I am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed TheDoors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.
The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.
The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.
The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.
The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.
Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.
Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.
Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.
In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.
Overall, TheDoors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.
It has been an interesting week in America. We have been seeing unprecedented protests against corrupt authority figures and for the rights of Black Americans, and it has made it difficult to find the desire to write about books. Thankfully, I recently read Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which feels somewhat fitting to the current developing social situation. While not a perfect fit, it is the only book I have in my back pocket that feels appropriate to talk about this week. So let’s talk how about war, oppression, and greed are the worst and how there is nothing more precious than human life.
Guns of the Dawn is a standalone flintlock fantasy anti-war book. Our story follows Emily, a minor noblewoman of Lascanne – which feels like an allegory for the British during the revolutionary war. At the start of the book, Lascanne receives news that their neighboring country of Denland (who feel like an American colonies allegory) has, “selfishly and evilly risen up and killed their wonderful perfect monarch who never did anything bad ever”. The Lascanne news then begins to report that the Denlanders, now intent on remaking other countries in their republican image, are coming for Lascanne. This begins a protracted, slow, and costly war between the nations. As a result, the King of Lascanne begins drafting a few men from every household to join the army, then all men, then women.
The story of Dawn is divided essentially into three sections: pre-war (approx 20%), war (approx 65%), and post-war (approx 15%). All three of the sections of the book are good, but they come in two very different flavors. The pre-war and post-war sections feel like they are drawing from Pride and Prejudice. They paint a very impressive victorian-esque tale of Emily navigating political and familial challenges that stretch her intellectually and emotionally. I found it a well-written character growth based narrative. However, the war portion book reminds me of my all-time favorite anti-war book: Armor, by John Steakley.
The war portion still has some character elements but feels like its focus shifts to larger anti-war and anti-authoritarian themes and points that resonated more strongly with me. The war portion of the book has an excellent exploration of a number of topics that I really appreciated in the current social climate. One, in particular, was the idea of how effective propaganda is at convincing people of an alternate reality. Tchaikovsky spends a lot of time establishing how steeped in loyalist rhetoric Emily is for the first half of the book and then shows how it can result in complete denial of reality when presented with contradictory facts. Only through repeated exposure and slow deprogramming can Emily start to realize a lot of what she has learned has been a lie and (spoilers), unsurprisingly, the authority figure in charge of her country is a selfish monster.
While I liked all three sections of this book a lot, and think that Dawn has a very unique story and experience to offer its readers, I do think it has a major flaw. I don’t really think the two styles of the book blended together well at all. In reality, it felt like I read half of one book, changed to an entirely different book, then went back and finished the second half of the first book. Independently, I think I would have given both styles of the story a higher score than I will give them combine. In the end, I felt like they detracted more from each other than they added. I also ended up liking the war section a lot more, but that might be because of the current social context. The war sections felt a little heavier and more appropriate to what is going on in America right now.
Guns of the Dawn is a unique story with a lot of competing elements. It manages a delicate balance between character and theme focus and does an excellent job with both. The combination of victorian love story and anti-war paper is not quite seamless, but it is definitely interesting and original. I definitely recommend Guns of the Dawn, both as a generally enjoyable book and as somewhat topical for current events. It is a story that talks about the power of love and standing up for what is right at the same time, both of which are things we could use right now.
We are back with the second half of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s vignettes! If you are just catching up with The Quill to Live, Orbit has graciously allowed us to publish a series of vignettes that take place between two of our favorite books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you missed part one of this post you can find it here. Thanks again to Adrian and Orbit for giving us the opportunity to post these. We hope you take the time to check out the shorts and original books when you have a second. Enjoy!
Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 2
4. Tomb Raiders
When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.
“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.
“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.
“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.
Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.
Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.
Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.
“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.
Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.
But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.
“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.
“Let’s get in there.”
Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.
“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”
A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.
Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.
“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.
He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.
The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.
“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”
“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”
“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.
“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.
“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.
“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.
They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.
“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, virtual, transcending the physical.
But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.
Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.
“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.
“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.
He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?
Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin and Channec and the corpses, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.
Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.
“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”
“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.
“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”
He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.
It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.
“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.
Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.
The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.
He saw it too late: the lights stayed still but the shadows moved.
The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.
He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.
Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.
With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.
She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.
Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.
5. Voyage to Nowhere
You wake in darkness, enclosed. Something is forcing its way into your mouth, down your throat. Something is clamped about your nose. Things are invading you. You fight; you can’t fight: you are restrained. Then something gives; your arm clutches towards your face but strikes a cold, hard surface right before you… above you… you cannot tell. You cannot tell which way is up.
Your hand slithers up the cold surface until it is at your mouth. Tubes, there are tubes. You wrench them out. You stare into the darkness until the lights come on.
