Monday, June 25, 2012

Book review: "The Scarab Path" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished "The Scarab Path", a fifth book in "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This book signifies the start of a new sequence in the series, and I must say I was positively surprised by raise in quality. Usually as a series progress, author starts struggling to keep the readers, but Tchaikovsky keeps getting better with each book. First four books make a closed mini-series, one that introduces us to setting and characters, so theoretically one could start reading here, but it is not something I would recommend. 

I expected that this new sequence of books will be put further in time and introduce a new and fresh, but events in "The Scarab Path" start a year after those in "Salute the Dark", and featuring same old characters. After resolution in last book, the Wasp Empire retreated from Lowlands to concentrate on its internal affairs, and to find out can it be ruled by Empress Seda. In the meantime, Stenwold Maker continues to consolidate his allies in Lowlands, preparing for imminent continuation of war. In one such effort, his niece Che will be sent to a diplomatic mission to the faraway Dominion of Khanaphes (influenced by Old Egypt). But this is not a simple diplomatic or scholarly excursion, since everybody has their own agenda. Situation will be additionally heated when they discover another embassy there, a Wasp one, led by her old friend and enemy Tharlic, now a Regent of Empire. But neither are prepared for what they will find there...

This book is manly about Che and Tharlic and most of it is represented from their point of view. There are the other important ones (Totho and character Hrathen), and a lot of minor ones, but this two are the center of the book. As I said, I expected that this book will contain a different and new cast, so I wasn't exactly thrilled when I initially realized that this is a book centered on Che (who wasn't exactly my favorite character so far). But in this book Tchaikovsky made of her a brilliant main character. She is still a bit clumsy and insecure, but now she is also full of self-observance and knows how to take control of every situation. And her new condition is very interesting to follow - it gives her somewhat darker cast. Thalric took an opposite direction from her - from all-mighty and capable Major Tharlic of Rekef, he is now a Regent and ambassador, not sure what exactly is his place and what his enemies are planning - and he definitely has enemies. Hrathen was very interesting character to read about, and even Totho (although I still can get used to that name!).

All characters were better written than before - more intense, more complex, more real. And this gets me to the main point of this review - this book is in every perspective two notches above all its prequels, not that they were bad. But I am surprised how Tchaikovsky was able to raise the overall quality - it is more interesting, more intense, more surprising. There is even some humor in it - I found the whole Vekken plot-line hilarious. All in all, congratulations!

I must say that ending surprised me much - especially Che's final choice. I think that it would be interesting to read a series in which she made a different decision.

This book is different from the rest of series in other ways, too. First, it was and felt much longer. With almost 700 pages, it definitely is longer that last two. Also, with it, Tchaikovsky dropped the pattern that started with first four books - first book was extremely focused one-mission book, while its sequel brought out the big picture. This book if focused on small set of characters, and restricted geographically, but it still felt bigger the books so far. On the other hand, its plot is so encompassed that it could be read as standalone book.

I also realized another important this with this book: this series has no overall plot. I expected that it will finally introduce us to some arch-enemy, and give some direction to series, but there is no one. The only theme or motif that can be singled out it the conflict between the Old and the New. In these books it is represented by the difference between Apt and Inapt, and in some way, in conflict between Lowlands (who still cling to some "honorable" old ways) and Wasps (who put success before everything).

For conclusion, I can only repeat that with "The Scarab Path" Tchaikovsky outstripped himself and presented us with his best book so far. It is definitely a treat for those who followed "Shadows of Apt" series so far, and I can only hope that next books will be as good as this one. I am looking forward to reading "The Sea Watch", next book in installment.

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