#CBR4 Maneuver #7 – Dragonfly Falling
Profile: Alternative Fantasy, Steampunk, Military Fiction
Summary: From the Back Cover, “The armies of the Wasp Empire are on the march, and first to feel their might will be the city of Tark, which is even now preparing for siege. Within its walls, Salma and Totho must weather the storm, as the Ant-kinden take a stand, against numbers and weaponry such as the Lowlands have never seen.
After his earlier victory against them, the Empire’s secret service has decided that veteran artificer Stenwold Maker is too dangerous to live. So disgraced Major Thalric is dispatched on a desperate mission, not only to eliminate Stenwold himself, but to bring about the destruction of his beloved city of Collegium, and thus end all hope of intelligent resistance to remorseless imperial advance.
While the Empire’s troops are laying waste to all in their way, the young Emperor himself is treading a different path. His thoughts are on darker things than a mere conquest, however, and if he attains his goal he will precipitate a reign of blood that will last a thousand years.”
Fofo’s review of Empire in Black and Gold can be found here.
After Action Report:
It’s been almost 10 months since I’ve touched Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt, and in the intervening time, I’ve read a lot of mediocre books. So I was pleased to come back to this surprising series that really got me thinking last time around. Tchaikovsky doesn’t disappoint, providing a worthy successor to Empire in Black and Gold and a solid second book in what promises to be an expansive series. There are still flaws to be addressed and the characterization is still depressingly weak, but there are improvements to be found and just enough new facets to explore that I’ll be sure to read the next entry.
Dragonfly Falling picks up mere days after the conclusion of Empire, tracking each of the PoV characters as they disengage from the fallout of their missions, successful or otherwise, and start preparations for the next phase of the great game. Of particular interest is Major Thalric, a Wasp espionage officer who was the principle antagonist of Empire and has gotten himself assigned a suicide mission. Thalric emerged as a sympathetic character in the previous book, proving himself to be guilty more of loyalty than of the genocidal xenophobia that seems to drive the rest of the Wasp-kinden. We are also introduced to the Emperor of the Wasps, Alvdan II, and the political hornet’s nest he is presiding over.
Events move quickly, starting with the siege of the Ant-kinden city of Tark, but also giving equal time to Stenwold’s impassioned efforts to create a resistance movement in Collegium, Che and Achaeos’ mission to recruit the Inapt kinden of the Lowlands to the cause, and Thalric’s operations in Collegium. There’s much more going on in Dragonfly than in Empire and it does become a little hard to keep everything straight, particularly when a second imperial army turns up and starts marching on another Ant city, Sarn.
Tchaikovsky has an eye for the details. His nuanced political environment of the Lowlands is evidence enough of that. Dozens of city-states vying for power and influence, reluctant to trust each other, even in the face of an overwhelming foe. That same detail shows in his writing of the battle sequences. He tends to zoom in on the fight to a single warrior or PoV character and explore the fight from that perspective. It’s fun following Salma, a brilliant swordsman around for a bit, but that focus makes it hard to experience the battle. All of the major battles are subject to this lensing, albeit to various degrees, and suffer for it. At the same time, the artful depiction of the duels and skirmishes that punctuate even the most mundane day in the Lowlands offer plenty of well written action without making you feel like you’ve got your nose pressed to the TV screen. And the technology being employed by both sides will have steampunk fans squee-ing constantly.
The detail oriented approach does serve the greater story well. By the middle of the book, each of the original five protagonists have split off and are on their own. There are, at any given time, seven subplots to follow, but, to Tchaikovsky’s credit, I never was confused about what was happening, just where it was happening. The structure of the chapters and the flow of the story is well executed, weaving cliffhangers and plot points together in a truly engrossing pattern. The only real exception to the rule is the side plot of the Wasp Emperor, which is so clearly a setup for the series meta-conflict, it almost hurts. Again, the eye for detail is not so helpful in crafting the wide scale perspective.
Tchaikovsky also seems to be unable to turn his eye to his characters, who continue to be largely uninteresting. Both Salma and Totho go through a trial by fire in the siege of Tark, but utterly fail to do any of the character growing associated with such an event. Salma ends up with the girl he’s stupidly been chasing for a book and half, despite the utter improbability of it. Totho responds by detaching from reality and enlisting with the Wasps as a weapon designer, which is really probably the closest thing we’ll see to growth in the whole series. Tchaikovsky’s attempt to make Stenwold more relatable amounts to making him have an affair with a student/assassin, which just makes the reader feel like a creepy voyeur, and Che is just a stupid as ever. Thalric is, by far, the most interesting cast member. His subtle internal rebellions and annoyance with the direction of the Empire give him the only real depth in the main cast.
Coming out of the review process, I’m noticing that this particular piece feels more hostile than I originally intended it. The things that I’m complaining about were present in the first book, but I didn’t focus in on them as much because I wasn’t as familiar with the setting and the characters. The current version of the review feels more honest than the attempted rewrite, so I’m having it both ways. The series Tchaikovsky is creating is still well worth your time. He has his flaws as an author, but the same strengths that made the first book a surprisingly positive experience are still at work in Dragonfly Falling. It’s not going to be for everyone, but I still recommend the Shadows of the Apt, in spite of my venomous tongue.