They are soft lights, originating from somewhere behind your head. Probably they are intended to be comforting. You are not comforted.
The barrier before you is clear. Looking out of it you see… ranks of clear-fronted coffins in a great dark space. At first you think they are reflections, but all the others of you are asleep, their tubes still plugged into nose and mouth.
You have no idea where you are. You yell. You bang at the clear plastic. It is colder than it was.
There is a voice, a man’s voice.
“Can you hear me?” it says.
You listen. It repeats itself. The voice sounds patient, sad.
“Yes,” you whisper into the tiny coffin that is your world. “I hear you. Who are you?”
“Do you know where you are?” asks the voice, leaving you uncertain whether it’s owner can hear you.
You open your mouth to say, and there is a hole in your mind, a great yawning gulf where the knowledge should be. You do not know where you are. You do not know who you are. Your sense of self is a string of disjointed images: the sun, parents, a brown landscape, the harsh taste of the air.
“Listen to me,” says the voice. “You are on the Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh is a colony ship. Do you remember.”
You know the name, but it’s like someone you met a long time ago. You can’t place it. You try to understand what the voice means. A colony ship…?
The voice continues with its dreadful, didactic patience. “The Gilgamesh is on a journey to another world, do you understand that?”
And you do. When the information abruptly flowers in your mind you feel like weeping. You are coming back to yourself. You are more than these broken fragments. “Yes,” you say, and “Yes!”
“We have star maps from the Old Empire,” the voice confides to you – things you think you knew once, fitting into place like bricks, one on another. “We are humanity, in this ship. We are on a long journey to a planet that we believe the ancients made into another Earth. But an unspoiled Earth, one not poisoned by their war.” There is a terrible, wistful yearning in that voice.
“Who are you?” you demand. If not for that yearning you might have taken it for some thinking computer, such as the ancients were supposed to have.
“My name is Guyen. I am the Gilgamesh’s commander. Right now I’m the only member of Key Crew not in suspension. You and I are the only two human beings awake.”
And you think about that, and you know it must be an honour that they’ve woken you first. You and the commander, of all those sleeping people outside your coffin. “Commander,” you say, “how long before we’re on this new Earth?”
Guyen’s voice says nothing for long time.
“Commander?” you prompt him, and then again. And then again.
“If it is there,” says Guyen’s disembodied voice, “then the Gilgamesh will reach it in approximately twelve-hundred years.
You do not understand. Guyen does not volunteer an explanation. You cannot even think of how to phrase the question. The silence stretches out, and it’s getting colder.
“You see,” the commander tells you eventually, after listening to your teeth chatter, “you are the first.”
“The first to wake.” You can barely get out the words.
“The first cargo malfunction,” Guyen tells you. The words mean nothing. You turn them over in your mind. Still nothing. Then, as though a visual illusion has just flipped before your eyes, you understand.
“We knew this would happen with a proportion of the cargo over the time periods involved,” Guyen goes on, and you wish he would just shut up but you have no way to make him. “I had the Gilgamesh wake me, when it did. You are the first. I felt I owed it to you.” And, perhaps because his voice is all you have, you can hear the ragged edges there: the man who is responsible for everything.
You try to say something. Guyen will never know what your final message to him would have been.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
The light goes out.
6. Trespassers in Eden
They were working on this place when the bomb went off in Reykjavik, putting the finishing touches to a biosphere imported from earth. A big job, but the planet was perfect for it, the first of a long string of islands in the great empty night. The dream project of a misanthropic genius transhumanist, who planned to make it her grand experiment.
When everything fell apart, when the colonies on Mars and Europa and all the others died, when the signals from Earth ceased, this other Earth circled its far-distant other sun with blithe unconcern. The genius behind it never got to run her experiment. Something else happened instead, something unplanned for, unexpected, unwanted.
All the while, when the tough remnants of the human race lived in the shadow of the ice and dragged themselves back into an understanding of themselves, something else was breeding and growing on this world, a usurper in this human paradise. Not an experiment, barely a mistake, just an unintended side-effect of how things fell out.
And one day, while mankind regrouped on its poison Earth, eyes looked up at the sky and asked Why? and Where did we come from? They looked at the pinprick lights above them and wondered why one moved so swiftly across the sky, never realizing that they were looking at all that was left of their creators.
From something that merely bred and fed, they became something that remembers and builds and dances and thinks. They told their own stories in their own language.
They cannot know that their creators are coming back to haunt them. They cannot know that sometimes, Where did we come from? is the worst question of all.
Today we have something a bit different and very fun. If you are a reader of the site you might be aware that we absolutely loved Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you haven’t read them before you will hear about all the various things that make them great. So, when Orbit kindly reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of an effort to republish some prologue vignettes that Tchaikovsky wrote for between the two books – it was an emphatic yes. We will be posting the vignettes in two sets, half today and half later this week (found here). Now, in an effort to not drone on like someone giving you their life story similar to an online recipe page – please enjoy these fun prologues to some of our favorite books.
Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 1
1. For the Love of All Humanity
There was nothing he could do about the millions watching remotely except show them.
Njall Torek’s record said he was diligent and hardworking. He had come to the University of Reykjavik with immaculate references back before the major establishments had begun vetting their staff quite so carefully. He was well-liked amongst his fellows and he didn’t try to bother the actual academics. He knew his place. That was what most of his superiors felt about Njall: he knew his place. He was a good man for electrical problems, for minor repairs, installations, pest-control even. For a university whose business was increasingly virtual, these little physical problems would crop up, and when they did, Njall would be there to put them right down again.
He had now finished his last little physical problem for the university. Now, like those millions, it was his role to watch from a remote location. What he could do, he had done.
On the physical stage, now, one of the guest speakers was standing to introduce herself. The auditorium was packed out with those were willing to go to the expense of travelling to meet these people. Not students, but industrialists, foreign academics and politicians, big names here to make big deals behind the scenes.
Members, Njall knew, of the conspiracy.
This speaker was a small Chinese woman, grey-haired and neat. She was something in genetic surgery: her team had been key in embryological engineering, or so Njall gathered. There was quite a Chinese contingent in Reykjavik these days. He might have passed her in the street without comment, without knowing that she was one of them.
Some of the others – on the stage, in the audience – he wouldn’t have made that mistake with, not ever.
There was a war on, Njall knew. It was a war against humanity. Njall loved humanity. He was fiercely committed to it, as a patriot was to a nation, as a true believer to a creed. Njall knew humanity had a destiny, and that destiny was being taken away.
These people who had gathered here at Reykjavik, they were traitors to their kind. He knew them all – he had looked at their biographies and their bibliographies, seen the fields they worked in and the ‘achievements’ they were responsible for.
Out there, out past the blue of the sky, there were worlds, Njall knew. Not just the other orbs of Earth’s solar system – settled by human ingenuity, at cost, and still imperfect and hostile places to live. There were worlds around other stars that ships from Earth had reached. They were terraforming them even now, finding planets of the right mass, within the Goldilocks band between death by fire and death by ice, and putting the last touches on them to make a better home than Europa or Titan or even Mars would ever be. Those were humanity’s inheritance, Njall knew. And they were being taken away. These people – people like the men and women and – some of them he couldn’t even tell! – on the stage, they had already made plans for those worlds. And no matter what they might say, Njall knew those plans did not include provision for anything he would recognise as human.
He knew this. He had been told this by his leaders, and he believed them. The defenders of humanity had plenty of friends in high places who knew the truth.
Out there in that auditorium there were people who made computers that thought, or who turned human eggs and seed into abominations, or who altered chimpanzees and dolphins and elephants so they could speak.
Non Ultra Natura. No more than human. That was Njall’s flag. Out there in the auditorium there were already people who had cast off the birthright of their humanity to become part machine, part beast, part something else entirely. Some of Njall’s comrades held that it was against God’s law, but Njall only knew that he was human, and proud to be human, and that those who sought to become more than human would only ever become less, slaves to the AIs and the talking dogs and whatever other atrocities they dreamt up.
There were millions worldwide watching this conference on ‘transhumanism’, millions who had been fooled by this circus into wanting to give up the one true gift they were born with. All Njall could do was show them the error of their ways. All Njall could do was fight for the side of life.
As the next speaker stood – some thing that was neither male nor female, neither human nor machine – Njall felt his revulsion peak, and the bomb he’d set beneath the stage went off.
2. The Last Martian
One hundred and four days.
Jenniver Amartez was impressed, in a way. None of it was supposed to last that long, not in these conditions. But it had struggled gamely on, and there had come a point, around the sixty day mark, when she had thought they had wrought better than anyone had anticipated, and it would last.
By seventy-five days that illusion was gone. The living systems were too complex to find equilibrium, the environment too hostile to give them the time. Everything had begun to die.
The main colony was long dead by then. By the time she had been able to jury-rig a receiver, the only signals she could pick up were automated warnings, and precious few of those. Pretty much everything had been knocked out.
She didn’t want to think about how many Martians there had been, before the virus pulse from Earth. Thousands, certainly. Men and women and children whose parents and grandparents had been Martians. People whose ancestors had come here when the planet truly was a freezing hell, instead of just a steadily deteriorating purgatory. They had lived in domes and they had worked on the atmosphere – painstakingly transforming it into something that was a slower death for humans, and that could just about sustain other life, with help.
She had not realized, until the pulse, just how much help.
