Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Normally a book by Adrian Tchaikovsky is something I will reliably enjoy.  So I was excited to get a review copy of his latest novella Walking To Aldebaran from Solaris.  But this one was a rare miss for me.

The premise is intriguing – a first person narrative from Gary Rendell, one of the team sent to explore a mysterious structure found in space.  That structure turns out to be a gateway to the universe.  A hub that provides gate access to worlds across the universe.  But a hub that is inhabited by strange alien creatures and full of peril.  As Gary explores this strange environment he tells the story of the expedition, how he became separated from his team-mates, and the journey he is on.  It is full of encounters with aliens, miscommunication and a building sense of mystery about what it exactly has happened to Gary.  He has clearly undergone metamorphosis of some sort in this environment.

But I struggled to engage with it.  I suspect a lot of that is down to the first person narration.  I struggled to connect with the blokish Gary and the strong voice he has telling his story.  And for all that there is a twist in the tale, I was left a bit underwhelmed.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky

I love octopuses.  They are beautiful, strange creatures.  Probably the closest thing we humans can get to the truly alien.  They live in a different milieu and come from a radically different branch of the evolutionary tree.  They are also clever, resourceful and undoubtedly sentient.  This is why I was super-excited when I heard that Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s sequel to his Clarke-Award winning Children of Time would focus on uplifted cephalopods.  And I was not disappointed – this was a novel that I enjoyed much more than its predecessor.

Children of Ruin (review copy from Tor) picks up where Children of Time left off.  The uplifted spiders from Kern’s World in the first novel are now space explorers, with their domesticated Human compatriots.  They are travelling to a distant star system that was one of the destinations of one of the original Earth colony ships, following up on signals received that suggest there may be a surviving colony.  What they find is a system on the brink of collapse, with one water world choked and polluted, another in strict quarantine and a derelict space ship.  Space-faring octopuses live in water-filled bubble ships, in loose and chaotic communities.  The story is cut with flashbacks that show the Earth colony team that came to terraform the system, slowly revealing the disaster that befell them and the old Earth.

This is the Year of the Octopus.  Books like Other Minds and The Soul Of An Octopus are best-sellers, showcasing the strange creatures we share our planet with.  In Tchaikovsky’s hands, the octopuses are all but unknowable, struggling to make themselves understood to Humans and spiders, and frustrated as a result.  These are creatures on permanent transmit with no filters, through their movement in the water and their colour- and texture-changing skins.  Clever and creative, they adapt and innovate, but their non-hierarchical society runs on individual battles for dominance.  Tchaikovsky’s octopuses are compellingly Other.

The story is a pleasing one of co-operation and collaboration, rather than conflict and dominance.  Only by working together can Humans, spiders and the AI consciousness of Avrana Kern communicate with the octopuses.  And only with the help of the octopuses can they engage meaningfully with the sentient slime mould antagonist that risks the system.  And that slime mould delivers some chilling moments of pure horror in the body snatchers mode.

This is a novel that champions evolution and co-existence.  Messages we should learn to pay attention to.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Redemption’s Blade – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky has knocked it out the park once again with Redemption’s Blade (review copy from Solaris).  This is the post-Dark Lord novel I have been waiting for all my life.

Celestaine is one of a group of heroes who managed to defeat the evil demigod known as the Kinslayer, at the end of a Lord of the Rings-style titanic conflict that managed to – briefly – unite humanity in common cause.  But with the war now over, Celestaine is struggling to find purpose and meaning.  Adventuring and demigod-killing skills aren’t really much in demand these days, and all the heroic ballads in the world won’t help someone who is feeling out of place in the world.  So she takes a commission to help undo some of the damage caused by the Kinslayer – to find a magic item that might be able to heal a race of winged people who literally had their wings pulled off by the Kinslayer.

Redemption’s Blade is the first in a series of novels set in a shared world.  As the first one released, Tchaikovsky gets to set much of the world-building, which he has clearly relished doing.  This is a world filled with races, places, gods and monsters – and an awful lot of magical relics about the place.  It’s a great set-up for other writers to explore, and Tchaikovsky uses Celestaine’s quest to help set the scene.

It’s a novel written with great wit, by someone with a deep knowledge of fantasy tropes.  For example, Celestaine owns a magic sword of infinite sharpness, that she was given by another demigod and used to kill the Kinslayer.  But it’s a pain to carry around, because of the risk you might accidentally cut your own leg off, wears through scabbards incredibly quickly (even ones made from dragon skin) and needs a whole different fighting style (parries don’t really work if your sword cuts through everything).

But it’s also refreshingly believable about what happens next after an epic fantasy conflict.  There are refugees, attempts to rebuild in the rubble, famine and shortages, polluted land and people seeking to profit from the misfortune of others.  The human races have fallen back into their usual suspicion and bickering.  And Tchaikovsky addresses the problem of what you do with the orcs after the Battle of the Black Gate.  Prejudice is rife, but even the Yorughan exploited by the Kinslayer deserve the chance to move on and find a way to live productive lives.

Brilliant fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Continuing the theme of interesting novellas by established authors, Solaris have just published a limited edition novella by Clarke Award-winning novelist Adrian TchaikovskyIronclads is the story of a mission behind enemy lines to track down the missing son from a high-profile, corporate family.  A mission into a war-torn Sweden populated with genetically-engineered warriors, drones and robots.

