Blood of the Mantis
Published: 7th August
Driven by the ghosts of the legendary Darakyon, the moth-kinden Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh town of Jerez – but he has only days before this magical artefact will be lost to him forever. Meanwhile, the forces of the Wasp Empire are mustering for their next great offensive. Stenwold and his followers have only a short time in which to seek allies before the Wasps march again, conquering everything in their path. And if they cannot throw back the Wasps before spring, then the hated black and gold flag will fly over every city in the Lowlands before the year’s end. And should the Shadow Box fall into the hands of the Wasp Emperor, then nothing will save the world from his relentless ambition ...
The Curse of the Third Instalment
The latest volume of the Shadows of the Apt series, Blood of the Mantis, follows Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling in charting the war between the city states of the lowlands against the imperial Wasp army. A concise summary of the back story is provided at the start, but it’s directed more as a reminder to readers familiar with the first two books so if you’re new to the series I’d strongly recommend you start at the beginning. Adrian Tchaikovsky broke onto the scene with a story that combined the heroism, political intrigue and epic warfare of traditional fantasy both with characters who bucked traditional stereotypes and a fascinating world of peoples with insect attributes, and if you’re interested in the kind of fiction that cherry picks elements of different subgenres then I think you’ll like his work. However, although the latest instalment continues in that tradition, it seems to have fallen victim to the curse of the third volume.
The story splits largely along three strands. Achaeos, Tisamon, Tynisa, Thalric and Gaved learn that Scyla has the Shadow Box and trace her to Jerez, a marsh and swamp city which “squatted like a festering boil” by Lake Limnia. Despite its location within the Wasp Empire its healthy black market attracts Scyla who there plans to auction her ill-gotten goods. Meanwhile, Che and Nero are sent to Solarno, a renegade city on the shore of an inland sea named the Exalsee. Founded by those who had failed in the Spiderlands, it’s in imminent danger of falling to the Wasps and their mission is to do what they can to prevent their enemy from gaining the strategic stronghold. And finally, Stenwold travels to Sarn to meet that city’s queen and a council of lowland representatives where he agonises over whether to share the blueprints for the snap bow, a weapon which was developed by Totho in the previous novel.
Thus, there’s a strong tonal shift from the epic battles of Dragonfly Falling to the more intimate espionage and politicking of Blood of the Mantis and if you’re looking for more warfare you’ll be disappointed. On balance, however, this is a fairly brave transition which, rather than patronising us with more of the same, shows an attempt to keep the series fresh by exploring the world of the Shadows of the Apt series from different narrative perspectives. The story is interesting, there are hints of conflicts to come, we’re introduced to more of the inhabitants (the Skater-kinden) and while the prose is far from perfect there are some nice touches. Nevertheless, there are problems.
The most obvious involves the characters: the new additions of Blood of the Mantis burst a dam that was, by the end of Dragonfly Falling, already at full capacity. As this volume is considerably shorter (429 pages) than the previous two instalments it’s understandable albeit regrettable that some of the fascinating individuals from the earlier books – Drephos, Totho, Salma and Felise Mienn – make only cameo appearances; but some of the new introductions (e.g. Odyssa, Brugan) are so forgettable that for the first time I was forced to refer to the glossary at the front. If a book needs to include a character list, and if a reader has to refer to it, then that’s usually a sign that a story has become so bloated a machete is needed to hack it down to size. Although Tchaikovsky still shows a deftness at handling the frequent shifts in the point of view, character development suffered. For example, there were some attempts to show Achaeos’ struggles with the potential power offered by the Shadow Box, but not enough time was spent with him to allow us to empathise with his conflict.
The more fundamental problem only hit me after I’d finished reading Blood of the Mantis: two-thirds seem like pointless events shoehorned in to pad the story out into the size of a novel. While there’s a clear arc, a narrative restructure could easily have allowed its substance and plot to be summarised in a couple of paragraphs at the end of Dragonfly Falling. To begin with, after Scyla steals the Shadow Box, Achaeos and the others leave Collegium for Jerez to hunt for it. I don’t want to give the ending away, so let’s consider both scenarios: either 1. they succeed and return home, or 2. they fail and return home. A re-write could have had Scyla stopped before leaving Collegium at the end of Dragonfly Falling, or she could have just vanished; indeed, Achaeos only knows where she is because of his connection with the Darakyon. This is the most substantial of the three strands, and in fairness I can see how the hunt for the Shadow Box helps to build up its importance for later instalments; but the other two strands are much more flimsy. Che and Nero’s presence in Solarno achieves little, and the fact that the Wasps are poised to attack could have been summarised in a paragraph regarding the city’s significance without their needing to visit; but it’s Stenwold’s activities in Sarn that are the most annoying. His agonising over the consequence of sharing the plans of the snap bow are superficial, have little of any depth to say about the development and spread of new ways to kill ourselves, and seem pointless given that its inevitable he’ll share them. Perhaps having read later volumes in the series the significance of Blood of the Mantis will become clearer, but at the moment the book as a whole seems a bit redundant.
Despite these problems the story is an enjoyable read and I still think the world Tchaikovsky has created is fascinating. Blood of the Mantis may be the weakest link in the series but the series as a whole is more interesting than the rote fantasy that clutters the speculative fiction shelves of most bookshops. Empire in Black and Gold was an impressive debut and Dragonfly Falling equally good, so hopefully this is just a minor blip rather than an uncontrollable nosedive. Besides, the next instalment has the best cover of the series by far, and as I’m completely impressionable when it comes to judging a book by its cover I’m therefore holding high expectations for a return to form in Salute the Dark. Roll on part four!