Jenniver Alvarez walked through the dying forests of Mars.
Trees stood in tall rows – not really trees, not really like anything that had evolved on earth, but bioengineered life designed to suck in carbon and push out oxygen. The orderly ranks of them ran as far as the eye could see, and the ground around them was carpeted with a man-made moss/fungus symbiote. All artificial, just like everything on Mars was artificial except the rocks and the ice and the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere that was gradually re-establishing its hold on the planet.
A fourth-generation Martian, she had given her life to Mars. Not long ago she had been able to walk in the plantation without a suit, with only a portable air supply to tipple from, like a hip flask. The biomass around her had pumped out heat and oxygen, and she had looked forward to her children or her grandchildren running free and swift in the low gravity, masters of a world made home by the hand of humanity.
Now she wore a suit, for as the atmosphere around her thinned, the heat given out by the plants was sucked away. Now she carried her air with her.
Some part of Mars had been green, for a brief moment: a generation in individual human terms, an eyeblink in the history of the species. Now it was brown as the plantations withered and died around her.
Everything had been so carefully maintained by the computers. The entire colonised area of Mars had been a colossal cybernetic system managed by artificial brains able to tweak every little detail. The vast plantations were maintained by an irrigation network, constantly fed exactly the required balance of nutrients and chemicals to help them conquer the red planet’s ire. When the pulse came, transmitted on multiple frequencies from Earth, travelling at light speed without any warning, every system on Mars had gone down, hopelessly riddled with a virulent artificial plague.
She had been keeping track of the war, of course. There had even been fighting on Mars, though not so very much. Everyone had followed the reports, hoping that someone would win quick enough that a normal service would be resumed. If not for the anti-tech backlash, probably it would have been. But one side in the war had yoked its fortunes to the popular groundswell worked up by the NUNs and the other extremists, and then they found them were the tail trying to wag the dog. They found you can’t just put crazy like that back into the bottle. Every time someone came to the peace table there was another attack, an assassination, something to fan the flames. On Mars, the colonists had listened to the reports grow graver and graver, until there were no more reports, and the only comms they could intercept were military. They were still listening intently when the virus pulse came through.
They had all died, the people in the domes. The computers had been keeping them alive. But Jenniver, out here alone in the agricultural station, she had lived. Here, within the planet’s raw new lungs, the work of human hands had persisted for a few more tens of days.
She passed one of the robot workers, little more than a wasted weight of metal. Everything had gone down. She didn’t want to think of the outer colonies, those fragile little bubbles on the gas giant moons or the mining bases in the asteroid belt. The pulse would have reached them all, and further and further, radiating outwards towards the stars.
Not long now.
Jenniver Amartez stood amidst the dying Martian forests and looked out into the dark sky, seeking the dust-shrouded, silent orb that was Earth.
3. Home Fires
He was a hunter in a harsh season. His name was Rom.
His people lived in the lowlands, near the sea, but the fishing had been poor this year, poorer than the last. The fish were so few, and many of them caught deformed. A strong man could live on fish alone and not get sick, but not the children, not women heavy with child, not the old. So Rom had set out to his old hunting grounds to trap and kill the beasts his forefathers had left him.
Last year he had been everyone’s favourite. He had come home with four sticks strung with rats and squirrels and rabbits. This year the cold had come early – the first snows seemed only a moon after midsummer, and he could count the days he had seen the sun on his fingers and toes. Today, the sky was closed with white cloud, and sky-dust was blowing on the wind, that tasted sour and salt on his tongue.
This year he had set his traps but the beasts did not come. The cold had driven them further afield, or else they remembered Rom and his snares, and their dead relatives, and avoided him.
He knew the legends: how great magicians of an elder age had raised up the beasts and given them thought and speech, and how that had angered God, who had brought the winter to make an end of all the sinners in the world.
Rom wondered sometimes if he was a sinner, and how many sinners were left, for the winters were no less fierce than in his childhood. If anything they were worse.
Rom could not know that the pale masses of dust that still clogged the upper air had thrown back so much of the sun’s heat that his world was gripped between two hands of ice, north and south. Every summer they relaxed their grip, those hands, but each winter those fingers stretched out, further than the year before. But all Rom knew was that the winters grew worse by little increments, and the hunting sparser, and life grew harder. He had been forced to go further afield, each day’s travel a burden on him as the way back lengthened. Now he had come uphill to the broken stone land in the hope that the shelter of the place would have brought in perhaps cats or foxes or even swine, big game to make the journey worthwhile.
But the snows were closing on him, numbing his fingers and nose and ears even though he wrapped his cloaks about him, each a patchwork of tiny pelts.
