).

Despite this though, ‘Blood of the Mantis’ is very much a return to form for Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can maintain this momentum when ‘Salute the Dark’ is published next year.

Nine out of Ten


James said...

Interesting review Graeme, as I very much feel the opposite way - I think Dragonfly Falling is an excellent novel and that Blood of the Mantis feels more like a stop-gap novel with the main purpose of setting up the pieces for an almighty smack-down in the next book.

While it certainly has its moments, it just didn't hold my attention and excite me the way the first two novels did.

Still, I expect 'Salute the Dark' to rectify that early next year...

Harry Markov said...

This series didn't seem to catch my interest much from the debut. Even though I couldn't get a copy of the debut to judge, I never felt compelled to get one. Nevertheless an excellent review.

Mimouille said...

The only thing that scares me with the series is a quote from the authors himself:

"Ideally, if I get all I want out of the series, the current large plot arc will run to 10 books, with spare plot left over for further forays as the opportunity arises."