With The Expanse sadly ending this year, I have been on the lookout for new space operas to fill the void, and I have found a new contender. Site favorite Adrian Tchaikovsky has put out the first novel in a sweeping science-fiction epic titled Shards of Earth, and it is a wild ride. Tchaikovsky has been making serious headway into our hearts with his more solitary science fiction like Children of Time and The Doors of Eden, so it was exciting to see what he would do with a larger series. The result is an outstanding opening book to what promises to be a grand space adventure filled with wacky characters and high-stakes political intrigue.
Shards of Earth’s plot is big and hard to summarize in a single paragraph (which suits a grand space opera), but let me see if I can lay down a foundation for you. The story takes place in a distant future in which we have taken the galactic stage and met a number of other alien species. Things are going well until planet-sized alien Architects start showing up and turning entire planets into modern sculptures with cosmic power – killing everyone on them. Most of the sentient species band together to try to stop these colossal arbiters of death, but nothing seems to be able to scratch them. Little progress is made fighting until a breakthrough of a secret psychic conditioning experiment leads to the creation of “Ints.” These ESP-ers could communicate, mind-to-mind, with the enemy. Then their alien aggressors, the Architects, simply disappeared.
In addition to being able to communicate with Architects, a skill no longer in demand, the Ints have an unparalleled understanding of movement through space, making them the greatest pilots alive – and there are very few of them left from the war. Our story follows a number of POVs after the war with the Architects but centers on a retired Int named Idris that many factions are fighting over. They all want to recruit him to be their pet pilot while he tries to carve out an independent life on a scavenger ship called the Vulture God. When the crew makes a strange discovery that might herald the return of the dreaded Architects, things begin to heat up.
The three pillars of success that hoist Shards of Earth into my top books of 2021 are storytelling, characters, and worldbuilding. This fantastic concept is well realized through Tchaikovsky’s great plotting and experience-enhancing prose. This is a new take on the idea of dealing with cosmic entities beyond our comprehension, and they are overwhelmingly terrifying and alien. Tchaikovsky beautifully captures the emotional impact of living like your world could be obliterated at the drop of a hat by an entity completely out of your control, and it works very well as one of the major themes of the story. The plot has fantastic pacing, moving quickly from set piece to set piece and telling a story that exists both as to its own self-contained story and sets up future plotlines for the larger series. It is the exact sort of big storytelling, with high attention to detail, that I love to see in my space operas.
Our cast of characters is equally delightful. Idris is great on his own, but he is surrounded by the crew of The Vulture God who could rival any of the classic sci-fi spaceship crews for personality and diversity. In addition to the core crew, there are a number of POVs from rival factions, antagonists, and everything in between that go the extra mile to build out the world and paint a vivid and deep universe around the story. The different worlds and factions contribute to worldbuilding that begs to be expanded upon and explored. The “parts” of the book are broken into a focus on different planets that the protagonists spend time exploring, and each of them had a very unique feel and style that enhanced the feelings of adventure in the story. It felt like Indiana Jones in space and I could not put Shards of Earth Down.
I don’t really have any complaints or criticisms of the book. My only real negative thoughts are that some areas felt a little less well-realized than others and a few characters seemed to not have enough backstory compared to the rest of the cast. But I am honestly just nitpicking, this was easily one of the most solid books I have read this year and one of Tchaikovsky’s best.
Shards of Earth is an epic space opera that could not have better timing. It has an adventurous story sure to entertain every reader and a blueprint for the foundation of a much larger story. I loved the cast, the world, and the story. It is one of the sure-fire wins of the year. Don’t miss it.
Rating: Shards of Earth – 10/10