The broken stone land was ahead of him, as far as the snow let him see: some great towers still stood, reaching high enough to prop the clouds up. Many more had fallen, making the place a maze of broken stone. There were riches there, so they said, but it was haunted by terrible spirits, and there were other tribes, too, jealous of what they had. And surely, if that was the case, the hunting would be no better there. But Rom was desperate.
He had heard that a great guardian had once stood before the Stone Place, warding off any who sought to claim its riches. Now he saw the truth of it, though she had fallen long before, her gigantic stone body strewn in sections down the slope from the broken stump of her feet. She had stood tall and robed and crowned, said the stories, and he believed them, seeing her now. She had one hand lifted high, bearing a sword to smite those who might trespass in the broken stone land.
Rom’s feet dragged: he could not feel them through the chill. Even his own weariness was just a distant drumbeat, slower and slower. If he did not find shelter soon, he would be simply one more hunter who walked out into the world and never returned, and his people would speak his name a few more times, and forget him.
The furthest-flung pieces of the guardian were ahead of him, stone shrapnel looming high, half-smothered with snow. He could see the wind-shadow they cast, though, and forced his senseless legs onwards, step after step, even as the gusts blew fiercer and swifter, a blizzard building in the eternally white sky.
He saw the outflung arm, now in pieces but still reaching out towards him. She had been bearing something aloft, but amongst the fragments of her splendour he saw no shattered sword blade or spear haft. Whatever it was she had been holding, he could not make it out.
As his stumbling progress brought him closer, his mind drifted. He saw her, in his head: a beautiful tall woman standing defiantly, daring any to challenge her. In his mind she was not placed to warn away travellers, but to challenge the winter itself: standing firm against the wind and snow, and in her hand, a flame.
He collapsed at last, but he was in the shadow of the stone. With clumsy, unfeeling hands he got out his sticks and tinder, and lit his fragile fire in the shelter of a broken stone torch.
2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:
The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?
The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.
The Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.
Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.
Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.
Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.
Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”
The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).
Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.
Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.
Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.
Armor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.
An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.
Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.
Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.
A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.
The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.
Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.
So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.
If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.
Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.
On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.
Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.
In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.
Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.
I have a fear of dolls. Or maybe not a fear, so much as I find them intensely off putting. Their miniature faces are creepy, and any horror story that involves dolls coming to life and murdering people deeply upsets me. So, when the lovely people at Tor.com sent me Made Things, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky about a dollmaker who brings her creations to life, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Tchaikovsky is one of the most imaginative writers of the last decade and I generally like almost everything he writes. On the other hand, creepy murder dolls that might infest my nightmares. It is safe to say that I was negatively disposed to the concept from the start, thus the fact that I loved this novella should say something about Tchaikovsky’s skill as a writer.
The plot of the book is short and sweet: Coppelia is a street thief, a trickster, a low-level con artist living in a famous magical city. She is an urchin barely scraping by in a metropolis run by elite archmages. Normally this would spell doom for a person in her situation, but Coppelia has a little magic up her sleeves. She is a skilled puppet maker and has survived by stealing money from unsuspecting tourists through a puppet show. However, recently her creations have been coming to life. She discovers she has the power to infuse tiny homunculi with life, and she is not the only one. By teaming up with these made things they have opened doors for her into new opportunities. They don’t entirely trust her, and she doesn’t entirely understand them, but their partnership seems to work well. However, when they make a magical discovery that threatens to destroy the city they all call home, they must make some hard choices.
I know that plot description was fairly vague, but this is a novella and I didn’t want to spoil too much. The story is a lot of fun and involves a lot of politicking, character growth, a heist, and some really cool magic. The world-building has an impressive amount of detail for a novella. The city feels fleshed out and lived in, the magic feels complicated but adheres to clearly stated rules, and the threats/antagonists are easy to identify and rally against. A lot of this is helped by the cast being so likable. There are essentially three leads and a large support cast. For the leads, we have the aforementioned Coppelia and two homunculi: Tef and Arc. All three are wonderful and each have unique wants and agendas that are explored through the story but revolve around a core theme – survival in a harsh world. For Coppelia, that means scraping together a living in a world that cares nothing for her. For Tef and Arc, it means scraping together an existence in hiding when the world would pull them apart to see how they work.
The homunculi, in general, are fascinating. Tchaikovsky has done an impressively imaginative job of exploring all sorts of made people. There are one made of wax, paper, steel, wood, and any other substance you can think of. Some are small, some are large, some can fly, others are immobile. And for each, Tchaikovsky provides a window into how their existence, and personalities, are defined by what they were made from. A large steel doll might be courageous and brash, but have a phobia of water and rusting. A homunculus made of paper sees threats to her existence everywhere, as a simple tear could mean the end of her. Together they make an eclectic and fascinating people that are fun to explore.