Tchaikovsky’s setting is a near-future Europe.  Ravaged by climate change, the world has been changed significantly.  But this is also a post-Brexit Europe, where the UK is in thrall to the USA, and corporate interests dominate.  US cultural imperialism now dominates, and the UK is a beach head in a war between US corporations and those of Europe.  Any pretence that warfare is driven by politics and the nation state has vanished – these are wars between corporations, fought over markets, opportunities and technologies.  Those corporations are owned by the super-rich, in a world where there is an ever-starker gap between rich and poor.  In this new feudalism, the poor enlist in the armed forces because they have few other options, but the officer class is drawn from the new corporate aristocracy.

This is a story that draws heavily on both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its famous film adaptation, Apocalypse Now.  Conrad’s meditation on imperialism and racism is given a fresh, contemporary twist by Tchaikovsky, that brings its relevance bang up to date.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Tiger and the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky

In The Tiger and the Wolf (Pan Macmillan, who provided a review copy), Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us a compelling new fantasy world peopled by tribes of shape-shifters, each aligned to a different animal.

The Tiger and the Wolf is the story of a young girl wrestling with questions of identity as she grows up, trying to find her place in the world.  Maniye Many Tracks is the daughter of the Chief of one of the Wolf tribes, conceived on the Queen of the Tiger people after she was captured in a bitter war between the two tribes for dominance as top predator.  As a child, Maniye can shift her form to either tiger or wolf, but as she grows up she must choose one or the other form.  She cannot have both: trying to retain them will eventually drive her mad.

As a half-Tiger child, Maniye is bullied and ostracised by the Wolf people, including her father, Stone River; and her tribe’s priest, Takes Iron.  They are suspicious of her Tiger ancestry, and her father plans to use her as a political pawn to destroy the Tiger people once and for all, to help cement his claim to become Chief of all the Wolf people, not just his own tribe.  Maniye runs away from this fate, rescuing a Snake priest that her tribe have captured and plan to sacrifice to the Wolf god.

Unwittingly, Maniye finds she becomes the catalyst for wider conflict among the tribes in her part of the world. After rescuing Hesprec, the Snake priest, Maniye’s father tasks a renegade Wolf called Broken Axe to track her down and bring her back.  In their escape from him, Maniye and Hesprec meet and form friendships with a wide range of members of the other animal tribes in the area.  They also meet a group of diverse travellers from the south, led by Asmander, a Champion of his people.  Asmander has been sent to secure the assistance of the Wolves for a possible war of succession in the south.  And running throughout the whole novel is a sense of an impending but unspecified world-threatening crisis.

One of the real strengths of the novel is the realisation of each of the animal tribes.  The culture, rituals and power structures of each flow convincingly from the animal each tribe is linked to, whether it is the pack mentality of the Wolf clans or the mostly solitary members of the Bear.  The fight scenes, in particular, are amazing: with people shifting from human to animal form and back again.

Ultimately this is a novel about identity, culture and growing up.  Caught between races, Maniye fits within neither Wolf nor Tiger, and is welcomed and trusted by neither.  She struggles to assert her independence and adulthood, and to find a place in the world that enables her to embrace and honour both sides of her heritage.  The diverse and multi-cultural south, which is prosperous and for the most part more technologically advanced, is contrasted with the primitive mono-cultural north.

I’m really looking forward to spending more time with Maniye and her friends in future books in this series.

Goodreads rating: 4*


Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is best known for his fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt.  In his new novel, Children of Time, (published today by Macmillan, advance copy courtesy of NetGalley) he takes a different direction, writing hard SF.

Children of Time follows two parallel story arcs.  In the first, the inhabitants of an ark ship called the Gilgamesh are fleeing a polluted and dying Earth.  They are seeking a new home for humanity.  They spend most of their time in cryogenic stasis, waking occasionally to deal with crises and examine potential new home planets.  The story is told mainly from the perspective of a classicist who is an expert in the ‘Old Empire’ civilisation that wiped itself out in a global war.  The ensuing ice age returned the survivors to a more primitive way of life, with society struggling to piece together enough technology to escape and find a new home.

The second story arc follows the evolution and development of a society of super-evolved spiders on an experimental world terraformed by the Old Empire at its height.  Although the experiment had originally been intended for primates, none survived to reach the surface of the planet and the nano-virus designed to hasten evolution and embed certain traits has taken hold in the invertebrate population of the planet instead.  We follow a spider called Portia and her descendants as they build complex societies, create new technology and come into conflict.

The vast time scale over which the story plays out makes this a truly epic novel.  It’s placed firmly at the harder end of the SF spectrum, with nods to prominent figures in the genre: a spacestation orbiting the terraformed world is called the Brin Sentry Pod, for example.  This means that its focus is very much on the underlying ideas about how humanity would cope with a civilisation-ending disaster, rather than looking at the human impact.

The novel forces you to make interesting comparisons between a conflict-ridden human society and a spider culture genetically engineered to avoid conflict and work together as far as possible.  It poses questions about whether history is determinative, and what rights we have to steer the fate of other cultures and civilsations.

At the time of writing, I’ve not yet finished reading the novel, but it’s a very interesting piece and should be enjoyed by lovers of hard SF.