The Expert System’s Brother

I discovered Adrian Tchaikovsky back in 2010 when I read Empire in Black and Gold, the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series. It didn’t take me long to read the rest of the series which remains, for me, one of the most original and effective sets of fantasy novels I have read in a long time. With the Children of Time, Tchaikovsky turned from fantasy to science fiction and showed that he has a sure touch in either genre.

This is useful because The Expert System’s Brother is a science fiction novella masquerading as a fantasy story.

After an unfortunate accident, Handry is forced to wander a world he doesn’t understand, searching for meaning. He soon discovers that the life he thought he knew is far stranger than he could even possibly imagine.

Can an unlikely saviour provide the answers to the questions he barely comprehends?

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about Tchaikovsky’s writing is the quality of his world building, and The Expert System’s Brother is no exception. The world in which the story takes place is rich, detailed and thoroughly immersive and all of this is integrated beautifully into the narrative. We are told only what Handry sees and knows but are able to understand so much more and it really is a joy to watch all of the pieces slot into place.

As a novella, this is not a particularly long piece but Tchaikovsky manages to pack a lot of detail into a very short work and paces it in such a way as to hold your attention throughout.

This all makes for an excellently told tale of humanity, how the struggle to survive can go awry and a thoughtful story about what it means to be human.

2018: My year in books

The number of books I read this year has seen a significant rise on previous years. This is largely due to the fact that I am now commuting primarily by train, which gives me much more time to read.

(A consequence of this is that, my reduced driving combined with the fact that I can now get the BBC World Service on my car radio means that I have, for all intents an purposes, stopped listening to podcasts. But that’s not the point of this post.)

This year I have read a total of 24 books, leaning heavily towards fantasy novels. Two sets of fantasy novels, both of which have proved to be highlights of my reading year.

First up is A Song of Ice And Fire. All seven novels (so far) of George R.R. Martin’s epic tale of Westeros which I started reading in light of the hype surrounding the Game of Thrones TV series. I still haven’t watched the TV but, based on the novels, the hype is very well deserved. This is fantasy that is gritty, dark, messy and muddy and so well written that, regardless of the number of characters and narrative threads, you never once lose track of or interest in the ongoing events.

The other highlight for me was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. This is a fantasy series that ignores all of the pseudo-medieval cliches in favour of exploring a bronze age society, populated entirely by shape-shifting humans. It’s a highly original series, packed with engaging and believable characters, that serves to remind me just why Adrian Tchaikovsky remains my favourite living writer.

Also worth a mention is A Matter of Blood, this first part of The Dog Faced Gods trilogy by Sarah Pinborough. Written in 2009 and set in a 2011 in which the ramifications of the financial crash were far more dystopian, this novel manages to combine science fiction, noir and horror into a single gripping package. I already have the next book in the series and will be starting on it very soon indeed.

On the comedy front, I can’t not mention A Game of Battleships, the latest installment of Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith. If the idea of steampunk space opera in which the Sun never set on the British Empire provides a deep mine of comedy gold which, hopefully, will continue to deliver for many more years to come.

Next year, I plan to enjoy even more time on the train, and finally put a sizable dent in my almost-under-control pile of unread books.

The Air War (Shadows of the Apt 8)

The Air War I don’t remember where I first heard about the Shadows of the Apt series of novels by Adrian Tchaikovsky, but I do know that it was in early 2010 that I was intrigued enough by what I’d heard to pick up the first novel in the series. Empire in Black and Gold introduced a fantasy world in which magic was on the wane and a new empire was on the rise.

What first attracted me to the series was the idea of insect kinden races. This is a world populated entirely by humans, but humans that are divided by kinden – each named after and drawing some abilities from an insect species. It’s certainly an original idea, and one that Tchaikovsky has used very effectively over the course of the series. What has kept me hooked, however, is the idea of Apt and Inapt kinden. The Apt races are technologically proficient – able to design, manufacture and use new technologies – while the more mystically inclined Inapt kinden are unable to understand even the simplest piece of machinery.

This makes for a world in which the traditional fantasy setting has been overthrown by an industrial revolution, and one that feels very different to other novels in the genre. And, as the series has developed, Tchaikovsky has managed to very effectively merge the steampunk and epic fantasy genres to spectacular effect.

It’s also very refreshing to read a fantasy series that doesn’t hanker after some imagined bucolic ideal.

And so to The Air War, the eighth book in the series. According to the blurb:

All is in turmoil as the world moves towards war. In Solarno, the spies watch each other and ready their knives, while Myna sees the troops muster at its border and emotions run high as it vows never to be enslaved again. In Collegium, the students argue politics, too late to turn the tide.

In the heart of the Empire, new pilots have completed their secretive training, generals are being recalled to service and armies are ready to march. Their Empress, the heir to two worlds, intends to claim her birthright. And nothing – either within the Empire or beyond it – will stand in her way.

A conflict is coming, the like of which the insect-kinden have never seen.

… and this really does tell you everything you need to know. I am not going to attempt to review this book – I am sure that many others have already done a much better job than I would. All that I will say is that you do need to be familiar with the characters and past events of the series to get the most out of this novel.

If you have been following the Shadows of the Apt up to now, you really won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t then you are probably better off starting from the beginning – it’s only eight books (so far) and the time taken to read them really is time well spent.