The book is a rollercoaster ride with a fast pace and an explosive end. I read it in a single sitting and never thought once about putting it down. The ending does feel slightly abrupt, but that is often par for the course with novellas and is more a problem with the medium than anything else. Tchaikovsky’s Made Things is a fun, well built, adventure that helped me look at magical dolls in a new way. It has an interesting world, likable characters, and attention to detail when it comes to bringing these homunculi to life. Hopefully, this novella will be the starting point of a new novel as I want to dig a little deeper into everything. I would love to come back and overturn more rocks, dredge more canals, and explore more magical vaults to discover what else Tchaikovsky has hidden in Made Things. You probably can’t go wrong with this short story, and I recommend you check it out.
This was a hard book to summarize my feelings on. The Tiger and the Wolf, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a weird novel built on the premise of shapeshifters. Set in a fantasy world where every human belongs to an animal tribe, individuals are all capable of shapeshifting into their peoples’ totem animal at will. It is a fairly common magical system in fantasy, but like all things that Tchaikovsky infuses with his imagination, The Tiger and the Wolf manages to stand out from novels with similar premises by diving deep into the duality of man and beast and building a world that is awe-inspiring to explore.
The world of Tiger & Wolf is a fractious one, with most animal tribes competing (and waging war) for land and resources. This is particularly true in the north, where the hearty tiger, wolf, bear, eagle, seal, boar, and deer fight to survive the habitually recurring frost. The Tiger tribe once ruled the north uncontested – until the various wolf clans banded together and threw them down. In the process, one of the wolf clan leaders took the tiger queen hostage and had a child – Maniye. Maniye in our main protagonist and she has an interesting problem – she has two spirit animals. Being able to “step” into both the form of a wolf AND a tiger initially sounds like a blessing. However, Tchaikovsky does an incredible job of bringing the nature and majesty of each animal to life in their respective tribes, and the tiger and the wolf HATE one another. The spirits of the various tribes are not faceless forces, but sentient deities with agendas – and the tiger and the wolf both despise the girl who forces them to “be in the same room”.
The majority of the book follows the escapades of Maniye, and how her duel heritage constantly makes her the center of conflict and intrigue. In particular, her father wants to use her tiger heritage to subjugate the remaining tigers that survived his war – a plan that she wants no part of. As Maniye continually (literally) runs from this fate she meets a cast of fantastic support characters and travels all around this fascinating world introducing us to a number of interesting animal tribes. The side cast really is memorable, in particular, the snake priest who finally makes serpents feel like good guys for once. The animal tribes are all extremely well developed and you will find yourself burning through the pages to learn about all of them. Additionally, on top of the grade-A worldbuilding, the combat is absolutely stunning. The individuals of this world all fight by blending their human and animal forms into unique fighting styles and reading the characters move between their forms with such fluidity makes the fighting feel innovative, original, and brings the clans to life.
However, as I mentioned at the start of this review this was a difficult book to review. Despite all the wonderful things Tiger & Wolf has going for it, it also has some issues. The first is that something like 70% of the book revolves around Maniye just running from something. There are, so many, chase scenes in this book. They are super cool the first five times, but by chase 17 they were starting to wear a little thin. On top of being repetitive, the pacing also suffered due to the bloated chase sequences. The plot is also not particularly strong. It’s certainly not bad, but I didn’t find myself often wondering what would happen next. Maniye’s path forward was always fairly easy to see, and it was who she met on the way that made me want to keep picking up the book, not wondering what was going to happen to her. The book also felt a little overly focused on Maniye when there was such a strong set of support characters to give more spotlight.
The Tiger and the Wolf is only the first book in a larger series, one that I definitely plan on continuing. The world is very fun to explore and continues to showcase Tchaikovsky’s impressive imagination and skill at writing fight scenes. However, I hope that the future books will have slightly better pacing and at least a small reduction in chase scenes. Regardless, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Tiger and the Wolf.
We have been all about Adrian Tchaikovsky recently. If you missed our recent reviews of Redemption’s Blade, which can be be found here, or Children of Time, which can be found here, you should check them out. Both of these books are worth your time and Adrian has about 20 others you can check out. We wanted to find out more about Adrian to better understand how he makes such great stuff, and managed to get a hold of him to ask some questions. For your reading pleasure we have written them up and added them below, enjoy:
You are a really prolific author with multiple series in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Do you have a preference for a genre and do you think there are any major differences in writing for one vs. the other? If so, what are those differences?
Fantasy and SF are very different writing experiences for me. With SF I generally want to make the science as sound as possible, and so it’s often a slower process involving lots of research and consultation with people better informed than I am. With fantasy, as the pressure is for internal consistency rather than external, the writing process can be a lot freer.
In addition, do you have a favorite series among the many that you have written?
