Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pyr, April 2010 
Trade Paperback, 484 pp          
ISBN: 978-1-61614-195-0           
Shadows of the Apt Volume 2    
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Pyr

The Wasp Empire is spreading ever faster, despite many people in Collegium not seeing the empire as a threat.  The only individual who sees them for the threat they are is Master Stenwold Maker, who in Empire in Black and Gold learned of their far ranging plans.  The Empire is continuing its march and now Stenwold must convince his superiors of the threat.  Meanwhile, the people he’s dispatched to learn more about the army have spread apart, splintering into smaller groups. Dragonfly Falling, then, expands on much of the plot Tchaikovsky laid out in Empire in Black and Gold, the first volume of Shadows of the Apt, but breathes more life into the characters and fleshes out the world even more. Tchaikovsky brings into the picture the nations of Sarn and Tark, while showing some more focus on the Empire itself.

A very smart choice Tchaikovsky made with this series, I think, is to not to paint the Wasp Empire as simply evil overlords.  Granted, the Emperor is not exactly a nice person with the mental and physical torture he inflicts on his own sister, but the individuals who fight for him are soldiers who follow their orders and patriotically believe in their nation. The Emperor also brings into his employ Uctebri, from a race beholden to a totem long-thought myth and legend – Mosquito kinden.  In many ways, this kinden are like vampires for obvious reasons, both creatures sustain themselves on the blood of the living.  The mosquito-kinden are also powerful sorcerers and for reasons lost to time, were thought to be nearly wiped out by the moth-kinden.

Meanwhile, Stenwold’s young allies are doing their part to learn more about the Wasp Army and do what they can to damage it as much as possible. While his protégés and ward are beyond the borders of Collegium, Stenwold struggles emotionally and physically in his own right. Arianna, a young Spider-kinden woman comes to him claiming she wishes to help and has knowledge of the Wasp army.  As Stenwold’s bodyguard points out, Spiders are not to be trusted, but the old Master has difficulty arresting his emotional and physical urges.

One element in which I feel Tchaikovsky showed improvement was the panoramic, emotional sweep of the novel.  Dragonfly Falling shows the true start of the war, with Collegium beginning to actively participate, the other nations getting involved and having that large-scale conflict coming into full view.  Some of the battles and conflicts he imagines conjure up spectacular images, airship conflicts with characters leaping to and fro, a siege outside of a city.  He shows a fairly equal balance from both sides of the conflict through the character of the Wasp Captain Thalric, who has a great deal of honor and passion for his ideals.  Though Thalric is the most fleshed out of the characters in the Wasp army, his strength is that Tchaikovsky makes him a character you find yourself rooting for at times despite the fact that he’s high up in the “enemy” army.

Smartly, the author contrasts the backdrop of war with the emotional turmoil and individual journeys of the characters through whose eyes we see the more intimate action of the novel. Two of the male characters Totho and Salma vie for the attention of Stenwold’s ward Cheerwell and both of those characters are apart from her physically in Tark and emotionally lament as she’s shown to give her heart to another man. Cheerwell is in Sarn with Achaeos as they attempt to bring more allies onto Collegium’s side.

Dragonfly Falling is a lot of things, pulpy action, sweeping epic, mini-character studies, and all of these elements against a powerfully imagined backdrop of a milieu.  While there was a great deal I enjoyed in the novel; however, I did find the pacing to be uneven at times.  Some of the set pieces seemed to either take a bit to get going or lingered a bit, at times things lingered long enough that it almost counter-balanced some of the more briskly paced action set pieces of the novel.

As I said, what’s impressive is that, aside from the at time batshit crazy Emperor, Tchaikovsky manages to lay out a foundation of a story that doesn’t have a good deal of predictability. He ends the novel on a bit of closure, but tantalizes with many things to come, of most interest is where Uctebri, the mosquito-kinden’s story will move along with the Emperor’s sister as well as the drastic changes that have been undertaken with some of Stenwold’s young allies.

Tchaikovky’s Shadows of the Apt continues to be an inventive and involving saga that could hopefully tightens and has a bit more polish on the edges in the future installments. Ultimately with this series, the author paints a familiar landscape with many new colors from a unique palette.

Readers of Epic Fantasy could do far worse than pick up this series straight-away.

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