#CBR4 Maneuver #15 – Blood of the Mantis

Target: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Blood of the Mantis (Shadows of the Apt #3) 

Profile: Alternative Fantasy, Steampunk, Epic Fantasy

Summary: From the Back Cover, “Driven by the ghosts of the Darakyon, Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh town of Jerez, but he has only days before the magical box is lost him forever.  Meanwhile, the forces of the Empire are mustering over winter for their great offensive, gathering their soldiers and perfecting their new weapons.  Stenwold and his followers have only a short time to gather what allies they can before the Wasp armies march again, conquering everything in their path.  If they cannot throw back the Wasps this spring, then the imperial black-and-gold flag will fly over every city in the Lowlands before the year’s end.  In Jerez there begins a fierce struggle over the Shadow Box, as lake creatures, secret police, and renegade magicians compete to take possession.  If it falls into the hands of the Wasp Emperor, however, no amount of fighting will suffice to save the world from his relentless ambition.”

After Action Report:

Despite the fact that all but the 7th book in the Shadows of the Apt series were written before I started reading the first one, I can’t help but feel that Adrian Tchaikovsky somehow channeled my review of Dragonfly Falling when he was writing Blood of the Mantis.  It is far more likely that Tchaikovsky saw for himself where his story was going off the rails and acted to correct the problem, but the reviewer in me is a little smug about being right, even if it was 3 years after the fact.

Mantis addressed all the problems I had with Dragonfly, from the sprawling story that proved harder to follow, to the bland characters, and even the minor focus issues that plagued the battle sequences.  Unfortunately, he also overcorrected for some of these problems.  An expansive world with more than a half-dozen plots is suddenly replaced with a tight narrative at the expense of several unresolved stories and lost PoV characters.  The remaining cast starts to flesh out a little, but become strangled by their reduced plotlines.  Tchaikovsky also hasn’t stopped introducing new concepts and characters to the still complex setting.  These new elements feel flat at best and extraneous at worst.  In spite of these weaknesses, the book completely succeeds in its task: prolonging the series and setting up the next book.

Blood of the Mantis skips forward a few months from the end of Dragonfly, presumably to avoid descriptions of the upkeep that follows major military actions.  Like Dragonfly and Empire in Black and Gold, the action quickly splits up and we again follow small teams of protagonists off on a variety of missions.  Two of the original main cast, Salma and Totho, have lost their main character privileges, with Salma also losing PoV character status.  Another three major characters introduced in Dragonfly have received similar treatment, so instead of seven or eight major actions taking place, we’re down to three: Stenwold Maker in the Lowlands, Che acting as a cat’s-paw for the Spider-kinden, and a gaggle of characters following Achaeos in pursuit of the Shadow Box.  The tighter narrative is the perfect tool for reeling in the exponential expansion that the series underwent in Dragonfly.  Events are easier to follow and we are allowed to metaphorically catch our breath and take stock of the setting.

Mantis can clearly be classified as a ‘middle’ novel in the series; a transitional work designed to address holes in the plot and prepare the reader for the next major plot arc.  In some ways, the book is nothing more than an extended dénouement for Dragonfly Falling.  As such, it fails to stand up as an individual work of fiction, but it doesn’t really need to.  Longform fantasy occasionally needs ‘middle’ books to bridge events that would otherwise become increasingly heavy with the need for continued rising action.  The presence of Mantis in the series is a good signifier that Tchaikovsky has a good grasp of the longform narrative, and that he is improving his craft as he writes.  This bodes well for the rest of the series, promised to span ten books.

Because the structure of these ‘middle’ books denies the heavy advancement of plot arcs, it can be problematic to try to force one through.  Mantis has this problem in its Shadow Box arc.  Part of the problem is that too many PoV characters were jammed into the arc.  Six principle protagonists and several secondary antagonists get substantial PoV paragraphs, which makes the whole narrative seem a little muddy.  To make matters worse, Achaeos, who should be leading his own story, is relegated to a support role until the very end.  Tchaikovsky uses some round-and-round story techniques to draw the whole plot out for a few chapters, giving all the PoVs enough time to establish and interact, but there’s still not enough page space to really do anything of substance.  The end result is thoroughly unsatisfying.

These are relatively minor flaws when contrasted to the series as a whole, and the progress forward outweighs the damage done by the overcorrection.  Blood of the Mantis does exactly what it was supposed to do and leaves the Shadows of the Apt in a great place for book four, Salute the Dark, to pick up.

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Posted on May 3, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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