I think the Shadows of the Apt world is still my favourite to dabble in, just because I know it so well.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? What are you reading right now?
I am just finishing off Jeff Noon’s The Body Library, which is something of a mind-bending read. Before that was the wonderfully poetic and brutal Tower of Living and Dying by Anne Smith-Sparkes. Amongst my other favourites are Mary Gentle’s Ash and Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Arete.
What is one fact about yourself that your readers would be surprised to know?
I still (as of this moment at least) have a day job, albeit a part time one.
Redemption’s Blade is a tragic tale about… well… redemption (unsurprisingly). What made you want to tell a story about the after affects of a war? Do you think this kind of story is something that the fantasy genre is missing – or were you feeling particularly passionate about this specific war?
The post-war setup was in the brief I received from Rebellion, so the credit is theirs for that. It’s certainly not the first time the topic has been touched, but stories about martial triumph are commonplace enough that it seems there’s more unexplored space if you pick up a narrative after the dust settles.
I noticed that the sequel to Redemption’s Blade, Salvation’s Fire, just came out and was written by Justina Robson. What is going on with the writing? Is it a joint project and will you be writing in this world more? How many novels are planned?
The series is envisaged as multi-author, and Justina had the unenviable task of picking up my toys when I’d finished using them. As for the future, that’s in Rebellion’s hands, but I’d certainly like to see more of the world.
Following up on the last question, the world of Redemption is incredible. The original races, power, and locations that you explored in the book really captured my imagination. Did you have any particular inspiration for the various races (or the torments visited on them, which were equally creative in a different sadder way)? Was the world build collectively with other authors?
I got a very loose brief, and then a very free hand, and in fact the sheer untrammelled creation I got to put into the project made writing it an absolute joy. I wanted to set up a complex world with a lot of areas left to be explored, a lot of hints and hooks for writers who might come after me. In that, it was a lot like setting up a campaign for a role-playing game – you need room to expand into.
There was a lot to like in Redemption’s Blade, but I particularly loved the ideas of the guardians – demigods sent to watch over life in the world. In many ways, the novel feels like it really revolves around them and their choices. What was your inspiration for these divine characters?
They were part of the brief, so again a tip of the hat to Rebellion. My own touch came mostly in the way that the guardians had already become mostly surplus to requirements before the war broke out – living alongside mortals meant that they were learning as much as they taught, including self interest.
I also really enjoyed the magical artifacts that litter the world in Redemption’s Blade. Were there any artifacts (or species of people) that you came up with that didn’t quite make it into the book?
Because of the nature of the project I got to shoehorn in a lot of things that I didn’t need to explore, just to flesh out the world. There were a few things I’d like to have played more with, though – there’s a bronze army mentioned early on, that apparently wasn’t much use against the Kinslayer and his legions, and one wonders what might be left over of *that* and precisely what it thinks about things.
What was your favorite thing to write in Children of Time? Was there a particular evolution you liked most?
I think the big war between the spiders and the ants was fun, and also the stealing of the sacred eye of the ant god, because it let me do something I love to read – writing hard SF in the style of epic fantasy (like Gene Wolfe does so well, or M John Harrison). Also, it’s nice to write a genuine heroic narrative where the protagonist is a spider.
How did you land on spiders as the species the humans would face?
It happened the other way round. I came across Portia labiata in my researches and knew that I needed to find a way of writing a book about them. The humans came later.
Children of Time has a lot of tangible themes that rarely get the treatment you gave them (such as evolution and the passage of time). What inspired you to write the book in the way that you did?
The focus of the book was always the evolutionary process, so the narrative would always be a longitudinal one. I wanted to show just how the society might change and adapt through the generations.
I was very impressed with your ability to control tone through the book, going from wonder to anxiety to horror fairly quickly without dissonance. How did you manage the tone in your head, while also making sure it translated to the page?
I think Children of Time is now pretty much the benchmark for my style now – Serious Narrative with a bit of nastiness sugar coated with a big of humour. I have never been a strictly technical writer, and the writing comes out as it comes out – the evolution of my style is an entirely subconscious process.
I just recently found out that there will be a sequel, Children of Ruin. While I felt CoT worked amazingly as a standalone, I’m incredibly excited about the sequel. What to you felt unfinished about Children of Time that led to Children of Ruin?
Well there’s that last sequence, the epilogue, where they’re setting off on a voyage of discovery. Children of Ruin is the story of What They Find There, and as the title suggests it’s not necessarily pretty.
How much research went into creating the insect led ecosystem upon the planet?
Well, to a certain extent it’s an extrapolation of Earth ecosystems, so there was a lot less work than trying to create a genuine alien world from first principles. The major work was the logistics of increasing arthropod size, and in how spider senses might work, in which I was ably assisted by the entomology department at the Natural History Museum.
