Blood of the Mantis
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
(Tor, 7 August 2009)
Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series is something of a rare beast - a saga that contains all the usual traits associated with the best epic fantasy (warfare, deadly politics, etc) but is also refreshingly innovative at the same time, with its various insect kinden and their unique powers and abilities (or ancestor arts, as they're called). The series got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with Empire in Black and Gold, before really coming into its own with the superb Dragonfly Falling.
Dragonfly Falling was the best epic fantasy novel I'd read in a long time, so I approached the follow-up, Blood of the Mantis, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I was keen to discover what would happen next in this thrilling face-off between the Wasp Empire and the Lowlands. Trepidation, because Dragonfly is a tough act to follow, and I was concerned Mantis would pale in comparison. After all, how do you better a novel that has two epic sieges, a big land battle, and plenty of political backstabbing and betrayal on the side?
One solution is to do something different with the next book, and this is what Tchaikovsky decided to do. Mantis is subsequently very different to its predecessor, not just in size (Mantis weighs in at just 498 pages, compared to Dragonfly's 673 pages) but also in terms of content: the focus is more on covert operations and politicking than on large-scale warfare. Furthermore, for the first time the action shifts to new locations, namely the swamp-city of Jerez (a dingy backwater of dodgy deals and illicit trading) and the spider-ruled city of Solarno, on the great inland sea known as the Exalsee.
The plot itself has two main prongs - the struggles of both factions to retrieve the Shadow Box (an ancient item born of a dark, terrible power), and the attempt by Stenwold Maker's agents to prevent the Wasp Empire from establishing control over Solarno - and thus gaining a foothold in the spiderlands. Meanwhile, Stenwold himself tries to unite the bickering lowlanders into a force that can stand up to the might of the Wasp Empire.
For me, Mantis was something of a mixed bag. The main issue I had was that it felt too much at times like a middle book; I found it hard to shake the feeling that the novel's main purpose was simply to move all the necessary pieces into position, ready for a big smack-down in the fourth volume. Subsequently a sense of unimportance sometimes pervades the storyline, which lacks the urgency (and occasionally, it must be said, the excitement of the last book).
The focus of the novel, falling as it does on new locations, means that certain characters make only fleeting appearances. Drephos is the most conspicuous by his absence; as one of the most intriguing characters in the series, his all-to-brief cameo was disappointing. Likewise Totho, who is limited to just a few short appearances despite having one of the most interesting character development arcs of all the original protagonists. Felise Mien is another fascinating individual who barely features, while Thalric - who does play a prominent role - seems like a pale imitation of his former self.
The frequent changes of POV also became a bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment of the novel. Tchaikovsky's style is notable for the amount of POVs he uses, not to mention his habit of jumping between them mid-chapter. This has never previously been an issue for me, but in Mantis it did become a bit grating. This was mainly because some of the POVs just weren't that interesting (Brogan, the wasp commander, is a good example). The cast list continues to grow as well, and more than once I found myself having to refer to the (annoyingly inadequate) glossary. The new characters are mostly reasonably well-drawn, and as always there is the appearance of a new type of kinden, though sadly one type of kinden - introduced right at the end of Dragonfly - didn't make an appearance. Still, no doubt later books will rectify that.
The lack of a large-scale military confrontation is also keenly felt. Tchaikovsky handled these extremely well in Dragonfly, and while I understand how from both a logistical and thematic sense it may have made sense not to include any, it still left me feeling rather underwhelmed. A group of agents scurrying around rainy backstreets in search of a mystical artifact just isn't as gripping as the numerous epic set-pieces of the previous novel. Dragonfly also bore witness to some serious character development, such as Totho's struggle with his loyalties and Tynisa's troubled relationship with her father, but this is an aspect rather lacking in Mantis. That's not to say the characterisation is bad, as it's not at all, it's just that none of the characters really undergo any real changes, with the possible exception of Gaved.
All of the above criticisms probably make Mantis sound like a bad book, which it certainly is not. There's plenty for fans of the series (of which I am certainly one) to enjoy: daring dogfights, exotic new locations, a closer look at some kinden that have only been mentioned before, and two or three cool set-pieces - both Lake Limnia and the Exalsee are home to some rather scary (and large!) wildlife, which Tchaikovsky clearly enjoyed involving in proceedings. It's just a shame that it feels largely like a stop-gap book, merely setting the scene and putting everything into position for the next instalment.
Verdict: Blood of the Mantis inevitably suffers from having to follow up Dragonfly Falling, which was always going to be a difficult task. It does feel a bit of a lightweight offering compared to its predecessor, and the same could be said of the story itself, which is never dull but lacks the impact and epic feel of Dragonfly. Mantis is a decent novel, but does give the impression that it's merely lining up the pieces for a showdown in the next book. It's a solid continuation of the Shadows of the Apt series, but not the best example of what Tchaikovsky - and his series - is capable of. Still, it's not dimmed my enthusiasm for the series and I am already looking forward to the next novel, Salute the Dark, which is to be released in early 2010.
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