-Thank you for your time Adrian, and everyone should check out one of his various books as soon as possible!
I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I can get a little vain about my ability to think about books. I also have a penchant for wanting to discuss themes in books in a way that shows how smart I think I might be. It’s a frustrating vanity I can’t seem to rid myself of. It reared its ugly head in a big way with a beautiful science fiction standalone titled Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I bought it on impulse one late night last year as it popped up as a “readers also enjoyed.” All I needed were four words: intelligent spiders in space. How could I resist such a notion, especially with an Arthur C. Clarke award and a glowing quote from Peter F. Hamilton? I read it in July 2017, and I have been struggling to put into words ever since how much I love this book. Every time I sit down to write a review, new revelations dawn on me about the book, and nothing gets written. This is my attempt to lure you into its web.
Children of Time begins far into the future, where humanity has begun to terraform planets and spread throughout the stars. A scientist by name of Avrana Kern has decided that, instead of inhabiting some of these created paradises, we should send apes down onto them with an “uplift virus” that will hyper-evolve generations of mammals towards intelligence in order to eventually have a dialogue with someone in an otherwise empty galaxy. Unsurprisingly, there is a large group of people who do not like this idea, and they attack the space station where the scientists are operating. In the chaos, Kern manages to send the virus, but fails in sending the monkeys. The virus, with nothing better to do, finds its way into something else: spiders (portia labiate). From there the story splits into semi-parallel storylines: one told from the perspective of the evolving spiders, the other told by the descendants of humanity who are recovering from the civil war sparked a thousand years ago by Kern’s vision.
Tchaikovsky’s story straddles centuries. We are introduced to a new generation of spiders every few chapters (with each generation showcasing the evolutions gained from the previous spider protagonists). The humans on the other hand manage to stretch their lives by cleverly spanning large chunks of time using cryogenic freezing chambers. He keeps the reader engaged through tight pacing and complex characters built from recognizable archetypes. Additionally, the incredible detail with which he describes the evolution of the spiders would make National Geographic’s best travel and nature writers jealous. Tchaikovsky misses no small details, providing what feels like a historical highlight reel of the spider’s physical and cultural development as the species and society progress.
That is not to say that the human story is boring, but it was harder to get engaged with their storyline. It follows the perspective of Holsten Mason, a historian of sorts who is tasked with witnessing humanity leaving Earth for the last time and document the life it is going to build for itself. The magic of this side of the story is that the constant time jumps that leave the main character, and the reader, disoriented. Every time Mason wakes up, something new has happened or some bit of information is missing, and the reader finds out what has changed alongside the character. Tchaikovsky keeps all of these perspective shifts and leaps fresh with a few tricks that provide insights into the human condition, without beating the reader over the head with them.
The characters on a whole feel organic and lived in. The humans have a touch of desperation to them that not only expresses their fears of the future, but their apprehension towards each other. They are a broken people, the children of a civil war so toxic it poisoned the Earth itself. On the flip side, the spiders feel curious, ambitious and altogether optimistic. They are a new species carving out a space in existence on a not so perfect planet, but without the baggage of history weighing them down. These and other differences are painstakingly highlighted as the novel goes on, showing different ways problems are solved without pointing out direct differences. Tchaikovsky’s use of science fiction trappings is creative and feels organic. Most of the human technology is traditional sci-fi fare, but it has a flair to it that took me aback several times. The humans’ technology feels rigid, decrepit, and built with a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the spiders are clever and flexible in their use of biological technologies. They have access to so much, and they use everything to their fullest ability. Tchaikovsky goes through great lengths to show how both species interact with their environment through use of their resources. Each species feels different and unique, making technology a theme instead of a setting. Humanity feels isolated, paranoid, and defensive, while the spiders are inclusive, challenging, and integrate themselves into the world.
I could go on about this book, peeling back its many layers, and pointing out all the clever devices that Tchaikovsky left as surprises for the readers. I could gush even more about his commentary on power in relation to information, squeal about how the main characters and their roles in society reflect the values those societies hold dear. I could blather on about how the ending is a glorious refutation of stories we as civilized, economically focused, western Europeans have told ourselves about ourselves. I could highlight that accepting and promoting the education, validity, and intelligence of a society’s oppressed groups can bring about greater freedom for everyone is a theme that both the spiders and humans share. Instead, I will say Children of Time is easily one of my favorite books of this year, if not one of my favorite books ever. It is not perfect, even though all I want to do is talk about it. The initial human chapters did nothing for me and felt standard and unexciting until I started looking backwards. It requires a lot of buy in from the reader to feel the nuances and the gears turning while reading. However, every moment of build up is worth it as the payoff is one of the coolest takes on evolution and alien competition I have ever read. The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends you check out Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.